ANCHORAGE — Joan Naviyuk Kane feels the pull of an ancestral place where she’s never been, a crumbling ghost village built on stilts across the rocky face of a remote western Alaska island.
The Anchorage poet believes seeing King Island up close would enrich her art with a sense of place and her Inupiat Eskimo roots — and she’s hoping to fund a visit for herself and other descendants through crowdsourcing.
“It is our land,” she said. “It is our identity.”
Kane, who is half Inupiat, has raised more than $14,500 on a fundraising site, United States Artists. Through the nonprofit’s USA Projects, she hopes to raise the $31,000 she says is needed for a two-week visit for 20 people.
Logistically, it’s a challenge getting to the Island, which is 90 miles from the old gold rush town of Nome. There is no landing site for a large vessel, so the trip would have to be done by helicopter or smaller boats, said Kane, 35. Sturdy tents would be needed to withstand the island’s notorious winds.
USA program officer Armando Huipe says the Los Angeles-based organization awarded $5,000 in competitive matching funds applied to Kane’s three-month campaign, which has a May 26 deadline. The site is open to accomplished, practicing artists.
“The organization, through the Creative Vision Award, found that her project is incredibly innovative and has a great potential impact,” Huipe said.
Kane, whose late grandparents lived on King Island, said she would maintain a website throughout the project, photograph the visit and gather information for future writings, including a planned book of poems and a novel she is writing. Kane has published two books of poems.
“The symbolic undertaking of the trip as well as the concrete experiences derived from it can only inform future expressions of solidarity, hope, and reaffirmation of our traditions as we continue to adapt to continuous change,” Kane writes on her USA Projects page.
King Island, home to about 200 people a century ago, was abandoned for various reasons. Men were drafted into the military during World War II. Tuberculosis later killed some people and hospitalized others. Then fewer people returned from traditional summer camping grounds near Nome, where there were doctors and jobs. Everyone was gone by 1966, several years after the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs closed the village school because of declining numbers and concerns about a potential rock-slide.
King Islanders consider the relocation a crucial point in their history and a driving force behind their lasting cultural distinction through songs, dances, stories and carving skills.
Bernadette Alvanna-Stimpfle’s parents were among the last inhabitants of King Island. Her father moved the family to Nome when he learned he was dying of cancer. A subsistence hunter, he was worried about leaving them without a provider after his death. Alvanna-Stimpfle, who was born several months after his death, lives in Nome today, but spent a winter on the island when she was a baby. She has visited a few times since then, the last time in 2005.
Alvanna-Stimpfle, 58, is among those who would make the trip in July if the crowdsourcing effort succeeds. If it doesn’t, the money that was raised will be used for to fund other artist initiatives.
“It would be very exciting if Joan’s project does make it,” she said. “It’ll bring us back home.”
Kane said if she falls short of her crowdsourcing goal, she won’t give up. One way or another, she’ll step foot on King Island.