From this corner of the world, you really can see Russia from your house. The village of Wales lies on the northwestern-most point of mainland Alaska. The frozen Bering Strait stretches out from the beach, where a herd of caribou has been licking at salty ice for most of the afternoon. Marie Ningealook pulls up on a snow machine, with daughter Ida trundling behind on a wooden sled. It is easily 40 degrees below with the wind chill, but that’s not cold enough to miss community sewing.
Inside the Wales School Library, Bethany Fernstrom sits cross-legged on the floor, a yard of fabric in her hands. Fernstrom, a teacher in the village, makes some crude measurements using her knuckles, and then pulls the fabric straight out until a distressing ripping sound fills the air.
Lena Sereadlook sits at a sewing machine, her weathered fingers flying alongside the bobbing needle. She pauses and pulls the purple fabric from the machine, holding it up for us all to see. “Bethany, does this look right?”
Fernstrom originally hails from Rhode Island. Working in both Fairbanks and Toksook Bay before, she has picked up valuable lessons along the way—both in teaching and in Alaska Native culture.
“I think for teachers to be successful in villages,” she says, “you have to integrate yourself into the community.” She is quick to note that not everyone is cut out for life in Rural Alaska, and unfortunately, those are the teachers everyone hears about. Furthermore, many communities in the state still carry the scars of education’s darker times in history when children were sent to boarding schools and received harsh punishments for speaking their native languages. Now it’s the teachers, Fernstrom says, who are the greatest champions reviving culture.
Lena chimes in now, her fingers once again occupied. “I didn’t sew,” she said, recalling her younger days. “I was spoiled by my dad,” she says, laughing. Her sisters learned how to sew parkas and fur-mittens, but not the qaspeq (kuspuk). “It wasn’t until Bethany showed up that we sewed qaspeqs.”
Qaspeqs were a traditional garment in the once-booming whaling village. The women would make them using the materials from the flour and sugar sacks that arrived with the commercial whalers at the turn of the 20th century. They were usually small floral prints that the women called ‘calicos’. The men’s qaspeqs would be made from solid colors—white for hunting, blue for dancing. But the commercial whalers brought something else with them beside the flour and sugar sacks. Around 1918, the Spanish Flu ripped through the large village, killing hundreds of people—and with them, the knowledge of their traditional ways.
Some communities continued making qaspeqs, instead relying on patterns and cutting pieces with scissors. “It wastes a lot of fabric,” Fernstrom says. “Every region has a slightly different style, but the method for making them was the same. When you rip the fabric, it always rips straight and you get the most from the material.”
During her first teaching job in Toksook Bay in 2011, Fernstrom found herself alone in a new place and was eager to integrate into the Yupik community. “I commented on some of the teaching aides’ qaspeqs and mentioned I would like to learn to make them. I don’t think they really believed me until I showed up at their homes.” Two cousins taught her the traditional way, each with their own slight variations.
“I’ve probably ripped over a thousand qaspeqs now,” she says, helping Marie rethread a stubborn bobbin.
It isn’t long before Marie is holding up a small finished qaspeq in front of her beaming daughter. Ida tries on her mother’s labor of love, and begins twirling in place. Another little girl watches from the corner of the room; she whispers to no one in particular, “I wish someone would make me a qaspeq.” Ida announces to the room that she refuses to take the garment off, leaving Marie to chase after her pulling the remaining loose threads.
Lena’s granddaughter also has a finished qaspeq. Soon, they will have matching ones to wear when they visit Anchorage this spring. Marie chimes in, “I wanted to make us matching qaspegs, but we’ve run out of this material.”
Running out of supplies is just one challenge of rural living. Long winters, jagged winds, and a lack of indoor plumbing pose challenges to residents who’ve spent their entire lives in villages, making the transition even more difficult for newly arrived educators. These teachers tend to have a bad reputation for moving around a lot or not staying beyond a year; and of course, there are the cautionary tales about the teachers who don’t even make it that long.
Fernstrom finds this frustrating. If it weren’t for some migration on her part, she would have never played the part of messenger and mentor for her latest community.
“There’s a lot to be said for a teacher who comes out for one year and teaches. It’s honorable because, for a whole year, they’re still giving up their family, comforts, Internet possibly, all that kind of stuff. If they can make it the whole year, I think they still deserve a lot of credit.”
The village of Wales is championing its culture in other ways, too. Rumors of a woodshop being built onto the school would revive the art of making skin boats. Every Friday afternoon, the whole school meets in the gym for the last half hour of the day to practice the dances of their people. People from the community are invited in to drum and sing.
These days, Fernstrom ends her school days working with small groups of students in third through twelfth grade, ripping qaspeqs. “My goal,” she says, “is to have everyone outfitted in a qaspeq by the time the dance festival rolls around in September. Last year, Wales was the only village not wearing them.” She started by making qaspeqs as prizes for being Student of the Week for her first and second graders. Now the older students, and their parents and grandparents, are once again learning the ways of their ancestors.