The plane trip north from Seattle is always a memorable one, skirting along edges of jagged green forests, flying high over deep-blue emerald waters of the Inland Passage. We are now above the clouds as I page through a tattered copy of Anchorage, Alaska’s visitor’s guide, loaded with glossy backcountry photographs, alluring images of glacial cruises, ads for world-class fishing resorts and weekend specials for upscale restaurants.
Beneath the surface of Alaska’s magnificent landscapes, her Arctic drilling controversies and media-blitzed Iditarod lie hidden worlds. Remnants of a fragile yet dynamic spiritual reality reside here, having sustained Native peoples who for thousands of years have lived on the edge of the Seward Peninsula. The history of the Inupiat is a saga riddled with the catastrophic impacts of acculturation, 20th century epidemics and the traumatic loss of traditional culture and values. It’s also a story of resiliency, economic savvy and precarious survival based on a spirituality that has sustained a 12,000-year-old subsistence culture. The state’s Department of the Interior identifies 11 distinct cultural groups, and 20 languages and dialects among its 120,000 identified Alaska Natives. Those of Inupiat and Yupik descent live mostly in communities scattered along the rim of Alaska’s Seward Peninsula and North Slope, a part of the world some geographers call the most physically inhospitable place on Earth.
Educated and trained in theology and psychiatric disciplines, much of my professional life has been spent working with mental-health agencies, faith-based interfaith organizations and tribal communities in the Pacific Northwest. After conversations with Inupiat elders, an Alaskan Lutheran bishop and a village school counselor, I accepted an invitation a few years ago to assist in facilitating a series of dream circles as part of a spring gathering for five Inupiat village churches. During my time with them, village elders requested I offer a presentation on suicide and dreams for a community wellness conference at Brevig Mission, a small fishing community on the edge the Bering Sea. Out of respect, I left my camera behind.
In the snow-covered city of Anchorage I’m served tea in the modest home of John and Louise Maakestad. Now in their 80s, the couple talk about their years serving remote Inupiat missions in Shishmaref and Nome and their work with Natives in Anchorage. I’m told their personal library holds Alaska’s best collection of original journals and documents tracing the Native mission work on the Seward Peninsula.
My hosts talk about missionaries who have served the peninsula Native churches. Official histories of mission work in Alaska generally perpetuate the heroic archetypes of missionaries, but John Maakestad doesn’t buy it. After reading the last correspondence of Tollef Brevig, founder of the Seward Peninsula’s Lutheran mission in the late 1890s, he believes Brevig struggled against the lionization of his contributions. According to Maakestad, there’s evidence Brevig became disenchanted with religious institutions, which he believed pushed their own expectations and needs onto the Eskimos.
Aware that one of the purposes of my journey here is the long-revered tradition of dream work, I mention to the Maakestads a dream Brevig wrote about in his journals. In March of 1896 Tollef and Julia Brevig’s 5-year-old son Carl died from a severe fever.
Early one morning Avitarluk, a chieftain and medicine man, came knocking upon our door and inquiring as to how Carl was. Our Inupiat visitor had just returned home during the night from a trading tour and heard that Carl was sick. The two were good friends. Frequently Avitarluk would come and sit beside Carl. They enjoyed picture books together all the while prattling on in Eskimo.
“After Carl’s death, a few days later Avitarluk came and told me that in the night he had a dream. He had seen Carl hovering over him on wings like those of angels, which he had seen in pictures. In the dream he tried to grasp Carl but then woke up. He was sorrowful at the time he could not go there where Carl was. I instructed him how he and anyone could go there.
“Avitarluk died from the effect of measles in the city of Nome a few hours after I landed there in June 1900. There was given me then only a few moments opportunity to speak to him. He was so close to death he scarcely recognized me. It was thus impossible for me to determine whether or not he wished to be baptized.”
Louise Maakestad joins us with a cup of tea. She mentions their son Gene died 30 years ago in a hang-gliding accident. She remarks, after a pause, that her son appeared to her in a dream shortly following his death: “He said nothing to me, but was present to me, as if to assure me he was all right.” She continued, her voice almost a whisper, “Inupiat people in Shishmaref frequently talked about such visitations. I thought their experiences were not for me. Until that night.”
It’s shortly before noon. I’m sitting alone in a corner booth with a cup of coffee at the Polar Bar in Nome, Alaska once the state’s most notorious gold-mining town. Pull-tabs lie scattered on the floor, cigarette smoke swirls up toward a dark wood ceiling, neon lights illuminate a shadowed makeshift stage. The jukebox plays country music. The Native bartender is speaking Eskimo with two inebriated middle-aged Inupiat women at the end of a stained bar table.
Once a tent city of 30,000, Nome’s population has dropped to under 3,700, around 55 percent of them of Native descent. This morning the city streets are muddy with melting spring snow. It’s the end of my fourth day here and the last of a series of dream circles for a gathering of several hundred Inupiat people. Services begin each evening at the local church and singing and witnessing goes into early morning.
The dream work takes place late in the morning on consecutive days. Formats for our discussions are simple, informal and framed by ritual. After an opening silence, an Inupiat co-facilitator and I sit in a circle and invite participants to a sharing of dreams. As a group, we focus on one or two person’s experiences and “walk around the dream,” careful not to venture interpretations. We listen and ask thoughtful questions. Over four days we work with 23 specific dreams. Some elicit laughter, others hint of warnings that invoke an eerie silence. Others seem to assure, while some connect time and space in extraordinary ways.
Conversation is gentle, intentionally indirect. There are no formal interpretations. Each circle closes with a prayer for the dreamer.
One 16-year-old—dressed in a Nike sweatshirt, jeans and tennis shoes, his eyes glistening like a deer, hair shoulder length, black as a raven—offers up this dream experience. I ask if it can be shared with others when I leave Nome. He agrees.
“My mother died when I was 2,” he begins. “I never knew her. Two years ago, she returned to me in a dream. I was 14. She walked along the ocean shore asking all about my life. Three times she returned. She didn’t give me any advice, but just was there—just her and me. She was curious about what I saw and felt in my life and asked me a lot of questions. It made me sad. But also strong and thankful.”
From a window of a bush plane 5,000 feet above the ground, the villages of Brevig Mission and nearby Teller appear as two lines of black dots against a vast blanket of ice and snow as far as the eye can see. There’s not a trace of a tree, patch of gravel, or exposed tundra in sight. A friend and his wife working with two Inupiat schools in Teller and Brevig describe to me the light of the sun dancing across the barren brutal horizons as “shifting, awesome magic.”
It’s two a.m. I unroll my sleeping bag on the floor of the Lutheran church in Brevig Mission. A few feet away, stored in a cramped office are some rifles: a .458, a 20-gauge shotgun, and a .30-06. A copy of Tollef Brevig’s journal, published in 1943, lies wrapped in a cloth among boxes and dusty files on the desk. A pail of dried fish fills the room with a dank, sour odor. Parts of snow machines and dog sled harnesses lie scattered in the corner. On the wall, typed on faded brown parchment and set in a simple wooden frame, is a list of 72 names. It reads “Died in the Epidemic July 1916-1919.” The list begins with Howard Meligotok, age 2, and Florence Lignaook, age 11.
Brian Crockett, the Lutheran pastor serving this remote community, is my host. He’s respected by the Inupiat as a hunter and spiritual leader, but he’s an elusive personality—by his own admission, complex, edgy. For 13 years he has lived here as one of only a few non-Natives in Brevig. He served a stint as mayor, and runs one of the village’s two dog teams. His wife teaches in the local school. They have three children. Over a cup of tea, he and I talk about dreams and life on the peninsula. Joe Magby, a strong, clear-eyed village mechanic stops by to chat.
Brevig’s pastor likes to remind visitors that Peninsula Native communities are not “cute little Eskimo villages.” He says addiction, depression and self-inflicted violence are rampant, and there’s a flourishing black-market for alcohol and drugs. A fifth of whiskey bought in Nome for $12, he says, can be sold here for $150. Physical isolation, access to firearms and the abuse of alcohol make for a lethal combination. Alaska’s Division of Behavioral Health reports suicide rates on the Seward Peninsula are much higher than the national average.
Children, elders and villagers, many from the village of Teller, have traveled eight miles by dog sled and snow mobile to fill the school gymnasium for a community health conference tonight. Jones Wongittilin, a 59-year-old recovering alcoholic and Native drug counselor, ends the formal program by talking about his recovery. Dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, he tells us that a few years earlier he attended a ceremony at his home on St. Lawrence Island for the blessing of harpoons. During the ceremony a Yupik shaman whispered in his ear, “Every time I walk behind you I hear children crying.” Jones tells the gathering he knew then, at that moment, he needed to turn his life around. “The shaman,” he says, “sensed the pain I carried. He felt the neglect. The abuse of my children.”
Any journey into the spirit world of the Inupiat will never be a disembodied religious experience. In Nome, two days earlier, a social worker passed on to me a pamphlet that’s been circulated among health workers in Alaska for years. Harold Napoleon, a Yupik and a 30-year-old prison inmate, formerly director of Alaska’s Association of Village Council Presidents, wrote an essay in 1991 from a prison cell that’s continued to catch the attention of Alaska’s mental health workers. He struggled to make sense out of the peculiar puzzle that as physical conditions for Eskimo peoples have dramatically improved since the 1960s, depression, addictive behaviors and suicide have dramatically risen.
Napoleon believes memories of the epidemics of the early 20th century, called by many Natives “The Great Death,” lie buried in the unconscious minds of elders. Those epidemics, government sources confirm, killed more than 60 percent of the Native people in Alaska in less than 20 years. It coincided with Christian mission efforts, many of which discredited tribal shamans and their elemental connection to land and language.
Convinced that the impact of this trauma is being passed generation-to-generation, Napoleon wrote, “Education will not save the villages. There must be a spiritual solution.” He called for a recovering of talking circles, traditional connections to the earth, revitalization of indigenous languages, renewal of indigenous religious practices and appreciation for the ancient power of the dream. Napoleon believes that Christian mission efforts, when carried on with respect, can be creative partners in this recovery.
Seventeen years ago I traveled to Shishmaref, a village 80 miles northwest from Teller and Brevig, where I asked about drums. An Inupiat elder led me to a storage shed, lifted up a reindeer hide and showed me two round drums from the Diomede Islands. I asked if they were being used. He shook his head. “Because of Christian teachings,” he said, “drums haven’t been played in our village for as long as anyone can remember.”
The wellness conference, on my last night in Teller, held at the local school gymnasium, begins with the sounds of traditional drumming with the riveting cadence of Eskimo dancing. Dance steps are deliberate, mesmerizing. The staccato rhythm of the drum sinks into one’s bones and heart. In these traditional dances young and old people move in dramatic, coordinated design. Dance movements echo a wider family of the natural world: the whale, sea lion, walrus and bear.
Later that evening, I inquire again about drums in Shishmaref. For a new generation, drumming and traditional dancing, the Inupiat tell me, are becoming part of village life. The drums have returned. I recalled, a day earlier, overhearing Brevig’s pastor, former mayor, hunter and dog sled runner, comment casually to a colleague, “Sorry I missed the meeting the other night. I was over at the community center learning how to Eskimo dance.”
The search for balance and health, for recovery of ancient connections with the earth, continues as a life-death struggle for the Inupiat people. For the rest of us, global wars, environmental degradation and threats of economic collapse increasingly shape modern life. Napoleon’s vision from a prison cell outside Fairbanks holds a promise. Far off on the edge of the Seward Peninsula, in the midst of the broken, shattered communities of the Inupiat, a recovery of the drum, the dance, and the dream are part of a mysterious journey leading us all home.
This story was originally published June 17, 2013.