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Thaw of the Ice Curtain

By Margaret Ford | HUMANITIES, January/February 2002 | Volume 23, Number 1

Darele Orr is an american Yup'ik who grew up in the village of Gambell on St. Lawrence Island, Alaska. “I heard stories of the other Siberian Yup’ik, people who lived in the forbidding Soviet Union,” she says. “But nothing that I heard prepared me for my first meeting with one. . . . Shortly after I stepped off the plane in Russia, a native man came up to me and said in Yup’ik, ‘I’m from the Kivak clan. Which clan are you from?’ I was speechless. Here was a man from a different country, speaking my native language, telling me he was from the same clan I was!” For centuries, Siberian Yup’ik Eskimos have lived on both sides of the Bering Sea, in the Russian coastal villages of Sereniki and Chaplino, and forty ocean miles away in the American villages of Gambell and Savooga on St. Lawrence Island. In the late 1940s they became embroiled in the Soviet-American power struggle.

With the dawn of the Cold War in 1948, the Iron Curtain fell across Europe and a corresponding “Ice Curtain” sliced the Bering Sea down the middle. Mutual distrust between the Soviet Union and America extended to the very edges of their continents -- to Chukotka in the Soviet far east, and to Alaska, America’s northernmost territory.

The populations on either side of the Bering Strait had regularly visited each other to hunt, barter, and make marriages. But during the forty years of the Cold War, nearly three thousand Eskimo family members were unable to visit one another. Since the Soviet collapse in 1989, many Alaskan Yup’ik have returned to Siberia to find family and rekindle their shared culture. An exhibition telling the stories of Darlene Orr and others is being assembled by photographer, writer, and artist Saunders McNeill. Titled “Portrait of a Divided Maritime Family Project,” the exhibition consists of paintings, drawings, and personal essays paired with photographs of every Siberian Yup’ik elder in the region.

Accessible only by boat or airplane, Orr’s hometown, Gambell, looks like most arctic villages. Houses are simple one-story boxes, wood-framed and either vinyl- or clapboard-sided. At each house’s entrance, sealskin parkas, hand-sewn boots, and harpoons share space with plastic bags, oilcans, and rifles. The walrus-skin boats called uiaqs line the beach on drying racks. Subsistence hunting for whales, walrus, seals, reindeer, bird eggs, and the occasional polar bear is still at the center of a rugged existence.

Isolation has preserved the culture, and St. Lawrence Island serves as a cultural stronghold for the tribe. The standard of living and cultural unity of those across the water fared much worse under communism. Tribal members were moved into Soviet-style apartment blocks and forcibly integrated into Soviet society. Many of the old communities simply evaporated. Now through exchange programs and an effort by the American Yup’ik to share their traditions, the culture of the tribe is being revitalized.

At the National Park Service in Nome, a small exhibition is on display, explaining the project with text and six of McNeill’s photographs. The larger exhibition will open next summer on both continents and will run concur-rently at eight locations: Sereniki, Novo Chaplino, and Provideniya in Russia; and Anchorage, Nome, Gambell, Savoonga, and Washington, D.C. Besides receiving funding from the Alaska Humanities Forum and the National Park Service, the project has been supported by the Sea Education Project, the Shared Beringian Heritage Program, and private contributors.

About the Author

Margaret Ford is a writer in Hilo, Hawai'i.