King Island: Living community and mystical place

Another great matriarch went home to her God last weekend. Few of you have heard of her, but what she represented was in many ways a metaphor for the hidden history of Northwest Alaska. A history that is worthy of great appreciation.

The name of the place where Rose Paniqrak Quyauraq (Alvanna) Koezuna grew up is King Island, 90 miles northwest of Nome, and like its neighbor Little Diomede, in the Bering Strait. But unlike most tiny communities in remote Alaska, this one's name may be familiar to many. It was publicized by several non-Native school teachers who lived there, were good members of the community, and surely meant no harm in writing about the experience through their own prisms, later in their lives.

Rie and Juan Muñoz did this more effectively than most. Through published letters, recollections, and painter Rie's talented eye, a sort of folklore was born about life in this tiny place. And the interest resulted in a musical play being written by librettist Deborah Brevoort and composer David Friedman and first performed in 1997, "King Island Christmas," based on a children's book of the same name written by Jean Rogers. The musical won awards and has been performed around the United States. It launched the name "King Island" into Alaska's public consciousness.

The dark underside of this commercialization, sadly, is that the King Island families who lived there -- they estimate for thousands of years -- gained nothing from all the publicity. The sales and royalties of countless books, paintings, prints and theater tickets went to the non-Native writers, artists and producers. To the King Island community, this is considered nothing short of theft of intellectual property. Or looked at in the broader sweep of Alaska Native history, yet another tragic example of the vestiges of colonialism that still masquerade as "Western modernization."

To understand the resentment of the King Island community, keep in mind the context of the adults of today: In 1959, just before Alaska's statehood, the Bureau of Indian Affairs decided summarily to close the island's school. In so doing, a bureaucratic decision effectively ended their lives there, forcing several hundred families to become new residents of Nome, a foreign place with a gold mining past, not predisposed to embrace an ancient island Iñupiaq culture that had lost its island. And the transition was not administered with care: young children were forcibly separated from parents in the name of school "truancy" laws; older ones were sent to boarding schools thousands of miles away, with no way of communicating with families left behind. In short, the fabric of King Island extended family life was shredded without cause. The stated reason for the move, from the BIA, was that a boulder was about to roll down the hill and crush the school.

More than 50 years later, the boulder still hasn't moved.

Out of this inglorious transition, Rose Koezuna found herself living and raising 10 children in the East End of Nome. Through the strength of character imbued in her by her grandparents on King Island, she was resolute. The children were well fed, went to school, and grew to flourish. For years, Rose sewed three pairs of sealskin slippers in a single day to make the money she needed to provide for them while her husband continued hunting for food. Summers were spent back on the island, imbuing those children in the same values and skills: cooperation, collective resolve, sharing of everything so that no one went without; humor to make the days enjoyable; storytelling to impart the wisdom of the elders. Even the Iñupiaq vocabulary was different from Nome; there was a word on King Island for "pour it over the front walkway," which meant the liquid would disappear faster down the steep hill. Nome is flat.

Life on the island was full of joy and communal celebration along with the everyday stresses of a harsh climate in a most isolated place. The Catholic Church was a daily presence in the children's routines. The school was large, sturdily built and staffed by dedicated teachers. Food from marine mammals was ample, and in summer there were delicious greens and berries to put up for the long winter. And the birds were there ... by the millions! They made good soup, supplied feathers for clothing, and provided thousands of eggs to vary the menu in spring.

And then there was hospitality. A visitor was welcomed. Always. That King Island tradition carried over to life in Nome. And that's how I came to know Rose and her family, on one of their visits to Washington, D.C., to perform as the King Island Dancers. I hosted the group, and soon after, Rose and her daughter Marilyn invited me to come visit at their Cape Woolley fishcamp.

In Nome and in Anchorage, Rose and other elders kept the youngsters drumming and "Eskimo dancing." They revived songs written by their own departed ancestors and composed new ones. Humor was in everyone. The English language was direct, pointed and often supremely witty when Rose spoke. With twinkling eyes, one or two well-chosen words would convey paragraphs. And when she expressed an opinion, it mattered. Everyone listened.

She twinkled nearly to the end, celebrating new births of great-grandchildren, entertaining all the little cousins every day after school. She was the glue for a family that numbers in the hundreds.

My great fortune was to have "laughing parties" with Rose and family over reindeer soup. And years earlier, the father of Alaska Attorney General John Burns, a marine biologist, hunted with Rose's husband, Anthony, around King Island. The Burns family became beloved friends of the Koezuna clan.

Today, the King Island Inupiat community is spread to the four winds. Many are in Nome and Anchorage; others are Outside in various professional pursuits. They are bright, vibrant leaders full of promise; some are the greatest artists and creative, intelligent souls we know.

But they cannot get back to their island to keep the memories alive and be nourished by the magical place. For the brief, very occasional summer visit -- back and forth across the Bering Sea in an open skiff -- a few hardy souls make the effort and have kept a dozen or so buildings standing.

In honor of Rose and the others no longer with us, we should all come together somehow to save this legacy for the treasure it represents. The history belongs to the people of King Island, but all of us will benefit by understanding and helping keep it alive. Rose would want nothing more than her seven children, 20 grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren to stay connected to King Island.

Alice Rogoff is the publisher of Alaska Dispatch. She can be reached at alice(at)alaskadispatch.com.

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

Alice Rogoff

Alice Rogoff is the former owner and publisher of Alaska Dispatch News.