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Part 1: To live and die in Wales, Alaska

Editor's note: This is the first of a three-part series chronicling the life and suicide of Mike Weyapuk and the unsettling past of his Inupiat Eskimo village of Wales, Alaska. For more about the series, read Tony Hopfinger's column "Living with Mike Weyapuk's story, seven years after his death."

WALES, Alaska -- For years Mike Weyapuk sat on his bunk, cradling his sunburst Gibson guitar. He stared out at the frozen Bering Strait and dreamed of the day he would leave his village to start a metal band. He thought about moving to Seattle or Chicago, but nowhere too far south; he'd heard about an Eskimo who went to Arizona and almost melted. When he arrived in the big city and stepped onstage, he would play fast and hard and angry and sad, the history of his people aching in every power chord.

Mike was tall, with the build of a long-distance runner, his arms thick from seasonal construction work. He had a faint moustache and shiny black hair that fell to his shoulders. He wore the same clothes for days at a time; sometimes it was a Kentucky Wildcats T-shirt and blue sweats, or black jeans and a black T-shirt that read "Life is full of important choices."

READ Three-Part Series: To live and die in Wales, Alaska

He lived in Wales, Alaska, about as far away from DC as you can get and still call yourself an American. Zip code 99783. Population 139. Frigid and forbidding like an ice cavern, where the wind blows endlessly and everybody's related. The westernmost tip of the North American continent, the swath of western Alaska stretching out to Siberia. The western front of the Cold War, the enemy bearing down 56 miles away. The place where humans are believed to have crossed the Bering Sea land bridge into North America 12,000 years ago. The Pacific and Arctic oceans converge at the Bering Strait, the Diomede Islands rising in the center, and the International Date Line slices between them -- so close to the line that you can watch today's and tomorrow's sunset sink over the purple mountains of Siberia.

One day in late May of 2005, Mike put down his guitar and slipped out of his crumbling house. He walked north on the sandy road, the wind clawing at his back. He passed the water tank he'd once worked at and the community center he helped build. The airstrip was on his left, the launching pad to a land of choices.

Mike carried a 9-mm-pistol in his black Carhartt jacket. He had a place in mind, up on Paavik Mountain, just outside the village, so he hiked over the spongy tundra and started up the mountainside. In the distance, it was all laid out before him: the gabled roofs and the oddly shaped buildings; the tiny crosses sprouting like weeds in sand; dust trailing four-wheelers on the beach; the Bering Strait's rough waters roaring ashore; the Diomede Islands, their smooth plateaus like floating docks; Siberia looming on the horizon; the village as peaceful as a dead man at his wake.

Mike clutched the trigger. Twenty-six years he'd lived in the village, just long enough to watch his life flash before his eyes.

Epidemic rages on

I met Mike five years before he went up the mountain. He was standing on the steps of his father's windswept house, smoking a cigarette and gazing at the strait, trying to guess which way the wind was going to blow next. It was one of those rare evenings in Wales when the midnight sun shines in all its glory, the sea aglow in blues and greens and purples, the sky flaming yellow and orange. The wind was like a pendulum just beginning to swing east, barely a breeze. I asked Mike what the wind was doing. If the wind kicked up in earnest tonight, he told me, it meant a storm was brewing over Siberia and it would be raining sideways in Wales in a day.

Mike invited me into his house for coffee. We walked up the front steps and through an Arctic entryway, a shed attached to most village homes where families store hunting gear and freezers filled with game.

You can tell how much somebody hunts by the pungent, marine mammal scent of their shed. It wasn't very strong in Mike's, but inside the house it felt like a hunting cabin. Dishrags and towels dangled from clotheslines crisscrossing the kitchen. The counters were cluttered with flashlights, dirty dishes, a maple syrup bottle, Styrofoam plates, pickle jars, and a box of oatmeal. A metal trash can held drinking water collected from creeks. Mike's younger brother Brian was watching the X Games on ESPN while his father, Walter, and three men played cribbage at the table. On the door was a Brandon Lee poster, on the wall a tribute to Mike's grandfather:

The Twentieth Alaska Legislature honors the lifetime achievements of Winton Weyapuk Sr., Alaska Native leader, artist and cultural bearer, who died March 7, 1997. Winton was born November 16, 1907, in Wales... He grew up dependent on the traditional subsistence lifestyle. When Winton's parents died in an influenza epidemic, he became the main provider for his family by hunting and trapping.

Mike handed me a mug and motioned me to his bedroom. It was not much bigger than a walk-in closet, with a hanging Garfield bed sheet as a door. It overflowed with Mountain Dew bottles, twisted guitar strings, music magazines, and crumpled paper. The walls were plastered with posters of Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix and Pantera.

Mike's stereo played Hendrix's melodic album "Axis: Bold As Love." A pile of electric guitars were stacked behind his bunk bed, and an amplifier sat below a narrow window facing the strait. We strummed along to "Castles Made of Sand" as we studied his window as if it was an aquarium: the sun shooting over the sea, kids darting in and out of view, hues of blue and green and gold shining everywhere.

I'd come to Wales because of a story I chanced upon in an anthropology course during my last semester of college. The tale was of a strange virus traveling aboard dogsleds across Alaska's hinterlands, leaving thousands of bodies in its wake. When it reached Wales, the virus killed almost 200 people, more than half the population, and orphaned several dozen children. The disease was the 1918 influenza, a virus that killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide. It killed at a higher rate in western Alaska than anywhere else in the United States.

What most interested me about Wales was what happened in the months after the epidemic. A government superintendent came to the village to resolve the orphan crisis that had ensued. He brought along a sheaf of marriage licenses, called the adult survivors to the schoolhouse, and told them that the government was planning to take the orphans away. He did not want to see this happen, so he offered the people an alternative: the survivors could remarry and raise the children. The official then instructed the men to line up on one side of the room, the women on the other. The men were told to select wives. Those who didn't were paired up. The superintendent conducted a mass wedding, and the orphans were doled out to the new couples.

READ Three-Part Series: To live and die in Wales, Alaska

The 1918 flu explains much about the village today. The population never recovered, sitting between 120 and 170 people. The flu killed so many elders -- the walking encyclopedias of the Old World -- that it shattered the village's sense of its history. And it killed so many hunters that the ancient art of whaling all but ceased for the next half-century. White teachers and missionaries returned to Wales after the epidemic, encouraging the people to abandon their language and shamanistic beliefs. In the 1940s, a pastor told villagers to stop dancing like devils, and they did for the next half-century. Modern technology flooded the village -- radios, airplanes, snowmobiles, and televisions. Much of the culture died off.

Then a new epidemic hit western Alaska. People started to kill themselves at a rate seven times the U.S. average. One suicide led to another, spreading from village to village. To this day, the epidemic rages on.

People of the high place

In 1778, while on his third Pacific voyage, English explorer Captain James Cook sailed into the Bering Strait in search of the fabled Northwest Passage. When he saw the land jutting westerly into the channel, he named it Cape Prince of Wales, in honor of King George III's eldest son, the Prince of Wales.

Eskimos called it Kingigin, or "high bluff," and called themselves Kingikmiut, "people of the high place." The names refer to a ridge that wraps around Wales like an amphitheatre. It starts as a rocky outcropping known as Razorback Mountain and gently bends to 2,297-foot-high Cape Mountain, which dives into the Bering Strait -- the terminus of the Continental Divide. At the base of the mountain, the sea laps at a giant slab of granite shaped like an axe blade. Some villagers say this is where Paul Bunyan left his axe after chopping down all the trees in the Arctic.

When gazing up the mountainside and along the ridge, it feels as if people are perched up there looking back at you. In ancient times, the Kingikmiut stacked rocks to look like sentries to scare off enemies coming across the strait. Granite boulders dot the hillside, the biggest of which is painted white. The Kingikmiut called it The Door. They believed a spirit lived behind it; when he was hungry, he would cast a beam of light into the sea and snag a seal. There once was a pit near The Door, an underground altar to appease the spirit. When a Kingikmiut boy was old enough to hunt, he carried a stone up the hillside and dropped it in the pit, telling the spirit, "Here is seal meat. Eat it."

The Kingikmiut occupied two villages huddled tightly together below the mountain. They were allied in trade and hunting, reigning over a territory stretching dozens of miles. Seven hundred people lived in Kingigin, one of the largest Native settlements in Alaska.

Other tribes in northern Alaska were small and nomadic, living at fishing or winter camps in a constant quest to find food. In Kingigin, animals regularly passed by the Kingikmiut's doorstep. The people lived off the sea, hunting bowhead whales, seals, and walruses as they swarmed the ice-clogged Bering Strait. A whale could feed hundreds of people for months. Seal blubber heated and lit their houses -- dark, subterranean mounds molded from the tundra. The skins were used to make clothes, boats, and tents. After a successful whaling season, there were big dance festivals, called messenger feasts. Young men traveled to neighboring villages, carrying poles festooned with the skins of wolverines, caribou, and bearded seal, and invited others to come and share in their fortune. Gifts were exchanged, and people danced to the beat of drummers.

The Kingikmiut were great traders, moving goods between continents and villages hundreds of miles apart. Eskimos from other villages came to Wales to swap deerskins and sealskins, jade and flint, ivory and beads. Bands of Siberian Eskimos would paddle across the strait and trade with the Kingikmiut. Other times they attacked the Kingikmiut, plundering the village for food and taking women and children as prisoners.

Timeless and spiritual

In the spring of 1979, a propeller plane rounded Cape Mountain, banked a hard right over the Bering Strait, and swooshed down upon the village like an Arctic tern diving for a salmon. Walter and Florence Weyapuk had brought home a baby boy. He was Eskimo, even had some Kingikmiut blood flowing through his veins. They'd adopted him in Fairbanks at 6 months old. The couple named him Michael Deland Weyapuk. Seelkoke was his Eskimo name, passed down from Buster Seelkoke, an elder who died three months before Mike was born.

Mike arrived in Wales at the time of year when people emerge from their houses squinting like moles. The sun hung in the sky longer with each passing day. The ice broke apart. Spouts from whales puffed like smoke as they swam north into the Arctic Ocean. Men got their crews together and spotted positions out on the shore ice to launch their boats. After the whales passed, walruses and seals appeared, like black ants floating on water. Mike's father, Walter, prepared to go after the walruses. His mother cleaned the storm shed, praying for a freezer full of game. Sister Leah watched over her little brother.

Mike belonged to an extended family of Inupiat Eskimos, the orphaned descendants of the 1918 flu epidemic. They spoke in thick, slow, choppy English, which had largely replaced their native language. Women wore traditional parkas, but often dressed in blue jeans and snow-suits. The men had long hair and wispy beards and smoked cigarettes. They looked like truck drivers, sporting big sunglasses and ball caps. Villagers had turned in their dogsleds for snowmobiles by the time Mike showed up.

No roads connected Wales to the rest of Alaska, its only link being small propeller planes packed with food, mail, and passengers flying to and from Nome, a hardscrabble town of churches and taverns 100 miles southeast of Wales. Wales was poor and relied heavily on government subsidies. People didn't have running water. They paid with tokens to shower at the washeteria and used 5-gallon containers, called honeybuckets, for toilets. A city employee, riding on a four-wheeler in summer or a snowmobile in winter, drove around like a garbage man, picking up the waste and hauling it to a sewage lagoon.

A string of ramshackle homes built of weathered planks and tarpaper lined a sandy path running along the coastline. Mike's grandparents lived in one, surrounded by dilapidated shacks and old wooden meat racks. Across the road and along the beach was another row of homes, each with three small bedrooms and a kitchen opening up to a small living room. Mike's family home had been shipped to Wales in the 1970s on a barge. Beyond the houses were the Wales Native Store, the Lutheran church, the school, a few boats lying perpendicular to the sea, and then several more houses and shacks crawling up the hillside.

On the north side of the village, there was an abandoned Navy submarine research station and a gravel airstrip. A shaman was buried at the end of the runway. Pilots sometimes got frightened before they touched down, when they saw the shaman's ghost standing in the runway. Beyond the airstrip was Lopp Lagoon, a lengthy stretch of water named after one of the white men who introduced Siberian reindeer to Alaska in the 1890s.

A cemetery rolled out over dunes along the Bering Strait. The burial ground was the scene of one of Mike's first memories. In 1981, when Mike was almost 3, an elder died. It was a summer burial. Villagers huddled around a white pastor. As Mike listened to the prayers, he stared at the sea, Razorback, and the casket. It was as though he saw the air, land, and water all together. Timeless and spiritual, he remembered years later.

Mike walked the ridge above Wales, inspecting old bones, tin cans, and rusted gun barrels -- the Kingikmiut's ancient burial ground. At one grave was a pile of polar bear skulls, the mark of a great hunter. Family and close friends had carried the warrior's body and his possessions up the hill and laid them on a plank, covering them with boards and rocks.

When Mike climbed down the south hillside, he passed a white marble headstone with the inscription: "A good soldier of Christ Jesus." People used to tilt back the small pedestal and place pennies under it, which boys like Mike would snatch up and take home.

The grave belonged to Harrison Thornton, one of the first white teachers in Arctic Alaska. In 1890, Thornton answered an advertisement seeking "volunteer teachers to go to the barbarous Eskimo Arctic Alaska." Thornton, a Congregationalist and former newspaper reporter from Virginia, felt it was his duty "to civilize the savage."

In the decades before Thornton arrived in Wales, Eskimos intercepted dozens of whales and thousands of seals and walruses. But in the late 1800s, New Englanders and Europeans invaded the strait, seeking the world's last untouched whaling grounds. White hunters killed up to 20,000 walruses a year. Eskimos across the Alaska Arctic began to starve. In Wales, desperate villagers in some instances ate decomposing whale carcasses that washed up on the beach.

Alcohol was introduced to the region as trading ships from as far away as Hong Kong swapped rum and whisky for ivory and skins. In the white man's Arctic, Wales became known as a village of violent drunkards. In 1877, a shipboard fight broke out over rum between the Kingikmiut and a crew of Hawaiians whom white traders had hired as deckhands. The Hawaiians attacked the Eskimos with gaff hooks and pikes. Thirteen Kingikmiut men were killed.

By the time Thornton came to Wales, the population had been reduced from more than 700 people to about 500. But this was still huge for Arctic villages. Only Point Hope, an Inupiat village 150 miles north of Wales, had more people.

Thornton found the ridge-top burials grotesque and tried to persuade the villagers to bury their dead in the ground. In the Arctic, however, the earth is frozen year-round close to the surface, perhaps the reason why the Kingikmiut chose the ridge. The teacher was appalled when he came across a corpse that a dog had dragged down from the mountain. One day he heard Eskimo children laughing outside his house. He opened his door to find a puppy playing with a frozen human foot, part of the remains of an old woman who had died weeks before. "The children seemed to think it a good joke," he wrote acidly in his journal.

READ Three-Part Series: To live and die in Wales, Alaska

The Kingikmiut didn't know what to make of this guy with white skin. Was he here to trade? Why was he building his home on Kingikmiut land? When was he planning to leave?

Thornton thought the Eskimos inferior and despised their newly found love for liquor. The Kingikmiut had learned how to distill whisky, and it often felt to Thornton as though the whole village was drunk. He grew agitated and paranoid and walked around Wales with a revolver strapped to his belt. He announced that if anyone came to his door at night and refused to give their names, he'd shoot them.

One late August evening in 1893, three boys knocked. When they heard Thornton's footsteps, they fired a whaling gun through the door and killed him.

The village voted itself dry during the 1970s. But that didn't stop the bootleggers. They sold alcohol in the village for 10 to 15 times the amount they paid for it in Nome. The going rate for a fifth of Rich & Rare Canadian Whisky in Wales: $150. A half-gallon: $300. Somehow people found the money, and booze flowed freely as Mike came of age.

A blended family

In the early 1970s, most of rural Alaska didn't have television. What villagers knew of the outside world came from white teachers and preachers; weekly movie nights and the small book collection at the school; the Sears catalog, from which they ordered their clothes; and the Alaska Sportsman, a popular magazine throughout the bush.

In 1973, psychologists from the University of Alaska Anchorage wanted to see how television might affect Native communities before TV became widespread in rural Alaska villages. They chose Wales as their test site. The team installed a videotape player in the school library and ran cable to televisions in homes. Villagers were soon watching so much television that almost no one came to school board and city council meetings. Families watched TV while eating dinner.

The researchers discovered that the villagers didn't care much for "The Brady Bunch," a sitcom about a blended family, or "Bonanza," a show about taming the frontier. But they were apparently entranced by "The Andromeda Strain," a 1971 film based on Michael Crichton's novel about an extraterrestrial pathogen that threatens the planet.

Mike Weyapuk belonged to the first generation to grow up with television. He soaked up more from Bob Barker, Alf, Tom Brokaw, and Larry King than he ever did in school. He especially liked history and science documentaries. He learned why the northern lights dance red and green over Wales. He saw a documentary about Mongolia and thought some of the people looked like his neighbors. Another show chronicled the life of an Inuit man. When the man died, colonialists chopped off his hands, covered them in plaster, and used them as ashtrays. It occurred to Mike that there were people out there who treated Eskimos like animals.

On September 1, 1983, a news report flashed across the screen: A Soviet fighter jet had shot down Korean Air Lines Flight 007. The plane crashed north of Japan near Siberia, killing 269 people, including a U.S. congressman. The Cold War was heating up, and the Bering Strait was as tense as Berlin. Soviet and U.S. submarines played cat-and-mouse games underwater while fighter jets chased one another above. The Soviets manned a radar station on Big Diomede Island, 28 miles west of Wales. The U.S. Air Force watched from a radar transmitter on top of Cape Mountain, just behind the village. The first sign of a thaw came during the years Mike's mother gave birth to Lucille and Brian. Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev were talking about reducing their nuclear arsenals.

Then Mike's mother, the family's rudder, got sick. In August 1987, she died of breast cancer. Fall turned to winter. Ice floes oozed through the strait. Polar bears roamed the shores. The arctic wind blew incessantly. Ground blizzards consumed homes. Planes couldn't always land, so shelves and freezers thinned. The mail backed up. Nuclear winter had descended on Wales.

Mike's father was the first to lose it. Walter stopped hunting and started drinking. Bad things happened that Mike would spend his life trying to forget. During those wayward times, he cared for his little brother and sister, and when he had time to himself, he visited with his grandparents.

Winton and Carrie Weyapuk lived just across from his house but seemed a world away. Life slowed when he passed through their door. In their lifetime, the village had gone from sod mounds to wooden houses, from seal-oil lamps to electricity, from storytelling and dancing to radio and television. Mike hauled his grandparents' drinking water, dumped their sewage buckets, and took out their trash. They were calm and patient and he listened quietly to their stories.

Winton told his grandson about the ancient qargi, the ceremonial house that served as the stage for every important ritual conducted by the Kingikmiut. There was once a qargi next to Mike's home. The chiefs met there to resolve trading and territorial disputes. Shamans performed rituals to appease spirits. Hunters held dancing and drumming events before heading off on the ice pack. The qargi was also a shelter for orphaned boys and single men without families, who would carve ivory and play games late into the night.

One evening, fog rolled over Wales and a fire-breathing monster, part man, part skeleton, slithered into the qargi. Everybody scattered to the benches along the walls. One boy jammed his pinkies into two holes in the wall behind him and held on for all his might as the monster led the rest of the boys outside and behind the mountain. They were never seen again.

READ Three-Part Series: To live and die in Wales, Alaska

Winton also told stories about Kingikmiut hunters from long ago, fearless men who ran caribou herds into lakes while others awaited in kayaks to spear them. Hundreds of hunters went after walruses and seals, but what they truly lived for was the bowhead whale, an animal that can stretch over 50 feet and weigh over ninety thousand pounds. Hunters today fire guns and bombs to kill whales, but in ancient times the Kingikmiut relied on brute strength to harpoon them. In a good year, they killed as many as two dozen bowheads. When Mike was a boy, Wales was lucky if it landed one bowhead every few years. Same is true today.

Winton also told his grandson about what happened in the fall of 1918. A man rode into Wales with his dead son strapped to his dogsled. Most of the villagers attended the funeral. A few days later, most of them became sick. Winton was 11 years old. He and his family moved to his uncle's sod house after his father died. The next morning, he awoke to find his mother and uncle both dead.

He lived among the corpses until somebody took him and his brother to the school, where the orphans had gathered. Winton saw people dying and bodies stacked in rooms. Then there were the dogs, dozens of dogs chewing on corpses throughout the village.

Veil of denial

Mike would grow up to be thoughtful and helpful, the kind of young man who'd give his chair to an elder; curious and smart, comfortable with sharing his opinions with a stranger; a hard worker who tried to stay employed as much as could be expected in Wales. He also became increasingly judgmental. Mike despised what he called "propaganda," a veil of denial that he believed kept people from speaking their minds out of fear of ridicule. When he saw contradictions within himself, Mike turned into his own worst enemy. He would seethe with anger for days at a time.

Mike took his first drink when he was 12. He and his friends would split bottles and black out. When his friends ended up in jail for drinking, Mike would get drunk alone. One early fall day, he downed half a bottle of whisky, stepped out on his father's porch, and pointed a rifle at a man and a woman. He served four months in jail.

Mike would curse the bottle, and long stretches of sobriety followed. He could white-knuckle it for a while, but then waves of anger, resentment and melancholy would wash over him. He ran a knife from his shoulder blades to the center of his chest, leaving faint tracks that made his chest look like a bird spreading its wings. He sketched pictures of skulls and monsters, like the one his grandfather told him about. Death metal screamed from his stereo:

Lying, dying, screaming in pain
Begging, pleading, bullets drop like rain
Minds explode, pain shears to your brain
Radical amputation, this is insane

Editor's note: This is the first of a three-part series chronicling the life and suicide of Mike Weyapuk and the unsettling past of his Inupiat Eskimo village of Wales, Alaska. For more about the series, read Tony Hopfinger's column "Living with Mike Weyapuk's story, seven years after his death."

Contact Tony Hopfinger at tony(at)alaskadispatch.com