Feature: Yupik Alaskan community celebrates village life

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Chester Noongwook, center, a member of the crew that landed Savoonga’s first whale 45 years ago, stands with family and friends during the celebration. Savoonga residents gathered on Friday at the city building for a celebration to honor the 45th anniversary of the landing of the village’s first whale. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)
SAVOONGA, Alaska – On St. Lawrence Island, way out in the Bering Sea and closer to Russia’s eastern edge than mainland United States, celebrations last week came back-to-back.

With prayer, song and a buffet that included muktuk from bowhead whale, bowls of reindeer stew, jello and fry bread, the community of Savoonga turned out Thursday to honor its health aides in a first-ever event to underscore their importance to village life.

A day later, the community marked 45 years of subsistence whaling with an event in the city building where some kids said their favorite food is muktuk and an elder shared his memory of the village’s first whale catch.

Community health aide Brianne Gologergen, center, looks at posters filled with thank-you messages for Savoonga’s seven community health aides. Chantal Miklahook, left, and Dorothy Kava, right, are also health aides. The Native Village of Savoonga hosted a community appreciation dinner to honor Savoonga’s health aides on Thursday. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)
Healthcare workers at the front lines

Harriet Penayah, Savoonga’s first health aide, said she started as a volunteer, just helping elders with chores and trying to make life better. Then, in 1960, she went to Kotzebue for formal health training.

“When we genuinely connect with people from the earliest days of our lives, simple acts return big reward,” said Penayah, now age 84, who spoke first in Siberian Yupik, then again in English. She sang in Yupik too, an old song, and others joined in, their voices washing over the gathering room in the tribal building.

Larisa Kava holds 5-month-old Cheyenne Akeya at the celebration. The Native Village of Savoonga hosted a community appreciation dinner to honor Savoonga’s seven community health aides on Thursday. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)

The village has seven health aides now, a group that has received statewide recognition for good work. A new clinic is opening up this summer with more exam rooms.

In emergencies or when planes can’t travel the 160-plus miles from Nome, health aides provide life-saving care, village leaders said.

“When the weather is bad, they are like doctors. But they have to call in over the telephone,” said Larry Kava, a tribal leader. “Now they have computers that help them.”

Larisa Kava holds 5-month-old Cheyenne Akeya at the celebration. The Native Village of Savoonga hosted a community appreciation dinner to honor Savoonga’s seven community health aides on Thursday. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)

Two, Brianne Gologergen and Danielle Reynolds, were honored in 2011 by Gov. Sean Parnell as the state’s emergency medical services providers of the year for their steady hands and cool heads in treating a gunshot victim. They were both still early in their training. A doctor talked them through how to insert a chest tube.

“That’s not something you can do as a health aide,” Gologergen said as the community celebration ended.

“But if there is a doctor saying, ‘Hey, do this,”’ they can, Reynolds clarified. Not long after, they had to do the procedure for another shooting victim.

Community health aide Danielle Reynolds, left, is hugged by Addie Pungowiyi. Brianne Gologergen, right, is also a health aide. The Native Village of Savoonga hosted a community appreciation dinner to honor Savoonga’s seven community health aides on Thursday. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)

Now both women have completed all four sessions of health aide training and have reached the most advanced level.

All of Savoonga’s health aides last year were honored for their work by the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium.

The seven now on the job are: Gologergen, Reynolds, Jordan Annogiyuk, Dorothy Kava, Mary Ann Seppilu, Chantal Miklahook and Nicholas Toolie.

Angie Gorn, Norton Sound Health Corp. chief executive officer, has urged all villages to honor their health aides this month. They play a vital role in a small village but the job carries high stress from treating the ill, the injured and the dying, including friends and family members.

Barbara Kogassagoon, center, gives a closing prayer at the celebration event. The Native Village of Savoonga hosted a community appreciation dinner to honor Savoonga’s seven community health aides on Thursday. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)
A celebration of whaling

Meanwhile, the community that calls itself the walrus capital of the world also celebrated whaling last week, a hunting tradition that only came to the village in 1972.

The neighboring village of Gambell has a long whaling tradition but the big hunts came more recently to Savoonga, which was established in 1916 as a center for reindeer herding, said Chester Noongwook, now 84. The village of Gambell just landed its second bowhead of spring.

“My dad was the captain and I was the striker, harpooner,” Noongwook said.

That whale was landed 45 years ago, almost to the day.

Chester Noongwook, 84, left, was part of the crew that landed the first bowhead whale in 1972. Savoonga residents gathered on Friday at the city building for a celebration to honor the 45th anniversary of the landing of the village’s first whale. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)

His grandfather wanted to catch a whale and so did his father, and it was his father who landed the first one, Noongwook said. The whole story was too long to tell, he said. His hearing is fading and it had been a long day already.

Noongwook’s life has been rich. He served in the Korean War and was in the military more than 40 years, he said.

In 1963, he retired as the last dog sled mail carrier. A framed certificate and faded news feature decorate the wall of the tribal hall. During short winter days, planes would land in Gambell, and he would bring the mail by dog team home to Savoonga once a week over “60 cold and treacherous miles.”

Back in 1972, that first whale was 40 feet or so.

“A little whale,” he said.

Potluck dishes are set out for the gathering. Savoonga residents gathered on Friday at the city building for a celebration to honor the 45th anniversary of the landing of the village’s first whale. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)
Related stories from around the North:

Canada: Arctic Hunting Now (VIDEO), Eye on the Arctic

Finland: Indigenous rights under fire says Finnish Saami leader, YLE News

Greenland: What the EU seal ban has meant for Inuit communities in the Arctic, Eye on the Arctic

Norway: Sami National Day celebrates 100 year anniversary, Radio Sweden

Sweden: Sami Blood: A coming-of-age tale set in Sweden’s dark past, Radio Sweden

Norway:  Repressive policy deprived Sámi people of language, culture : Norway’s prime minister, The Independent Barents Observer

United States:  Presbyterian Church formally apologizes to Alaska native people for denouncing culture, Alaska Public Radio Network

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