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Easier Native travel between Alaska and Russia is a thaw and an opportunity

  • Author: David Ramseur
  • Updated: June 29, 2016
  • Published July 31, 2015

The resumption of visa-free travel for Bering Strait Natives of Alaska and the Russian Far East, recently announced by the U.S. State Department, is a rare and tiny thaw in an otherwise frosty relationship between Russia and the West.

The challenge is whether enough affected indigenous peoples will put up with the hassle to visit each other, and whether citizen diplomats on both sides will seize this opportunity to again melt the "ice curtain" between the U.S. and Russia as we did three decades ago.

For thousands of years, Eskimos traveled freely in walrus-hide boats to harvest the region's rich marine mammals and visit relatives on both sides. Even with some restrictions after the 1917 Russian Revolution, that travel continued largely unimpeded.

In 1938, the Soviet government formally recognized the legitimacy of Eskimo visits across the date line, provided they check with local border guards. But after World War II, relations soured as American and Soviet leaders grew increasingly suspicious of each other.

As the Berlin blockade began in Europe, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover concluded in a 1948 memo that "U.S. national security interests should outweigh the interests of local Eskimo." That closed the border for 41 years, until Native leaders on both sides pressured their national governments in 1989 to reinstate visa-free travel.

That positive step was part of a heyday of productive relations between Alaska and the Russian Far East, which began in the mid-1980s and continued for more than two decades. Since January, I've been researching this era for a book documenting this breakthrough in international relations in our unappreciated part of the world.

It's a story of how average citizens, motivated by curiosity, a desire for reduced tensions and a little capitalism, overcome the enormous barriers of suspicion, transportation and language to build bridges -- bridges I believe can serve as a model for today.

Reuniting long-separated Native families was always a primary motivation. In 1986, Juneau peace activist Dixie Belcher led 67 Eskimo and other Alaska performing artists across the Soviet Union for 18 sold-out performances. In Leningrad, they met Soviet Natives who spoke a common Siberian Yupik language.

The next summer, endurance swimmer Lynne Cox braved 42-degree water to swim the 2.5 miles between Alaska's Little Diomede Island and Soviet Big Diomede to draw attention to Cold War tensions.

In 1988, Alaska Airlines flew 82 Alaskans -- half of them Native -- on the Friendship Flight from Nome to Provideniya where several Alaskan Siberian Yupiks were reunited with relatives not seen in four decades.

Retired University of Alaska Fairbanks linguist Michael Krauss triggered my memories of a vivid scene from that historic day in Provideniya. During the seemingly endless speechifying, a Soviet official asked an elderly Yupik woman with tattooed chin, a matriarch of the Chukotka region, to speak.

"Naturally," Krauss recalled, "she spoke in Russian. It never occurred to her to speak in her native language because Native people over there are so used to being the underdog."

Krauss whispered to her to speak in Yupik. "Her whole being transformed into a most glorious state," he said. "A silence fell over the whole assembled throng." Sadly, Krauss views that moment as the "last gasp" for the Siberian Yupik language. National and local government policies on both sides of the strait have conspired to send Siberian Yupik into a death spiral.

All but a handful of Alaska Natives on the Friendship Flight have passed away. Rapidly declining numbers of people on both sides can speak Siberian Yupik, as each generation becomes more distant.

One elder on the flight was Willis Walunga, born in Gambell 91 years ago to a Siberian father who came to Alaska in 1921. Walunga told me with great fondness of reuniting with a distant relative in Provideniya. It was his second time to step foot in the Soviet Union; the first was visiting in a skin boat at age 12.

Even without the burden of securing a visa, travel across the strait remains burdensome. There's no more direct air service, so the seat-cost on a chartered hour-long flight between Nome and Provideniya can run $6,500 each way. The Russian government also requires the added burden of travelers securing local invitations for each community they want to visit.

A quarter century ago, average Alaskans and Russians on both sides of the Bering Strait led the world in reducing Cold War tensions. Today, that challenge is equally difficult. Hopefully we can capitalize on this small opening to resume civil relations with our neighbors to the West.

David Ramseur is a visiting scholar in public policy at the University of Alaska Anchorage's Institution of Social and Economic Research.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com

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