Sue Steinacher



When i first came to alaska...

I think the reason I came to Alaska is I just, somewhere, believed it’s where I belonged. ... I didn’t arrive in Alaska until 1980, after going to college in Oregon. ... Within a week of graduating I had sold what I could sell, loaded the rest up in a Volkswagen and was on my way. A lot of people ask, "Why Alaska?" Why was I drawn there? And I go all the way back to third grade, where I can remember some man came and talked to our school class about the North, and about Northern peoples. And I was intrigued. ... So there was something there pretty early. And I think as a kid I just loved winter more than summer. But you know, it wasn’t a clearcut path. When I first moved to Alaska, I was also struggling with clinical depression. I felt like, [in] my first five years in Alaska, what I most succeeded at was keeping myself alive. And I kept trying to create a sense of well-being by doing more interesting things. It’s like: if I could just find the most exotic, interesting, remote job, I would somehow feel better about myself. So I worked in the Aleutians with the seabirds and marine mammals for a year; and traveled throughout the Aleutians on fishing boats; and worked on these different islands; and worked on the Brooks Range with grizzlies; and songbirds on the Kenai Peninsula; and then I got an opportunity to go to Little Diomede to monitor the walrus harvest.

Steinacher outside her home in the Icy View neighborhood of Nome.

Steinacher outside her home in the Icy View neighborhood of Nome.

Finding a sense of belonging

When I left for Little Diomede, I was very, very low self-esteem. And I thought, "I can’t put myself out there any further than going to this incredibly remote little village." And that village saved me! I mean here I am: I’ve been sent by the federal government to monitor the walrus harvest, so I feel like I’m an intruder and I'm an imposer. I shouldn’t be there. And I was so nervous I didn’t want to come out of the school [where I was staying] for three days. And finally both this young woman and this elder said, "C’mon, you know, you gotta engage with the community--and the more you do, the more they’ll welcome you." And that’s what they did. ... I slowly discovered that the more I gave myself to them, the more they welcomed me. It was really life-changing. 

"I’ve often said that I had an inner compass. And I just, in a very intuitive way, kept listening to where that compass was leading me. And it kept leading me North, and it kept leading me West! ... And I suppose to some people it's the end of the world. But in another regard just rotate the map, rotate the globe, and it actually becomes the center of everything."


the lower 48 people totally don't get it.

I think I’m still gathering first impressions from Alaska, thirty-six years later. There’s a saying that three blind men walked up to an elephant and were asked to describe it--what this animal was. And one grabs the trunk and says, "Oh, this animal is like a very big snake, and very sinuous and slithering!" And another grabs a leg and says, "Oh, this is a very large, staid, monstrous, stout creature!" And someone else grabs the ear or the tail, and they have a completely different perception. And that’s Alaska. My husband is so tired of me explaining this to everybody I meet in the Lower 48: that if you take the entire state of Alaska and you spread it over the Lower 48—including the panhandle and the Aleutians—it goes coast-to-coast and border-to-border. I just don’t think there’s a map that does Alaska justice. I don’t think the Lower 48 can understand how much of an Arctic coastline we have, because to them Alaska would fit several times within Texas. They just really have no clue how big this state is, and that you go from Arctic tundra to temperate rainforest to the boreal forest. I mean, we’re just such a diverse state—of cultures, of people, and of climates and environments. And the Lower 48 people totally don’t get it. And they really need to. I love it, they ask, "How’s the weather in Alaska?" Well, it’s like asking, "How’s the weather in America?"

phenomenally resilient, & still struggling

People try to categorize Native culture one way or another. That either, "All Native people live in igloos," or, "They all run multi-billion dollar corporations," or, "They’re all alcoholic." You know. It’s like people want to somehow categorize and pigeonhole, which you can’t do! ... Native culture is as diverse within its culture as anybody is within their own culture, and I think trying to impress that upon people is important. There are those I’ve seen who have come [to rural Alaska] with very romantic ideas, you know, "the noble savage, in total harmony with the land." And then they become disillusioned, when they see that, no: there’s struggles, there’s challenges. There’s certainly been enough historical trauma inflicted upon Native culture. They’re phenomenally resilient, and yet still struggling to overcome what they culturally have encountered for the last hundred-plus years. And [it's important] to help [other] people keep all of that in perspective. To recognize that there are challenges; why there are challenges; [and] that there are tremendous successes, you know. That there’s just as huge diversity within the Native culture--as there is within any culture.

fifty years from now...

I really don’t know where Alaska’s going. The Bering Straits region is one of the real hotspots of climate change, and it is dramatic! I can see such huge differences in my time here, in terms of when the ice forms, if it forms, how it forms; getting bizarre insect infestations; growth of willows; the advance of trees. The change particularly in the permanent year-round sea ice and the change in the Arctic ice pack is huge, and dramatic, and terribly frightening, because Native culture here has been built around the walrus migration, the four different ice seals, the whales and polar bears, and all of their interactions are dependent on this ice that is changing so dramatically. It’s completely unknowable what 50 years from now--I mean, they’re saying that the polar ice may be gone. So what happens to all of these species upon which human culture has depended, when the environment upon which they depend is gone? I don’t know...There are times when I think I’m really grateful I don’t have children, because I would be scared. At the same time, something that was really insightful for me was reading [how] back in the Gold Rush era, when there was dramatic change going on here—Western culture arrived, Western diseases arrived, Western alcohol arrived—and somebody in the early 1900s wrote that they didn’t think that Native culture would survive another twenty years. And yet look, here we are more than a hundred years later: Native culture has survived, and in many regards is thriving, even as it struggles to deal with some of the influences and changes that were brought. And so, who’s to say, you know? I think there’s massive changes ahead, and I just can’t predict what they’re going to be, or how we’re going to adapt. And I want to hold onto hope... but I’m also scared.