February 26, 2012

Saint Mary's, Alaska

Last week I traveled to Saint Mary's, Alaska, a village on the north bank of the Andreafski River, 5 miles from its confluence with the Yukon River. Saint Mary's lies within the Bethel Recording District and is 450 air miles west-northwest of Anchorage. Saint Mary's has its own school district and is connected by road to Andreafsky, Pitka's Point and Mountain Village.

We flew in a Cessna model 208B caravan which holds about 11 passengers, including the pilot.

Andreafsky was established in 1899 as a supply depot and winter headquarters for a riverboat fleet. The village took its name from the Andrea family which settled on the river and built a Russian Orthadox Church. In 1900 a Jesuit missionary school was established 90 miles down river at Akulurak, to educate and care for a number of children orphaned by a flu epidemic. Although the school and village had flourished, a slough surrounding Akulurak began silting and in 1948 the village moved to higher ground. With the help from Father Spils, a Jesuit priest, materials from Galena Air Force Station were barged to the present site of Saint Mary's. A new mission, village homes and a school were built with the materials. In 1967, Saint Mary's was incorporated as a city, although residents of Andreafsky chose to remain a separate community. In 1980, the communities combined.

Saint Mary's is home to the Algaaciq Tribal Government, a federally recognized tribe.

I traveled to Saint Mary's to work with the RurAL CAP Head Start site - for a site visit to reintroduce Saint Mary's to the Growing Up Tobacco Free in Alaska project and help facilitate change within the Head Start program. The Growing Up Tobacco Free in Alaska project is a joint effort between ANTHC and the Rural Alaska Community Action Program (RurAL CAP) to incorporate tobacco systems into RurAL CAP Head Start sites in Alaska. Currently, we are in year two of the project and working with 14 Head Start sites.

My travel partner, Cheryl, who coordinates the project at ANTHC, is speaking with, Michelle, the Head Start director in Saint Mary's.

The Head Start building in Saint Mary's, Alaska.

The night we were in town, the community was preparing and practicing for a potlatch that was to occur all weekend. A potlatch is a "gift giving" festival by a host family to redistribute wealth in celebration of an event such as births, rights of passage, weddings, namings and honoring of the deceased. Common in northwest native cultures, potlatches were banned by the United States and Canada in the early 19th century because it was viewed as wasteful, unproductive and contrary to civilized values. However, since 1951, native cultures have been able to again commit to the restoration of the ways of their ancestors.

We were invited to attend a dance practice which was very enlightening and entertaining.

The entire community, young and old, came together to practice singing, dancing and drumming.

A young girl was celebrating her "first dance" during the practice. She is being introduced by her grandmother in her Yup'ik names. This girl will practice dancing for a year - until the next potlatch - when she will be formally introduced into the Yup'ik dancing culture. Native dress and garments will be made for her and her family will share gifts with the entire community. 

More pictures from the dance...

After a night of watching dancing and listening to music, we headed back to the Head Start building where we stayed for the night. Luckily, there were cots and a couch for us to sleep on - luxurious compared to other potential accommodations when traveling to rural Alaska.

 I brought my sleeping bag and travel pillow.

Saint Mary's was a great visit and I look forward to working with the Head Start staff to increase awareness of the negative risks of using tobacco and to ensure that tobacco is being addressed in Head Start families.