Alaskan People: Stories of Yesteryear & Today by Edward May. Don Poling: “Loyal to Six Tribes”

My mother was born in Ketchikan. Her father came to Alaska in 1900 for the gold rush up in Nome. My mother told me he was one of the few guys that actually made money on the gold rush because he was a bookkeeper. I’m the fourth generation from my mother’s side to have grown up in Alaska. I have a daughter who was born in Juneau who would be the fifth generation.

Historic Creek Street in Ketchikan, Alaska.

I was born in Sitka at home in 1943 at the time my father was helping to build the Naval Air Station on Japonski Island. My parent’s names were John and Lucy. They were both teachers. They met at the College of Puget Sound. When they graduated they came back to Alaska. My father found that he could make more money working as a laborer for the Navy until he finally decided he’d had enough of that and then my parents decided to take jobs as teachers. WWII was on and they sent us out to an Alutiiq village. My mother told me they sent teachers from one place to another every year because they didn’t want the teachers to become loyal to any one tribe. She laughed and said, “it must have been successful because we got loyal to six tribes.”

Memories from a Different World

My first memories came from a place called Chenega Alaska which is an Alutiiq village in Prince William Sound. It was located near Whittier. I lived there from 1944 until 1948. In 1964 the village was wiped out by a tidal wave. My perception of the world was that the world was a place where there were islands surrounded by water. My father used to talk about a place where grandma lived, Oklahoma, where there was no water just a few lakes. It was very hard for us to understand because as my brother said, “Well, daddy if there’s no water where do the whales live?”

When we grew up in Chenega there were some Russian Orthodox holidays that were really big events. My favorite was Russian Christmas. We would go around with a star and everyone would sing in Russian, Slavonic and Supiaq or Alutiiq languages and we were told that people who didn’t sing didn’t get any candy. I learned those songs so well that I can still sing them.

We would go around to each house. We would sing the songs and when we were finished singing everyone would rush into the house and it was helter-skelter. There would be big piles of candy and cakes and pies on a table in the middle of the room and all the kids would go rushing for that and throw them into their sacks. 

During WWII there were Army barges that would come in on a regular basis and they’d let the kids go down and visit the ships. They’d show them the engine room and everything. They always had candy and comic books and records and they’d lend us the records and comic books. The next time they came in, we’d take the stuff back and they’d give us another supply. Those Army guys were pretty popular, Coast Guard too. I remember one boy in the village who boasted that he was half Coast Guard. There was quite a bit of prestige that went along with that. 

After Chenega they sent us to Metlakatla and the Chenega people warned us about those Metlakatla People. They said, “Those people are mean. In the old day’s they used to be cannibals.” So when we got there, my dad asked one of the guys about that and he laughed and said, “Back in the old days when we use to have battles with the Tlingits and the Haida one thing they did was they’d eat the heart of the bravest warrior and that would make you brave just like them.”  But he said, “It made it a lot easier for us to become Christians because the Christians thought just the same way that we did. 

They would have this magic man get up and say some holy words over some bread and wine and turn it into a guy and then everybody would come up and eat him.” Of course, that was the description of the Eucharist and probably why the first big time missionary, Father Duncan, refused to serve the Eucharist during his first year as a missionary there. 

It turned out that the people there were quite friendly, very personable and easy to get along with. They had a great self supporting community there. Actually Chenega was self supporting too. Both peoples had a good fishing industry going. Both groups of people had their own saw mill. In Metlakatla they had their own fish traps. They were both prosperous native villages.

Different But the Same

We were there for a year and then were sent to Quinhagak on the Kuskokwim River. That was a Yupik Eskimo village. When we got there one of the things that surprised me was that they were speaking Alutiiq. It turns out that the Alutiiq in Prince William Sound are very closely related linguistically and culturally to the Eskimos out on the Kuskokwim and Yukon Rivers.

I have some stone tools from Chenega and one of them is a traditional Eskimo seal oil lamp. It’s a shallow bowl. You put seal oil in it and put a wick in it and light the wick. If you’re in a small Eskimo sod house it can keep the whole house above freezing. Even though they had plenty of wood in Prince William Sound, they brought that traditional lamp with them when they came across the Alaska Peninsula some time way back in history.

We got along pretty well in Quinhagak because some of the communication styles were similar to what we were used to in Chenega. People out in the village talk kinda slow and they have pauses. It’s very impolite if you interrupt somebody and it’s equally impolite if you interrupt their pause, so conversation is a little more laid back. 

You get to think about what you’re going to say before you say it. If you’re actually finished with what you’re saying, you might just give, a sort of little nod and that tells everybody your finished with what you’re saying.

Baseball and Mixed Messages

My first real exposure to white people was when I was eight years old. We had moved to Juneau straight out of the village. An example of what I had to deal with was baseball. Eskimos don’t raise their voices at each other. If an Eskimo raises their voice at you it means they’re either drunk or crazy. Here was this game of baseball where people were always yelling at each other. It looked to me like they were nuts.

The first thing I learned about baseball was never get close to the ball because the closer you get to the ball the louder they yell and the more they’re yelling at you. If you can stay away from the ball, they leave you alone and so I had a very short career in little league.

About ten years ago, I came back to Haines after having lived in Indiana. I had gotten used to talking fast like they do down there. If you’re going to have a chance to talk, you have to wait for just a tiny pause and then you say what you have to say. Otherwise, you never get to talk. My folks had just finished teaching for twenty years in Nome, while I was away in college and having my own career, so half the way they spoke English was in Eskimo fashion. 

I was visiting with my mother and I interrupted her pause while we were talking. She looked at me and she furrowed her brow and I knew I was in trouble because in Alutiiq or Eskimo that frown means you’ve just done something wrong. That’s the closest thing they have to saying “no” in their language. I immediately stopped talking and my mother said, “I’m glad to see you still have some manners. You know, you interrupted my pause!”

Here is the author Edward May’s website:

Another story by Edward May: John Schnabel: Old Time Logger


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