At 2 a.m. on our flight to Anchorage, I was awoken by the clamoring of ice cubes, and the crisp sudden snap of a soda can tab as the refreshment chart fumbled its way through the isle for the second time.
It surprised me that I had dosed off, so as I blinked my eyes awake, I glanced around to get readjusted to my surroundings. Then I noticed it. As I stretched, reaching into the cracks of available space, I caught a glimpse of a new light coming from the base of my window cover. I raised it slowly at first, as to not wake my neighbors, but as more of the view was revealed, the quicker I raised the cover.
Row 39 was suddenly flooded with a tranquil blue glow, and a single sigh of admiration. Coming from the moon and bouncing off the snow-covered mountains down below, the light conveyed a beautiful scene of the landscape. The feel quickly changed from tranquil to excitement, as I was overcome with joy, pressing my nose against the glass to get the best view possible. Then, one-by-one as my neighbors woke up, we all shared the same sense of awe and child-like excitement and wonder.
Then I learnt what it felt like to be on the opposite side of that window; To be a mountain that unwillingly chose to stand out.
Shortly after arriving in Bethel and getting settled, one of our guides, Sarah, took us on a walking tour of the town. As we trenched through the sandy mud between the spaced-out houses and buildings along the sides of the roads, we were greeted with a similar gaze of wonder. Cars and people passed by, with faces pressed against the window, following us for as long as their view could allow. Buildings where groups of people ran to the windows, as if to watch a parish parade on a warm summer day. Suddenly toys, bikes, and pets became boring, and we became the center of attention.
As Sarah put the town on display, it seemed more to me that I was the one on display. A group of white students, coming to see what this town is all about, almost making it their business. With all the pressing issues currently facing Bethel, I slowly gathered a sense of pride and independence coming from our onlookers. However, It wasn’t until a whisper of “Go home” from a passer-by hit my ears that I both realized and understood.
In the past, the people of Alaska and the Yup’ik culture has had people come and try to convert them, change their ways, and potentially turn them into something they were not. Now, in a time where their very livelihood is threatened, and change and fear sit on the horizon, the last thing they may want is outsiders.
I don’t expect to change things here in Bethel, I don’t even think at this time it’s possible. I’m not even sure I’ll have an impact here. I know there are many things I still don’t understand, but that instead is why I’m here; to learn.
In our time and preparation for this trip I’ve grown more and more interested and invested in these people and their culture.
I only come to help tell their story.