After 14 years, Russians boat across Bering Strait to visit Alaska relatives

Kyle Hopkins
A group of Siberian Yupik hunters made the journey from Russia to St. Lawrence Island in two open skiffs Tuesday, July 22, 2014. They landed in Gambell after the trip from New Chaplino, Provideniya, Russia. Chris Koonooka

Twelve men in two aluminum skiffs left Provideniya, Russia, on Tuesday, motored across the international date line and landed on the pebble shores of Gambell, Alaska. 

The village was waiting.

“Payangituuq!” elders yelled, crowded on the beach. The Siberians are here!

Gambell residents say the visit marks the first time in 14 years that their Siberian Yupik relatives from the Chukotka Peninsula boated at least 70 miles across open seas to St. Lawrence Island. Guided by GPS maps and propelled by roaring outboard motors, the trip began at 5 a.m. in the hunting village of New Chaplino.

“This is a monumental time for the island,” said John Waghiyi, a 59-year-old Gambell resident who invited the villagers to Alaska. Some of the visitors, exhausted from a day on the waves, greeted American siblings and relatives for the first time in years.

Culturally and geographically, Gambell and neighboring Savoonga are closer to Chukotka in the Russian Far East than to Alaska, said linguist Michael Krauss. This month’s visit by the Russians marks the revival of an ancient exchange program that has been interrupted in the past century by world wars, cold wars and deadly seas.

“People on both sides (of the border) spoke exactly the same language, the dialect even. The language is the same even today,” said Krauss who created the first maps of Alaska Native languages

The men, all hunters, spent several days in Gambell. On Thursday they left the village of about 700 people and boated east to similarly sized Savoonga, where they are bunking with host families. They brought gifts of Russian bread and cup-and-saucer sets. Gambell held a welcome dance.

St. Lawrence Islanders stand apart from the Inupiat of northwest Alaska and the Central Yup’ik people of the western mainland. Many Gambell and Savoonga residents are Siberian Yupik, descendants of people who survived sickness and famine that decimated the island population more than a century ago, said Krauss, the retired director of the Alaska Native Language Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

“The (St. Lawrence Island) population was heavily replenished up throughout the 1920s by people from Chukotka moving over to the other side,” he said.

Kindred villagers on each side of the border continued to travel to visit each other throughout the 1930s, when late in the decade the Soviet foreign ministry wrote the U.S. State Department a memo that said Siberian Yupik people living in the U.S. could cross the border as long as they brought no printed materials, religious materials nor guns, Krauss said.

By 1948 the “Ice Curtain” had descended across the Bering Sea and FBI director J. Edgar Hoover put a stop to the trips, assuming some of the Eskimo visitors were soviet spies, Krauss said.

“Americans -- including busybodies, you might say, in Virginia -- heard that Eskimos were traveling back and forth between Russia,” he said. “Officially, we’re the ones who stopped the travel.” 

There were no sanctioned visits between the U.S. and Russian villages for decades, Krauss said, until the “friendship flight” of 1988 carried Alaska officials and artists, Native elders and others from Nome to Provideniya.

Travel between the two sides resumed, but trips were sometimes treacherous. In 1992, 21 Russian Eskimos disappeared for five days en route to a St. Lawrence Island walrus festival, according to reports at the time. In 1999 a father and son drowned making the voyage home from Gambell.

After that, Russian officials restricted travel, Waghiyi said.

“Their government prohibited them from coming under their own power because of that tragedy,” Waghiyi said. “They were supposed to be escorted with a ship transport that would bring them to the international border line. They expected them to be transported from the American side to the island.”

The rules loosened at least two years ago, he said, and plans for a visit from Novoye Chaplino had been in the works ever since. Waghiyi said he made the invitation in May for villagers to come to St. Lawrence Island at the villagers' request.

Waghiyi called the arrangement “Native to Native, Visa-free travel.” Despite the family ties between the communities, some limited paperwork remains. Waghiyi said he was required to send copies of the visitors’ passports to the Department of Homeland Security in order to enable the visit.

Some St. Lawrence Islanders still remember their neighbors arriving generations ago in skin boats. Today, they use Russian skiffs that Gambell residents estimated at 16 to 20 feet in length with 100-plus horsepower motors.

“There was some waves when they were coming in here, but less waves when they landed,” Chris Koonooka said.

Koonooka and other Gambell residents posted pictures of the arrival on Facebook, which is as popular in the remote village as the rest of the country, if not more so. Across the Bering Strait, the Russians logged in too, to see how the trip was going and comment on pictures of the beachside skiffs.

"The sea is calm," a Provideniya woman typed in Russian.

Once on shore, not all the Russian-speaking visitors were able to understand the Alaska villagers. Their Native language is fading on both sides, although it’s stronger among the St. Lawrence Islanders.

“The Eskimos were treated very badly by the Russians, in the 1950s especially. Their villages were closed or moved,” Krauss said.

Valentina Koonooka, 41, has lived on both sides of the Bering Strait. She grew up in Novoye Chaplino, she said, before marrying an American and settling in Gambell.

Her brother Yuri Yatta and nephew, Valentin Yatta, are among the boaters visiting Gambell this week. Valentina had not seen them for five years, she said.

“It’s hard for me to go there (to Russia). I have to have two passports and the airfare is expensive.”

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