Of shamans and storms: A Shishmaref story

Posted: Wednesday, September 12, 2007

On one of my last days in Shishmaref, I heard the story of the last shaman. In it, the village's last shaman walked under a large whalebone arch and disappeared. Just like that. My students were unwilling to tell me more, and when they approached the remains of the arch (virtually next door to the island's only church), they ran, ducking and giggling nervously.

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This story has always dogged me. Why was he the last shaman? And why did he feel his only choice was to disappear from this barrier island in the Chuckchi Sea? It's hard to imagine people like me weren't one reason: schoolteachers, clergy and social workers, all white, all from somewhere else, all good intentioned. Did we make the shaman obsolete, like a laid off iron worker?

Shishmaref is always on my mind in the fall, the season of unquenchable northern storms. Rising sea levels and increasingly intense storms have wreaked havoc on this tiny island and its population. Each year when the ocean freezes, the villagers take stock of what the ocean has claimed and what they have saved from its relentless hunger. Formerly safe houses have been pulled back from the sea. I understand that my old classroom now has an oceanfront view.

After years of watching their island shrink, the people of Shishmaref decided they needed to relocate their village to mainland Alaska. Shishmaref has been continuously inhabited for many hundreds of years; some suppose the island was one of the earliest routes for visitors to this continent.

I don't really know much about Shishmaref. I went there as a student teacher for several months. Though people had no real reason to invest in me, they did. After sewing group, I would find fur scraps slipped surreptitiously into my bag. On Eskimo dance nights, I swayed to the rumbling of the skin drums which, partnered with the sharp smell of sanded whalebone, soaked the sweaty walls of the community hall. Herbie Nayokpuk, one of dog sledding's most revered mushers, once introduced me as his "daughter with the wrong color hair."

This ease belied the difficulty of life on the edge of a hungry sea. Winters are isolated, long and frigid. Winds ravage the land and water in the best years. The search for food and fresh water consumes many hours and occasional lives. However, the people have rich lives. The sea provides, as does the nearby land, allowing people the time to develop beautiful traditions and arts.

Relocation of the village to the mainland, even for an outsider like me, is overwhelming. In typical western fashion, my roots are not as deep as those who call Shishmaref home, which has been inhabited for around 4000 years. I am sure the villagers wonder how important parts of their culture will survive in new place. How much change can a community endure and remain essentially itself? It seems like a question Alaskan people have been pondering for centuries.

After I left, I began meeting other people who also had connections to Shishmaref. Not just other teachers, but writers, adventurers and scientists who were drawn to the mystique but found something so much more essential. Lately, I wonder as well if that last shaman really disappeared. I hope he instead anticipated the changes to come and decided to watch over those who had found a part of themselves on Sarichef Island but had to leave.

If this is the case, he may soon become indispensable again.

• Marie Ryan McMillan is a parent and teacher in Juneau.

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