There are no roads leading to Emmonak. Separated from Alaska's interior by miles of arctic tundra, the town can only be reached by air or water. We boarded a small plane in Anchorage and as we flew west, we watched the grandeur of snow-capped mountains and boreal forests give way to the subtle beauty of coastal plains. We caught a glimpse of the Yukon River Delta, which branched out like a network of arteries over the vast green terrain.
Emmonak exists because of salmon. It was originally built around a cannery where Yup'ik Eskimos sold their seasonal fish catch. It is now home to community-owned Kwik'Pak Fisheries, the only seafood company in the world to attain Fair Trade status. The town has been growing steadily over the past decades and its population swells with seasonal workers from surrounding villages during the summer salmon run. Incorporated in 1964, Emmonak is at the heart of a commercial fishing industry that has shaped much of the region's history.
Despite living next to the yearly runs of the most prized salmon in the region, the Emmonak community battles for survival every day. Geographical isolation and poverty make heating, food and medical expenses a constant challenge for many families. We spoke with locals who were particularly concerned for the youth; they have become disconnected from their traditional culture and are getting into trouble with drugs, alcohol, and vandalism. Youth suicides have reached epidemic levels; the day before we arrived, a 17-year-old Kwik'Pak employee had killed himself.
Gracelynn Johnson, a college student and summer employee of Kwik'Pak explained that the whole town was unusually quiet with mourning. "Everyone is sad," she said. "It's like there's a dark cloud over the community right now."
"Our culture is dying." - Ray Waska, Yup'ik elder
Patrick Tam, the soft-spoken pastoral facilitator at the church where the young man's funeral was held, helped to put the intricate layers of Yup'ik community relationships into perspective. "When a child is born here, they're usually named after someone who died recently. And it's not just simply to remember the person who died, but it's a way of allowing that person to return here," he explained. The dead person's family treats that newborn as their family member and on the deceased person's birthday, they give the child gifts. "Sometimes you'll see people coming up to a little baby and they'll say, 'hello my husband, hello my grandma.' For them, it's the return of their loved one back into this life. So people out here are related on many levels, not just as blood relatives." Patrick said that it once struck him that Yup'ik people "carry many selves within themselves, they're living for many people."
"It's hard for children to go away from the village," said Herman Hootch, a local fisherman and employee of Kwik'pak. He, like others in the community, can't pinpoint one particular reason for the rash of suicides but he knows that without a sense of hope for the future, many young people spiral into despair. He explained that Yup'ik children grow up emulating the celebrity lifestyles they see on television and build dreams based on a culture they don't fully understand. The few kids who make it to college or get a job in cities like Anchorage or Fairbanks often become overwhelmed, "They just couldn't adapt to the Western way of life, going by car or going on a bus, drawing money out of the bank," said Herman. "That was hard for them." Many students end up dropping out of school and return home. They feel trapped because they couldn't make it on the "outside".
General Manager of Kwik'Pak, Jack Schultheis, is deeply concerned about this issue and hopes that Kwik'Pak can help by providing education, opportunities, and hope, as well as function as a commercial operation. "Things are changing rapidly in this community and our goal is to try and provide an anchor for these kids," he said.
Kwik'Pak is the largest youth employer in Alaska with close to 100 staff members ages 14-17 working each summer. They have a number of programs intended to build the skills and confidence of young people in the community. In addition to fishing activities, the company brings skilled workers like electricians and carpenters up from the lower 48 states to train youth as part of an apprenticeship program. Young staff members in the management office learn to interact with visitors and answer phone calls from far away places. Teenagers adjust to a working schedule instead of roaming the streets all night. In the summer, the sun doesn't set in western Alaska. The company also awards school scholarships and encourages leadership among employees.
Owned collectively by the village but managed by outside contractors, Kwik'Pak pushes eight million dollars into the local economy each year. As a commercial entity, Kwik'Pak doesn't break even, but for the past eleven years, the company's underlying mission - to provide economic opportunities in support of the traditional Yup'ik culture - has proved effective. For most locals, working with Kwik'Pak is the only opportunity to earn income for the whole year. This income allows them to purchase gas for subsistence fishing, seal hunting, and berry picking - activities that keep their families fed through the winter.
The Yup'ik community is a proud hunting culture. Homes display moose antlers above the doors and it is common to see fox skins and other animal pelts hanging to dry on porches. Many families travel to remote fish camps each summer where they collectively catch, cut, dry and smoke salmon for the winter. "It's easier for us to live off the land than to go to the store," explained Herman Hootch. "If we don't have fish, it's pretty hard to survive because the cost of groceries out here in Western Alaska is so high.... It's like $10 for a little bit of milk."
"Our culture is dying," said elder Ray Waska. He has observed that the weather, fish, and waters have been changing drastically in recent years. He has carefully taught each of his nine children and thirty-three grandchildren how to hunt and fish according to seasonal rhythms and he is a strong advocate for maintaining the subsistence lifestyle of his ancestors, even while using tools of the modern world. At his fish camp, Ray was busy teaching two of his grandchildren how to carve wooden spear throwers for seal hunting. "Salmon is a way of our life. I hope it doesn't go away," he said.
Herman echoed Ray's concerns about the loss of Yup'ik culture. He lamented, "Most of the kids in Emmonak can't speak the Yup'ik language." This is a legacy of the harsh assimilation policies that the Bureau of Indian Affairs schools enacted for decades in Eskimo communities. When Yup'ik children entered formal schooling, they were severely punished for speaking their native language. Herman grew up speaking only Yup'ik until he was five, "I spent the first year of elementary school under the table, scared of English teachers. It took me a while but eventually I learned English." These experiences left many parents of Herman's generation unmotivated to speak with their children in Yup'ik, lest they fall behind in their studies or find themselves at some sort of disadvantage.
"The way we document is through song and storytelling, but people aren't interested in that anymore. They're all into ipods and computers and who has the fastest snow machine."
"I'm trying to get people to tell us more about our Yup'ik culture, our heritage, our history," said Gracelynn, frustrated at the difficulty of finding an elder who has the interest or time to sit with her, especially the oldest ones who barely speak English. Every time they see a microphone or a video camera, they tend to go quiet, she said. "That's not how we document things," she explained, "The way we document is through song and storytelling, but people aren't interested in that anymore. They're all into iPods and computers and who has the fastest snow machine."
Giving young people a reason to stay in Emmonak and earn money through a culturally relevant activity is one way to help keep the social fabric of the community alive. Gracelynn is one success story, having climbed up the ranks at Kwik'pak from sweeping fish parts to working in administration and mentoring younger students. She attends college in Fairbanks but returns home each summer to work and visit with her extended family.
Jack Schultheis hopes that Kwik'Pak can continue to employ and engage at-risk youth and further community cooperation and pride. But without ongoing support, he fears that Emmonak could become an "arctic ghetto". According to the Alaska Bureau of Vital Statistics, Alaska Natives make up almost 70 percent of teenage suicides in the state. Coupled with a changing climate and the precarious health of the salmon population, the future is uncertain.
Gracelynn shared her hopes for the community. "If I had one wish in the world, it would be to preserve our Yup'ik Eskimo culture," she said, "because it's headed in the direction that it is going to be lost within the next hundred years and it's just scary to think about."
Some big questions remain: Will the salmon return next year? Will the community be able to preserve their subsistence way of life?
Flying east above Emmonak on our way home, the rooftops grew smaller until the whole town was just a smudge on the horizon. I thought about the fragility of life and how choices made halfway around the world are affecting this small town, which clings to the banks of an ever-changing river. As we broke through the clouds, I remembered Ray's words, "I know my grandchildren will teach their kids how to fish. They will. I know they will."