For some Alaskans, the Bering Sea and border make it hard to go home

bering sea nome alaskaNathaniel

  • Valentina Koonooka and her
    four daughters waited four days in an airport terminal in
    Nome, Alaska to take a less-than-two-hour flight across the
    Bering Sea to visit family in Russia.
  • For generations, residents in the area routinely
    crossed from island to island, moving freely across the
    US-Russia border. 
  • However, in 1948 the border officially closed. In
    1987, the “Ice Curtain” thawed slightly, but for
    transnational families, travel remains hard. 
  • For Indigenous people crossing the Bering Strait,
    governments offer some initiatives, like the visa-free travel program — but it
    requires a formal invitation from a family member on the
    other side, and both Russia and the US must formally review
  • And travelers can only pass through specific entry
    points: Anadyr or Provideniya in Russia and Nome in Alaska. A
    visit is limited to 90 days.

After spending four days just waiting in the airport terminal
in Nome, Alaska, Valentina Koonooka decided to return to her
friend’s apartment in Nome and cook a big, steaming pot of

Koonooka and her two daughters were awaiting a break in the
weather, along with a small group of Alaska Native
travelers, for a less-than-two-hour flight across the Bering
Sea to visit family in Russia.

It’s been many years since Koonooka last saw them in Novo
Chaplino, her childhood home. 

For generations, residents in this remote part of the world
routinely crossed from island to island, moving freely across the
US-Russia border. In 1948, J. Edgar Hoover officially closed the
border between Russia and Alaska, citing safety reasons. In 1987, the “Ice
Curtain” thawed slightly, but for transnational families, travel
remains hard.

People normally make the trip during the summer, but even then,
the weather can prove difficult, as Koonooka knows.

The tiny kitchen filled with the aroma of browning meat and
onions. Koonooka tried to keep her mind off the waiting and the
weather keeping her family grounded on Alaska’s side of the
Bering Strait.

“I want to visit my parents that passed away many years ago, also
my brother too,” she said. Her plan was to place flowers on her
parents’ graves — “to say hello” — she said, as she choked back

Koonooka lives in Gambell, Alaska — a small village on St.
Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea about 80 miles from the coastal
Russian village of Novo Chaplino where Koonooka grew up.

Three sisters, a brother, nephews, an aunt and many of her
friends still live in Novo Chaplino. 

Koonooka isn’t really that far from home, but getting there is
tough. The runway on the Russian side often gets fogged in,
grounding airplanes in Nome.

As she talked about her family, she stirred the hot, bubbling

“I watched my mom and then my sister — my sister makes [borscht]
differently,” she said with a distinct Russian accent.

Koonooka admitted she doesn’t care much for beets, a root
vegetable for which borscht is known. She leaves out the beets
and adds carrots and tomatoes instead.

In 1994, while living in Novo Chaplino, Koonooka met her husband,
an Alaska Native man from Gambell. She moved with him to Alaska
and gave birth to her oldest daughter, Marina, about a year

In 2003, she became a US citizen. She’s only been back to Russia
twice to reconnect since she moved away.

She gives the pot another stir and while telling stories about
gathering herbs and root vegetables and cooking them with her
daughters — skills she learned growing up in Russia that
translate well to her life in Alaska.

“Me and my kids go pick roseroot and we also have fireweed,” she

Her daughters, Marina and Nadine, watched her cook and nodded
their heads.

What Koonooka sees as an arbitrary border cannot change the
significance of her memories and traditions. Sharing stories
about her life in Russia makes Koonooka’s oldest daughter,
23-year-old Marina, tear up.

“I see people in Gambell and they’re always with their family and
I have to travel all the way over there [to Russia] just to see
the rest of my family,” Marina said.

Various levels of government have attempted to ease the
burden of travel for Indigenous people crossing the Bering Strait
through initiatives like the visa-free travel program. But it requires a
formal invitation from a family member on the other side and both
Russian and US officials must formally review it. Travelers can
only pass through specific entry points: Anadyr or Provideniya in
Russia and Nome in Alaska. A visit is limited to 90 days.

“There are families right now that the elders are dying and they
can’t go, because it’s cost-prohibitive and the politics,” said
George Noongwook, an Alaska Native elder in his 70s.

Alaska Native people indigenous to the Bering Strait region, like
George Noongwook, worry that further diplomatic strains between
the US and Russia could hurt their ability to continue traveling

Noongwook leads a dance and drum group from Savoonga, the only
other village on St. Lawrence Island. He remembers when boats
sailed the Bering Strait more regularly.

Boats no longer make the crossing with any frequency, mostly for
safety reasons. Seas can be extremely rough across frigid
waters. A drowning incident of a father and son returning to
Gambell in the 1990’s further restricted travel by sea.  

Now, people like Noongwook and Koonooka have to buy a plane
ticket from Gambell or Savoonga to Nome for about $300. Once they
get to Nome, they have to charter a flight across the Bering
Strait to Russia, sometimes for more than $1,000. That’s a lot of
money for people on St. Lawrence Island where jobs and resources
are scarce.

These days, most people just use WhatsApp and Facebook to stay
connected with friends and family on the other side.

“They show their dances, they post them on Facebook and I can
watch them,” Noongwook said. “So, it’s good that way, but
one-on-one, face-to-face is more important because we’re able to
express our pleasure of re-meeting them. It fills us with
happiness and love.”

And those are feelings apps just can’t replicate, Noongwook said.

In the end, Noongwook, Koonooka and the rest of their travel
group, including Noongwook’s dance troupe and Koonooka’s two
daughters, didn’t make it to Russia.

For nearly a week, everyone trekked daily to Nome’s tiny airport
terminal, drinking stale coffee and eating pizza, waiting
for a green light to cross the Bering Strait.

Thick fog kept the group grounded for a total of five days. On
the sixth, no one headed for the terminal. Instead, they made
alternate plans to head back to their villages on St. Lawrence

But many promised to try again next summer.

Read the original article on PRI’s The World. Copyright 2018. Follow PRI’s The World on Twitter.

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