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Rural Alaska

Hope floats, and rolls

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Elizabeth Hensley photos
Maligiaq Padilla with former Northwest Arctic Borough Mayor Ross Schaeffer, a Native artist and kayak builder, as well as one of the most respected hunters in Kotzebue.

Vester Eyland, a small island off the west coast of Greenland, near the mouth of Disko Bay, has long been known for producing some of the best sea kayakers in the world.

"The island draws big waves, so it's not easy to paddle and hunt, compared to other places off the coast of the main country, where the water is calm and flat," says famed sea kayaker Maligiaq Johnsen Padilla (pronounced muh-LIG-ee-ahk YOON-sen pa-DEE-uh), 27, whose mother's ancestors are from Vester Eyland.

Padilla grew up in Sisimiut, a town on the edge of the Arctic Circle, just south of Disko Bay. He learned to subsistence hunt and sea kayak from his Vester Eyland relatives, for whom knowing how to right, or "roll" a capsized kayak is more survival skill than sport. They hunt in seas where the wind and waves batter kayaks like unruly children slapping at bathtub toys. Padilla's great-grandfather was killed near Vester Eyland in 1929 when a harpooned seal yanked his kayak with enough force in rough water to snap his spine.

Though he still hunts for seals, fish and Auks (diving birds related to sea puffins), Padilla is better known outside the Sisimiut area for his prowess in world-class sea kayaking competitions. He's the only person in history to win the Greenland National Kayaking Championships four times, beginning in 1998 at the age of 16, when he became the youngest Greenland kayak champion ever.

Last month, Padilla traveled to Alaska to participate in Generation I, a touring series of workshops, demonstrations and community discussions in Northwest Alaska that took place Dec. 28 through Jan. 8 in Kotzebue, Kiana and Selawik. (Here's a slideshow from the event.) Generation I -- a play on "I" representing both personal identity and Inuit culture -- was inspired by a recent "Hope and Resilience in Suicide Prevention" seminar, in Nuuk, Greenland, that was organized and funded by the Inuit Circumpolar Conference in conjunction with the government of Greenland.

Suicides among Inuit, and especially Inuit youth, in both Alaska and Greenland are tragically high. But in Greenland, they're decreasing. The "Hope and Resilience" seminar attributed the positive shift in large part to three factors: affirming the self-worth of Inuit teenagers, promoting a deeper sense of Inupiat cultural identity, and putting youths in contact with positive role models.

"Looking back 20 years until now, yes we can say the suicide rate [in Greenland] is decreasing slowly, along with abusing drugs and alcohol, and people are more willing to talk about their secrets and problems, although underage sexual abuse is still high," says Padilla. "What we're working on in both places [Greenland and Northwest Alaska] is to show a more positive and healthy way of life to the kids in the coming generation."

Other Generation I presenters included Anchorage musician Junior Milukruk Dommek, who taught percussion, improvisation and guitar; Allison Warden, a performance artist from Anchorage and Kaktovik, who led workshops on hip-hop and theater; and Karina Moeller, a member of the popular tribal funk band Pamyua, who instructed youths in percussion and vocal improvisation. Inuit Circumpolar Youth Council member

Greta Inuraaq Schuerch facilitated discussions among local youth in the three communities. (Generation I was organized by Elizabeth Saagulik Hensley, the author of this article's sister-in-law). Together the participants worked with young people on Inupiaq dancing and hosted open mic events.

For his part, Padilla demonstrated traditional kayak building at each stop. In Kotzebue he built a fully usable kayak over a five-day period. In Selawik and Kiana, where time was shorter, he built scale models using traditional materials. In all three places, Padilla performed a style of rope gymnastics developed by Greenland sea kayakers to improve their strength and balance and to practice maneuvering their bodies at the same angles, speed and force required to roll a kayak in dozens of ways.

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Maligiaq demonstrating rope gymnastics in Kotzebue last week as part of "Generation I."

Rope gymnastics are a key component of the Greenland National Kayaking Championships. Competitors have 30 minutes to pull off as many of the 75 established rope maneuvers as they can, with points awarded for style and the number of moves performed.

Padilla has been to the United States before, including Alaska. In 1998, for example, he paddled around the Statue of Liberty on a trip to the Lower 48 that included stops in Houston and Denver to demonstrate harpoon throwing, rope gymnastics and Greenland paddling and rolling techniques for sea kayaking clubs. Also that year he was invited by the Inupiat Heritage Center in Barrow to demonstrate rope gymnastics and kayak rolling at a large celebration.

The champion kayaker says that he much prefers visiting Alaska to traveling in the Lower 48, where he more or less subsists on beef jerky, the closest approximation to dried seal meat he can find. "I don't like the food as much [in the U.S.] outside of Alaska," he says. "The Native food in Alaska is pretty much the same as in Greenland and very good, which shows that our Inuit blood and spirit are still the same, even though we live far from one another."

"I think Greenland Inuit and Alaskan Inuit should become closer and talk about their feelings and cultural values," Padilla says. "It is commonly known that Alaskan Inuit have been raised more than Greenland Inuit with a stronger influence of American language and lifestyle, and it's sad to see how much they've lost of their culture and language. I think that by all Inuit communicating more we can best help the new generation by bringing their traditional culture back, so they can pass it on to the next generation and the next, the way it should be."

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