I can’t forget an exhibit I saw on my first journey to Alaska in 2008. It was produced by the Calista Elders Council and the Anchorage Museum, and it included items that represented the traditional ways of life and technology used by the Yup’ik people.
The Yup’iks live on Alaska’s western coast, a coast that is part of the vast area of Alaska that cannot be reached by the road system.
In this permanent collection of the Anchorage Museum one can find Yup’ik clothing made of hand-stitched sealskin and fur, and hand-made drums of various marine mammal hides. Yup’ik spirituality centers around building and nurturing relationships between people, animals, communities and the land.
“Mother, I Feel You under My Feet” is a chant I sang often this past summer while traveling highways and back roads between Prince William Sound and the Arctic Ocean. The chant is by Windsong Dianne Martin, and it rhythmically presents opportunities for communal circle-dancing: “Mother, I feel you under my feet. Mother, I hear your heart beat…”
Stopping at the Native Alaskan Heritage Center just north of Anchorage, I enjoyed the Yup’ik dancers themselves. By mid-August the young women and men dancers have started returning to high school and college, leaving the elders and pre-schoolers to make the presentations. Many of the dances show the activities of their traditional life, like seal hunting and whaling, but, as they explained, new songs are also being created to show the Yup’ik way of life in the modern world. With smiles from cheek to cheek, the grandmothers danced to a song about playing basketball.
Yup’ik wisdom proclaims, “Things are not always what they seem … many possibilities exist, and we are not to be indifferent to other people’s needs. Everything on Earth deserves recognition, care and respect.” The Yup’ik continue to embrace their cultural dances and feasting with great enthusiasm.
While driving the Dalton Highway, the image of Yup’ik grandmothers dancing to the basketball song graced my long hours with laughter and new appreciation of the “Mother” whom I consciously recognized, with every step, as under my feet.
Bucket list item #5 is now checked off – drive the Dalton Highway! The James W. Dalton Highway, which slices through the wildest and northernmost portions of Alaska, is nothing if not remote. Chiefly made of loose-packed dirt and gravel, it rambles over 414 miles from the tiny town of Livengood (population 13) to the bleak industrial oil fields that mar the frigid shores of Prudhoe Bay.
Hewed from the permafrost over five brief months in 1974, the highway originally served as an access road for the construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, which itself was built from 1975 to 1977 after oil was discovered on Alaska’s North Slope. Opened to the public in 1994, today’s Dalton continues primarily as a haul road for the speeding eighteen-wheelers transporting everything from apple sauce to Therma-steel panels for the oil-field workers living with the scarcities of Deadhorse.
The highway boasts the longest stretch of unserviced road on the North American continent. Just three gas stations: Mile 54 (Yukon River Crossing – at left), Mile 175 (Coldfoot) and mile 414 at Deadhorse.
I made many stops to take photos and short walks on the spongy tundra singing, “Mother I feel you under my feet.” On each walk I chose a plot of ground where I could securely plant my feet, avoiding the experience of hiking boots quickly sinking ankle deep in water — all in order that I might breath in the beauty, sing, and photograph.
Alaska’s permafrost is no longer permanent; it is starting to melt. The always-frozen ground that underlies much of the state is turning to mush. By 2050, it is estimated, much of Alaska’s frozen ground, a storehouse of ancient carbon, could be gone. Much more is at stake than the necessity of repairing buckling roads and bypassing a growing number of tundra ponds.
We need the ancient Yup’ik wisdom of reverence for the earth and care for the future to help us choose our steps into the future, discerning which practices and policies will sustain the earth, and which will devastate it.