EAGLE RIVER — You’ve got to be pretty interesting to keep a classroom full of middle schoolers quiet for 45 minutes. Willy Topkok leaves ‘em speechless.
“This guy’s cool!” whispered one of Lisa Andersen’s science students to a friend during a recent presentation by Topkok at Gruening Middle School.
Topkok, an Inupiat Eskimo who hails from the Northwest Alaska village of Teller on the Seward Peninsula, was ostensibly in Andersen’s class to speak about Native subsistence hunting. But getting Topkok to settle on a single topic would be like asking Robin Williams to pick a single comedy routine. During his 45-minute stream-of-consciousness speech, Tokok told the students about everything from the differences and similarities between various Native languages to how Inupiat hunters butcher walrus at sea to how he was once captured by Soviet authorities while hunting in the Bering Strait.
“It was awesome,” said seventh grader Nicholas Thomas. “I’d never seen anything like it before.”
Decked out in traditional Inupiat garb, Topkok began his speech by telling students about what it was like growing up in Teller, where subsistence hunting is the most important feature of daily life.
“We are carnivores,” he said. “We have to eat meat to survive.”
The village’s location on the sea means Topkok’s people do most of their hunting from small boats made from the skins of slaughtered marine mammals.
“You become part of the elements. You can hear the water under you, you can feel the water under you,” he said.
On one such walrus hunt in 1980 — the height of the Cold War — Topkok and his hunting party accidentally strayed across the International Date Line and into Soviet territory. With their umiak weighed down by walrus meat, the 15-man hunting party did its best to flee the big Soviet boat.
“We said, ‘The Russians are coming! The Russians are coming!”’ Topkok told the students.
But the small boat was no match for the big ship, and Topkok and his friends were quickly overtaken.
“He zooms in front of us and points a machine gun at us,” he said.
For the next six hours, the hunting party found itself in a tense negotiation with the Soviets that briefly turned into an international incident. The situation was complicated by the fact that the Soviets spoke little Inupiaq and only broken English, while the Eskimos knew almost no Russian and had learned much of their English from Hollywood movies.
Frantic calls were placed — first to Moscow, then to Washington, D.C. — before cooler heads prevailed and the hunting party was escorted back to U.S. waters.
“We told the Russians, ‘Quyana’ (thank you in Inupiaq),” Topkok said.
After being admonished to stay on their own side of the border, Topkok and his friends couldn’t resist a bit of playful banter as the Soviets — who were now trespassing themselves — turned for home.
“We told them, ‘Si senor. Muchas gracias,”’ he said. “Andele.”
Such incidents were common during the Cold War said Topkok, whose people (who live on both sides of the border) were split up because of the hostilities between the two nations.
“We can see Russia on a clear day,” he said.
Since relations have thawed, Topkok said he’s visited relatives on the Russian side of the border.
“Now you can get a visa,” he said.
The importance of hunting was a central theme of Topkok’s speech. Because of the region’s isolation, he said Eskimos still must hunt and gather much of their food and clothing.
“We still live a subsistence way of life,” he said.
Topkok showed the students some of his handmade clothing, including watertight rawhide boots, fur-lined parka and mittens designed to stand up to even the coldest temperatures.
“We must use everything we hunt,” he said.
Topkok, who now lives in Anchorage, said he delights in sharing his traditional ways with Alaska students, and he spends much of his time visiting classrooms or teaching Eskimo crafts in Anchorage.
“This is how my people live and I love to tell them how we survive and continue to survive,” he said.
Lisa Andersen said she’s been inviting Topkok to her classroom for a decade. She counts his visits as one of the year’s highlights, and said she’s especially pleased with how her Alaska Native students respond to the talks.
“They really make a connection with him,” she said.
Even if the students aren’t Eskimo — or even Native — Topkok said learning about subsistence ways can help students gain a better appreciation for what it means to be Alaskan.
“This is a part of their roots,” he said.