On Wanderlust, Part 1: What is Home?

Learning about travel from an ancient Alaskan tribe that never left home

Editor's Note: This is the first part of a three-part story exploring human history and the never-ending urge to wander. Click here for Part 2, and here for Part 3.

Savoonga is the place to be on the Fourth of July. The village is a cluster of roofs on the north side of St. Lawrence Island, a treeless hump of capes and dormant volcanoes rising out of the Bering Sea, battered by Arctic weather. The Native Yup'iks here celebrate the holiday with more gusto than people in most small Western towns. On that clear and sunny morning last year, folding chairs were placed in front of the two-story plywood town hall. People of all ages came out of their small, boxy government houses, some walking in family groups, others arriving on four-wheelers from the other side of the village. They greeted each other with a spritely, "Happy Fourth of the July!"

St. Lawrence Island is Alaskan, though far out of view of the American mainland and barely within sight of the mountainous Siberian coast. Villagers told me they celebrated the Fourth because it was better than being Russian. Savoonga holds foot races that day, and bike races, and hot dogs are served on paper plates with bags of Doritos and a little stack of cookies for dessert.

Out came the old, red fire truck, siren wailing in celebration. A PA system announced the raffle winners' numbers. I listened for my own, but it was hard to tell the difference between English and the Siberian Yup'ik tongue spoken on this island. Besides, I didn't want to hear my number called; I was a stranger in this subsistence village, and I dreaded the embarrassment of having to get up in front of everyone to claim a prize.

I was here for other reasons. I had come with questions about the Yup'ik sense of place. This sea-hunting culture has survived on these desolate sub-Arctic capes for 2,000 years, ever since its Siberian Eskimo ancestors first crossed the Bering Strait. Home freezers are stocked with walrus and seal. Even though they also rely on canned meat, deep-fried pork rinds and Pop Tarts from the cavernous village store, people still go out in small aluminum skiffs and harpoon the occasional whale by hand.

You don't come to visit empty-handed, according to scientists who'd worked here, so I'd brought gifts: fresh fruit, bags of vacuum-packed coffee, Celestial Seasonings blueberry tea as a special request. When I arrived by plane on their gravel strip several days earlier, handshakes welcomed me, and if I stayed in one place for too long, women brought me fresh baked bread or cookies wrapped in foil. Conversations flourished around kitchen tables and over hot coffee in front of woodstoves.

A vagabond myself, I had come to Savoonga hoping to learn what it means to belong to one spot on the map, to say that this place is your home and always has been. Many described how the island is changing. They spoke from a perspective of generations: Seasonal weather patterns shifting, new pelagic fish species and migratory birds appearing that are unlike anything ever seen in their history. They saw the world in longer timeframes than I was used to, and they were oddly unfazed by the idea of climate change, as if they already knew that the only thing one could do on an island this remote was adapt to whatever came next.

I wondered what it would be like to know an island that well, to remember it through stories that recede over a horizon of centuries––not just what you learned from your folks or in school, but what was remembered and preserved by the land itself.

That evening, I went to the high school gym and sat in packed bleachers while men on the floor struck walrus-gut drums. People left the bleachers and danced. They knew their places, every gesture, every footstep memorized. Toddlers came onto the floor and tried to imitate what they were seeing, while little boys stomped for their grandfathers, and little girls painted the air with their arms for their grandmothers.

A man snatched fur-lined mitts from the floor, tugging them on as he dropped into a boot-stomping promenade. He swung at the air with his mitts in swift, ritualized gestures, using expressions I didn't know. I imagined these same movements repeated generations or centuries or thousands of years ago, danced not in a gym, but out on a gray cobble spit. Women in one line, men in another, they would have scuffed the ground with their steps. Dressed in skins and furs, living on a rock in the cold and wild Bering Sea, they began something that still hasn't ended.

A couple days later, I borrowed a four-wheeler and followed a hunter east out of Savoonga. We cut across roadless, trackless tundra, going around racks of abandoned reindeer skulls, and in and out of grass gullies. A storm from the Arctic was blowing in, steel-gray clouds and pale mist swirling like ghosts across the eerie expanse. When we neared shore, mist whipped off the sea, wetting our faces, soaking our outer layers. Our fat tires crunched over generations of whalebones and butchering camps. Several miles out on a cape, we stopped. Wearing a colorful wool cap and greasy Carhartt coveralls, the hunter threw a shovel over his shoulder. We walked together through blowing fog onto a mound of tundra-gnurls and pits. It was an ancient Yup'ik village where nobody lived anymore, and it was honeycombed with dig-holes. The hunter climbed down into one.

He had told me that sometimes he hunts seal, and sometimes walrus. There are seasons for salmon and seasons for murre eggs. On a scant, windswept island like this, you take what you can get. Now, he said, was the season for artifacts.

Permafrost had loosened its grip enough for him to push a shovel into the ground. He'd been digging here, he said, most of his life. His current pit was a little over waist-deep, with water collecting at the bottom where he dug out heaping shovelfuls of muck, seeking a prehistoric harpoon tip or a chunk of fossilized walrus tusk, something worth selling. The site was surrounded by spoil piles of countless walrus skulls and bits of artifacts useless on the market. I picked up a beveled whale rib and poked mud out through holes drilled into the bone. It was a sled runner, I saw, and the holes were where it had been laced under a footboard. St. Lawrence Island is a Native corporation, not an Indian reservation. Under U.S. law, Siberian Yup'iks have the legal freedom to do whatever they want with what they have on their land, even if what they find is thousands of years old. Then again, they were here a thousand years before U.S. law ever existed.

Although some of the villagers reject the practice, many Yup'ik hunters rely on harvesting artifacts in today's cash economy. The ancestors have helped them, they say. A rare cache that includes scrimshawed ivory, or maybe a set of beautifully carved snow goggles, can fetch hundreds of thousands of dollars on the antiquities market. But you can also sell broken carved ivory tips and parts of useless, ancient halibut hooks for $5 or $10. It all adds up, if you're persistent.

The hunter told me I could take a souvenir: anything I found on the surface. Even though I was captivated by the pieces of drilled or carved bone scattered around us, I couldn't do it. None of it was mine. I wasn't even sure how I felt about the hunter's ethics, but it wasn't my place to speak. I crouched and thumbed one of the ice-scrapers out of the ground. Five hundred years old, or maybe a thousand? Whatever the case, it was far beyond the scope of my horizon.

What artifacts do I have? My grandmother's wedding ring from Big Bend country in West Texas; a box of arrowheads from my great-grandfather in southern New Mexico? Even those were beyond my scope; I had moved too many times. What should I say when I was asked where I was from? Where I was born, maybe? My most recent home? The place I get my mail?

Here on this mist-driven mound, I felt a long way from ever being native. My ancestry lacked roots: a veneer of cities and trash dumps, maybe a pile of rusted cans, and—if you looked back far enough—a handful of sickly Pilgrim villages, now archaeological sites on the Northeast Coast. I had nothing like this in the ground beneath my feet, no ancient bone tools or skulls of animals eaten by my ancestors.

There are older people than Yup'ik, though. You can't see them anymore, but they lived here, too. At the height of the last Ice Age 20,000 years ago, sea levels were down more than 300 feet and a land bridge connected Siberia to Alaska, back when St. Lawrence Island was not an island, but a high point in a landscape of seemingly endless steppe roamed by mammoths.

This is where the first people are thought to have crossed into North America. They lived in what is now called Beringia, the subcontinent that connected Asia to North America. Anatomically, they were identical to modern people. Most would have had northern-Asian facial features and copper-brown skin. They used stone tools, hunted, fished, and gathered plants or eggs, whatever they could find in this hungry, wild country.

Click here for Part 2.

This story first appeard in High Country News.