This weekend marks the seventh anniversary of the death of a young man most of you have never heard of. His name was Mike Weyapuk. He was 26 years old when he died. He lived in Wales, a Bering Strait village hugging the westernmost tip of North America, where you can actually see Russia from the shores of Alaska.
I first met Mike in summer 2000 while on a personal quest to learn more about this special place he called home. Until Yankee whalers and epidemics decimated the population, Wales had once been one of the largest Native villages in all of Alaska. I wanted to see what the village was like today. I was younger then, and the idea of standing atop the Continental Divide, staring at the shores of Siberia was irresistible. I left my girlfriend in the Lower 48 to take a job at the Anchorage Daily News, in large part because I had an image of myself doing just that. Writing about Wales and its history, this place I stumbled upon while writing a paper in college.
It didn’t take long after I arrived on my first visit in 2000 -- my first summer "vacation" in Alaska -- to find that most people didn’t want to talk about their history. Some simply didn’t know it. Others were skeptical of a journalist asking questions. An anthropologist who was in Wales at the time scolded me, even as she did her own “research” on the people’s history. I became discouraged and started spending my days walking the beach, wondering how I had ended up on the end of the earth.
I climbed the sand dunes, where I came upon a mass grave containing nearly 200 people who died in an epidemic in 1918 -- more people than have lived in Wales ever since then. Wales is a windy place, and the grave was eroded, with femurs and skulls and other bones poking from the sand. I was lost and ready to go home.
Then one sunny evening as I was returning to the city’s apartment in “The Dome,” a weathered geodesic building that looked like a dirty snowball, I met Mike. He was standing on the doorstep of his house, which sat next to The Dome. He talked to me, more so than any other folks in the community had since I'd arrived. He invited me inside to his house, where I met his father Walter and few other men. We hung out for a while, and then went into Mike’s bedroom so he could show me his collection of guitars. I play guitar, and so we just sat there jamming, gazing outside at Siberia -- it was that clear that July evening under the midnight sun.
Over the next several years, I kept returning to Wales, each visit spending most of my time with Mike. I asked him if I could profile him for a story. He gave me his permission to record our interviews. Sometimes he would say some pretty harsh things about his fellow residents of Wales, or tell me horrible stories about his past, and I would ask him, “Are you sure you want me to include that in the story?”
“Fuck it. I don’t care. It’s the truth,” he said in one variation or another each time sensitive topics came up.
The village, with about 130 residents, can be the friendliest and most intimate place on earth. But Wales can also be a dysfunctional family, as can most tightly-knit communities anywhere in the world, especially during the long winters near the Arctic Circle.
The truth was that Mike was having a hard go of it in Wales.
I knew that much. So did others in the village. You could see it in Mike’s eyes. You could hear it in his voice. Every time I left Wales, I wondered whether I’d ever see him again. He promised me he'd never … but we all knew -- some of the people of Wales and I -- Mike was toying with a death wish.
When I heard the news of his suicide in 2005, I couldn’t help but being mad at myself and some people in Wales. This didn’t have to happen. We Alaskans all should have done more to save Mike.
Trying to find some peace
In 2002, I wrote about Wales while reporting for the Anchorage Press, some of which I worked into the series you're reading this weekend. I kept up with Mike after that story and continued to profile his life. I then wrote about him again after he killed himself sometime between May 25 and May 27, 2005.
I offered Mike’s story to the Anchorage Daily News, but they never got back to me (this is one reason why I created Alaska Dispatch in 2008 -- because such stories weren't being told anymore by the paper). Two other non-local publications (The Paris Review and The Walrus) wanted it, however, and I ended up choosing The Walrus, a Canadian literary and news magazine. “To Live and Die in Wales, Alaska” ran in a special Arctic issue in November 2007.
But most Alaskans never got to read it. And that had always bothered me.
So today, on the anniversary weekend of Mike’s death -- and because this story never appeared in Alaska -- I share it with you. It originally ran as one long story. But for Alaska Dispatch, I divided it into three parts, which will run through Sunday.
My intention of sharing Mike’s life and death, as well as the story of one of Alaska’s most historic villages, is to put a face on the troubles -- suicide, sexual abuse, family violence, alcoholism, unresolved grief, mental illness and racism -- that have all too long plagued many of our communities.
For many readers, Mike’s death simply adds to the horrifically high statistics of suicide in Alaska. For others, he was a son, a brother, a relative, a neighbor, and a friend.
Tony Hopfinger is the co-founder and editor of Alaska Dispatch. Contact him at tony(at)alaskadispatch.com