Tiny Native village produces epic stories

Posted: Thursday, March 11, 2004

Nikolski, population 34, on Umnak Island in the Aleutians, is one of Alaska's smallest and most isolated communities.

So it comes as revelation to discover in "Umnak: The People Remember" a story of such depth, breadth and charisma. The book won a Literary Merit Award at last year's Bumbershoot Bookfair in Seattle.

This little volume tells the story of Umnak's people. It begins with an overview of Aleut history, gracefully written by Tyler M. Schlung, the school teacher who came to the island in 1998 and undertook the task of organizing the book's creation. It ends with writings by the school children who represent Nikolski's future.

Elders' memoirs of the 20th century, however, are the focus of the book. What an eventful time and place it was. The volume includes eye-witness accounts of sealing in the Pribilofs, fox farming, sheep herding and World War II, when the population was forcibly evacuated to Southeast Alaska.

The conduct of our own nation's forces in the area during the war was sometimes shameful. Airmen strafed flocks of sheep and ground forces attacked the Russian Orthodox Church.

"When the villagers returned to Nikolski, Pauline [Dushkin] said, 'All our buildings were shot through. They must have used them for targets. They took some of our belongings from our homes.'"

Perhaps the most unusual portion of the book is the tale of the 1933 wreck of the "Umnak Native." Reprinted from a 1941 edition of the "Alaska Sportsman" (the forerunner of "Alaska" magazine), it narrates first-hand the demise of the ship the villagers had purchased several years earlier with the hard-earned profits of fur trapping. The story was written in Aleut in school notebooks by the late Afinigan Ermeloff, one of four survivors. School teacher and linguist Jay Ellis Ransom translated the tale, with the assistance of the village priest.

The boat ran aground in a winter storm after the white captain spurned the advice of his Native passengers and the engines failed. As the ship gradually broke up, the men, women and children aboard succumbed to drowning and hypothermia.

"Nevertheless, I myself re-tained hope, and as far as I could do tried to save my strength up to the end, because to be dead, I was thinking, would be lonesome," Ermeloff wrote.

It is amazing that even this much of the islanders' rich history has survived. "Umnak" makes it clear how individuals and fate conspired to preserve or destroy this legacy.

Ransom, for example, was a rebel ahead of his time:

"In 1936, government teacher Jay Ellis Ransom arrived in Nikolski with instructions to forbid any use of the Aleut language on school property, instructions he immediately ignored, at peril of losing his job," Schlung writes. "Today, a district language teacher visits Aleutian schools specifically to give basic instruction in Aleut language and culture."

After surviving and even thriving for millennia in the notoriously rugged environment of the North Pacific island chain, the Aleuts and their once-sophisticated culture have been almost obliterated by a few centuries of Russian and American contact.

Umnak once had 22 villages on it; the few dozen people in Nikolski are all who remain. Yet the villagers who speak in the book do not sound bitter. They come across as marvels of tenacity and guardians of a precious heritage.

"Umnak: The People Rem-ember" is a manifestation of their pride and endurance. The Aleutian Pribilof Islands Restit-ution Trust gave a grant to the school at Nikolski to study the cultural history of Umnak Island and the village. The students, organized by Schlung, took up the project.

The result of their labors was passed to the able hands of Hardscratch Press, a small California publishing company led by former Alaskan Jackie Pels. She has produced well-received volumes about Alaska by authors such as Ralph Soberg and Elsa Pedersen.

The result is a humble but top-notch book. The black and white photographs, gleaned from family collections and archives, are informal but of high quality. A good map, notes and an index add to the professionalism.

The only glitch (and it is a very minor one) is the apparent omission of a line of text on one page.

All told, "Umnak" is a small but unusually fine book. It is a moving testimonial to the history of Nikolski's people, and a fascinating glimpse into the unique and dramatic history of one part of the Aleutians.

Shana Loshbaugh is a writer and former Peninsula Clarion reporter who now lives near Fairbanks.

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