December 10, 1998
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Tradition Meets Modernity in Native Alaska

Wil Carson '99 uses filmmaking to explore the changes in traditional Alaskan village life

By John Marchetti

Wil Carson '99, a visual and environmental studies concentrator, wraps things up after working through the night on his latest film, which is set in Cambridge. Last summer, Carson spent two months in Anaktuvuk Pass, Alaska, filming a documentary for his senior thesis. He hopes that the film will shed light on the changes that modernization has brought to the lives of native Alaskans.

Anaktuvuk Pass is a tiny village in northern Alaska, located about 150 miles north of the Arctic Circle. It is surrounded by mountains and accessible only by air. Winters in Anaktuvuk are challenging: the sun disappears for a month and the average temperature in January is 14 below zero.

The village is the last remaining settlement of the Nunamiut Eskimos. The Nunamiut were among America's last nomads; until about 40 years ago, they followed the caribou herds that move by the hundreds of thousands across the region. Today, Anaktuvuk Pass is home to about 300 Nunamiut.

Last summer, the village was also home to Wil Carson '99, a visual and environmental studies concentrator who lives in Cabot House. With help from the Harvard College Research Program, Carson spent two months Anaktuvuk Pass filming a documentary for his senior thesis. He hopes that the film will shed light on the changes that modernization has brought to the lives of native Alaskans.

"Alaska underwent a rapid transformation from traditional Eskimo life to modern living in an extraordinarily short period of time," says Carson. "Anaktuvuk Pass is a microcosm of that larger transition. From elders who speak mostly Nunamiut and remember living as nomads to children who do not understand their native tongue and spend their free time working on their Web pages, Anaktuvuk is two worlds in one."

The intersection of the traditional and the contemporary in native Alaska has long fascinated Carson. He was born in Nome, Alaska, a seaport town just below the Arctic Circle on the Bering Sea. His family later moved several hundred miles south of Nome, but Carson always hoped to return to the area to explore Eskimo culture.

He first realized his goal during the summer of 1997, when he traveled to Shishmaref, a small village north of Nome, to make a short documentary. That film, which he calls Eskimo Summer, examines what is being lost as Eskimo societies move toward modernity. "I was drawn to Shishmaref because I knew it was a village on the edge both literally and figuratively," Carson says. The erosion that claimed part of the seaside village soon after Carson left echoed the figurative erosion of its traditional Eskimo culture.

Ironically, Carson found reason for optimism in this bleak picture. "While filming this village that was losing its life and traditions," he explains, "I became more and more interested in what it was gaining - what it was creating to fill this void."

It was this idea that drew him to Anaktuvuk Pass. "It seemed closest to its roots," Carson says, "because it was the last village in Alaska and western Canada to give up the nomadic lifestyle and become sedentary. It is also unique in that other ethnic Eskimo groups are spread over hundreds of villages and thousands of miles, while the Nunamiut just live in Anaktuvuk.

"And finally, the village is a success story," he continues. "Unlike the many traditional cultures that have been ravaged by the oncoming tides of technology and Western culture, the Nunamiut seem to be doing well in dealing with their rapid acculturation."

Carson flew to Anaktuvuk in late June. He spent his first days "wandering around town," as he puts it, getting to know people and letting them get to know him. "Early on, you just shoot what your gut tells you to shoot," he says. "You keep shooting the good stuff and soon you start to fall into your film."

Carson "fell" into his film on the day that he met Juke, a 21-year-old Nunamuit. "I had in my mind some idea about a paradigmatic family that would convey all of the complexities of this culture, which is such a crossroads of the past and the present," explains Carson. "Juke's family ended up doing it, but in a way that I had not expected."

Juke has lived with his girlfriend Julie in her mothe's house for the past four years. They had their first child and dropped out of school when Julie was 15. She is now 18 and expecting a second child. Their extended family also includes Tina, Julie's 17-year-old sister, and several younger children. "They are representative of the new culture that has grown out of Anaktuvuk and villages like it across Alaska," Carson says. "It is a strange amalgam of modern success and failure."

As they move toward adulthood, Juke and Julie are coming to grips with the forces that are challenging long-held Eskimo beliefs: joblessness, the increased availability of drugs and alcohol, and the new value systems introduced by the mass media. "Fifteen years ago, there was no television in Anaktuvuk Pass," says Carson. "Now, life seems a hodgepodge of HBO, Michael Jordan, and consumer culture."

Carson's days in Anaktuvuk took on a rhythm. "I woke up early and followed my characters as they worked, went fishing, sat around watching TV, fought, or talked," he says. "When everyone went to bed, I'd head back to the school where I was staying, crash, and recharge my batteries for the next morning.

"They really opened up to my camera," he continues. "The majority of my footage is just allowing them to be themselves while documenting what was going on."

As he followed their day-to-day struggles, the young filmmaker found disappointment and heartbreak. Juke could not find work. Julie's sister Tina was imprisoned for an act of violence. Nevertheless, Carson also uncovered a certain hopefulness. "I do think of this family's story as a successful one," he says.

Running throughout his footage is the tension between the modern and the traditional. Occasionally, he'd strike gold. "One afternoon, we went berry-picking and I caught something wonderful on film. All the older women in the village crouch in this bearlike way when they work - it is a stance that is very characteristic of the culture. Suddenly, Tina crouched down and started making these same motions and movements that her mother and grandmother make, wearing not the traditional cuspuk dress but a Lakers jacket. Intersections like that make me believe that something new is being created that is still tied to the past."

Since his return to Cambridge, Carson has been editing his footage of Juke and Julie, their family, and the village. "I am working on creating a story that spans Anaktuvuk's last 50 years and explores the changes that Eskimo culture has undergone," he says.

Carson plans to call his film The New Eskimo Dance and expects to show it at the ARTS FIRST celebration this May. "The film is about basic struggles for meaning and self-worth and direction," he says. "It is a picture of children of the fastest modernization process in America's history struggling to raise themselves and their own children."

Wil Carson is currently working on his first feature film, Coc, which will be released next year. The movie - a trio of love stories - is set in Cambridge.

Reprinted from the Harvard-Radcliffe Undergraduate Research Programs Newsletter, November 1998


Copyright 1998 President and Fellows of Harvard College