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Fifty Miles from Tomorrow: Willie Hensley

Taken from Fifty Miles from Tomorrow by Willie Iggiagruk Hensley, published by Sarah Crichton Books, and used by permission.

Read by Willie Iggiagruk Hensley: Born in a small house where Kotzebue Sound washes seafoam onto the Baldwin Peninsula's gravel shores, Willie is a lifelong Alaskan. He loves words and communicating about ideas -- from learning to read with Sears-Roebuck and Dick and Jane to studying and collecting old books about Alaska and doing any crossword puzzle he can get a pen onto. Willie is just a little bit surprised to be able to mention his own website, williehensley.com.

I have been asked to read this passage from my recent book, Fifty Miles from Tomorrow, about the loss of my family home in Kotzebue.

"This was the place where decade after decade the family had tied its dogs, beached its beluga, dried its seal meat and salmon, and moored its qayaqs and umiaqs. This was where year after year the father and sons would step out on the beach to assess the water, the clouds, and the wind before venturing out on the hunt.
We did not think of  straight lines and pieces of paper as describing our relationship to the land.
[But] in Kotzebue, the BLM surveyors had come to town, surveyed the entire three-mile spit from the beach back to the lagoon, then auctioned off hundreds of lots. ... [T]he local Iñupiat never had a chance. Many were out of town gathering food for the winter when the auction was held. .... The result of the auction was to prevent future generations of Native families from ever owning land, dooming them to be renters or squatters on what was now considered other people's property."

What Happens When Polar Bears Leave: Marybeth Holleman

Excerpted from "What Happens When Polar Bears Leave" by Marybeth Holleman, appearing in Crosscurrents North: Alaskans on the Environment, edited by Marybeth Holleman and Anne Coray and published by University of Alaska Press.

Read by Marybeth Holleman, author of Heart of the Sound. A North Carolina transplant, Marybeth has lived in Alaska for more than 20 years, and is still caught breathless by Alaska's wild beauty. Marybeth's website.

"I was thirteen on the first official Earth Day. Same age as my boy now. After school, I walked the neighborhood alone, thinking of the planet and of my adult life before me. It was the first time I'd thought of the Earth as a living entity, as something I could affect. I scanned the sidewalks and roadsides, looking for litter. I picked up one soda can beside the road, all the litter I found that day. Just one, but I still feel the coolness of that thin empty container, see a glimmer in the afternoon sun, still savor the heart-skipping lightness I felt the rest of the day.

What was reflected in that soda can -- I wanted more of that feeling. I wanted to be of use.

But one soda can is nothing. Did no good. What does?"

Conflicting Landscapes: Father Michael Oleksa

Taken from Conflicting Landscapes: American Schooling/Alaska Natives by Clifton Bates and Michael J. Oleksa, published by The Kuskokwim Corporation.

Contributed and read by the Rev. Dr. Michael James Oleksa, who was invited to the Alutiiq village of Old Harbor in 1970. He began researching Native Alaskan history there in 1977, and completed his doctoral dissertation in this field, receiving his Th. D. at the Orthodox Theological Faculty of Prague, Czechoslovakia in 1988. Father Michael's four-part PBS Television series, Communicating Across Cultures, has been widely acclaimed. He currently serves St. Alexis Orthodox church in Anchorage where he resides with his Yup'ik wife, Xenia, and their son Michael.

In Conflicting Landscapes, Clif Bates and I look at education and Alaska Native students.

"Of course we have some success stories. We do have Alaskan Native college graduates. We do have articulate, inspiring Native leaders, ... men and women in various professions around the state. But for every success we have twice as many tragic failures. For every graduate we have two or three drop outs. For every college alumnus we have five times more deaths, accidents, and suicides. For every star we have a dozen black holes.

I have buried too many victims of both suicide and accidents. I have shared the grief and the trauma, the anger and the sadness of elders and parents who have watched as their children drift off into lives of addiction, crime, sickness, suffering and death. And I am convinced that the seedbed out of which these destructive behaviors emerge is the school. Our schools are killing our kids."

Gathering Berries: Aleesha Towns

Taken from "Gathering Berries" by Aleria Jensen, published in the September/October 2007 issue of Orion magazine.

Contributed by Laura Hoopes of Claremont, California. Read by Aleesha Towns-Bain: "In winter, I find myself dreaming of fruit. New to Alaska, I've done my picking in Colorado. Now, I wonder what summer and fall will bring me in my new home." Aleesha recently arrived in Alaska, pursuing a passion for mountains, the outdoors and exploring diverse cultures. A recovering small-town newspaper editor, she is now a program associate at the Rasmuson Foundation.  

In "Gathering Berries," biologist Aleria Jensen describes picking tart, Alaskan berries.

Gathering Berries

"All we do is show up. Wake up, drink our coffee, jump in the car, head for these boggy slopes. Expect the land to provide. And it does. Despite the soggy ones, there are plenty of good berries. Plenty for us, for bears and birds and insect larvae. Plenty for muffins, pancakes, and smoothies. ...

I find myself feeling a huge gratitude, not only for what the land shares, but what it endures. ...

Within it, each fruit holds what I hold: an accumulation of place. The tangy explosion of these northern berries on the tongue is the landscape communicating itself, an expression of its essential wild character. Taste me -- here is your peat moss, your snowmelt, your glacial till. Here is your hemlock root, your jack pine, your overwintering bee. Taste me."

The Trap: Sarah Baird

Taken from The Trap by John Smelcer, published by Macmillan.

Contributed by Jane Baird. Read by Sarah Baird, a prodigal Alaskan, back from five years of studying and working in Washington, D.C., and still dubious about her ability to survive the winters. Sarah is the community coordinator for Anchorage Public Library's ANCHORAGE READS program, and hopes you will look out for upcoming events on the website.

The Anchorage Public Library's Community Reads program features books about Alaska Native culture. In The Trap by John Smelcer, Johnny must decide whether to go after his trapper grandfather in plummeting sub-zero temperatures in the Alaskan wilderness.

"Ravens may be among the most intelligent of creatures. Johnny had once watched a dozen ravens steal scraps from a wolf trying to protect his meal. While the others stayed a safe distance, one raven grabbed the wolf's tail and yanked it until the annoyed canine turned and chased him into the forest, momentarily abandoning his prize to the murder of ravens that quickly fell upon it. And no one in the village had ever seen a raven nest or hatchling. It was almost as if their presence in the far northland was by magic. And yet they were as ubiquitous as the changing seasons. It was no wonder the raven had become a central character in the myths belonging to Johnny's people."