Donna Erickson


Erickson in her Unalakleet kitchen. 

Erickson in her Unalakleet kitchen. 

"Before outsiders came to Alaska, our people were one with the land, the sea, and the sky. They were one with the animals. They were one with the universe. They navigated by the stars...they traveled by dog team. Before outsiders came to Alaska the hardest thing was starvation times. Not knowing if you were going to eat or live and survive. Things were not as easy... There were a lot of difficulties. And yet there were a lot of good."

this cup and this saucer

I was really fascinated with the old people, cause their lives were much different than mine. Their parents lived in a time before the outsiders came, including my mom. I was visiting my aunt in Kotzebue the other day, and next to her woodstove was a little tin cup, and it was an enamel cup, and it had a saucer with it. And I said, “Auntie, where did you get this? It looks very old.” And she said, “Oh, that was your great-grandmother’s. That was my grandmother’s cup. Her and her parents were dog-teaming when they were shocked, and utterly shocked, by seeing their first white man. They came across this white man traveling, with a Native man. And in his sled he had this cup and this saucer, and they had never seen anything like it. My great-grandmother was given a metal needle. She was so in awe; she had used bone needles to keep their clothes warm and sewn. And my great-grandpa was given I-don’t-know-what. But my grandmother was a girl and she was given this cup." So she treasured it all her life. And they were a nomadic people, and she always-- her dad drilled a hole somehow, to attach the saucer to the cup handle, and everywhere she went all of her life she carried it on her belt. When they’re on the sled, or dog sledding, or in the umiak boating. Because it was the first time they have ever encountered a white man, and white-man things, and it was a treasure to her. And so, when I held the cup at my aunt’s house in Kotzebue, I could feel the awe that she felt when they first saw a white man. ...I took a picture of it and wrote this story on my Facebook page.

Changes in the arctic 

I live in Unalakleet, and I grew up in Barrow, and I came here [to Unalakleet] during the last of the boarding school era. And I attended Covenant High School with a bunch of other Barrow kids. That was before the villages had high schools. And I married a local boy here. And I’m still here! ... Growing up in Barrow in the 60s was a time of, I would say, rapid change-- but still the old way. Everyone spoke Inupiaq, and most of my friends spoke fluently. And I lived in a home where, because of my mom’s boarding school experience, she was traumatized from not knowing English, [so] she did not allow us to speak Inupiaq, and our dad was white. So I ended up translating for our friends, and secretly learning the language behind my mom’s back! Because everyone spoke it everywhere, and the old ways were still going on. Now it’s very different. People were still using dog teams when I was little. ... There was a very close-knit, community feel. Now it’s really different. It’s huge; money is big; and things have changed quite a bit. I haven’t been home [to Barrow] for a long time, but every time I go up there I see: it--just like everywhere else--it changed.

the boarding school era

I grew up [attending] the Bureau of Indian Affairs School [in Barrow]. And, all of my older siblings, everyone in town-- everyone in every village-- was sent to boarding school past eighth grade. ... For me, from my perspective as a child, it was sad to see my older siblings go. Each year they would be gone. They would leave at the end of the summer and it was very sad for me as a younger sibling. I remember watching them boarding airplanes and-- like I said, I’m number seven out of ten kids-- and I wouldn’t see them for a whole year until the springtime. And our house became quiet, quiet with all the older kids gone. And I think it was that way for everyone. Then as I got closer to the age of leaving, it was a goal, and then exciting. I would look at my older brothers' and sisters' yearbooks and... I looked at them so much, my friends and I, that we pretty much memorized the things from the yearbooks.

it's not the same everywhere 

My dad worked at the Arctic Research Laboratory. That’s why we lived in Barrow. And it was 12 miles away and it was a whole little-- almost a town by itself. It was full of scientists and archeologists and wildlife people that study Arctic animals and Arctic climate, and they had a gymnasium, cafeteria, and everything there-- post office. And my dad came home-- I’m not sure what his schedule was-- it must have been two weeks on and a week off. It’s not very far from Barrow. But it was like two different worlds. I grew up spending time out there, where everyone spoke English, and then I grew up in the village, in the town, where everyone spoke Inupiaq. And the culture is so rich up there. And I always heard my mom speaking Inupiaq all the time with her friends, but she forbid us from speaking it at home because she was traumatized from her own school experiences. So it was kind of confusing. We would get in a lot of trouble and beaten for speaking if we were caught at our house. So, I pretty much learned the language outside of home playing with my friends and could speak it if I had to. But when I came to Unalakleet I saw a huge difference. There was no language here [in Unalakleet]. No, and I remember getting off the plane: the first person I met was a girl from here. And I asked her in Inupiaq, “Do you know what I’m saying?” And she didn’t. And I was quite shocked that the young people that I met here could not speak the language. And it was kind of sad and shocking, and I was only sixteen when I came. I noticed the change. I realized at that time that it’s not the same everywhere. I had never seen trees or mountains, and it was pretty exciting to come here, actually. To live in a dorm with girls from all over. Some of the girls in my room would speak Yup'ik, and they were from Nunivak Island. To me that was very interesting and eye opening that there were other languages. It was really good to go to boarding school. 

the molly hootch case

There was a case in the State of Alaska called Molly Hootch vs. the State of Alaska, where she sued the state to be able to stay home and have a high school built in her home instead of being sent away to boarding school. And it caused... quite a shaking in the education world of Alaska. The state eventually had to. At that time the oil was just flowing, the money, and Alaska was rich, and so Molly Hootch had won her suit against the state, and Alaska had to build high schools in every village, and no longer were kids sent away to go to school after that. ... I remember my dad sat us down and told us, at breakfast, about the Molly Hootch case, and that all of... In fact he talked to us that year we were leaving [for boarding school]. That as the youngest kids in the family, we would have the option to stay home. But he made the decision that we would go. That it would benefit us to go to boarding school. And so, I remember him explaining to me that things were going to change and I didn’t really understand it at the time. But, I saw the change as time went on, though. The first two years when I went to boarding school, when everyone had to go, it was very fun and exciting because everyone was from all over. And then, by the time I was a senior, the kids that were sent to the boarding school were the ones that caused problems in the villages. And so by the time I graduated-- after I graduated-- it became an issue, and that’s eventually why the boarding schools shut down. And I think that the boarding school era had a lot of positive outcomes. You can see it today at the Alaska Federation of Natives Convention; everyone across the state has close ties with each other, because they spent their teen years together, living together in dorms and going to school together and getting to know each other and developing relationships that last a lifetime.

"the big boat is coming!"

Another exciting thing and fun thing in my childhood was when the North Star came in-- the big ship. Every summer, we would wait and wait to see when the ice would go out. And when someone yelled, “The big boat is coming!”-- that was one of the most exciting things. ... Because on that boat would be all of the year’s supplies of food for the store, for the school, for your home; groceries that your parents ordered; there would be fresh fruit; you would get to have an orange. When the cry came out that the North Star was seen or was coming in, everyone couldn’t wait, especially the kids. For me, I couldn’t wait to see Captain Moe! He always came ashore with bags and boxes. And he always had one or two helpers with him. And he would all have all the kids line up-- we would run to our houses and our mothers would give us a pillowcase-- and we would run and get in line. And Captain Moe would give each of us candy and give us a hug. He was a big, big Norwegian man with a beard, and he laughed big, deep laughter, and he had so much love for the kids. We couldn’t wait. He would give us handfuls of candy and put 'em in our pillowcase with his big hands. And I always made my candy last allll year, until Captain Moe came back! Everyone in town had candy from Captain Moe, and it would be those little taffies that are wrapped in white wax paper, and it would be those mints that melt in your mouth, and it would be hard candies. ... I remember one year I was in line-- all the men are moving boxes back and forth off of barges, and there’s excitement in the air, and there’s boxes piled up on the beach from the ship; there’s the school supplies for the year; the store, groceries; and we’re all lining up in excitement to see Captain Moe. And I remember being in line and just being squished by other kids and being happy. And then we were in awe when this one boy said “thank you” to Captain Moe, and he laughed so hard, and then he reached in his pocket and gave him a five-dollar bill. I had never seen a five-dollar bill before! That was the first time I learned it was very valuable to say, “Thank you!"