Yupik Eskimo Walkie Charles feels tug of two cultures -- and enjoys the best of both
Boston — THE story of a white-collar Eskimo is bound to be somewhat paradoxical. But for Walkie Charles, a Yupik Eskimo who recently strode into Boston's Logan Airport in a sport shirt, designer jeans, and chic blue shoes, it seems a paradox made in paradise. More than 4,000 miles from his home in Emmonak -- a tiny fishing village that dots the desolate Yukon River delta of western Alaska -- Mr. Charles adjusts to fast-paced Boston with considerable savvy and satisfaction. But the articulate native also speaks passionately about preserving the Yupiks' tribal language and subsistence life style.
For Charles, who will become one of Emmonak's first college graduates next spring, this dual attraction is far from contradictory. In fact, he says the fresh perspective of modern culture makes him value even more the native life -- long, arduous days of salmon fishing in the summer, ice fishing in the endless darkness of winter, and the ice breakup that floods the village every June.
``It's amazing that I can be thousands of miles away [from Emmonak] and feel closer than ever,'' he says. ``The more time I spend away from home, the more I learn about it.''
It's a sentiment that is heard more often from Alaska's emerging class of white-collar natives, says Steve Grubis, a professor of cross-cultural education at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, which Charles attends. Educators consider Charles a native success story, because he moves comfortably between native and modern life; he can leave but not abandon his village.
Charles's sentiment also characterizes his close friendship with Andrew Foley, an inquisitive ``outsider'' from Boston, who -- after trekking up to Charles's village two summers ago -- persuaded him to return the visit. The unlikely duo met in 1982, when both were students at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks.
``The more I got to know him, the more I saw me in him,'' Charles says, his formal ``Walter Cronkite'' English matching the stately Victorian d'ecor in the Foleys' home in suburban Brookline.
Charles pauses between bites of a sandwich to explain the irony: ``It was eye-opening. Here was someone who could ask me questions about everything that I had always taken for granted.''
Mr. Foley's barrage of questions forced Charles to define and defend the ways of his culture, an act that strengthened his sense of Yupik identity. During the long, dark days of an Alaskan winter, Charles recalls, he and Foley -- now a student at Amherst College -- would spend hours holed up in their dorm rooms discussing life in the outback.
Most often, Charles would talk about the changes that shook Emmonak just as he became old enough to help his father fish and hunt. After the 1968 confirmation of vast oil reserves at Prudhoe Bay and the 1971 Alaskan Native Land Claims Settlement Act, money began gushing into native areas. During the 14 years that followed, native living conditions have ``jumped from the Stone Age to the 21st century,'' says Professor Grubis.
``When I was young,'' Charles says, ``we had no gas, no TV, nothing.'' Now his family's subsistence life style is cluttered with such novelties as cash, gas, and the ``CBS Evening News.'' When he was young, his father would diversify the family's salmon-centered diet by venturing to inland villages, where he could trade his fish and seal for elk, caribou, even an occasional bear. Now the it's just a quick jaunt to the market to supplement the family diet -- the canned American way. Modern conveniences h ave brought their share of inconveniences, including land and hunting regulations -- not to mention the disintegration of an indigenous culture.
For many natives, the influx of outside culture ripped apart the family fabric, according to Julie Kitka of the Alaskan Federation of Natives. While elders clung to the Yupik language and subsistence life style, she says, youngsters clamored for a future they saw embodied in the flickering images on their television screens. The native youths' ``wavering of inner values,'' Ms. Kitka explains, has sometimes had tragic consequences, including alcoholism, violence, and a suicide rate that in some native ar eas is 10 times the national average.
Charles feels fortunate. ``Our family is so close-knit,'' he says. ``We're almost like no other family in Emmonak.'' Except for him -- the self-proclaimed ``weird one, who wants to cut the cord and experience America'' -- the family remains in Emmonak. His two younger sisters have stayed there along with his married older brother.
Even though Charles has been away at school for nine months in each of the past 10 years, he says he's more rooted in his family than ever. Last summer, like every summer, Charles stayed at his family's camp 40 miles upriver from Emmonak -- not vacationing, but hauling in hordes of salmon, half to sell to Japanese fishing companies and half to sustain the family for the winter.
But this time, things were different. His father, who had always orchestrated the fishing operation, became ill and remained in Emmonak with his mother. Charles and one sister were left alone and filled with trepidation. But as the summer wore on, they found themselves using complex salmon fishing and smoking techniques without thinking -- as if they were acting by cultural instinct.
``All the things my father had taught us, they were inside,'' says Charles. This deep family bond, ironically, has made him more open to the outside world, he says. At first, it made it tough for him to leave. ``I had to fight my way out of my family,'' Charles says. ``But I thought there had to be more to life beyond the village.''
And it did make his leaving tough for his family to accept. He recalls his mother's reaction when he came home one summer with a backpack full of books that cost $250: ``She said, `Do you know what we could have done with that money?' '' Steeped in the oral Yupik tradition, she couldn't understand how a grown man could sit motionless in a corner, staring at a book.
She's still a bit baffled by what exactly he does in college, but she's proud of his success. Charles finds that his traditional upbringing has actually helped him succeed in college and cope with modern culture. That's no surprise to Ray Barnhardt, a professor at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, who heads several state programs on native education. He sees a rule in Charles's story: ``The more rooted people are in their cultural norms, the better able they are to deal with another cu lture or rapid change.''
Many other youngsters in Emmonak have been uprooted not only from the native customs, but also from the Yupik language, says Charles (whose family name was given them by Roman Catholic missionaries). So they speak ``village English,'' a hybrid of English words and Yupik cadences that leaves many unable to speak either language fluently.
For Charles, who laughingly calls himself a ``loquacious Eskimo,'' linguistic sensitivity has been second nature since he was young. His mother and father each spoke in different Yupik dialects -- not to mention the ``village English'' of his peers. By the time the 12-year-old packed his bags for the 1,000-mile journey to Sitka, which at that time was the location of the state's only native junior high school, he was well prepared to learn American-style English. It seems fitting that Charles is now wor king on a degree in applied linguistics and elementary education.
In his life and language, Charles relishes being able to glide in and out of Yupik culture. But the problem is that he often feels shut in by both cultures. When he spends too much time within the concrete walls of the university, he says, he feels ``so much frustration, because I want to get out and do something'' in the wilds. But his aspirations have outgrown Emmonak. Asked if he would eventually settle there, he hesitates: ``There's so much more beyond the village. I don't think I could live there. Fairbanks would be the most ideal place.''
After graduation, Charles hopes to work in Fairbanks developing curricula for the scores of new schools that have now popped up in the native villages. That combination is a ``middle step'' that ``would give me the freedom to do anything I want,'' he says. It would give him the freedom to explore the modern culture Foley has exposed him to; it would allow him to remain connected to his Yupik roots. And he can live with that paradox.