Ruth Ann Kunnuk 

 Anchorage | NOME

Kunnuk at her home in Anchorage.

Kunnuk at her home in Anchorage.

when i first came to alaska...

I was going to be a teacher. I just graduated, and I did all of my interviews over the telephone. And I came across to Seattle, from Indiana, and then up, I think. I don’t know, it took me hours and hours to get to Nome back then, because you’d go about six hours from Seattle to Anchorage, and then you get on a flight and go the McGrath, and then finally arrive in Nome. I loved Nome! I knew it the minute I got off the plane. And even now, I go back, and I still think, "This is home; this is great." And it still took me like four years to acclimate [when we moved from Nome to Anchorage]. I never was homesick for Indiana, never. But I was homesick for Nome! Four years it took me to get used to Anchorage; it was so impersonal and everything.

meeting vince kunnuk

Well, I went up there [to Nome] in 1965. And Vince was the manager of the hardware department in the Alaska Commercial Company. And he always flirted with me. And I went in there to buy a rug, a carpet, area rug. I was living in this house that I’d rented from another teacher; it was very cold, and I needed something on the floor, so I wanted to buy an area carpet. He said to me, he gives me this flirting look in his eyes, and says, “Can I help you lay your rug?” That was his-- that was his come-on line! I said, “No!” And then, somehow or another... There wasn’t a lot of activity to do in Nome; they had a bowling alley, and somehow or another he finagled it so I was on his team in the bowling league. That’s how we met. We got married in ‘67. Yep, he’s a big bowler.

schooling in nome

I taught first grade [in Nome], and back then it was really segregated, the school. Not as much as when [Vince] was there; when he was there, they had a Native school and a white school. By the time I came along, they had a system where there were-- there probably wasn’t that much difference in population now than there was then-- but they had a system where they divided the children up and they called them the A, B, and C groups. Like the first grade had three classes, and I taught the B class. And the A class was made up mostly of white kids; the B class was white kids and some Native children; the C class was almost totally Native children. ... I don’t know how long it was that we were on that ABC schedule. It was terrible; the teachers hated it and understood how segregated it was. And so I don’t know what year they quit doing that, but it was a big relief; it was an awful situation. The principal at that time ... had written a book, and it was like Dick and Jane and Sally, only they had pictures of Native children in place of it, but still in the English language. That was the kind of reading materials that we were using back then. And the school was, you know, they didn’t have enough room in the main school and so they rented places all over town, and we had rented from the Catholic church for the first grade, and they had three classrooms in there, and we only taught half a day, and then another teacher came in and used my classroom. And that’s just the way it had to be, 'cause it was overcrowded in the school. ... My classroom was very long and narrow, and the kids had picnic tables that they used for their desks, that came up to about their chins; you know, their pencils would go through cracks in the table when they were writing. And they had honey buckets; they didn’t have flush toilets. It wasn’t hard for me to acclimate. I was from a farm-- we had an outhouse till I was seventeen-- so it didn’t bother me all that much. Later on they ... moved the school out to the Beltz High School. 

"When I went there, there wasn’t television. So the kids were playing in the street, as soon as the snow was melted; you’d see big circles in the street where they were playing marbles, and the girls would play jump jack. And it was great: the kids played, the kids were friendly, and the kids were respectful. And then came bingo and television. They came right about the same time. … People would go off to bingo, and then the older children would babysit the younger children, and the television would babysit the children, and a lot of the white culture--the smart-alecky answers and disrespect to parents--would come over the screen. And they learned that, and it wasn’t the same after that." 

how nome is

I liked the warmth. That seems strange to say: the warmth of it. When, you know, there would be months on end where it would be thirty below zero! But it was the people, the people. And let me tell you, in 1989, I got breast cancer-- this was just Nome, just Nome, it’s always been like that: I had to come down here [to Anchorage] for a lumpectomy and radiation treatments, and I went back to Nome after the diagnosis. ... I gathered all of my things. ... They were having a [school] play in the springtime, and I sat next to Mary Knodle. And Mary Knodle owned a gift shop and flower shop and coffee shop combination. Anyway, I was sitting next to her, and they had an intermission. And during the intermission, she slips a check for two hundred dollars in my pocket and said, "You need this more than I do." And that’s just Nome, that’s Nome, you know. Great people. They help. ... And later on, I don’t know if you know Becca from Nome, anyway her brother had been one of my students, and he got cancer, lymphoma. And I was able to give that money back to that family, so that worked out. But that’s just how Nome is: that’s just Nome.