Alaska vil­lage seeks to re­unite with re­lo­cated Rus­sian rel­a­tives

The China Post - - FEATURE - BY RACHEL D’ORO

Across the Bering Strait, Robert Soolook can easily see the loom­ing hulk of the neigh­bor­ing Rus­sian is­land where some of his rel­a­tives used to live be­fore they were forced to re­lo­cate to the Soviet main­land at the start of the Cold War.

“It’s al­ways a re­minder, each and ev­ery day,” Soolook, an Inu­piat Eskimo, says of the view from Lit­tle Diomede Is­land. Less than 3 miles away is Big Diomede Is­land, but it might as well be thou­sands of miles from his vil­lage, Diomede, be­cause it is strictly of­flim­its, pa­trolled by Rus­sian bor­der guards.

Now Soolook and other res­i­dents from his tiny vil­lage want to res­ur­rect ties with their rel­a­tives or at least con­nect with their de­scen­dants, thanks to Na­tional Park Ser­vice grants to­tal­ing more than US$83,000.

Be­fore World War II, in­dige­nous peo­ple from both sides trav­eled freely be­tween the two rocky is­lands for hun­dreds of years. Soolook had not been born yet when many in­dige­nous peo­ple liv­ing in Rus­sia’s nearby Chukotka re­gion had to aban­don set­tle­ments like the one on Big Diomede.

Con­stantly Mov­ing

Soviet author­i­ties or­dered the 25 to 30 re­main­ing in­hab­i­tants to move to the Yup’ik Eskimo vil­lage of Naukan in Chukotka in 1948, when the so-called po­lit­i­cal ice cur­tain was put in place. That new com­mu­nity was closed a decade later as the Sovi­ets shut down more sites near­est to the Soviet-U.S. bor­der. The for­mer Big Diomede res­i­dents were forced to move again, dis­pers­ing among var­i­ous com­mu­ni­ties.

To­day, all that re­mains on Big Diomede are Rus­sian me­te­o­rol­o­gists and troops staffing a bor­der guard sta­tion es­tab­lished on the is­land in the 1940s.

It’s been more than 20 years since Soolook, 49, vis­ited sev­eral long-lost cousins as part of two sep­a­rate ex­pe­di­tions to Chukotka ac­com­plished af­ter U.S./Rus­sia re­la­tions be­gan to warm in the 1980s. He hopes to be among those go­ing again.

The latest at­tempt to visit is be­ing co­or­di­nated by a travel com­pany, An­chor­age-based Cir­cum­po­lar Ex­pe­di­tions, which fo­cuses on western Alaska and the Rus­sian Far East. One of the main goals is to travel to Chukotka com­mu­ni­ties with Diomede el­ders next year to visit rel­a­tives, ac­cord­ing to com­pany pres­i­dent Tandy Wal­lack. Another goal is to in­vite the Rus­sian rel­a­tives to ul­ti­mately travel to Lit­tle Diomede for a re­union ei­ther next year or in 2017, ac­cord­ing to Wal­lack, who en­vi­sions fes­tiv­i­ties fea­tur­ing tra­di­tional danc­ing, sto­ry­telling and Na­tive foods.

“I think the con­cept is a re­ally good one — re­unit­ing peo­ple, shar­ing in­for­ma­tion about how they’re con­nected,” said Ja­nis Ko­zlowski, man­ager of the Na­tional Park Ser­vice’s Shared Beringian Her­itage Pro­gram.

Wal­lack said the idea first emerged when she was work­ing on another Lit­tle Diomede pro­ject in 2008. A res­i­dent asked if she could help find rel­a­tives con­nected with Big Diomede.

“My first thought was, how could I say no?” Wal­lack said. She told the res­i­dent she would do what she could and asked her to send a list of what rel­a­tives she knew about.

Af­ter the Sovi­ets es­tab­lished con­trol over Big Diomede in the 1920s, most of the in­hab­i­tants moved to the smaller is­land, leav­ing be­hind only about a dozen peo­ple. Most were mem­bers of one fam­ily headed by a man who went by the name of Agayeghaq. That tiny pop­u­la­tion had more than dou­bled by the time of the Cold War dis­place­ment, ac­cord­ing to an ac­count by Smith­so­nian In­sti­tu­tion an­thro­pol­o­gist Igor Krup­nik.

In a phone in­ter­view, Krup­nik said the Diomede re­union pro­ject might have been more doable two years ago, be­fore U.S. and Rus­sia re­la­tions cooled. Tak­ing a large con­tin­gent of peo­ple to Chukotka will re­quire a sub­stan­tial level of Rus­sian co­op­er­a­tion, a ne­ces­sity that’s dif­fi­cult to pre­dict, ac­cord­ing to Krup­nik. But Lit­tle Diomede res­i­dents are run­ning out of time.

“The youngest per­son who may re­mem­ber life on big Diomede is now 75 years of age, and there are very few el­ders of that age in Chukotka,” Krup­nik said.

The pro­ject has been slow in ma­te­ri­al­iz­ing since the first grant was awarded in late 2013. It in­volves the time-con­sum­ing process of ob­tain­ing of­fi­cial per­mis­sions to travel from the two coun­tries, as well as pass­ports for Lit­tle Diomede res­i­dents. It also in­volves match­ing old Na­tive names with mod­ern fam­i­lies and ar­rang­ing for Rus­sian in­ter­preters for those who no longer know the com­mon Na­tive lan­guage once shared by the Diomed­ers on both is­lands.

From Soolook’s point of view, re­con­nect­ing with his Rus­sian rel­a­tives would be a way to honor his late mother as well.

“That would help her in heaven,” he said.


In this July 23 photo, Tandy Wal­lack looks over a list with some of the fam­ily con­nec­tions that have been iden­ti­fied for a pro­ject her travel com­pany, Cir­cum­po­lar Ex­pe­di­tions, is work­ing on with res­i­dents of the Alaska Na­tive vil­lage of Diomede in An­chor­age, Alaska.

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