Ancient Traditions and Modern Tech at Work in Russian Mission, Alaska

On each “Healing Journey” Expedition, Jon Waterhouse travels along rivers, recording traditional knowledge from local people, and detailed scientific readings of water conditions and quality using cutting-edge technology. In March and April Jon and team have traveled from St. Mary’s, Alaska along the Yukon River by aircraft and snowmachine. Meanwhile his long-time collaborator John Francis led university students on a Planetwalk around St. Mary’s… Ohio.


“I feel like I’m waking from a dream, but I’m still in a dream!”
The Healing Journey Continues…

As always when Mary and I visit rural Alaska, I’m thrilled and amused to see her reaction to the things most people never experience in the cities of the Lower 48, or outside of Alaska, for that matter. Even after many trips to the village communities with me, these sights still evoke wonder and surprise in her. For instance, one might expect to see schoolyards with large parking lots and metal racks of bicycles, but out here there are no bikes, racks or parking lots. There are clusters of snow-machines and 4-wheelers crowded around school entrances. Also, upon entering a colorful elementary school classroom in rural Alaska after the school day has ended, you may discover – as Mary did- 2 first graders and their teacher, donned in surgical gloves and holding surgical instruments. What are they doing? you may wonder… Well, you’ll never guess. They were carefully dissecting a snow goose on top of a school desk! (Oh, and that goose would be going to dinner later.)

Dissecting a snow goose (Photo by Mary Marshall)
This snow goose is 1st, a science project, and 2nd, a dinner. The surprise here is the age of the two students dissecting it – both age 6. (Photo by Mary Marshall)

As I write this post, we are at the Russian Mission School in Russian Mission, Alaska (61.7856N, 161.3342W), a rural learning facility which boasts an enrollment of approximately 150 students, K-12. This state-of-the-art school is just 4 years old and is perched on a hillside, it’s huge windows overlooking the village and the Yukon River below. It’s size and shiny new appearance on the hill is the first thing you’ll notice as you fly into this community of about 320 mostly Yup’ik people.

An exterior view of the school (Photo by Mary Marshall)
Snow machines and 4-wheelers crowd the entrances of most rural Alaska schools in winter. (Photo by Mary Marshall)

Upon entering the school, we ascended wide stairs to the main level where the students here shed their bulky arctic gear and begin their day. On the high walls around this open lobby are the photos – a breathtaking collection, probably 6’x4′ each in size – covering much of a 2-story mass of sheetrock. The first image visible directly at the top of the stairs is stunning – it’s of a young Yup’ik teen holding her rifle and sitting on the large bull moose she has obviously just downed. Hunting is a substantial part of the traditional lifestyle here. Having been a Native hunter myself, I get why the school embraces this aspect of the culture. Connecting to nature and the environment through traditional Native pursuits helps the youth understand their place and responsibility within the circle of life. And given that Native People would rather live off the land as they always have -rather than pay high prices for low quality, preservative laden and chemically/genetically- altered, pre-packaged foods in the village stores, it makes sense. Snow machines and guns are now part of their more modern lifestyle, yet the people continue to maintain their strong connection to the natural world and they do well with respecting and preserving it.

Giant photo collection on the wall (Photo by Mary Marshall)
The Russian Mission School encourages the outdoor abilities of its students with these large photos displayed through-out the school. (Photo by Mary Marshall)

The other giant photos in this impressive collection depict students on a variety of field trips, but instead of perusing museums, visiting manufacturing plants, or sports events, they are trapping, ice-fishing and hunting. Well, with one or two snow-boarding shots tossed in. In recent years a group of students, teachers and Elders even ventured to Hawaii on one trip and to Japan on another to connect with other Indigenous people, and there are large photos from those trips as well, telling the stories of their journeys. The entire array is not only striking, but truly thought-provoking, especially for any visitor not accustomed to village life.

Signs guide students just like they would anywhere. (Photo by Mary Marshall)
The traditional language of Yup’ik is still strong in Russian Mission as evidenced by this sign. (Photo by Mary Marshall)

While ogling the photos, we noticed that several Elders were present in the building. In the Native Alaskan culture, Elders are highly regarded by all. They are the wise ones, there to provide guidance and leadership for the youngsters who seek not only knowledge of their traditions and customs, but advice about life in general. Watching an Elder guide a 5th grader through a problem in a classroom is priceless. Seeing the Elders join the children for lunch and sit in on classes whenever they like is awesome, too. Even the teens revere the Elders, they listen intently and respectfully to their esteemed ‘teachers aids.’ Many Elders here do not speak English, only Yup’ik, so the signs outside each door in the school is in 3 languages – 4 if you count the room numbers; English, braille and Yup’ik. This particular school has incorporated an area called the ‘Yup’ik Room’, a beautiful space with high ceilings and soaring windows – complete with a roomy kitchen/food prep area and a bathroom – where students and Elders mingle during the school day. The Elders spend their hours telling stories, beading and sewing, creating traditional
masterpieces as the students listen, watch and learn.

I was very happy to find my dear friend and Elder, Sandra, at the school. As she embraced me repeatedly, she said, “I feel like I’m waking from a dream, but I’m still in a dream!” She led us to the Yuk’ik room to greet Winnie and Marie, among other Elders. Winnie was seated with a small group of young children who were coloring. Marie, whom had just turned 80, basked in a ray of sunshine as she sat at the head of a long table, making a moose hide thimble. Native women who bead and sew with animal hides make their own skin thimbles to protect and strengthen their fingertips as they push their large needles through thick hides. At the end of the day, Marie and the other ladies presented Mary with the thimble, which really excited her. “Oh my gosh! Thank you! Now I’ll learn to sew!” she exclaimed.

Elder, Marie, uses a mini ‘ulu’ as she sews a traditional moose hide thimble. She gave us this small work of art as we departed. (Photo by Mary Marshall)
Experienced hands know just how to handle the sewing. (Photo by Mary Marshall)
Elder, Marie, uses a mini ‘ulu’ as she sews a traditional moose hide thimble. She gave us this small work of art as we departed. (Photo by Mary Marshall)
There's more to it than just needle and thread. (Photo by Mary Marshall)
Elder, Marie, uses a mini ‘ulu’ as she sews a traditional moose hide thimble. She gave us this small work of art as we departed. (Photo by Mary Marshall)

We visited with Sandra and quickly were brought up to date with the current happenings in each others lives as we ate lunch with the elementary-aged kids. Several of the students are her grandchildren but all of the students, related to her or not, see her as family. She has a matriarchal air about her and the whole community seems to look up to her. We laughed and joked as we talked and soon we complained that our cheeks hurt from all the giggles – which was the perfect segue into our surprise for Sandra…

Sandra's face reveals her amazement at seeing John Francis via Skype. (Photo by Mary Marshall)
Sandra’s face reveals her amazement at seeing John Francis via Skype. (Photo by Mary Marshall)
Jon and Sandra laughing and Skyping (Photo by Mary Marshall)
Jon and Sandra laughing and Skyping (Photo by Mary Marshall)
Very hard, serious work this team does. (Photo by Mary Marshall)
Very hard, serious work we do! I learned early that when an Elder likes you, you are going to get teased. (Photo by Mary Marshall)

One of our goals of this adventure to the lower Yukon was to create a “virtual campfire”, a friendly, non-scientific exchange between cultures using modern technology. My friend and fellow, NGS Education Fellow, John Francis, and I intentionally planned my winter Healing Journey and his Planetwalk to coincide so that we could bring the people in rural Alaska and the people joining John on his Planetwalk in Ohio and Indiana together to share their thoughts and ideas on global environmental stewardship. We knew that these folks; students and Elders in Russian Mission, as well as the 2013 Planetwalkers would be the ideal group to include but thanks to a variation of Skype and a live chat component, in addition to mentions on Facebook and various websites, people from all over were able to call in and participate in these extraordinary moments! Now that we’ve facilitated making these great connections and fostered the exchanges, the sky is the limit and we’ll be incorporating this awesome Virtual Campfire into all of our future Healing Journeys – most likely within a few meters of our real campfire. It’s way cool!

There’s an amazing story surrounding Sandra, John Francis and myself. I first met Sandra when I started working with the YRITWC, developing the Backhaul Program in the lower Yukon River communities. She and I bonded quickly and she promptly deemed herself my ‘Yup’ik Grandmother’. Needless to say, I am beyond thrilled to have that honor. Sandra is an amazing woman – born and raised on the banks of Mountain Creek near Holy Cross, Alaska. She took me there years ago to show me an old steamboat which a dentist had used as his clinic back about 70 years ago. When he left, he burned and sank the boat, with its metal engine and stack, in Mountain Creek, just off the Yukon. Unfortunately, serious injuries occurred decades later when a passing boat struck the barely submerged stack. Ever since, Sandra has worried about more injuries to river travelers and she wants that glaring hazard removed. Not an easy task.

So a couple of years later, when John Francis and I arrived in Russian Mission in my canoe on the first Healing Journey, the community had just suffered a great loss. Their Village Public Safety Officer, a man who was loved and honored – one of the best in the state, we hear – had shot himself. VPSOs in rural Alaskan villages deal with awful circumstances often involving people who are normally good, solid community members- at least until alcohol enters the picture. Alcohol-related crimes and suicide are a serious problem here and after many years of holding this extremely difficult position, this particular VSPO’s burden became too much. His name was Francis John. When word spread to Sandra and the women of the village that Jon Waterhouse had returned to Russian Mission by canoe, bringing with him a visitor by the name of John Francis, they took this to be a grand omen. The people of Russian Mission knew me and trusted me as we have done good work together, and I believe that my bringing John Francis to them at this moment in time was something akin to their beloved Francis John letting them know that everything would be OK.

Upon meeting John Francis, the community quickly brought him into the fold and he fit in perfectly. So… fast forward to the present: It was clear that Sandra was overjoyed to have me back in her midst, and to make this ‘computer connection’ with ‘Jon and John’ -as you can see from the attached photos.

As a side note, the VPSO’s widow moved away after her husband’s death years ago but, purely by happenstance, she was visiting on this day. She sat quietly and observed the chat. I’m not all that mystical, but I was moved by the events of this day.

The virtual campfire progressed, and I overheard Sandra say to another Elder, “I remember when we were small. The Elders said we would sit in circle, seeing and talking with those who were far away. Do you remember?” Wow.

Our visit to Russian Mission was pretty amazing on every level. Reconnecting with people I haven’t seen in a long while, introducing Mary to them, and making new friends together here was fantastic. Enlisting technology such as Skype and exposing several of the Russian Mission Elders to such a futuristic (perhaps mystical?) process was epic! Bringing their old friend, John Francis, into their first virtual experience was quite a treat for us all.

We are already looking forward to coming back to this community to complete our task of removing that old stack and steam engine from the river. The Corp of Engineers and the US ARMY are now on board with removing this water hazard so hopefully that will happen in the not too distant future. Meanwhile, several students in the science class voiced a common complaint. They stated that even though the community is much cleaner than it’s ever been, there is still some litter present periodically and they don’t like it. So since basketball is huge in rural Alaska and we noticed that, just as in many small towns across America, their is strong community support for the school’s sports program, we suggested the students create trash bins decorated with the team logo and place them in the most trashy spots in town. Collect the trash and stir team spirit in one simple gesture of environmental stewardship! What a deal! We’ll watch and see how that effort unfolds.

The whole class gets involved in Jon's talk. (Photo by Mary Marshall)
Connecting with the kids in the classroom is always fun and inspiring! (Photo by Mary Marshall)

Now it’s time to head back out and continue our Journey to communities in the Yukon Delta. We look forward to more learning and sharing in our effort to spread the message of environmental stewardship.

Thanks for reading and stay tuned!
Piurra! (Yup’ik for “Stay well and see ya later!”)


NEXT: View Map to Track the Healing Journey

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Human Journey


Meet the Author
Jon Waterhouse’s destiny was foretold the moment he pushed his canoe off the bank of the Yukon River and started to paddle. That incredible 2007 canoe trip, which he christened “the Healing Journey,” began with a simple request by the native elders and tribal leaders living in the Yukon River watershed to "go out, take the pulse of the river." Waterhouse’s journey raised awareness of the importance of environmental stewardship, combined traditional native knowledge with modern science, and helped rebuild intimate connections between Yukon communities and the natural world. The journey soon stretched far beyond the Yukon and led the Native American down rivers and through cultures in distant parts of South America, Russia, Greenland, Africa, and New Zealand.