Margaret Conway

Anchorage | PAlmer | barrow

Conway at her home in Anchorage, with a view of the Chugach Mountains.

Conway at her home in Anchorage, with a view of the Chugach Mountains.

When I first came to Alaska...

The thought of just teaching in a school anywhere in the United States seemed pretty dull to me. [I'm originally from New Mexico.] My dream was to see faraway places. So, I started applying for different areas and I thought, "Okay, I'll start with 'A'." Because I wanted to see the world, you see. So, I applied in Arabia! I could have gotten that, which would have been very interesting. And I applied in Alaska. And I can't remember the other 'A.' I didn't get hired in Arabia, but I did get hired in Alaska. And I had always dreamed of Alaska, or someplace far. Alaska was a territory, of course, then, and it had a special intrigue to me. And so I got this job in a town I'd never heard of called Palmer, which was the seat of the Matanuska Valley--but it didn't mean anything to me because all I knew was "Alaska," I didn't know any other towns. So I came to Alaska. They hired me as a second grade teacher, so my mother and dad took me to El Paso, Texas, and I got on a Greyhound bus and I went from El Paso in three days to Seattle. It was a big adventure for me, to travel like that. And I got to Seattle--and I'm 21, by the way--and I get to stay in a hotel for the first time. And, then, I was going to catch an airplane, which I've never flown on, that night about midnight. A DC-4 out of Seattle, which is gonna bring me to Elmendorf Air Force Base. ... There weren't a whole lot of people in 1951 headed for Alaska, so the plane was not crammed...! But one man was very nice, and he wondered what I, this young woman, was doing, where I was going. We got in, and he said, "Well, who's meeting you?" And I said, "Oh, I'm just gonna get a bus, I guess." He said, "Do you know where Palmer is?" "Well, no." "Do you know where Anchorage is?" "Not really." "Do you know how far it is?" "No." And he said, "Well, you come home with me. My wife will be meeting me and you come home and we'll have some breakfast." So, I went with them, and they treated me like royalty. And then they said, "Well, now, how are you gonna get from Anchorage to Palmer?" At that time, there was a little small bus. And he said, "I'll get you down to the bus station." And so, he did take me to the bus station, and I got on this little bus and we took off for my new home.

"When I first came to Alaska at the age of 21, the average age in Alaska was 21! ... Everyone was young. Everyone was getting away from something, or looking forward to something, or mostly looking for adventure."


education in utqiagvik / barrow

Bleak. Totally bleak. And when I would walk there in breakup time, nobody would step out of the door without gumboots on, because the mud and the yuck. And everything that had been thrown out--and believe me, everything had been thrown out, in the winter time, you're not gonna haul it off anyplace, so you'd just throw it out the door. And that means old seal skins, and all kinds of animal hides that you can get up there. They would save the good part, but throw the rest of it out there to be hauled off...sometime. ... They're all [Inupiaq] Eskimos there [in the city of Utqiagvik / Barrow], except for the white teachers or white people in town. Barrow called the white people taniks. You weren't the dearest people in the world to their hearts at that time, because they were flooded with too many people that were gonna tell them all how to live. I was sent to Barrow to try to incorporate the culture into the curriculum. We were teaching the kids reading, writing, math, and I was teaching teachers how they can use the culture in their curriculum. And so, they would go out, interview an elder: "How do you set a trap for a fox, an arctic fox?" And the elder would explain it. First they learn interviewing skills, and then, they write it. And when it's over, they collected all of this and made books out of it. That was part of my job, was to take all of that stuff and have them make books and things. So that's what I was doing in Barrow, which included my going out once with them on a whale hunt, out of [the village of] Wainwright.

WhAling in the arctic ocean

The whaling captain and his crew have gone and set up, and they're waiting now for the [bowhead] whales to come through. They send a messenger back, on snowmachine--used to be a dog team--flying the whaling captain's flag, and then everybody knows Captain has got a whale. [Captain] Nageak. So they all jump on their snowmachines, and out they go to the place to where the Nageak camp is, that's thirty miles out on the Arctic Ocean. They have killed the whale and they’ve hauled it up by ropes around the flukes, to get it to the edge of the ice. But getting it up on the ice is the next problem. This one weighed 60 tons. And so everyone in the village--and this might have been a hundred--come out there, and they tie the ropes around, and we all got on the rope, I was on it too, and we all say, “We have the rope!” And he says, “WALK AWAY!” So everybody haaauuuls, as hard as they can, up onto the ice. And that in itself is a job, right? But they’ve got to cut that baby up, so they can share it with everybody in the village.