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Story Publication logo August 12, 2013

Between Russia and Alaska: Dancing Over the Bering Strait

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All around the Arctic Ocean, the impact of climate change is spectacular:Icecaps melt, glaciers...

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This article, in French, originally appeared in the print version of Le Monde. It is part 4 of a special 6-part summer series. See the full multi-media feature online.

Kotzebue, Alaska, U.S.A.

The city of Kotzebue, with a population of 3,000, of whom 80 percent are Eskimo, sits on a peninsula 300 kilometers north of the Bering Strait. Access to the city is by boat or plane. It's the end of June and the weather is cool and unsettled.

In the middle of town, Vika Owens' little gray house is packed to the rafters: a dozen Russian travelers, men and women of all ages, are staying here for one week. They come from Uelen and Lavrentia, two villages in the district of Chukotka, in Russia, across the Strait from Alaska. These are the parents and friends of Vika, a Russian from Chukotka who moved here 15 years ago when she married an American.

There isn't much room to move in the house, but the atmosphere is warm and festive. Until late into this Arctic white night, the Kotzebue residents drop by to greet the Russians, bringing food—dried fish, raw whale meat, salted seal meat and, of course, walrus stew, the national dish on both sides of the Bering Strait. The stew's strong aroma permeates the house.

All told, 17 Russians will spend the week in Kotzebue, either staying with one of the local families or in a dorm run by the territorial administration. They are the official guests of the National Parks Service (NPS), that operates the Shared Beringian Heritage exchange program. They were invited here to participate in Qatnut, an annual Kotzebue fair that is famous in the region. They are amateur artists: traditional dancers, musicians who play Eskimo drums, sculptors of whale bones, walrus tusks and caribou antlers.

Their attendance at the fair is memorable since it's been six years since the last visit by the Russians. The Bering Strait is only 82 kilometers wide, and for thousands of years the indigenous people moved back and forth between the two continents. With the onset of the Cold War between the United States and the USSR following World War II, the Bering Strait became a military zone and was closed. Families were cruelly separated. Today, still, the Eskimos compare what happened to them with the fate of the Berliners during the era of the Wall—except that their tragedy went largely unnoticed by the rest of the world.

After the demise of the Soviet Union, both the American and Russian governments decided to organize a twinning of two Alaskan national parks, the Krusenstern Park and the Bering Land Bridge National Preserve, with a Russian national park. At first the Alaskan Eskimos were suspicious of this project, fearing that the Russian authorities would agree to this project only to impose further restrictions on the already limited fishing and hunting rights of their Russian cousins. But this never happened, because it took Russia more than 20 years to act: The Chukotka National Park in the Russian Federation was finally created this past January. There's no director yet, but one will possibly be appointed by the end of the year.

In the meantime, the National Park Service is financing a series of bi-national programs that include monitoring the migration patterns of whales, walrus and polar bears, analyzing climate changes, conducting archeological and ethnological studies, and organizing cultural exchanges. Last autumn, Franck Hays, superintendent of the region's national parks went to the Kotzebue town council to see how they could help him organize an annual fair. "Their response was immediate and unanimous: Bring over the Russians."

The Russians' trip from Uelen, a village less than 100 kilometers from the American coast, was quite an adventure. Vladimir Memylneun, a professional dancer and Vika's brother, tells us how it went:

"To get a U.S. visa I sent a copy of my passport via the Internet. This was then forwarded to the Russian authorities in Vladivostok, who sent it to Anadyr, Chukotka's capital city and finally to my village.
I also need an exit permit and a personal invitation from an American citizen, endorsed by Washington."

In theory, there is a visa waiver program for people who live in the border states, but it doesn't really work. When the American officials in charge of this program withdrew, their posts were left vacant, and Russia's border guards don't like to give anyone an easy out.

To reach the area's only airport in Providenya, the residents of Uelen have to make the trip in stages by helicopter that usually fly twice a month, if all goes well, which it rarely does. This time, the plane waiting in Providendya to take them to Alaska faced some problems. The airport at Kotzebue has no border police station, so they couldn't land there. Instead, they must first fly to Nome, 300 kilometers south. However, the official at Nome airport who stamps the passports was away on vacation, so the Russians had to sit around for a few days. It's also worth noting that the Russians crossed the International Date Line on the way over—enduring a world record 20-hour time change.

The paperwork needed by an American wanting to visit Chukotka is even more complicated because the Russian Federal Security Service and the border guards also have to have their say. Despite all of these problems, the Eskimos from both countries would never turn down a trip of such paramount importance. By restoring their community ties and joining forces, they hope to preserve their languages, customs and shared cultures that are being threatened with extinction.

For decades on the American side of the Strait, Catholic and Protestant missionaries did their best to eradicate Eskimo culture, often by brutal means. Reggie Joule, the mayor of the Kotzebue district, recalls those days:

"The white people told us your language is worthless, your religion is worthless. Same for our idea of freedom, our way of dancing, our eating habits, how we entertain ourselves and educate our children. Then they forced us to follow their incomprehensible rules." Which, according to Joule, had devastating results: "We are in mourning of our culture but we are unaware of it. Our hardship is both profound and elusive."

However, on the Russian side of the Strait, the indigenous people were better able to preserve their language and traditions, despite the brutality of the Soviet regime. Vika Owens, who left Russia in 1997, noticed this paradox.

"We suffered through forced collectivization, deportations, hunger and political indoctrination, but little cultural repression."

Consequently, in Alaska Russians are seen almost as professors who come to teach the young American Eskimos things that their parents couldn't. For one week, they will conduct classes in dance, sculpture, dressmaking and jewelry manufacturing for the people of Kotzebue and surrounding villages.

That said, the Eskimo officials supervising the event have a more political objective in mind, beyond folklore. "Global warming generates an increase in maritime traffic and boosts the exploitation of our natural resources," explains Joule. "I support economic development as long as the indigenous people are allowed to participate in the decision-making. To this day, when we want to do something, our first reaction is to ask for permission. To better defend our interests against the rest of the world, we have to be more inclusive and strengthen our ties on all levels."

For some American Eskimos, the rapprochement with Chukotka has turned into a passion. John Waghiyi is an artist and community leader living on the American Island of Saint Lawrence in the south of the Bering Strait. The island is inhabited by Yupiks, an indigenous group that lives on both shores. John traveled to Kotezebue just to see the Russians. "I'm happy that we have reestablished contact in my lifetime. It wasn't easy."

Throughout the years, John has helped dozens of people from his island make the trip, organized family reunions and led many bi-national programs. His latest idea is to send young musicians to Chukotka to learn the art of traditional solo throat singing. He's hoping to go there himself next autumn to participate in the "Beringia Days," a series of conferences organized by both countries.

In the city of Nome, where whites make up half of the population, Guy Martin is the most famous activist promoting this reunification. Guy, whose name comes from a Breton ancestor, is a former policeman. He is part Italian, but his grandmother is an Eskimo who originally came from the Diomedes. These two islands are only two kilometers apart and sit in the middle of the Bering Strait.

Long ago, the islands were inhabited by the Inupiat. Today, the smaller of the two is American, has 120 residents and is connected to Alaska by a weekly helicopter shuttle. The largest island is Russian, but all the local population was forcibly removed to the mainland and replaced with a unit of border guards.

For decades, Guy has been relentlessly looking for members of his family scattered across the Chukotka region. In his role as an official in the NPS bi-national programs, he has traveled to the area several times despite being held for entire days at the airport by the Russian border guards.

"I did find some cousins there, and one of them works for the Russian national park that is twinned with our parks."

His son Jacob, 19, studies geology and business and has already participated in a study tour to Chukotka with other young Russians.

"Despite not having modern conveniences, I was surprised to learn how much like us they are, in their daily activities, their culture, their way of life, their love of hunting and fishing, their attachment to their land." The following year, his new friends came to see him in Nome, and they continue to stay in contact via the Internet. Jacob is hoping to return there soon.

That said, many young people from both sides of the Strait seem to prefer America by adopting the globalized culture that came out of Hollywood TV shows, rap music, street wear, Facebook, etc. Nineteen-year-old Alysha, who was born in Kotzebue, spends the summer here with her family, and returns to Kentucky in the winter where she is a student. She doesn't speak Inupiat, the language of her ancestors.

"My parents gave me audio cassettes to help me learn some phrases, but I prefer to listen to my music." During Qatnut, she met some Russian dancers, but it didn't change her life. She would be hesitant if someone offered her a trip to Chukotka. "I have so much to do, I don't think I would have any time."

Additionally, the Russian visitors' attraction to the American way of life is undeniable. Even the version they see in by Kotzebue, a poor town with little to offer compared to the lovely white cities in southern Alaska. One of them, Alexis Anok, 33, says quite frankly that he would prefer to live in Alaska. "Here the houses are built better, the planes arrive on time, the supermarkets are full of unbelievable things. And above all, the people are more polite, less rude. Everyone greets you." He dreams of relocating to the American side where he can organize dance shows, or take classes in electronics.

In Chukotka, conditions for the indigenous people appear to be getting worse. In 2012, the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North (RAIPON), was disbanded by the government in Moscow, but recently received permission to reorganize. Eduard Zdor, a Russian correspondent for the NPS bi-national programs and director of the Association of Traditional Marine Mammal Hunters of Chukotka, admits that his work isn't easy.

"The authorities don't like the independent NGOs. Every year various departments check our activities." In his role as a member of the Bilateral Walrus and Whale Monitoring Commissions in the Bering Strait, he travels to Alaska on a regular basis to participate in work seminars. However, sometimes he can't cross the Bering Strait and has to go around the world, via Moscow, New York, Seattle and Anchorage, just to travel a few hundred kilometers.

His American counterpart in the Walrus Commission, Vera Metcalfe, a Yupik living in Nome, with family in Chukotka, worries about him.

"Eduard's office is being threatened with closure. We try to help him but it's difficult. He's up against the petroleum companies and the government, and he's not afraid of the border guards. He is a brave man, but over there, you never know. . .anything could happen. "

This year, during the three-day dance competition at Qatnut, the Russians competed against six Alaskan teams. The routines are similar, a lively dance that portrays hunting and fishing scenes. The audience unanimously felt that the Russians were better, but the jury awarded the victory to the team from a small Alaskan village: hospitality only goes so far. According to local tradition, there is no prize for second place.

Translation by Anne Thurow

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