Ben Harper Kind of Day

Front Street runs along the frozen Kotzebue Sound I woke up this morning in Kotzebue and, by God's grace (really!), I made it onto the plane with everything I need for the next three days: testing manuals and protocols, food, sleeping bag, laptop, clothes, etc. Ask my husband, parents, siblings, former housemates--I never leave my house without coming back in once or twice to grab items I've forgotten. Keeping track of all of my luggage is one of the hardest parts of this traveling job!

I was the only passenger on the plane this morning and was looking forward to taking pictures of the landscape and noting the changes since my last visit. However we climbed a few hundred feet, soared through a thick layer of clouds, and popped out on top: the sun above and a terrain of clouds below for the whole trip to Ambler, Alaska. This was a Ben Harper kind of day. I popped in my headphones and listened, first, to "With My Own Two Hands" and imagined what good I might do with my hands today. I ended up using them, mostly, to turn the pages of "The Little Mouse, The Red Ripe Strawberry, and The Big Hungry Bear." (If you aren't familiar with this story, just know you're missing out on what is, from my perspective, the greatest book ever written.) We used it to make predictions, discuss new vocabulary words, introduce prepositions, generate adjectives, and sequence parts of stories. I felt like it was making good use of my hands.

Another song I heard during my 40 minute flight above the clouds was "Amen Omen." Though I'm not certain of its full meaning, it is obviously a farewell song: "Amen omen, will I see your face again?...Can I find the place within to live my life without you?... I listen to a whisper, slowly drift away. Silence is the loudest parting word you never say...Now a voiceless sympathy is all that remains..." I'd never before listened closely to the lyrics but they came back to me today when there was talk of a village elder who had passed away. The 92 year old woman was flighted to Kotzebue last week and passed away there. A considerable number of children were absent today as the woman was their grandmother. I was told that passing of an elder brings the community together as there is no funeral home nearby. Her body was brought back on this afternoon's flight and her family will build a casket, construct a wooden cross-marker, and prepare her body for burial.

Perspective on death, I imagine, is one of the largest differences between my culture and that of the Inupiaqs here. I purchase individually wrapped chicken breasts from the grocery store while they hunt, kill, and preserve Caribou meat. I work in a hospital and nursing home/rehab center and, though it is not uncommon for me to lose a patient to death, I never lay eyes on them in that state: one day I see them and the next day I don't. However, folks here are intimately connected to end-of-life. It's strange to think we can live so differently within one nation.

Cultural observations and cross-country skiing

This is the majority of the little village of Kobuk, where I spent Wednesday.  This little place stole my heart in no time! I have been thinking a lot the past couple days about storytelling and how story content and structure can speak volumes about the storyteller's values and culture. A couple days ago a native Alaskan (adult, well educated man) told me a story that I will sum up the way I believe I'd have told it if it had happened to me: I heard a noise outside that sounded like gunshots so I grabbed my gun and loaded it, just in case. I didn't end up having to use it because the cops showed up and arrested the guy outside. The guy just snapped, and we never knew what his issue was--but he didn't hurt anyone. Now, when the native fellow told the story to me, he began by telling me that his grandfather had found some minerals and left for Fairbanks to make his claim official. Meanwhile, he (the man telling me the story) was at home with his family. When he heard gunshots outside, he instinctively grabbed and loaded the gun (though not because needing your gun here is routine--it's not) because his nephew was standing bedside him and "there's no way I'm letting anyone hurt him". Then he explained that his Dad told him to grab the gun, but he already had it ready. His story ended about as mine did.

What I find fascinating about our two accounts is that he felt he needed to explain why his grandfather wasn't home, while it wouldn't even cross my mind that his grandfather might be involved in the story; in every detail of the story he mentioned a family member and how they impacted this experience while, though I love my family, I would likely focus on how I felt, what I heard, what I could and couldn't see happening, and maybe my plans A, B, and C.

Fuzzy snapshots, which is all I've had of each village, is enough to show me how differently this culture views families than mine. I've found that asking, "do you have brothers and sisters?" is a much more successful ice breaker question than, "what did you for spring break?". The kids' faces light up as they list the names of their siblings and usually add in a few cousins as well. The schools have banners that read, "respect your elders" and the hallways are decorated with pictures of their village elders, appearing to be 80+ years old. Most of the kids were named after elders, so I'm treating little 2nd graders with names such as Seamore and Betty. They seem to be more respectful toward adults than many kids I've worked with in my Colorado experiences. Though the older kids don't want to be pulled for a speech-language evaluation, they never complain but sit and participate until I say it's over.

I can't remember a time when I saw pictures of older folks proudly displayed in any school in the lower 48.  I love this idea!  Let's all celebrate long life and wisdom!

Yesterday, when I arrived (by snowmobile since the plane couldn't land on the icy strip, 8 miles away) at the special education room in Kobuk, about seven 2nd graders lined up, shook my hand, and said, "hello, my name is _____. Welcome to Kobuk!" I can't remember the last time I saw something that cute! After school I had about a half hour before I had to board the plane, so several of the kids I treated took me on a tour of the town via cross country skiing. They were so encouraging as they taught me how to climb up hills in my skis and to ski down a steep hill onto the frozen river. They were so excited to be able to teach their teacher a new skill!

These three kids taught me to ski down this hill onto the frozen river.


I spent last night in a Kotzebue again and left this morning for Noatuk. Since I was the only passenger for that leg, the pilot let me sit right seat. I've flown over amazing landscapes this trip. Much of it it has been lakes and braided rivers but since it's all iced and snowed over right now it's hard to tell what is land versus frozen water covered in snow.

DSC_0051     DSC_0058     DSC_0061     photo-3

At Noatuk today, I did five evaluations and have a few more to do tomorrow before flying back to Kotz. I'm spending the night in this school in my sleeping bag, on my ThermaRest. When high schoolers travel for basketball, specialists come to town, or someone is here giving a presentation, the school doubles as a hotel (at other times, it's a town hall). These schools have fully functioning kitchens, showers, and some have mattresses. I've felt very safe here and they give me keys so I can lock myself in a room at night.

It's gonna be a late night of report-writing, so I'm signing off. Thanks for reading!