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I met Hugo last summer while backpacking in Alaska. He was a small Inuit man who lived north of the Arctic Circle in the Nunamiut village of Anaktuvuk Pass, which is accessible only by foot or plane. We entered the small museum where Hugo worked in search of a bathroom with running water. However, we ended up spending the afternoon with him, listening to his soft voice tell the story of his people. After giving a museum tour, Hugo led us into an office where a map of the village and its surrounding mountains carpeted the floor. While labeling sites on the map with a red dry erase pen, Hugo told us about his life.
Across Hugo’s life, the culture that defined him was constantly morphing. As a boy, his identity centered around becoming a hunter. He watched his father and other men in his community, learning how to live a fruitful subsistence lifestyle. He believed the meaning of his life lied in his physical abilities. Hugo further explained that when Alaska became a state, people flooded north. Roads leading to potential oil fields snaked their way through the tundra. To protect themselves, the Nunamiut abandoned their nomadic lifestyle and settled in Anaktuvuk Pass. Soon after, missionaries arrived to build churches, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs built a school, which kept Hugo and other children from learning to hunt. Hugo’s culture shifted. His family began shopping at a small grocery store. They hunted caribou from the seat of an all terrain vehicle. The future Hugo had imagined for himself began to fade. He no longer knew his life’s meaning. Hugo explained he found his identity again when he realized that the most important aspect of Nunamiut culture still remained: community. I learned that for the Nunamiut, communal needs have always taken precedence over individualism. Hugo told us when the Nunamiut adopted English, they forgot the words “yes” and “no.” Phrases like “depends on what you think” and “up to you” replaced them. Hugo said Nunamiut identities are completely rooted in one another and that the tribe has been able to overcome the traumatic invasion of their home by remaining a supportive, caring community.
Walking through the village, I saw evidence of Hugo’s sentiment. Words and artwork expressing community values adorned the sides of dumpsters. Children rode bikes through town, stopping to talk to each passing community member. In the grocery store, a freezer held caribou meat that was shared freely among the people. Villagers stopped our group to ask about our experiences, showing a rare openness to new connections. Hugo’s stories were wrought with sadness over the loss of many Nunamiut traditions, including the language, which is now forgotten by everyone but him. However, Hugo also rejoiced in the resiliency of his people and their ability to preserve the most important aspects of their culture: communal respect and support. When the physical way of life that defined the Nunamiut people was changed forever, Hugo found meaning in something outsiders could never take from him: community.
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