By Heidi Zemach for SCN –
My Name Is Not Easy isn’t an easy book to read. Although it is extremely readable, and frequently light-hearted and hopeful, it’s also a vivid reminder of, or introduction to a painful part of Alaska’s not-so-distant past—one that reverberates strongly today.
It’s a fascinating book that evokes some key aspects of rural Interior Native Alaska traditions, subsistence culture, explores the clashes of cultures as well as bringing readers an underside of Alaska history that many still do not know.
Debby Dahl-Edwardson’s book, a finalist for the 2011 National Book Award, was recently featured at Seward Library Museum’s book club for Alaska Book Week. Edwardson spoke about the book via Skype from her living room in Barrow to a larger than usual gathering of Seward readers during a special breakfast brunch.
This work of historical fiction tells the tale of the boarding school experience of Inupiaq, Eskimo, and Caucasian children during the late 50’s and early ‘60s through their own voices. It includes the tale of the true abduction of two rural sibling’s six-year-old brother “Issac” by their Catholic Church boarding school officials, and the (also true) death of Bunna, one of the brothers. The other brother, Charles Edwardson, is the author’s husband of more than 30 years.
The historical events include Project Chariot, an effort proposed by the Atomic Energy Commission’s to explode simultaneous atomic bombs to widen the harbor near Point Hope; and the federal government’s Cold Weather Research iodine-131 radiation experiments conducted in the late ‘50s and carried out on the people living in four Inupiaq villages and two Athabaskan villages —and also Copper Valley boarding school where Charles Edwards was a pupil. It also mentions the “Barrow Duck-In” rebellion of hunters, who came together and fought back against a government ban on their traditional subsistence duck hunt, by hunting and getting arrested en-masse. It was a courageous, defiant early act of civil disobedience.
Dahl-Edwardson told the gathering she’d heard her husband’s tales before, but wasn’t compelled to write about his story until they attended the annual student alumni gathering in Copper Valley, the ruins of his old boarding school, and heard the stories from the perspectives of many different students, and was struck by how they related to one another as family. They held a mass at the school graveyard. There was brick wall there, each containing the name of a student who had died, including Charles’ brother Bunna, who was killed when his plane crashed on his way home to visit his family over the summer.
A wonderfully funny story is when the two brothers are recruited to earn their keep by skinning and butchering a road kill moose. The boys had only witnessed their uncle butchering caribou, and had never done so themselves, but they did their best—against great odds—to live up to their school’s expectations. Another story is how the students collected Betty Crocker cake box coupons to win a school bus to replace the embarrassing old “military trash” bus that the school was using.
Although it’s a work of fiction, with many other peoples’ stories and some of her own fabrication peppering the mix, Dahl-Edwardsons’ description of how the Eskimo students were taken from their classrooms by the soldiers, and forced to drink a kind of glowing green liquid (iodine-131), that the soldiers called “juice” was exactly how her husband remembered it. So was his description of how his little brother was taken away, without his parent’s permission, to be adopted out to a Texas family.
“It’s pretty horrifying when you think about it,” Edwardson said. Being a Caucasian who was brought up in Lower 48, Edwards said; “It’s hard to believe things like that happened-but it did.” She believes the nuns and priests who did these things believed that they were doing what was best for the children. So did the parents who sent them away.
Her husband, and many other Native Alaskans she has met insists that they got a very good education in the boarding schools, she adds. Many of them became Alaska’s leaders, including Willie Hensley and Reggie Jewell. They became Alaska Native Corporation presidents and legislators: They used the network when they needed it and it changed the political face of the state of Alaska.
Edwardson did not intend to write a story about victims, or to trash well-meaning nuns or priests: “My goal is to immerse people into that world and see what it looks like,” she said.