Returning for the first time in three decades to the crumbling Eskimo village where she was born, Helen Pushruk was struck by how much more rugged it was than she remembered.
"It was scary, you know, real steep," Pushruk, 76, recalled of her 1983 visit to King Island, a village built on stilts. "Every time I went to the top of the island, I thought, `Gee, we were just like monkeys.'"
But it was home, and like so many other elders, Pushruk would like to go back for another look at the community that was abandoned almost 40 years ago and is now just a ghost town.
Now she will get that chance, thanks to Oregon State University anthropologists who are launching a four-year study of King Island and its former inhabitants.
The project is being funded by a $517,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. Researchers plan to document the oral history of former villagers while training Inupiat young people to collect samples for a scientific look at the vegetation and wildlife of the island, a tiny spot in the Bering Sea about 625 miles northwest of Anchorage.
"There are things elders know that they can teach to the western scientists. They have a pretty intimate knowledge of how their environment worked," said Deanna Kingston, the lead researcher and a descendant of King Island villagers.
"My oldest uncle was said to be able to predict the weather from the top of King Island," Kingston said. "He would go up there to observe the conditions and then tell the others that `in three days, it will be safe to cross to the mainland.' And sure enough, in three days, they could cross."
Next summer, researchers will scout the 2 1/2-mile island to see if any of the buildings are stable enough to serve as quarters for about 50 participants, including 10 scientists and 15 elders. If not, they will use tents during field research the following two summers. In the fourth year, Kingston hopes to produce DVDs documenting place names and stories, village and burial sites, wildlife and vegetation.
Volunteers will be enlisted to help frail elders get around the rocky terrain. It is crucial to have old-timers along because they gave names to every rock, nook and cranny, Kingston learned. Most of the names reflect a bountiful subsistence lifestyle: "qaluaqtuik" is a place to hook tom cods, "taiyaguk" is where birds called crested auklets might be found. The Inupiaq word for the island is Ugiuvak, which means "a place for winter."
'Next door to heaven'
"I've heard King Island called a place next door to heaven," Kingston said. "People say it was special because it provided them with a variety of food, including greens, fish, birds, sea mammals and berries."
Kingston, 39, an assistant professor of anthropology, is half Inupiat. Her mother was born on King Island and shared early memories Kingston hopes to validate during her field research. For example, she hopes to find a cave that kept meat frozen year round.
"Each family had its own spot in the cave," Kingston said. "It may be iced over after 40 years. But there may also still be meat caches in there."
The island was named in 1778 by British explorer Capt. James Cook for James King, a member of his party. It is unclear how long Inupiats lived there.
A century ago, about 200 people dwelled in walrus-skin homes tacked to the face of the cliffs. They hunted walrus, seal and seabirds and collected berries and plants. Every summer, they traveled by kayak and skin boat to the mainland 40 miles away, camping near Nome, where they sold ivory carvings. Pushruk recalled the trip taking 12 hours.
Starting in the 1950s, fewer people returned to King Island. The 1960 census counted only 49 residents. The 1970 census found none. King Island is among 16 federally recognized Alaska Native villages that are deserted or used as seasonal camps.
Today, many former King Island residents and their descendants live in Nome.
Harsh living conditions
Kingston said several factors contributed to the demise of King Island. Pregnant women chose to stay in Nome, where there were doctors. Many of the men were drafted during World War II. In the late 1940s and '50s, tuberculosis killed some people and hospitalized others. And paying jobs became available elsewhere.
Looking back, Pushruk said life on King Island was difficult, given its isolation and the harsh storms. The family relied on whale blubber for lighting their weatherbeaten wooden house. She remembers having to melt snow and ice to wash clothes, hours spent bending over to pick salmon berries and greens, and endless climbing.
In the early 1950s, when she was 27, Pushruk was stricken with TB and left the island for a hospital in Sitka. Her oldest sister and her grandmother died of the disease.
Pushruk was hospitalized for 2 1/2 years and decided she had had enough of King Island. She now lives in Palmer, a town of more than 5,000, about 40 miles northeast of Anchorage.
"I love living where you can push a button to do things, like washing dishes in a washing machine," she said.
Still, Pushruk cannot turn down an opportunity to revisit with the researchers: "If they pick me I would go, maybe for the last time."