Jon Waterhouse’s “Healing Journey,” began in 2007 with a simple request by the native elders and tribal leaders living in the Yukon River watershed for him to “go out, take the pulse of the river.” Since then, his journeys combining traditional culture and modern science have taken him from Alaska, to Louisiana, to Sudan, and now back up to where it all began.
By Jon Waterhouse, National Geographic Fellow
The weather along the Yukon River, with recent rains and high water levels, has pushed the Healing Journey to arrive in Ruby early in the day. This river is sparsely populated and with the unusually high waters, good places to stop and camp or rest have been few and far between. Rocky cliffs and steep banks abound in this stretch of the Yukon so on the last night before Ruby, the paddlers opted to press through. Over the next 3 days, the paddlers, local residents, guests and leadership will be in Ruby to participate in the Yukon River Inter-Tribal Watershed (YRITWC) 2011 Biennial Summit and as the crew is welcomed ashore by an impressive group of drummers the mood here is one of eagerness and excitement!
The YRITWC Biennial Summit is a gathering of leadership and includes the Chiefs, Elders, environmental coordinators and community members of the 70 Tribes and First Nations who live and work on the Yukon River. During past Summits, this council has made decisions dealing with a wide variety of major issues involving the Yukon; nuclear power, water quality and salmon health – by consensus. The focus of this 2011 Summit is Native Water Rights and after long consideration, the decision has been made to move forward and take action by pursuing these rights in Alaska. This effort will affect a watershed which is over a third the size of Alaska and with so much riding on its outcome the need for cautious contemplation is evident. Observing the manners and methods enlisted by this group to respectfully reach a consensus is poignant and inspirational. It is a process from which many people around the globe might take a lesson.
With the arrival of the Healing Journey and the beginning of the YRITWC’s Biennial Summit, the tiny village of Ruby, Alaska has never seen so many guests, and the local children and youth have anxiously anticipated the upcoming festivities. The majority of the population of Ruby is Athabascan and we have heard that there have been no traditional Athabascan dancers here for generations. So returning to the roots of their culture, these kids have planned an honoring dance to welcome all to their lovely hillside village on the Yukon. Under the direction and supervision of parents, grandparents and Elders, they have created beautiful beaded dresses, vests and headwear for their performance – and they do not disappoint. Visitors are overwhelmed by this wealth of young talent and when an ‘open mic’ event follows the dancers which includes guitars, fiddles and various singers, the energy is palpable. This remarkable first evening in Ruby provides a sample of what we will experience during the Summit in the days to come.
There is no terminal or any building at the Ruby airstrip (a Port-a-Potty was brought in for this event) but from their perfect perch beside the Yukon River, residents of Ruby can see or hear a plane as it approaches and someone is always there to greet it. In addition to the regularly scheduled flights into Ruby, fifteen 19-seat planes were chartered to bring leadership and guests to the Summit. Many participants from neighboring communities arrived by boat. There are no hotels in Ruby so several community members temporarily converted their homes to B & Bs and volunteered space. Tents popped up all along the edge of the Yukon and in the yards of homes, churches and community buildings throughout town. When the drizzle began and the threat of mad mud loomed, many jokingly referred to Woodstock and then learned that one of our guests had actually been at Woodstock… and could even remember being there! The local ‘Washeteria’ boasted 3 clean, private bathrooms with showers, plus a large laundry facility and was hugely appreciated by those of us in tents. The Yukon River Lodge, about a half hour upriver from Ruby, provided a welcomed change of pace for the paddlers, and meeting owners, Sam and Tamara, was real treat for us all. Hot showers, REAL beds and tasty food prepared by someone else brought true joy after a couple of weeks of tents and paddling!
Teaching methods for the safe clean-up of meth labs in rural Alaska is a vital part of the YRITWC’s Backhaul Program. The group pictured above began as about 15 participants and grew to near room capacity as the discussion about methamphetamine progressed. The YRITWC is working with the University of Washington, the Washington State Patrol and the Alaska State Troopers through their Backhaul Program and they bring in-depth trainings to the communities along the Yukon. The risks associated with stumbling upon a meth lab, active or abandoned, are enormous and pose a great threat to community members not to mention the dangers of meth use itself. Josh brought some dope with him for his presentation, which he planted for Marley to find, and he explained what’s involved in training dogs like Marley for the AK Troopers’ K-9 Division. Each kid present for this presentation revealed some connection to meth via friends or family in other places but they are adamant about keeping it out of their own communities. It was absolutely inspiring to see these great kids respond to a discussion on this intense topic with knowledge and resolve.
We expected that feeding 200+ visitors in a remote village without road access – from the kitchen of a community hall with a max capacity of about 25 would pose a challenge, but once we met Peter Captain, Jr. and his assistants, Mark and Malcolm, we knew they were up for any challenge. When due to rain and wet ground on the 2nd day, the venue of the Summit was moved up the road and into the school– and we forgot to inform the kitchen – there was no panic. In short, all went off without a hitch and even the most hardcore of naysayers came to appreciate Peter’s savvy incorporation of SPAM into the menu.
As I mentioned before, Ruby is not on any road system so food and supplies are flown or barged in on the river. Established near the turn of the last century when gold was discovered in the area, Ruby was mostly populated by white men who did not typically hunt or fish so to feed the 3000 miners who eventually descended on the then unpopulated area, food was shipped up the Yukon on paddle-wheelers. Today, the majority of residents in Ruby are Athabascan. There is still no supermarket on the corner in Ruby and the task of getting a moose to fill the freezer for the winter often falls on the youth. They seem happy to take the responsibility. Lisa Cleaver (twin sister of Nicole, pictured above), is one teen in Ruby who succeeded in getting her first moose in 2009 and is on the hunt for her second moose now. She and cousin, Wayne Captain, have recently been out in her dad’s pick-up and on her 4-wheeler. She explained that on the first trip out in the truck they saw nothing, on the second trip out on the 4-wheeler they came up on a young bull standing in the road directly in front of them but that their hearts started beating fast, their eyes got big and her gun got stuck in its case! That lucky moose just looked at them then slowly walked off the road and back into the woods. Here are Leese’s words when she shared the story about going home empty-handed and telling her mom what happened: “And then when I got back home I told my mom about it and she was like “You just let it walk off slowly?!” and I was like “Mom!…. My gun was stuck in its case! Don’t worry Mom; round 1 – we didn’t see anything, round 2 – we saw it, round 3 – I’m gonna shoot it down to the ground!” And there’s a little insight into the mind of a teen-aged girl in Ruby, Alaska. Wow!
The children of Ruby are cool kids, and our interactions with them are fun and inspiring. This is a village community with a population under 200 people, ours is the first large group they have ever hosted, and yet these kids have accommodated and entertained us with confidence and attentiveness. My hat goes off to the parents and families here for the effort they have put forth to nurture and mold these young people into impressive thinkers. The Census Bureau states that Ruby’s largest portion of the population, 38%, is under age 18 – but it adds that 43% of this group is living under ‘the poverty line’. That’s not so surprising but from my point of view, one standard cannot cover us all. Something the Census Bureau’s figures leave out is that there is a real richness of life here in Ruby. Time is spent close to nature and even closer to family. There is huge potential for these kids to grow into healthy, happy adults no matter what label the census bureau has attached to them now. The reality of Ruby’s children brings to mind H. Clinton’s book title, “It Takes a Village”. As the days pass I watch various adults and teens lovingly caring for the little ones of Ruby; sharing, shepherding, care-giving, and I see clearly that Ruby’s children are indeed being raised by a village… a village in which anyone’s child is everyone’s child. And this makes me happy for everyone here.
Nora Kangas is the quintessential good-will ambassador of Ruby and I’ll guess that everyone who comes to town gets the great pleasure of meeting her. She makes regular rounds on her Polaris 4-wheeler and sees to it that any visitor gets the 411 on the whats, whens and wheres of Ruby. Spending a few days here was a joy. Many of our local hosts apologized for the drizzle and rain but my stock response was something to the effect of, ‘a rainy day in Ruby beats a sunny day in the city!’ I’m pretty sure Nora flirted with and charmed every visitor to Ruby – myself included, as you can see. You just can’t predict what might come out of the mouth of a 92-year-old Athabascan woman on a four-wheeler!
This trip has been exceptional so far; a terrific journey bringing us to an amazing destination. I look forward to the next several days at the summit – more photos to come – and then continuing the Healing Journey as Mary and I head down river in the 20’ freighter canoe we call Gracie. We’ll collect more scientific data on our way to Galena. Though there is some dark, funky weather moving in, that should just add to the mystique which already surrounds the Yukon. And here’s the thing about rivers – as long as you are headed downstream, you will usually end up where you want to be. Stay tuned!
Read more posts from Jon Waterhouse’s 2011 Healing Journey.