In a remote Alaska village, an unlikely racial clash | KNKX

In a remote Alaska village, an unlikely racial clash

Oct 12, 2019

 

(An essay from Sound Effect host Gabriel Spitzer)

 

He looked wildly out of context. This was a place of ice and tundra, of weathered brown skin and tan Carhartts. But this guy showed up in neon-colored rain gear with hippie jewelry and zero explanation of why he was there. 

And he couldn’t really tell us — he only spoke Japanese. 

I was an outsider too — a reporter, based in Anchorage, Alaska. I’d traveled hundreds of miles to this remote community up against the Arctic Circle. The village is made up almost entirely of Inupiaq Eskimo people who have lived there for countless generations. 

I was staying in a double-wide trailer — the only lodging available in Shishmaref. And on a gray October afternoon, this brightly colored visitor showed up. A local guy had walked him over from the airstrip and was eager to hand him off. 

What’s he doing here, I asked? 

The local guy shrugged, indicated the new guy would be staying in the trailer, and took off. 

Takeshi was friendly enough … “I am carpenter,” he explained, with the help of his phrase book. “Summer, I am bartender.” 

 

Shishmaref, Alaska, is an ancient Bering Straits Inupiaq settlement, just off the Arctic Circle.
Credit Google Mpas

It’s hard to overstate how unlikely it is you just wind up in a place like Shishmaref. There are no roads to the rest of the world — just to get here from Anchorage you have to take three airplanes. There are two general stores, a small leather tannery and not much else. And there’s no plumbing in most of the village — instead people poop in what they call “honey buckets.” 

Over the course of the afternoon, Takeshi and I managed to reconstruct the basics: He was from Tokyo, and he was traveling through Alaska, retracing the steps of a famous Japanese photographer decades before. Takeshi had a pretty nice camera himself. 

After a while he left to go explore the village — to take pictures of ramshackle houses, racks of drying fish and curing seal meat. 

The only people who visit Shishmaref tend to be reporters, like me, and scientists — both groups drawn by the fact that Shishmaref is on the front lines of climate change. Increased flooding and coastal erosion are eating away at this ancient community, and the people were being forced to consider picking up their village and putting it down somewhere safe. 

 

Gabriel Spitzer working in Shishmaref, Alaska.
Credit Courtesy of Spitzer

There was one other category of regular visitor: contractors. During my stay, I shared living quarters with two of those guys — laborers, named Guy and Dick. They were in from Nome, and were of stereotypical Alaskan old-white-guy stock. Guy was tall and chatty, with a thick horseshoe mustache. Dick was white-haired and wiry, and wore flannel shirts and mesh ballcaps. In the evenings they’d mix cocktails secretly — it’s a dry village — and tell stories of itinerant work around rural Alaska. 

By late afternoon they rolled in from a day of work at the tannery, and I informed them about our new roommate. Guy’s eyebrows went up. He glanced at Dick, shrugged his shoulders, and headed into his room. Dick, on the other hand, scowled. 

“Goddamn f****n' Japanese,” he grumbled. “They’re trained to hate us, you know. I like everybody, but I hate the f****n’ Japanese.”

Now, I grew up in the '80s in Ohio and had been exposed to a wide variety of bigotry. And this was 2004 — when post-9/11 tensions were still sizzling. Still wasn’t prejudice against Japan a little out of date? 

But Dick had grown up in a different era — less World Trade Center, more Pearl Harbor. 

“I won’t stay here with him. I mean it, I’ll go sleep in the f****n’ tannery.” 

Dick retreated into his little bedroom, and I did the thing I do when I’m caught off-guard by racism — had a vigorous argument with myself over how much to challenge it. Dick’s opinions were baked in 1941 … so it didn’t seem likely that I could talk him out of them. But Takeshi also was coming back in an hour or two … so I decided that if Dick gave him a hard time, at least, I’d push back. 

I couldn’t help but think about the generation of Americans defined not by World War II but by 9/11, and wondered whether 60 years from now people my age would be refusing to share a roof with visitors from Muslim countries. 

Meanwhile, I waited for this very strange racial clash, between a white guy and a Japanese guy set in a double-wide trailer on the edge of the continent. 

By the time Takeshi returned, my head was spinning. A younger local guy named Dennis was with him, and had seemingly adopted Takeshi as his charge. This may have changed Dick’s calculations … because when he opened his door he didn’t unload on Takeshi, who now had local reinforcements. Or maybe Dick just understood what I’d already concluded: that airing generations-old racial grievances in a remote Inupiaq Eskimo village was kinda ridiculous. Anyway, Dick collected his day bag and skulked out of the trailer. I don’t think he spent another night there. 

 

Takeshi in Shishmaref, Alaska.
Credit Gabriel Spitzer / KNKX

Meanwhile, Takeshi was attempting to teach Dennis how to fold an origami paper crane, and I joined in. We were pretty bad at it, and soon we were laughing and communicating in exaggerated hand gestures and broken Japanese. Dennis gave him a pair of reindeer-hide slippers, and I showed him how my radio gear worked. 

It became easy — much less labored than trying to hold a conversation with Dick and Guy over illicit cocktails. 

Days later, a major storm slammed into Shishmaref. The ocean took huge bites out of the dwindling coastline. This was the changing climate having its way with a small, vulnerable village. 

Dennis and I zoomed around on his four-wheeler while the storm raged, so I could do my reporting. At one point, Dennis spotted something in the surf, and grabbed it. It was a little green glass globe — a fishing-net float with a Japanese character on it. This ball had drifted all the way across the Pacific Ocean, up through the Bering Straits and come to rest, unannounced, on this faraway shore. Kind of like someone else I know. 

Later we took the glass ball back to the trailer and asked Takeshi to translate the character. Takeshi scrunched up his eyebrows. He flipped through one paperback dictionary, then another. Finally he shut the book and, beaming, delivered a translation that also described the world I was living in: “small.”