Former residents of abandoned King Island reunite in Anchorage

More than 200 villagers attend unprecedented family reunion

Posted: Monday, July 23, 2007

ANCHORAGE - The people of King Island abandoned their Bering Sea village decades ago, but an unprecedented family reunion at an Anchorage park Saturday reminded Becky Amarok a little of home.

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"I can cry for joy," said Amarok, her eyes watering.

The reunion at Storck Park sprawled with more than 200 people, most of them descendants of former King Island residents. Amarok, who left the village 50 years ago at the age of 15, called many of them relatives.

Most had never been to the village known for its stilt-supported homes clinging to cliffs, she said. It's no longer habitable, though a few hunters return from Nome every summer to shoot walrus and bearded seal.

"At least we have this large family," she said.

Many King Island residents moved to Nome after the school closed in 1959. Some said the Bureau of Indian Affairs shut it down because the village 80 miles northwest of Nome was so remote and the school was so expensive to operate. Others blamed teachers who were afraid a boulder perched above the village would topple over and crash into homes.

The family reunion, organized by a former Oregon resident who moved to Anchorage six years ago, drew people from as far away as Washington, Oregon and Nome.

It was a typical reunion in many ways. Smoke from grills poured from an outdoor pavilion, and kids tossed footballs and frisbees on the park's mountain-backed fields.

But alongside their hot dogs and potato salad, people heaped plates with whale blubber, dried pike and berry-filled Eskimo ice cream made from shortening.

ISLAND MEMORIES

A poster-sized picture of the fog-draped village leaned against a table. Members of the King Island Dancers, formed in the 1970s to help retain traditional songs, wore feather headdresses and swayed to the thump of walrus-skin drums.

Esther Ronne, 81, sat in a row of chairs before the dancing began, as one man swatted a drum. She's related to some of the dancers, she said

She drove from Seward on Saturday with faded black-and-white photos of her mother, Nellie Munson.

Ronne didn't grow up in the village, but her mother did, then left sometime before 1920. Ronne hoped someone would recognize the dark hair and pretty young face in the pictures, and tell her something about the mother she lost to tuberculosis at age 8. She believes her mother may have attended school at a Catholic mission near Nome.

"It feels great to be here," she said, a hand shielding her eyes from the sun. "I haven't had a chance to talk to a lot of these people before."

Ronne had to leave the event early and had no luck finding anyone who recognized her mother, she later said from her Seward home.

THE ESKIMO MADONNA

Tom Fenn, an Oregon resident who moved to Anchorage six years ago, organized the reunion. He said a King Island descendent from the Lower 48 laid much of the groundwork after she pieced together the family tree of a King Island woman named Avitniya.

Avitniya became a sort of legend - some call her the Eskimo Madonna - after an old picture of her with a sleeping child appeared on the cover of "The Native People of Alaska" by Steve J. Langdon, Fenn said.

Avitniya left King Island in the early 20th century for Nome and later moved to Seattle with her family, Fenn said. She died in 1926. Many of her descendants, like Fenn, lived in Washington and Oregon and had never met their Alaska relatives, he said.

The reunion in centrally located Anchorage was designated in part to help Avitiniya's descendants from the Lower 48 meet their relatives in Alaska, he said.

He didn't expect such a huge turnout. Announcements of the reunion spread by word of mouth.

"I'm flabbergasted," he said.

Amarok, who helped organize the reunion with others, said she's afraid the island's descendants are losing the old culture as elders who once lived there pass away and people stop speaking the language.

The gathering offers hope that family ties will at least remain strong, Amarok said, tiny ulu earrings swinging from her ears.

Raymond Paniataaq, 57, of Nome, flew down to film the dancers and meet relatives. He saw people he'd hadn't seen in years, including schoolmates.

"Everything is different," he said. "We're married to a lot of different cultures now. But we're all King Islanders. We're all related one way or another."

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Information from: Anchorage Daily News, http://www.adn.com



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