Anthropologists defy storm to meet in Nome
By James Mason
“It’s a pleasure to have you here in Nome on what might be the worst day of the year!”
So spoke Nome’s Mayor Richard Beneville as he welcomed over 100 anthropologists to town on a very snowy, stormy evening on Wednesday, Feb. 27. Many of the group had walked through Nome’s snow-bound streets to the event at the Richard Foster Building because the cabs and the shuttles had given up.
The 46th Annual Meeting of the Alaska Anthropological Association came to Nome so over 100 presenters from different corners of the science could share their work and insight with each other. A number of local people contributed their experiences and knowledge of the life and history of Nome.
The Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center came to commemorate the centennial of the Fifth Thule Expedition with international speakers. In addition to the events at the Richard Foster Building, proceedings took place at the Northwest Campus of UAF and Old St. Joe’s. There were hands-on cultural activities such as tom cod fishing on the ice and a meet and greet with sled dogs.
While events and businesses all over Nome were shutting down because of the road conditions there was no question that the annual meeting would take place. “Flight 151 managed to make it in,” said Dr. Amy Phillips-Chan, President of the Alaska Anthropological Association and the event’s organizer. “That was the majority of our participants coming in on Wednesday afternoon, right before the big blizzard hit. There were several people coming in on Flight 153 who went to Kotzebue and were stuck there for a little while and then had to go back. But great stalwart souls that they are, and passionate about Alaska anthropology, they tried again. Some had to try more than one day, particularly our participants from the Kotzebue area.” She credited long experience with winter travel in rural Alaska combined with patience and enthusiasm for getting everybody to Nome.
Alaska’s anthropologists are a relatively small group whose members work widely spaced geographically as well as institutionally, according to Dr. Phillips-Chan. Meeting each other in person, they renew mutual interests in their studies. “Every third year the Alaska Anthropological Association will have its meeting in a more rural location,” she said. “Then they go to Anchorage and Fairbanks. This is the first time it’s been held in Nome in the 46-year history of the association. This is great for us. The Thule Expedition ended in Nome in 1924 so that was kind of a perfect fit.”
Much of the group’s work is related to the Native languages of Alaska and Nome’s Nikki Braem brought together a panel to address the documentation of Native place names. Dr. Larry Kaplan, prominent linguist from UAF and local linguist Josie Bourdon spoke.
“The situation in Wales is that the situation has declined quite a bit,” began Dr. Kaplan. “There’s knowledge of place names but it ain’t what it used to be when I started working with Wales place names in 1979. Communities like to have their place names documented for a variety of reasons. It gives information about the land use. It’s not just an isolated name it’s a story, it’s what happened there, who went there, what they did there, what the traditional role of the place is in the life of the community.”
Dr. Kaplan’s first work with place names with the people of Wales was in 1979. People from all over the region had come together at the Bering Straits Elders Conference in Nome and groups of elders gathered over maps to discuss place names. “The most difficult area to collect names from was right here in Nome because of the impact of the Gold Rush. A huge cultural change had taken place here and I tried to find people who knew those things but we didn’t get many. Lots of names from Wales.” Unfortunately much of the work done at that 1979 conference was destroyed in a fire that burned Bering Straits Native Corporation office in the early 1980s. “The work that was done in 1979 cannot be reproduced today. The elders are no longer with us. There just are not people with us with the depth of knowledge that those people had. They were born around 1900. These were elders who were deeply immersed in their culture and language and had enormous knowledge. There are a few people like that today.”
Of Wales he said “This is one of those places in Alaska where you can see Russia from the house.”
“People like place names because it really gives you a handle on the culture, on the people, and to learn a whole language and to really speak it is an enormous task. But you can get a handle on things through the place names, learning about them and learning about the region.”
One of the elders Dr. Kaplan worked with is Esther Bourdon, who left Wales for Nome in 1952. “She was a gold mine, I would say,” said Dr. Kaplan. She is now approaching her 90th birthday and lives with her daughter Josie Bourdon, who talked on her experiences growing up speaking Inupiaq and teaching in Nome’s schools for thirty years. She told how she and her mother speak Inupiaq at home but her three youngest siblings don’t really speak the language. “I surmise it was the amount of television that became incorporated in my family,” she said. The younger kids got more TV. She told of the family’s subsistence activities at camp by the mouth of the Nome River and how the people from Wales and Shishmaref formed communities at the site of Fort Davis where they could prepare their subsistence foods. Her parents had moved to Nome from Wales in a skin boat. Bourdon described how younger Inupiaq people tend to know the language in relation to subsistence activities. “Inupiaq life is all about the seasons and the food that comes with them,” she said. “It’s a challenge now. There are different commissions on language. Everybody knows that Inupiaq and other indigenous languages are on red alert.” She noted that young people also have a shift in their tastes for food. Not as many are growing up eating Native foods and their palate is more attuned to foods one buys at the store.
Since Bourdon retired from teaching she’s been working with her elementary school colleague Annie Conger. They did work on a show broadcast by KNOM Radio and Josie herself is teaching Inupiaq classes at UAF Northwest Campus. “I’m excited to share what I know when it comes to speaking Inupiaq.” She also writes a weekly column in the language for The Nome Nugget.
The keynote speaker at the meeting’s luncheon on Thursday was Yaayuk Alvanna-Stimpfle of Nome, long-time educator and now at Kawerak’s Eskimo Heritage Program. She told of her journey as a linguist who thinks in Inupiaq in an English-speaking environment. She grew up in Nome’s Qiguutaq East End neighborhood where the new arrivals from King Island settled in the early 1950s. She was raised in a household where English was not allowed.
The Nugget asked Dr. Larry Kaplan about the origin of the name “Nome.” He said it comes from a Native place name and that he doesn’t believe the explanation about the writing on the map “Name?” is true. “I’d like to see the map,” he said. “I don’t know anybody who has ever seen this map. I find it unlikely that it comes from ‘name.’ There are all kinds of kooky explanations that are possible.” He believes “Nome” derives from Nuk, a common place name throughout Inuit lands. “There’s a form of that word which is ‘Nuum,’ which is a form you use if you were to say ‘beyond Nuk,’ Like if somebody were asking ‘what do you call that area up there?’ There are all kinds of different ways to use the word nuum. That seems like it could be a possible source for the name of Nome that actually would come from a place name. And there are other Alaska names that end with this particular –um form. Like Kuskokwim. That’s a similar type of thing.”
Friday’s keynote speaker was Dr. Igor Krupnik of the Smithsonian Institution’s Arctic Studies Center. He spoke on Nome and his relationship with the town since he first arrived from Provideniya in a small plane over 30 years ago. He talked of Nome’s original tent city of gold miners, of the cycles of prominence and decline, which came with the fortunes of history, and now it finds itself as the gateway to the 21st century shipping lanes of the trans-Arctic.
Despite the adverse weather conditions the meeting accomplished that which it set out to do. It brought a group of scientists who work in the field of Alaskan anthropology together to share their work and put faces to the countless emails they exchange in the course of their studies. They experienced a town where indigenous life still goes on and where history can be a part of every day life.