Saturday, April 30, 2005

Savoonga Alaska, a portrait in the Washington Post

Savoonga has a zip code of 99769. You can see a map here and a picture here. Population 640, of which 2% are "Irish" (12 or so).

I once spent two months on the northern tip of Newfoundland -- St. Anthony. That felt remote, but compared to Savoonga it was the height of urban living.

The Washington Post has a story on life in Savoonga. It's fascinating reading. The journalists traveled out as a bit of a comic lark, but they returned a bit changed.
... AT THE SMALL AIRPORT IN NOME, we had seen posters warning that it is a serious crime to be caught smuggling alcoholic beverages of any kind to St. Lawrence Island, which is home to Savoonga and Gambell, its sister village 40 miles away. The island is dry and has been for some time, part of a desperate effort to control a problem that has gotten painfully out of hand.

Savoongans are only a few generations removed from a near-Stone Age existence. Details from the distant past are murky, but in the late 1870s much of the population of the island was wiped out in a holocaust of complex origins thought to involve illness, climate changes and behavioral factors. What is indisputable is that the commercial whalers of that era brought some modern ways to the island, along with disease and alcohol. Genetically, in both cases, the natives had no defenses...

...Out there in the enveloping whiteness, it had been possible to lose yourself, fishing with Eskimos in the Bering Sea the way it has been done since the age of the igloo. There was no village, there were no dead kids, no fog of denial, no generation in agony, literally bored out of its mind. There were no soul-wrenching choices between survival of self and survival of a culture. There was just an exhilarating ritual, as old as a civilization, irreducible, unencumbered by a sense of guilt, not subject to misunderstanding or misinterpretation through cultural chauvinism. It was clear and it was clean. It was possible to comprehend the joy of surviving by your skills and savvy on the bounty of the Earth alone, in defiance of whatever hell nature and fate throw at you. And it was possible to understand why, lost in that moment, you could want to live that way forever.

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