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Part 2: At the edge of Alaska, boredom, guitars and more death in Wales

Editor's note: This is the second 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 -- The wind in Wales pelts riders on four-wheelers, thrusts sand deep between the windowpanes of the hundred-year-old church and, when it blows really hard, tears siding from houses, sprinkling the aluminum scraps over the village like confetti. During my visits, gusts rocked a geodesic dome at the center of Wales where two women manage the city's affairs under the drone of fluorescent lights.

On smoke breaks, they'd stand in the doorway and try to guess which way the wind would blow. It is not idle talk. The wind tells villagers when the seasons are about to change or when it is safe to hunt. A summer easterly wind means rain is coming. A northwest wind in fall coats the beach in clams and fills the sky with geese, telling villagers that winter's on its way.

Read Part 1: To live and die in Wales, Alaska

In 2000, a team of contractors tried to befriend the winds of Wales. They erected a pair of million-dollar, 80-foot-tall windmills over the soggy tundra, part of a federal experiment to test wind power in far-flung communities. If all went well, the windmills would juice the entire village on the windiest days, although Wales would still rely on a noisy diesel plant when the gusts died down.

Villagers had seen engineers try to do this before. In the 1980s, the state delivered two wind chargers. They ran for less than two years. Toby Anungazuk Jr. remembered hearing the last of the pair screaming like an airplane in a nosedive. He looked out his window and saw the blades slow to a halt.

When I first met first Toby, in the summer of 2000, he was still living in the village. His then-wife, Emma, was Mike Weyapuk's aunt, and Toby served as Wales' suicide-prevention coordinator. Alaska has off and on had the nation's highest suicide rate. Too many of these suicides happen in Native villages.

In 1999, Mike's ex-girlfriend got drunk and shot herself in the head, barely surviving. That same year, a father shot himself under the chin with a shotgun. A teacher angrily noted that he did it with his children in the house. Toby believed he could stem suicides by counseling teens and working to revive traditional Eskimo ways, but the job was frustrating. "Every time a suicide happens at one village, it happens again at others," he said.

In the six years I off and on visited Wales -- a village at the time with around 130 residents -- I interviewed four people who would later kill themselves, including Toby's brother.

Learning the new ways

Mike Weyapuk often passed an abandoned two-story house on his way to school. It had a pitched roof and a rusted bell holding up one of its corners. The backside was gone and he could peer inside at its contents as if it were a dollhouse. Amid the rubble and broken walls were a polar bear hide, a Singer sewing machine, an off-kilter piano, and a motorbike. When the wind blew through the broken windows, the house spewed loose-leaf paper across the tundra, children's homework assignments from decades ago.

The house belonged to the first Eskimo teacher in coastal Arctic Alaska. Arthur Nagozruk was born in 1890. When he was a boy, he waited early in the morning, well before school started, for the doors to open, eager to hear what his white teachers had to say. As a young man, he led the Kingikmiut on a journey to wed their old ways with the modern world. The village formed a city government and a reindeer company, and oversaw a school run by Eskimo teachers. Everyone still hunted and danced, though. They spoke their language. They listened to their shamans.

Nagozruk proudly proclaimed 1917 to be the first year that no white people had lived in Wales since Harrison Thornton -- the first teacher in Wales, a racist and paranoid outsider who was shot dead by three villagers -- showed up in 1890. It was also the last such year. After the 1918 flu, the white teachers and missionaries returned and never left.

Mike's teachers came from states like North Carolina, California and Minnesota. Some were not much older than he was. They had come looking for adventure. Other teachers were middle-aged and seemed lost. In the early 1990s, Mike's teacher was a young man who liked to cross-country ski and lift weights. He was like a big brother to the five boys of Mike's high school class.

One fall, the students and their teacher built a snack shop next to the school gym. They sold candy and soda, popcorn and potato chips. They cooked pizzas and delivered them inside old film-reel cases to homes when it was 30-below. The boys were raising money to fund a class trip to the Lower 48, and by the spring of 1993 they had socked away $15,000.

Students in many Alaska villages take class trips, often visiting the places where their teachers grew up. If your teacher is from Southern California, you might fly to see Hollywood. If she's from Florida, you could spend a week at Walt Disney World. Mike's teacher was from the suburbs of Minneapolis, Minnesota. There's not much in these suburbs, but there is an artificial city of Gap stores and Victoria's Secrets, wedding chapels and roller coasters, and arcades and log-chute rides: the Mall of America in Bloomington, which, in the early 1990s, was the world's newest, biggest shopping center.

At the end of the school year, the boys and their teacher boarded a propeller plane in Wales and flew to Nome; then they flew to Anchorage, where they transferred and headed to Seattle; one more plane ride and they arrived in Minneapolis, 23 hours after they'd left Wales.

The Mall of America is so enormous that you could fit Wales inside it and still have room for a water park. It boggled the kids' minds. They spent two days alone exploring the north and west wings, moving from one shop to the next, riding the escalators up and down, until they discovered the video arcades. There were three, and that's where they spent a lot of their time.

For most of the boys, it was their first and last trip to the contiguous states. They finished high school, dozed into village life, and began to die. Jeff was the first to check out. In 1999, he disappeared while celebrating his 21st birthday in Nome. A tourist found his mangled body on a beach, the head missing, the cause of death unknown. On Christmas Eve 2004, Gary went missing in a blizzard. Villagers found his body three months later, when the snow began to melt.

By the time Mike would kill himself, three of the five boys from his high school class would be dead.

‘Oh please God, wake me’

Mike used to hunt with his uncle Jonah, who would show up unannounced and tell his nephew to get dressed. Mike would grab his .22 long rifle and warm clothes, and they'd snowmobile up the coast to shoot bearded seal.

One summer morning, Mike awoke early and saw Jonah pacing the road with his head down, as though he was trying to remember something. He was combing the sand for coins and scraps of ivory. After Jonah died of a heart attack in 1995, Mike began catching himself picking through the sand for pennies, nickels, dimes - quarters if he was lucky. He could burn a few hours staring at the sand. It was something to do.

Mike inherited Jonah's guitar, a 1976 sunburst Gibson Les Paul with a worn maple fretboard. He didn't have a guitar pick, so he sliced up the plastic lid of a bowl into tiny triangles. They were too thick and bounced off the strings like tennis balls. And the guitar was out of tune. It took Mike months to learn how to make it sing on key. Even then it sounded horrible. Mike flew to Nome and caught a cab to Rasmussen's Music Mart. He got himself a tuner and some picks, a few guitar magazines, and a book of scales and chords. Sitting on his lower bunk, he taught himself to play.

As Mike improved his skills, his younger brother and sister were learning old Kingikmiut songs and dances in the school gym. Elders, waxing and waning in their twilight years, suddenly remembered the songs of their youth. Boys and their fathers built walrus-skin drums. They learned to curl their arms and dance to the beat. Girls were taught to let their arms fly like wings and sway their bodies in unison.

Mike graduated from high school two years before the revival of the village dance festival, but he could have walked over to the gym and learned to drum like an ancient Kingikmiut. Instead, he chose to learn the songs of Metallica and Pantera. Snow piled up past his bedroom window. Wind shook the house. Mike turned on the chorus on his amplifier and practiced the melodic opening to Metallica's "One." The lyrics go:

Now that the war is through with me

I'm waking up, I cannot see

That there's not much left of me

Nothing is real but pain now

Hold my breath as I wish for death

Oh please God, wake me

Mike got a part-time job as an operator at the village's water tank and spent summers building houses and a community center, earning wages that paid for his growing collection of electric guitars. Jonah's Gibson had sentimental value, but Mike's most prized instrument was his Paul Reed Smith. The maple top was whale blue, and abalone inlays shaped like flying birds dotted the rosewood frets. It cost more than $1,500.

Read Part 1: To live and die in Wales, Alaska

Mike dreamed of building his own guitars. He wanted to use walrus ivory for the neck and laminated whale baleen for the fretboard. He had many dreams like this, all of which revolved around leaving Wales. Chief among them was to start a heavy metal band in the Lower 48.

Mike's dream provided purpose (leaving the village for new opportunities) built around ritual (playing his guitar), just as dancing and singing and drumming gave children and elders a connection to their past and hope for the future. There had to be some reason to get out of bed each morning.

At the time I visited Wales between the late 1990s and mid-2000s, about half the village's revenue came from the state and federal governments. The rest came from sales taxes and city services, such as the washeteria and sewage hauling. A tribal council separate from the city ran the store, fuel pump and pull-tab gambling. In some years, gambling generated more than a $60,000 profit on revenue of more than $500,000. The money paid for things like college scholarships, school athletic trips, funerals and dance festivals. But there was a downside to pull-tabs: Gambling was making the unlucky even poorer.

For Mike, as with many residents of Wales, the opportunities -- economically, personally and socially -- were few and hard to come by.

What other choices were there for a young guy when the only employers in Wales were the city and tribal governments, the school, the store, the post office, and the clinic? When a few families took all the jobs? When four out of 10 people were unemployed, many of them not looking for work? When you were related to nearly everybody and could hardly date? When a TV dinner cost more than eight bucks? When a round-trip plane ticket from Wales to Anchorage set you back $700? When villagers got sick because they didn't have clean running water? When there were no doctors in Wales? When sexual abuse ran rampant in rural Alaska? When six men in Wales, over 4 percent of the population, were registered sex offenders? When people dropped like flies, as though the village was dying before Mike's eyes?

The year after Uncle Jonah passed away, Uncle Louie died. Then Mike's grandparents passed. A friend killed himself. Another friend's father shot himself. Mike's cousin died, then his cousin's daughter, an aunt, yet another friend.

You find somebody to love

If you're lucky, you find somebody in Wales to ride out the ups and downs with. In the late 1990s, Mike and Marie Ningealook found each other. Marie was lured by Mike's seriousness and kindness. She empathized with his past because she had her own stories -- personal battles with boredom and depression and family members who'd killed themselves. Mike grew close to Marie quickly. Maybe he didn't need to leave Wales. Maybe he could build a life with Marie in the village.

But as Mike drew closer, Marie distanced herself. She thought he was becoming possessive. If she wanted to be with her girlfriends, he tried to find her. If she spoke to a man in the village, he got angry. Mike told her he sometimes felt like putting the village out of its misery. Marie thought Mike wasn't right in the head, and she found a new boyfriend, a barrel-chested man named Larry. Mike never got over Marie. He blamed Larry for taking her away and told people Marie had been a disloyal girlfriend who'd slept with all the men in the village. When Mike saw Marie and Larry, he stared them down.

One night Marie and Larry were drinking whisky in town. When he went to the bathroom, she shot herself with a .22 pistol. Marie was flown to the Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage, where she didn't wake up for five days.

I was so drunk that my arm went back, and the bullet went at an angle and shattered my cheek below my eye,' she told me in September 2002. "I was on a breathing tube for a week, and the doctor wanted to shut it off because he thought I might have brain damage. But my mother said, 'No, I don't care if my daughter comes home a vegetable. I want her back.' I had part of my cheek below my eye replaced and part of my nose. I lost my taste buds for a while, and I can't smell too well. I used to have double vision, and I had eye surgery done on that part. It's something I won't forget. But the doctor said I was lucky it hit my cheek first. If it hadn't hit my cheek, my brain would have been Jell-O within a few minutes.

When Marie returned to Wales, people asked her why she shot herself. She told them, "I was drunk and I didn't know what was going on. Just leave me alone."

Mike thought Marie was dumb for trying it, and when he ran into her several months later he told her as much: "The next time you shoot yourself, use a .357. Do it right if you're going to do it."

Gravediggers needed

One day in March 2001, I was at the city building scanning notices on the lobby wall. Among musk oxen hunting permits, dates for a dentist's visit, a list of the warning signs of tuberculosis, a statement of laws banning alcohol in the village, curfew rules, and a reminder about flu shots, I found this plea: "Gravediggers needed."

Two weeks earlier, people from villages across the region attended an Native conference in Nome. Then some started to get sick. They flew home to their villages, where their colds turned to flu. Half of the Wales school was home sick. Parents had stopped going to work.

At first it looked as though Louise Tokeinna had come down with the flu. The 4-year-old's temperature shot up. She stopped eating. Then she slipped into convulsions at her grandparents' home. She passed away the morning of March 10, 2001. An autopsy found Louise had died of Reye's syndrome, a rare, non-contagious disease that usually affects children with chicken pox, flu, or other respiratory illnesses.

But as villagers were still awaiting news on the cause of death, some feared a deadly virus might be spreading. There were parents who kept their children away from Louise's sisters. Nearby communities heard about the incident, and some avoided people from Wales. It was as though an ill wind had blown through Wales, reminding the people why their village was so small and their history so scattered.

In the days after Louise's death, school children made a mural out of construction paper as a tribute. Parents wept before it. At night, dozens of villagers packed the home of Pete Sereadlook, Louise's grandfather. They sang for hours, because Louise loved to sing. After five nights of singing, the pastor's fingers burned from playing guitar.

The funeral was held at the Lutheran church. One by one people came to the altar to talk about Louise and the hole her death left. An aunt said she remembered how the little girl sang along with a TV commercial for Anne Murray's greatest hits. She loved an improvised version of "On Top of Old Smokey": "We'd sing, 'On top of Old Smokey, all covered with snow, auntie lost her poor Louise, on a dog team to Nome.'" An uncle cried on the altar. "It seems like whenever I'm getting close to somebody, they always leave," he said. "Maybe I shouldn't get close anymore. Maybe I should stay far away." Small children walked up to the open casket and ran their fingers over Louise's cheeks and lips. The service lasted four hours.

A procession of snowmobiles rode out to the village cemetery in the sand dunes, one pulling a sled with the white casket, its sides rattling against the rails. Trails of snow funneled over the Bering Strait. Yellow-tinted ski goggles hid the villagers' watering eyes. Wind thrust sand in their teeth. Only those close to the pastor heard him say, "God, take care of Louise Tokeinna."

It had taken two days to pierce a hole big enough for a child in the frozen dunes. It took half an hour to fill it. Men without shovels plowed their boots like diggers, pushing sand into the grave. Others fell to their knees and frantically cupped their hands like bowls.

In the center of the cemetery, I gazed at a tall, whitewashed cross rising over an eroding mound shaved by wind. It was a mass grave holding the remains of nearly 200 people -- more people than live in Wales today. These were the victims of the 1918 flu epidemic.

‘Maybe we’d have a Wal-Mart’

When I first came to Wales and visited the burial site, I saw a pair of skeletons emerging from it, like fossils in a riverbank. Another time, I noticed four skulls resting beside the mound. On my last visit, leg bones and femurs grew from the grave.

Most of what Wales villagers know of their history comes from what their parents and grandparents have told them; if they don't know much about the 1918 flu and what it did to Wales, it's because their elders rarely discussed it. When they did, they seemed dazed. One elderly woman who lived through it would only whimper and mumble the names of the dead.

One time while I was in Wales, I sat with one of the last survivors of the 1918 flu still living in the village. Roland Angnaboogok was shy around strangers and his memory was no longer sharp. He sat before a stack of cold pancakes while his son Gene sat on the floor carving walrus ivory into a seal statue. Eighty-nine-year-old Roland drifted in and out of sleep. We didn't talk about the epidemic. It was too painful.

Read Part 1: To live and die in Wales, Alaska

A few days later, I visited the village's school, where I asked a high school class in Wales what they knew about the 1918 flu. Some students had heard stories of a mailman delivering the disease to the village, dogs eating the bodies, and children losing their parents. Others had heard a story about the government purposely infecting Eskimo villages. I asked the class if the flu lived on. Most of the students looked puzzled, but one boy raised his hand.

"If the flu didn't hit us, we'd probably be like a little Nome. Maybe we'd have a Wal-Mart."

Editor's note: This is the second 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