Eskimo villagers band together as reservists depart

ANCHORAGE, Alaska – Military families across America often endure hardship when a loved one ships out. But there aren’t many places in the United States where those left behind have to chop ice for drinking water and make sure the freezer is stocked with walrus and seal meat.

The first major call-up of National Guard reservists from rural Alaska since World War II could mean sacrifice and upheaval for Eskimo villages that practice subsistence hunting and gathering in some of the most remote and unforgiving spots in the nation.

Eric Phillip’s job in the small Yup’ik Eskimo village of Kongiganak in southwestern Alaska is to hunt walrus, seal, mink, otter, geese, ducks and other animals to provide food for his immediate family and other relatives. With Phillip shipping out, his wife and their two young sons will be moving to Bethel, about 70 miles away.

“Out here it is harder for them to live alone,” Phillip said. “In the village we don’t have water. We have to go to the tundra and chop ice for water and melt it, and we don’t have flush toilets. It is hard for a single parent to live around here in the village.”

Similar stories are being told in Eskimo villages across the vast state, in places with names like Alakanuk, Emmonak and Manokotak, as 670 soldiers from some of the most hard-to-reach places in the nation head to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Six men headed to Iraq are from Scammon Bay, a Yup’ik Eskimo village of about 520 people in western Alaska where residents rely mostly on subsistence hunting and fishing. Families left behind will now rely more on each other. The village will take care of them.

“Everybody shares food really well out here. It is a custom,” said Darlene Cholok, whose husband, Thomas, is one of those going to Iraq. “Our community is so close-knit and everyone is practically related in some way, that there is a lot of support.”

While Alaska’s National Guard does an excellent job of helping its military families, it will be particularly tough for these soldiers and their families, because they live in such inaccessible areas, said Pete Mulcahy, executive director of Armed Services YMCA of Alaska. That makes it more difficult to arrange help for them, he said.

“These guys have a bigger challenge,” he said. “Even a remote village in Texas is still on the road grid.”

Amy Chikigak of the Yup’ik Eskimo village of Alakanuk is preparing to say goodbye to her husband, Vernon. She said she is not worried about food. Their freezers are full of seal, whale, fish, geese, swans and berries. The village store also is pretty well stocked.

“We have vegetables and stuff like that, mashed potatoes for our fried moose,” she said. “We have macaroni and cheese, and that always helps, too.”

She and the three children, ages 12, 9 and 7, are going to remain in the village. If she runs short of anything, her mother and father and brothers will provide, she said.

Chikigak is more concerned about learning how to use the chainsaw to cut wood to heat the steam bath. She also wants to be able to run the boat so she can take the children on summer picnics. “I will have to force myself to learn and I will still panic,” she said.

Before leaving for Iraq and Afghanistan, the troops will get three months of training, which will include getting used to hot weather at Camp Shelby in Mississippi.

Maj. Stephen Wilson, who returned from a one-year stint in Iraq in 2005 and is overseeing the deployment of seven soldiers from Barrow, 340 miles north of the Arctic Circle, said the Alaskans should do well once they adjust to the 120-degree heat in Iraq. In Barrow – the northernmost city in the United States – the temperature doesn’t get much higher than the low 50s even in the summer.

Maj. Mike Haller, a Guard spokesman in Anchorage, said about 35 percent of the approximately 4,000 National Guard members in Alaska are Native, well above their 19 percent share of the state’s population.

Being in the National Guard is a rite of passage for many young Alaska Natives, Haller said, a tradition that started during World War II when Alaska was still a territory. The state’s National Guard troops fought in both Europe and the Pacific, and some were stationed in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands to guard against the Japanese.

Besides honor and tradition, service in the Guard brings in money that comes in handy in the villages, where jobs are hard to come by and food and other goods are expensive.

As for the dangers that await the troops overseas, Staff Sgt. William Brown, the leader of the Barrow troop and 29-year Guard veteran, said he has faced fear before and beaten it.

Brown recounted a whaling trip about 10 years ago when a polar bear came within about 30 feet. Brown was about to grab his gun when the whaling captain told him to relax.

“He said, ‘Don’t show no fear, don’t be scared. They’re like dogs; they pick up your scent and take advantage of your fear,’” Brown said. The polar bear “just stood up, sniffed and walked away. Ever since then I’ve been teaching myself not to be scared, to show no fear.”

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