Yupik Eskimo Walkie Charles feels tug of two cultures -- and enjoys the best of both
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.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
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.