I held my breath until I nearly passed out as the DC7 dropped vertically down the pass between two gigantic mountains, and then glided to a stop on the tiny airstrip of the remote Aleutian Island of Iliaka, the site of my very first anthropology research. I was studying culture change and the village of Iliaka was in the midst of it. It's a small(population 300) traditional village faced with adapting to a money economy as the booming crab industry located a processing plant on its shores.
I thought my racing heart would calm down after we landed, but it speeded up at the thought of the daunting task before me. I had to win the trust and confidence of the population in a village where I knew not a soul. Who would befriend me, a white woman in a Native community, an educated woman in a village with no schooling beyond the 8th grade, a middle class woman in a town teeming with poverty?
After getting settled in the tiny two-room house I'd rented, I set out to survey the town. Most of the houses, many in disrepair, lay helter skelter along the beach front. But they were framed by a most magnificent view of an endless expanse of ocean on one side and on the other, majestic mountains dotted with delicately carved lakes and inlets.
I paused to gaze at the imposing Russian Orthodox church, as well kept and beautiful as one found in any east European city. Two women, one round as an apple, the other lanky as a string bean, sat cross legged on the church lawn cutting the grass with long handled scissors. Ah, here was my chance to begin!
"Hi There. I'm Dorothy Jones, the anthropologist from the University."
They nodded without looking up.
"Did you read in your local paper about my coming here to learn about your village?"
The apple-shaped woman nodded.
"I'm eager to talk to you, to find out about life here in Iliaka."
The women concentrated on their grass cutting as if I hadn't spoken, but I went on. "I'm planning to interview your chief and priest and Moses, the bar owner. Can you suggest others I should talk to?"
"Anesia," said the apple-shaped women.
"Who is she?" I asked.
"Chief of all the Aleuts," she replied as she swiveled her body around until her back was to me.
Clearly, I'd been dismissed, yet my heart was light--my research was launched!
I continued down the beach, past the one grocery store, to the docks at the south end of the village. There, an aluminum sided cannery stood on black pilings. On its land side were small storage trailers, several trailers that I later learned were living quarters, a large two- story bunkhouse for imported cannery workers, and a mess hall.
And turning my back on the cannery, I saw rolling hills sprinkled with a half dozen freshly painted houses, larger and more modern that those on the beach front. They housed the cannery manager, cannery supervisors, the owner of the store, and the head teacher at the school.
My survey of the village complete, I returned to my house to make notes and map out my work for the following day. Before I finished, I heard a faint knock on my door. Did I have a visitor already?
"I'm Roy, your next door neighbor."
I invited him in.
"I'm excited about your study. So I thought maybe I can be of help. I'm a teacher at the school and know about everyone in the village."
I had to contain my impulse to hug him, but I brewed tea instead. He stayed for an hour, making suggestions about villagers most likely to cooperate with me. He didn't mention Anesia, so I asked him about her.
"She's the inspiration here. I didn't mention her today because she's in Anchorage teaching a seminar in the Aleut language. But you must see her when she returns in a few days."
My curiosity about Anesia swelled during the next few days as many of the people I talked to referred me to Anesia. "What is so special about her?" I asked the apple shaped woman. She grinned broadly, then said, "she knows our history like no one else."
Three days later, after learning that Anesia was back, I paid her a visit. She was a tiny woman, less than five feet tall who couldn't have weighed more than 80 pounds wringing wet. With a gesture of her head she beckoned me in and pointed me to a chair at an old fashioned enamel table where two women sat sipping tea--Anna and Nellie, the two women I met in the church yard. A few minutes later, Anesia handed me a cup. "Chai," she said, reminding me of the Russian influence on Aleuts from their earlier occupation of the islands.
Anesia kneeled on a low standing stool next next to a large basket containing bundles of grass. She picked up a blade and, with a long thumb nail, began to split it into finer strips. I'd read about the excellence of Aleut baskets and how only a handful of weavers were left. Anesia must be one of them, I thought.
Nellie was reading a letter from her son, Leonty, one of the first Iliakan children to attend high school at the Indian school in Salem, Oregon. The Indian Service had promised the students trips home for Christmas and summer vacation. But they'd run out of money for trips home. Leonty was devastated. "I'm afraid I'll die if I stay here year round," he wrote. Nellie's hands shook as she put the letter back in its envelope and Anna's ear lobes had turned a bright red. But neither of them said anything. Nor did Anesia, though she'd drawn her lips into a tight line. Weren't they going to discuss the letter, talk about solutions? Wasn't Anesia called chief of all the Aleuts? I stared at her waiting for a response but she kept her head bowed over the blade of grass. Well, if they weren't going to say anything, I was. . "Can we take up a collection so Leonty can come home?" The silence continued and I realized I had no choice but to join it.
After Nellie and Anna left, I told Anesia I had heard about her importance in the village and was eager to learn about her life. She barked a question at me. "How long do you plan to stay?"
"All summer." That should assure her, I thought but she said nothing and kept her attention fixed on the grass.
Making notes that evening, I wondered why she asked that question and why in an angry tone. Then I remembered an incident Nellie had related about a white reporter from National Geographic. who, after a day and a half in the village, published a six page authoritative article about Aleut culture. Anesia must have wondered if I was like him. Yet, when I told her I planned to stay all summer, she didn't look pleased. Maybe I needed a different approach to win her trust. But what?
It's strange how sleep can solve problems. On waking, my first thought was, I'l give her the article I wrote in college about the demoralizing effects of white contact in Native communities, like the high rates of alcoholism and family disorganization. Surely that would tell her whose side I was on. She wasn't home when I brought the article, but I left it with her son, Vasili.
She came right up to me in the store the following day. "I read your so-called article," she said before turning abruptly and walking away from me. I had felt sure she'd appreciate my sympathy, but she seemed offended by the article. Did my description of Natives' demoralization make her think I was casting people like her in a negative light, publicizing things that might shame them? I was disheartened.
Two days later Anesia came to my house. A wrinkled paper bag lay curled in the cook of her arm. She sat down on the bench in front of the picnic table that constituted one of my few pieces of furniture, carefully lifted some grass shoots from her bag, and gently placed them on the table. "This is how to start a basket." she said. Tears of appreciation sprang to my eyes, but I quickly swiped them away.
We sat together all afternoon in a silence that was interrupted only by her instructions. She showed me how to dampen the strands of grass to make them pliable and then split them until they were threads as fine as silk. She watched me practice, over and over again until I got it right. After what seemed like minutes but turned out to be several hours, she rose and on her way to the door, said, "Next time we start to weave."
After she left, I did a little hopping dance to celebrate my triumph. Anesia was now my friend. She trusted me. It was nothing she said in words, but she's an expert in silent communication. Her quiet gift was a more compelling sign of friendship than a mountain of words.
I hoped Anesia would return the next day or the next but four days passed with no sign of her. On the fifth day, I decided to check at her house to see if she was all right but a raging storm kept me inside. The wind roared and gusted at what felt like 100 miles an hour. And rain relentlessly pelted my roof and windows. What was this?--rivulets of water were flowing in through rips in the linoleum. I panicked. Was I going to be flooded? Should I leave the house? But where would I go? Others might be flooding, too. A knock on the door. It was Vacili, Anesia's son. "Mama says to come to us. Our house is on a hill and won't flood." I grabbed my parka and shoulder bag and followed him. Anesia had just finished changing the bed linen in one of the two bedrooms in her house. She motioned me to put my things down on the bed. "But this is Vacili's room," I protested. "Never mind. He'll be too busy to sleep, checking on everyone and taking people from flooding areas farther up in the hills."
That night, Anesia and I sat up until all hours while she told me about her life in Ichika, the village of her birth. She had left there when she was ten years old and never been back. Ichika was the most remote of the inhabited Aleutian Islands. You could get there only by Navy boat and the Navy seldom transported Natives other than those living in Ichika. That night, as she confided her grief about being virtually exiled from her village of birth, I felt very close to her. And I sensed that she felt the same toward me. This was the bond I longed for. But then, suddenly, for no reason I could fathom, Anesia's face muscles and lips tightened and without so much as a "good night', she hustled off to her bed.
At the breakfast table next morning, I searched Anesia's eyes to judge her mood. Her response startled me. "Don't look at me like that."
"Like a doctor sizing up my insides."
What was I supposed to do, avert my eyes the way she did when we talked? Why was she making an issue about such a little thing? But was it wasnot a little thing to her. thing? Maybe, I theorized, people who live in small villages where they know everyone, where they see everyone every day, have to create ways to protect their privacy, and if they consider eyes a window into the soul, then one of the ways would be to avoid staring into them. I ran my theory by Anesia and when she smiled I realized I'd have to train myself to look away when I talked to her.
The day after the storm, Anesia left town again, this time to teach Aleut dances to students at the University. I learned about her departure from Vacili. She'd never said a word about the trip. Was I expecting too much? Do I take one evening of closeness as a commitment to a lifetime bond.? But I wish I knew what she really thought of me.
My mood took an upward swing when I picked up my mail. The University museum was giving me a grant to collect artifacts from Ichika, the most traditional of the remaining Aleut villages. Since the Aleut language was primary in Ichika, the grant included wages for an interpreter. Whoop-de-do, I could hire Anesia. While the Navy had never granted any of her requests for transport back to her village of birth, as an interpreter for a University sponsored project, she'd be eligible for passage on the navy boat. Now, for sure, she'll appreciate me.
Her eyes sparkled like dew when I told her the news.
In the tiny village of Ichika, population fifty-two, the monthly visit by the navy ship was a time of great upheaval and excitement. The navy delivered villagers who'd been away for jobs or health care as well as mail, mail orders, a medic, and booze. Two days later, it carried away other villagers and outgoing mail. The day we arrived, Ichika was awhirl--families greeting returnees, preparing others scheduled to leave, preparing outgoing mail and mail orders, petitions, and whatever other business they had with the world outside. But on our visit, instead of the usual two day visit, the ship's captain announced departure after just six hours due to a fast approaching and threatening storm.
I swallowed my breath climbing from the whale boat that took us back to the ship up a wet, wavering, slithery rope ladder to the ship's deck. Anesia was one rung behind me as if she planned to catch me if I lost balance. Once aboard, she motioned me to follow her below deck where the Natives were quartered.
"Come in for some tea, Dr. Corn," an officer called to me as we passed the ward room. He hadn't seen Anesia trailing behind me, but she followed me to a seat at the cherrywood table around which the ship's officers sat. Anesia was small, but not so small the officers couldn't see her, yet they directed their eyes and conversation solely to me. They'd been talking about Aleut drunkenness, and for sure there'd been a demonstration of that as Ichika Native men bound for work in other villages, staggered aboard. After a month of sobriety, the Aleuts celebrated the day the ship arrived with a grand drinking spree. A ship's officer was elaborating on this theme. "Never seen anyone drink the way they do; one or two down the hatch and they're blotto." Several other officers made similar remarks. Then an officer, his back to Anesia, said to me, "What do you make of their drunkenness, Doctor."
I considered giving them a mini lecture about drinking sprees being a substitute for the traditional ceremonies that whites had destroyed, but I was too angry to remain in that room another minute and got up to leave. Anesia was at my heels.
"Doctor," an officer called after me: "We have accomodations for you in the officer's quarters."
"I'm bunking with the Aleuts," I said as Anesia and I hurried away. Wordlessly we went below deck to the dark, smelly mess hall. Anesia steered us to a far corner of the room where we could sit apart from others. An ache lay on my chest, an ache of anger and helplessness about the officer's having treated Anesia as if she didn't exist. And if I felt this troubled, how must she feel? No wonder she's cautious and suspicious around whites, including me.
I was about to say something about this, but one look at her made me change my mind. She was sitting as stiff as if laced into a whale bone corset, her eyes fixed on three men entering the mess hall so drunk they had to run to keep from falling. Color flushed Anesia's face and her breath came in small gusts. "I wanted you to see how good my people are, not how drunk they get. I wanted you to be proud of my people." I reached over and held her hand, not only in sympathy with the shame she felt, but in a selfish way, knowing that her comment indicated how much she cared about what I thought.
"I am proud of your people," I said.
At that moment, a round-faced Ichika man, very unsteady on his feet, bumped into our table. In her small, quiet voice, Anesia issued a command. "Go to your room and lay down."
He obeyed without hesitation.
No wonder they call her chief of all the Aleuts!
Making his way across the room, the man lurched against one wall then against another. At first I thought it because of his drunkenness but then I realized it was from the rolling of the ship. Indeed, the storm was upon us. Anesia and I headed below deck to our sleeping cubicle.
It was bare, with space only for a narrow double deck bunk bed and one small warped wooden chair. No sheets, pillows, or blankets, not even a towel. Good Lord, they treated the Aleuts like cattle. Anesia was seventy years old and in deference to her age, I left the bottom bunk for her and climbed above, taking my parka and purse to serve as cover and pillow. And there I prepared to die. The storm had gone wildly out of control, each riotous heave of the waves tossing the ship higher and higher into the air and crashing down to what felt like the bottom of the sea, crashing into my ears for we were separated from that tumultuous sea by only a few timbers. I was sure the keel would crack open and cast us adrift in those coldest waters in North America. I huddled into my parka and clutched my wafer thin mattress as a lifeline.
"Daria, Daria," Anesia's soft, reassuring voice floated up to me like a gentle breeze. This was the first time she'd called me by my Russian-Aleut name. But that comfort was quickly shattered by the next seething eruption of the sea. Up, up into the air, three stories high, four stories high, then plummeting down to a jolt that twisted my insides like a pretzel. I groaned with an engulfing nausea.
"We must be halfway through the pass," Anesia said, trying to reassure me.
"What Pass? I asked, fearing her answer.
"Amlia Pass," she whispered.
"Amlia Pass," I screamed to myself, the most treacherous pass in Aleutian waters. How often I'd heard my husband Bill describe the terror of that pass. Though he'd sailed in Aleutians waters dozens of times, he scrupulously avoided traveling through Amlia Pass.
Sick as I was, I couldn't help but ask--"Anesia, you haven't seen this part of the Aleutians in sixty years. How do you know we're in Amlia Pass?"
"I know," she said. And the next convulsive churning of the sea convinced me she did. A cold fear choked my breath and bile rose from my stomach to my throat. I had to vomit. But where? If I deposited it in my parka I'd lose my cover and freeze to death. I gripped my rebelling stomach, but I could hold it in no longer. I tried confining the mess to a corner of my bed but it spread over half of it.
"Come to me, Daria," she said.
I climbed down into her bunk and hugged the wall to make sure there was enough space for her. She curled up against my back, wrapped her thin arms around my chest and rocked me--me, twice her size--and hummed. I clutched her small, cold hand only to have it wrested away by the next jolting upheaval. An image of my near drowning experience in high school flashed before me. I had jumped into the school pool to rescue a girl I thought was drowning. She grabbed my neck with an iron hold and dragged me down. Hard as I fought I couldn't free myself. Then, as I was near passing out, someone threw us a pole and pulled us to the surface. But I never forgot the desperate sense of helplessness and doom I felt in those few seconds. Now, I felt the same terror as the roaring waves continued to batter the ship. I hit my hand against the wall as if to ward off the encroaching doom. I pictured Bill passing out when he heard I'd drowned. Tears rushed from my eyes. "Shit!" Will we never get out of this god damn pass?"
As if I hadn't spoken those words of desperation, in a voice as calm as a lullaby, Anesia began to unfold a story about her life in Ishika. "My 12th name day. Everyone in the village came to celebrate with special dishes and special gifts. I still dream about the one my godmother Matrona gave me, a spirit doll. It was woven from rye grass and had black shiny stones for eyes. Matrona told me that whenever evil spirits cast a spell, I should cradle my doll in my arms, for it was stuffed with good spirits and would chase away the spell. I'm holding you now, Daria. You're my spirit doll."
I tried to turn so I could touch her or plant a kiss on her brow, but the cot was too narrow. She went on to tell me other stories meant to lift my spirits. Suddenly, I realized something. The boat had stopped rocking. The sea was calm. By God, we had triumphed over Amlia Pass. This time I managed to twist my body around so I could hug Anesia. She clung to me as if I was in danger of floating away. So there we lay, like one, bound together, bonded together.
Anesia was due to teach a short course in basket weaving at the University, and since I lived only a short distance from campus, she stayed with me. In the following two evenings, after Bill went to bed, she and I sat by the fire sipping chai and talking. Well, she did the talking, confiding ever more intimate details of her life. Tears rolled down her cheek as she described Vacili's drinking binges which sometimes lasted a month. "The last time he was on a binge," she said, "he sold my valuables, my baskets and a whalebone carving; he tore up the floor looking for hidden money. He was like a crazy man until he found another bottle.'
"Oh, how tragic," I said
She became lost in her own thoughts and when she did speak, her voice sounded like it came from a distance. "Tragedy," she said. "Our town knows tragedy. We had a dream, all of us in Iliaka. To have our own boat, a real boat, not a dory or dinghy but a grand one like the Indian Affairs ship. We started a community fund. Everyone put in, whenever they got cash. After two years, we thought we had enough. We sent three of our men, including my Peter, to Seattle to look around at boats. They found one, more beautiful than any government boat I ever saw. We named her after our town--The Iliaka Native. We prepare her for a voyage. The men in the crew plan to visit other villages where Simeon--he's a reader in our church--will marry and bury. Then the men will fish and hunt sea lions. My youngest son Cousta knows how to hunt in the old way. He joins the crew." After a big gulp of air, she whispers: "Ship goes down in Amlia Pass. All hands lost."
I felt dizzy picturing the enormity of her loss, thinking of how, going through the Pass, her grief about the Iliaka Native must have surged like the roaring waves; And of how, in her anguish she managed to take care of my panic. "Oh forgive me, Anesia. When we were in Amlia Pass, I was so wrapped up in my own terror, I didn't pause to consider that yours might be a million times worse."
Her chest heaved, as if with inner sobs.
"I love you," I said.
She took my hand and held on to it as if it were a life raft.
I thought about that evening many times. Sometimes I was engulfed with grief for her. But there were also times when I felt like soaring**, to realize that I'd finally won her trust and friendship. Her love, too. And something more happened in reviewing her revelations. As she confided her most memorable experiences and her deepest feelings, I formed the distinct impression that she was equipping me to write her life story. And I felt like jumping up and shouting--yes, yes, yes!
In the past, I had received an occasional letter from Anesia. But during the summer following our last visit, I received none. Why? I wondered. I knew she was at fish camp where she had no access to a post office. But I also knew that people at fish camp made periodic visits to the village for supplies. She could have given such persons a letter to mail. Well, put it aside, I told myself. You can ask her about it in a couple weeks when she comes to the University. She's to perform Aleut dances for a Museum video.
"I"m going to pick Anesia up at the airport tomorrow. Do you know what time she arrives?" I asked Lon, the Museum director.
"She asked to stay with me, so I'll pick her up," he answered.
I felt like I'd been punched in the belly. She always stayed with me. Why was she shunning me? We were so close the last time we were together. Did she regret having opened up to such a depth? Did telling me about the sinking of the Akusha Native rekindle her grief and make her decide to stop confiding? Or was it something I had done or said? Did she think I had gone too far when I said, 'I love you?' I must talk to her about this.
I found her at the museum the following afternoon and immediately invited her to dinner.
"We'll see," she said in a flat voice.
"Well, will you or won't you?"
"Going to Lon's house."
I could feel my complexion change. She was treating me like a stranger? No matter what I'd done, I deserved an explanation.
I saw her the following afternoon, again at the museum. This time I was more direct. "I must talk to you," I said.
"Busy. Packing. Leaving early tomorrow morning."
I heard nothing more about Anesia until I saw Roy on campus three weeks after she'd left. He was the teacher who was close to Anesia. "Did you hear about Anesia?"
I shook my head.
He choked up. "She died last Tuesday."
I gagged on my breath.
He went on. "A mild case so everyone expected her to recover. But the day before the end, she told me"--he stopped to clear his throat--"she said she wanted to die. The next day, her heart just stopped."
"She wanted to die? Why? Why?"
"She had a bad time at fish camp. That's the only thing I could think of."
I was numb, that day and for many that followed. Was it my fault? Had I let her down? No, I wasn't that important to her, I assured myself. But those questions plagued me.
For a year, few days passed when Anesia wasn't in my mind or in my dreams; few days passed when my heart didn't ache for a chance to have set things right with her.
The letter arrived a year after her death. Across the envelope in bold letters were the words: "Lost in a Baltimore mail bag." She had written the letter from summer fish camp, shortly before her last visit to the University. This is what she wrote:
"You never saw me cry, Daria. Not even during the storm in Amlia Pass. Now I can't stop. Vacili and my nephew are here at fish camp. It is very bad. It is worse than very bad. They are on a binge for three weeks. They tore up my floorboards looking for more stuff when their batch of home brew was gone. They tore up my neighbor's floors for the same reason. They took our boat out when they were stewed and ran it aground. They ripped my salmon from the drying rack and threw it at our neighbor when he tried to make them stop. Daria, I can no longer bear it. Please Daria, may I come to you?"
Oh Lord, now I understood why she was so distant at our last meeting. Now I understood that her turning to me in a time of crisis proved her love and trust in me. And to think she died thinking me a heartless creature who turned a deaf ear to her cry for help. Ah, Anesia!