Wales: Portrait of an Alaska Village
By Ed Gold; Vered Publishing & Design House; 160 pages; 2014; $29.95
Most of us will never visit the Alaska village of Wales. Established by missionaries in 1890 on the tip of the Seward Peninsula, the small village overlooks the narrowest part of the Bering Sea at the bottleneck between North America and Asia. The population of 150 consists primarily of Native Alaskans pursuing a heavily subsistence-based lifestyle. The town's Inupiat name is Kingigin, and the residents refer to themselves as Kingikmiut, or "the people of Kingigin."
The international date line runs between Little and Big Diomede Islands offshore, which lie in the slim passageway that divides two continents, making it possible to sit on the beach in Wales and watch the sun set simultaneously over the day just ended and the one that follows. Wales is the westernmost settlement in North America.
Life in Wales is not the stuff of Jack London's romanticized Alaska nor the trashiness of Hollywood's reality-show version. As we find from a remarkable new collection by British photographer Ed Gold, however, it is very much worthy of note.
"Wales: Portrait of an Alaska Village" takes us to this faraway place where days pass under extreme conditions in remote isolation with limited resources. Gold made two visits to the village, first in 2009 and then again in 2013 and extensively photographed the landscape, the town and the people. His work creates a sense that this is truly a place set upon the very edge of the world, where modernity is at best a thin layer beneath which lies a culture that has survived assimilation, financial stress, government policies ranging from imposed westernization to negligence, and the devastation of the 1918-19 flu epidemic that reduced the population by more than half.
Gold brings us into the village as he himself arrived. We see it first from the air, and then find ourselves at ground level in this alien and treeless place, where land, sky, sea and ice all merge into one vast expanse. He consciously chose to use only black-and-white images for this project, and it was a good move. The subtle tones of gray that blend, overlap and offset each other in these photographs extend the sense found in this book that Wales is a place apart, a place where the world as we understand it barely intrudes and where time operates by its own dictates, not those of our clocks.
As Gold moves in toward the village itself, we see buildings erected with whatever materials were at hand. Plywood and OSB (oriented strand board) provide external and internal sidings for walls that can be a foot thick to withstand the elements. Wales sees high winds and massive snow drifts. The ground can be bare as few as two months a year. Thus, we see entryways that have not only been dug out from the snow, but dug down to reach.
On the inside, rooms are small to keep in the heat, and clutter abounds for lack of storage space. Here we find the families that make up this village, and as the book progresses Gold introduces us to the residents and explores their daily doings.
Faye Ongtowasruk, born in 1928, is pictured on the beach gathering firewood, at a dance festival in her kuspuk, and in her home. She tells us, "My daddy hunt from the ocean -- fish, seal, oogruk (bearded seal) way bigger than seal. Ten foot long. (We) pick greens from the mountain, sura, eveaqlak, sour docks, alualak."
Gold accompanies Noble Gene Rex Agnaboogok and his crew on a seal hunt. The group finds itself stuck for a short time on sea ice, where we see them focused on finding their way back home.
Wales to New York City
We meet people whom we immediately want to learn more about. Amos Oxerok was born and raised in Wales, then left to work for Citibank in New York City. He returned and now is a whaling captain and teacher. We wonder what prompted him to leave for the most urbanized place in America and what about that place drove him back to its opposite.
Dan Richard was stationed at a nearby -- and now shuttered -- U.S. Air Force base 30 years ago. He married into the village and stayed. Now he does scrimshaw carving, working in his dark cavernous shop and sporting an amazing beard. What did he leave behind when he chose to stay and what did he find in Wales that he didn't realize he needed until he saw it?
Richard's son Sherman is seen several pages later, a lone figure on a frozen beach, bundled up and looking out to sea for seals. The black and white that Gold works with lends this photograph a starkness and power that color would have robbed it of.
As the pages go by we see babies, toddlers, high school students, working adults and elders, and toward the end we visit the graveyard. Gold captures the community in its entirety. Food is hunted, processed and eaten. Work is carried out. Church is attended. A dance festival is held. Funeral services are performed. There are studies of handcrafted tools. Late in the book, residents wander the detritus of nearby abandoned mines and military installations. White people have repeatedly come and gone. Native residents remain.
Gold's photographs give all of it a quiet dignity, letting his readers know that life is lived on a different level here. He doesn't glorify, he documents. This book reveals an Alaska that's generally overlooked but vital on a level that Hollywood and dreamy-eyed novelists will never capture. It stands alone as a unique contribution to any Alaskan's bookshelf.
All royalties earned from this book are being donated to the Wales Search & Rescue fund. Check the author's website (www.edgold.co.uk) for more information and images, which are all copyrighted.
David A. James is a Fairbanks-based writer and critic.
Previous Alaska Dispatch stories on Wales
• I can see Russia from Wales, Alaska: Wales sits at the far western tip of the Seward Peninsula, and may have been the place that Sarah Palin was talking about when she said you could see Russia from Alaska.
• Living with Mike Weyapuk's story, 7 years after his death: Seven years after 26-year-old Mike Weyapuk died at the far northwest corner of North America, his story and that of his Inupiat village of Wales are still emblematic of Alaska's most horrific problems.