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West End News Jan. 7

Yup'ik man from Nunivak Island, 1929
Yup'ik man from Nunivak Island, 1929

Finalcut_WestEnd_20100107.mp36.8 MB

I received a beautiful book for Christmas about the Yup'ik people of coastal southwestern Alaska. The book is a comprehensive study of all aspects of how these people lived before there was corruption from the white invaders.

The tribal groups lived a very self-sufficient existence, both embracing the resources that came to them from the ocean and the land; and at the same time guarding against the adversities that they knew would come from the ocean and the land.

Nothing was wasted. There were very clever uses of materials at hand. For example, carefully preserved fish skins were crafted into waterproof jackets. As well as using the materials, the finished products were decorated to the point where they became pieces of art as well as utility.

The book took many years to assemble. The project was just in time to profit from the skills and memories of the elders still living. Many of the artifacts are in museums.

Today things that were made as part of life such as fur clothing, kayaks, and eating and cooking utensils are a part of history. What was common knowledge is now largely lost, save for a few craftsmen who produce the items as art objects, not items made to preserve life. These people are few in number and many are advanced in age.

Locally much the same thing is true. How many descendants of our original settlers know how to set a herring net? How many could set out on Lake Superior and find their way to the nets, if they had set any? How many descendants of loggers have the skills that were once commonplace? There are still a few folks who are capable and skilled, but not many.

I am not a survivalist; but it is too bad that folks can starve right next to an ocean or lake with fish to be caught; or have no idea how to provide shelter for themselves. I applaud the efforts to preserve historical skills, language and customs.

Those of us who employ college students in summer jobs can't help but wonder where these carefully selected students end up after they are with us. We were visited by a group of former employees recently. As we chatted with them I realized that one was an attorney, and the rest all had master's degrees. I let my mind drift back over the past years and identified many who had gone on to achieve advanced degrees in different academic and professional fields. I had never realized before how well our employees have done over these many years. Should we take any credit for their success? Probably not.

The present discussion about whether the county should hire a county administrator continues a topic that has been on the table for 30 years or more. My eight years as a county commissioner convinced me that a county administrator is essential. County commissioners are good people and mostly highly motivated to do a good job; but with great respect, most of them have no administrative skills. In this day we need a county administrator for the county.

I am reminded of a conversation that I had with Clarence Hemmingsen, a long gone resident of Lutsen. Clarence said, "When I moved to Cook County in the early 1930s the county board was just five wolf trappers, and I think that was too much specialization.”