Spring in the arctic is soft. It happens gently, so that without thinking too much about it you’re wearing your sneakers and then sandals to school every day and you’ve stopped building fires altogether. You can’t figure out how you could ever have been skiing on the same trail that is now six inches under water. Was that only last week? You go out to pee at two in the morning, it’s sunny with a pink glow to the north, and you can hear the river a quarter-mile away shushing like a giant slushie. Mud is everywhere. The dog dries out in the house and leaves sand art on the floor.

We had a beautiful final ride in ANWR a few weeks ago. There wasn’t much snow, but it was sunny and warm enough that wet boots didn’t matter too much.


Arctic Village is dealing with loss right now, and it is hard to know my place as a neighbor-teacher-outsider. I want to lend my strength as the community, especially the young people that I love, deals with grief and loss, but I am not confident that I know how.

The loss is twofold.

A few days ago, an elder passed away. “She was our oldest elder – she was 95!” L told me. Every such loss is tragic: elders have irreplaceable traditional knowledge and wisdom. This is a time of upheaval and change for Gwich’in people, and that knowledge and wisdom is a source of strength and hope. Such a loss is devastating for the community and for the culture.  “She died of a broken heart,” folks said, “she was so sad after what happened.”

A young man, twenty years old, her grandson, took his own life last week. I did not know him and do not know his family well. I do know the kids he grew up with, and I am afraid of the impact that this will have on them.

The suicide rate among Alaska Native men in their twenties is more than ten times the national average. I have heard more experienced teachers speak again and again about the domino effect that a suicide can have in a village.

It is not my place to try to explain this. Any explanation I tried to give would oversimplify a complicated story. My role in this is to help my students find empowerment in a very hard world.

But I have been bad at it.

When we found out what had happened, I held the older kids in my classroom so that we could insulate them from the tragedy for a few minutes. When adults from the village arrived, we (the staff and community-members) broke the news. After a few words and a few moments of silence, the other adults left, and I was alone with the kids. They were absolutely silent. I have never heard them like that.

“Do you want me to put on a movie so that you guys have something to zone out to, or is it better this way?”

“It’s better this way.”

That was my great offering. A movie. They sat for an hour until we dismissed school. Before they left, I told them that I loved them, but I could feel the words, like a stack of pancakes hitting the floor, falling flat for them in the empty air.

I have not been the best… what? this year. I was going to say teacher, but that’s not what I mean. I have been a perfectly good teacher. Maybe I have not been my best self this year. I have tried to do too much too fast. I spent a lot of time recovering from, planning for, or going on adventures. It has made me happy. But. In Venetie, I would have been giving that time to the kids – going walking or making cookies or working on the prom or planning awesome art projects. We built momentum, the kids and I. And that made me happy. This year, there have been no cookie nights. Nobody ever asked for them, and I felt it wasn’t quite right to offer. There was no prom. The play was awesome, a bright spark, but it wasn’t enough to get a real fire going.

If my heartfelt “I love you” fell flat for the kids, it was for the same reason that this school year fell flat for me: I didn’t give it the dimension that brought last year to life in Venetie: my personal time and space and passion. These are things that are not in my contract, that no one has the right to expect of me, but that, freely given, have let me fall in love with what I do and let me be who my kids need me to be.

I will not give up the time that I spend in the woods with Geoff and Daazhraii. That time makes the world crisp at the edges and centers me in myself.


I will not give up, the way I did this year, the commitment that brings my work to life for me and makes a real difference for the kids.

I haven’t figured it out, but I am facing the question: How do I give the kids the best of me without selling myself short? How do I get what I need and still give enough?

For Geoff, this spring was a bitter exploration of this question.

He got a letter late in March asking him (us) to stop traveling on tribal land without either obtaining permission from the council or bringing a tribal member.

He was devastated. Geoff has been camping and snowmachining in Arctic for several years now, and to suddenly have this happen was a real blow. It is hard to live in the village, fall in love with the land, give your time and energy to the kids – above the call of duty, and then have the rug swept out from under you. It makes you feel awful and unwelcome and unappreciated. It hurts.

We always try to be careful and respectful of the land and people. We don’t take wood from people’s wood yards or waste caribou meat. We never leave trash behind – we often pick it up.

I think it is evident in my writing that I feel a spectacular reverence for the lands and waters around Arctic Village.

But it is tribal land, and our traveling on it – our living on it, even – constitutes trespassing.

I never thought to ask if we were stepping on anyone’s toes. I guess we thought, if we thought about it at all, that our awesome work with the kids and our long-term residency exempted us from rules that might apply to, in Geoff’s words, “yahoos from Fairbanks who are just coming out for the weekend”

Privileged assumption much?

And yet.

What prompted this edict? It could be any of a number of things. I get lost in wormholes whenever I try to pin it down. A concern for our safety, a personal conflict, a kneejerk reaction, an exercise of authority, a bid for new revenue, a devotion to the rule of law, a sense of pride?

It makes me uncomfortable. I don’t like looking at myself as someone who has been kicked off of tribal land. I don’t think of myself as that disrespectful or inconsiderate.

And yet.

It’s not something I have the right to feel offended by.

The tribal government has the right to ask us to stop traveling outside the village on tribal land, plain and simple. It is fair, but it still stings.

So. We are writing a letter requesting permission to camp on the east bank of the Chandalar during our river trip this summer. We plan to invite Geoff’s good friend, a tribal member, to travel with us more, now that we have a second tent. As a gesture of goodwill and of our commitment to the kids, we donated a large sum to the student activities fund, which pays for student travel. Next year, regardless, we will travel primarily in ANWR. The land to our north is beautiful, and we have been talking about maybe shooting for the continental divide.

Right now, though, it is spring. I am in Fairbanks, hundreds of miles from all of my responsibilities and quandaries. I have the summer to grapple with the hard stuff. Maybe by fall I will have it figured out. Maybe.

6 thoughts on “Soft

  1. It sounds to me like not only have your actions been different in the two villages, the villages (and therefore, villagers) have different personalities. One more open and accepting than the other. I’ve only lived in this one area of Alaska, around one group of Natives. But co-workers talk about how their prevous villages (fly-in vs. drive-in) are so different. Here, we are expected to serve them while taking verbal abuse. Here, no one dares go on tribal land. Here, it takes years and years before a hint of acceptance.
    I don’t know where I was going with this, other than this: how you fit in your current community is not solely based on you. The personality of your village has shaped your actions within the last year.

    • Actually, I felt a lot more welcome in Arctic than I did in Venetie at first. It took me months to have a natural, non-school conversation with someone in Venetie (though I eventually felt absolutely at home there), whereas, in Arctic, people have been outgoing and generous from the beginning. And I do feel welcome and wanted, for the most part: most parents who visit the school are friendly and appreciative, the school play was really well received by everyone, and the kids are affectionate and delightful. That’s why it felt like such a sucker-punch.
      But yes, every conflict is a two-way street. There are things going on here that I don’t completely get, and I accept that. It’s something to work on, and it’ll work out. I love the kids and the community and the land, and that will be enough in the long run.

  2. I’m sorry things are like that, Keely. Maybe a personal meeting with the tribal government or talking with elders will help to make things better as far as travelling on the land goes. I’ve found that phone calls and letters often fail resolve problems, and that personal contact works much better. And it may not be something that’s directed at you guys personally, it may simply be new or newly enforced policy and not wanting to make exceptions.
    And because we grew up in a different culture, it’s especially difficult to handle deaths and suicides, and reactions that maybe we would not expect. That’s not your personal failing. You cannot know how to deal with everything in a different culture.
    I hope things will right themselves for everybody. So sorry for the two losses of life.
    Sending you a hug

    • Definitely. If it weren’t the worst possible time of year, that’s probably what we would have done. We talked about trying to make it to a council meeting, but they’re usually during school hours, and we left the day after school got out this year so that we could make it to Petersburg in time for a personal commitment of Geoff’s.
      But we don’t get out in the community as much as I’d like to, largely because we spend all of our free time out in the woods. Our opportunities to make meaningful connections with elders and others are limited, and that’s kind of a double-whammy problem.
      Several community members that we have talked with don’t agree with the edict: they feel we should be allowed to travel on and enjoy tribal land, and that our passion for doing that is part of what makes us suitable teachers (I have to agree with that one). It’s just a matter of who is speaking up and how.
      Ultimately, it’s okay. Next year will be all about building relationships for me, (I need to start inviting people over for tea! I’m not good at the cultural norm of ‘visiting’ just whenever – I just can’t quite work up the nerve – so I’ll start having tea and cookie night again) and that will ease the situation. I don’t think anyone who gives me a chance will find me off-putting. I genuinely love the community and the kids and the country, and I am not shy about letting it show. The few folks who have made this an issue will come to see that eventually. I’m not going anywhere, and time will heal this. Besides, ANWR is in our back yard (like, we cross the river a quarter mile away from the cabin and we’re in it) so we won’t lack for a playground in the meantime.
      As for the cultural norms around grieving and suicide – I don’t feel too bad about how I handled the situation, it’s more about how I relate to these kids. I don’t feel really close to any of them, like they would trust me to hear their feelings and help them with serious personal problems. I need to be that person for them and grow that trust next year.
      Thanks for the hug! I’m sending one your way on the next west wind.

  3. I’m sorry to hear about all of these things that you’ve been dealing with at the end of the year. My community, Pilot Point, also had a young man go missing (suspected suicide) recently and it was a huge blow to the community. It was very tough for me to navigate, particularly because I knew the young man and all of his nieces and nephews were in my class. I really relate to much of what you said in regards to this.

    It’s also too bad to hear about the feelings that some have towards you and Geoff using tribal land, but I do know how tricky those relationships can be in small villages. I’m glad that you have ANWR to travel in though and I look forward to reading more about your adventures.

    • Thank you Hannah! We’re navigating it with as much grace as we can manage, and I think it will all work out in the end. Good luck continuing to cope with the tragedy you and your community experienced.

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