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Ghost Island Looms Large Among Displaced Inupiat Eskimos

Seen here in 1978, Ukivok, the stilt village on Alaska's King Island, was abandoned after its only school closed in 1959.
Capt. Budd Christman/NOAA Corps
Seen here in 1978, Ukivok, the stilt village on Alaska's King Island, was abandoned after its only school closed in 1959.

Out in Alaska's Bering Sea, about 90 miles from Nome, sits a small, rocky island that used to be home to a couple of hundred Inupiat Eskimos. They lived in houses built on stilts, perched on rocky cliffs.

Then, about 50 years ago, the threat of rock slides, the spread of tuberculosis and the loss of men to World War II forced residents to relocate to the mainland. King Island has been a ghost island ever since.

Now, Anchorage poet Joan Naviyuk Kane has raised almost $50,000 through a crowdsourcing campaign to bring a group of former King Islanders and their descendants, including herself, back for a visit.

Poet Joan Naviyuk Kane will visit the island where her Inupiat Eskimo ancestors lived, thanks to funds she raised through crowdsourcing.
Rachel D'Oro / AP
Poet Joan Naviyuk Kane will visit the island where her Inupiat Eskimo ancestors lived, thanks to funds she raised through crowdsourcing.

Kane has written two books of poetry, which both deal with issues of displacement and cultural identity, and is currently working on a novel based on the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. She tells NPR's Melissa Block about the island, her Inupiat identity and the upcoming trip.

Interview Highlights

On day-to-day life on King Island

"There's a couple of things [about life on the island]; one is the astonishing beauty and also the astonishing harshness of the conditions on the island itself. But, you know, for millennia it was regarded as one of the prime marine mammal hunting spots, which really enabled King Islanders to develop a very complex arts culture, hunting culture and kinship culture, which actually we still retain to this day and my children are a part of. But daily life was marked by subsistence activities — by hunting, by gathering, by watching the weather and ice conditions. And the simple act of survival was enough to keep most people busy. ...

"It is difficult to envision a thriving culture that survived for millennia there, but part of my interest in returning is actually seeing firsthand what it's like. And I've been told by my relatives that, you know, we'll be physically exhausted just from going and getting around the island itself."

On the island as a winter home

" 'Ugiuvak' is the name of the island in our dialect, which loosely translates to 'a place of the big winter,' and it referred to King Islanders wintering on the island, although they'd go and trade on the mainland and up and down the coast for thousands of miles. ...

"Typically, in the summer, King Islanders wouldn't remain on the island. Some people would, but most people sustained a winter lifestyle on the island, and the hunters hunted on the moving sea ice as it traveled through the Bering [Strait]."

On what the islanders hunted

"[They hunted] bearded seal, walrus seal, ringed seal; and then, of course, always crabbing right off the cliffs of the island itself. But also, it's a huge spot for migrating birds. My mother also tells me stories of when the men would harvest a polar bear, and how they would hunt, and how the whole community would participate in preparing a polar bear, and also having a polar bear dance to commemorate the hunters' achievements."

On why they left

"Well some people, especially the elders, say that it was a choice that people made to leave King Island. Of course there are others that portray it very differently. But it really comes down to the fact that in 1959 the Bureau of Indian Affairs had said that there was a large boulder on top of the island that was poised and ready to fall down and crush the school, which was their justification for closing the school, and when you shut down a school and require children to be in school, of course families feel tremendous pressure. Of course, too, there was the Indian Health Service in Nome [where] people were able to obtain health care. There was also a tremendous cash economy based out of Nome, and people wanted to participate in that as well. It's a complex story, and part of my return is just to listen to people's memories and recollections, and share their experience."

On when her mother, as a child, realized she couldn't go back to the island

"There's a tremendous amount of sorrow and trauma, but you know probably the most significant recollection that I've heard actually comes from my mother. And she recalls when her parents left her to go [back] to King Island for the winter and she was wading out into the Bering Sea, which in September is not as warm as it is in June, even this year. But trying to wade as far as she could into the Bering Sea and just crying and screaming for them, and flashing a flashlight until she could see the Umiak, the skim boat, no longer on the horizon, hoping that her parents would come back and get her. You know, and there was also this belief that perhaps it was a temporary relocation, a temporary closure of the school. Things were very uncertain at that time."

On how they will get there

"Well, I will be taking a boat across. It's about a nine- to 12-hour journey by boat. Others will be taking helicopters. There's a place to land a helicopter atop the island. There's no place, of course, for a landing strip for an airplane. Typically our ancestors would go by the large Umiak, large skim boats. But I think I'll be heading out on a crab tender and then lightering in to shore on a smaller boat. I think it's important to travel by boat myself because I think it will give me the best sense for what the actual journey was like on a seasonal basis that my family members made, our ancestors made, for thousands of years."

On why she wants to visit

"I've heard so much and in such great detail about almost every detail of life on King Island, whether it's the types of greens that grow in abundance, the types of birds that make their homes there in the summertime. But, you know, I have a tremendous curiosity about seeing the house where my mother grew up, although it is in disrepair — it's basically in ruin. But then, too, I'm just curious to see certain spots of the island where, for instance, my mother tells me about when her father would get a polar bear, how they would ask the children to clean the polar bear hide by using it as a sled and sliding down the island. Things like that I'm really curious to see. I've seen pictures, I've heard about them, but you know I'd really like to take what essentially has been an intellectual, abstract notion of King Island and experience the physical reality of it."

On how the trip will affect her writing

"I don't have any direct outputs planned, but you know, as a writer I think I've contended with this issue of identity and this narrative of my family's relocation displacement. I look at my community and see ... the various ways in which we've adapted or tried to adapt to this trauma, which actually is quite recent in our history. But I think for me even, for my earliest memories as a young girl, I knew that I was a King Islander. And in a way I've been writing out of nostalgia or a way to recover or a way to get at some of those memories that I've heard people talk about. I think everything that I see will certainly inform my writing, will inform my sense of self, will help me explain to my children who we are, who we will continue to be and make sure that although we have been removed from King Island, our identity and our culture, and particularly our language, our dialect remains intact for future generations."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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