NOME | Brevig Mission

Conger in the 2nd grade classroom where she teaches at Nome Elementary.

Conger in the 2nd grade classroom where she teaches at Nome Elementary.

 roots at brevig mission

I was born and raised in Brevig Mission. I have pictures of both my parents up here. It's, I'd say, 76 miles north of Nome. My mom grew up in Brevig, my dad grew up in a small settlement called Ikpek between Wales and Shishmaref up until he was 10, until his family moved to Brevig. People ask why my dad’s side of the family moved from Ikpek to Brevig. During that time families had to move to a place where there was a school. So that their kids can go to school. That was part of it. Also, my grandfather, Harry Olanna, had a large family. His siblings moved to Shishmaref and he moved to Brevig. And the reason why was because it was a good hunting ground. And my grandfather also took his family from Ikpek to Brevig as well too, and he was a reindeer herder for T.L. Brevig, when the reindeer herd first came up here. There’s a lot of history, and stories that I’ve heard, from my grandfather growing up: of reindeer herding; the flu epidemic, all these stories you hear uh of the past. ...The story of my own hometown.

reindeer, dog teams, and the flu

I’ll start off with the reindeer. Because the reindeer industry came before the flu epidemic. [A Presbyterian missionary named] Sheldon Jackson worked for the government at the time [as the federal Agent of Education for the Alaska Territory].  He was in charge of this region, with the education and all. And so he would travel by ship, along the coast, and seeing that all these people-- the villages in this region to him looked like they were starving. And so he decided to help the Natives by shipping reindeer from Russia to the United States. So what they did was they dropped off the reindeer herd by ship, to our area, which is the Port Clarence Bay area. And they needed to find someone for the government to keep in charge of the reindeer. So they had Siberian Eskimos to teach our Natives to herd deer. They weren’t doing a good job of it, ... and so the next step was to bring in the Laplanders, the Saami [from the Scandinavian Arctic] to teach our people how to herd deer. And the only way they would come to teach our people how to herd deer, was to have a Lutheran minister up here. And so they found T.L. Brevig, who was in Minnesota at the time. He agreed to come, and that’s how our village started. It wasn’t a village before. Brevig was called Teller Reindeer Station at first. And then the flu epidemic. That was 1918, right around that time. And T.L. Brevig and his wife Julia took in all of the orphans that their parents died during the flu epidemic. And so, they became the family where, you know, relatives would bring their orphan nephew or niece to the minister there to take care of him, because they had no parents left, and so that's um, that’s how it became the Teller Mission. ...My grandfather would not talk about [the epidemic]. It was too devastating, to go back and talk about what he went through and saw. Of people dying. And so he never talked about it with us. I had another grandpa who was more open, and talked about what happened during the flu epidemic. Said, you know, people were confused why people were getting sick all of a sudden. And just dying, just like that. And one of the symptoms they saw was, when people got the flu they had really bad fevers, and so they would run out of their sod houses and roll around the snow, to cool off. Because you know, at that time, fever-- there was no way to get people’s fever down. And so that was what they would do. It was a devastating time. I think about one of our elders who was a child, lost his parents, and they found him in their sod house by himself, because both his parents had died. And so they brought him to the Teller Mission. And that’s why many of our elders grew up at the mission. Being orphans. A lot of people died in these small settlements, and some of the [settlements] were wiped out from the flu. ... My grandfather Harry Olanna, they were up during that time [living] up in Ikpek-Shishmaref area, so during that flu epidemic, Shishmaref guarded their village with men with guns. And so if they see a traveller coming, they would tell them, “Stop, don’t go to our village; otherwise we’ll have to shoot you.” Any traveller. Didn’t matter. Didn’t matter. They didn’t get-- they weren’t affected by the flu. And Brevig-Teller area back then, you know, there’s mining going on, and you had the dog teams that came in to bring mail. And so these dog teams, the guys that dog teamed to these villages to bring mail, was one way that the flu got started. People coming into their communities.


we're nomadic people...

From first to eighth grade, school was separate from home. We went to school to learn as students. But when we were out of the school building, we went home and became Inupiaq. No English. Hardly any English. But, that was how it was growing up in the village. It was just like one big family; everybody took care of each other. We're nomadic people. We stayed in the village during school months; once school was out, we moved to what we called our spring camps, from May until the Port Clarence Bay ice left. Around late June, early July, when we could travel by boats to our fish camps--then from there, when the berries ripened, we picked up our wall tents and moved to where the berries were. You know, when the cranes are heading south you could hear them flying by, day in and out, traveling by flocks. Beautiful. But sad at the same time, because you know the season's changing. And so we'd all work together; we'd move back to the village for school. So, that was growing up in Brevig Mission. 

"My grandfather, when he had his first encounter with T.L. Brevig and his wife Julia, I think the draw was that the color of their skin was different and the color of their hair was different, and they spoke differently. ... Nalaukmiut means white, and the way that the word came to be was that the color of the white people reminded our Natives of bleached sealskin. Because when you bleach a sealskin, it looks white. It’s nalaukmiu!  So that is how we got to identify the white people."


boarding school and beyond

Once we became of high school age, we had to leave the village for school. That was devastating. Nome and Beltz [schools] consolidated and they started a boarding home program [in Nome]. I remember stressing out, wondering, "Who am I going to be living with?" You don't know what's going to happen, how the school's going to operate, and if you will be accepted into the community, cause you're an outsider. Those of us who came from the villages--Shishmaref, Brevig, Wales, Teller--we supported each other. In my early twenties, I decided, "I am going to move." ... I ventured out to Nome and worked for the Subsistence Division [of the state of Alaska government] for three years. I got to travel, and I’ve always been interested in cultures. That was one of the highlights of having to work for them, was getting to travel to different villages and see the different lifestyles in our region. Then the state ran out of money for our division, and I thought, “Okay, this would be a good chance for me to go back to school.” I wanted to become a teacher. I met my husband while he was teaching in Brevig Mission, but I was living in Nome. ... At that time, airfare was very cheap, and so you could do that. So, when I told him that I had planned to go to college, and that my job had just run out of funds, he said, “Why don’t you go to college in Wisconsin?” And so I said, "Okay!" And I just-- being a person who's adventurous and wants to see the rest of the world, I said, "Okay!" I took that chance, and went to a technical college in Wisconsin. So, then [my husband and I] taught in Brevig Mission for seven years. Home is in Brevig. Brevig’s always been my home. That was where I was born and raised. And I guess I’ve been here [in Nome] for, going on my 18th year now. And deep in-- you know deep in your heart, that where you grow up and were raised will always be home. That’s your family. Your roots. Your culture.


before outsiders came to alaska...

Before the outsiders came, life was very simple. I mean that people lived to survive. Meaning that they needed to hunt, fish, or gather. I've always wondered about my grandparents' generation, and when they first started seeing new things of this world, and wondered what their thoughts where when they first saw an airplane, or when they used an outboard motor to travel, listening to the radio. Especially with communication now. I mean, we have these cell phones that we can walk around with and talk to others. Before, in my dad’s time, we had to sit near the telephone because we had the long cord, and couldn't move. And my grandfather had to travel around, by dog team, to see your relative from another village. You never hear how your side of the family’s doing unless you go visit them. Different, for each generation.