Two villages, where two rivers meet.
A geologic age before the runoff from Alaskan Glacier high up in the Quilak Mountains chewed through a granite ridge to form a narrow canyon fifteen miles long.
A millennium before, a massive earthquake exacerbated a fault in the ridge. Half of it cracked and slid off to the southwest. It left behind a V-shaped wedge between the confluence of two watercourses, which would one day be named Gruening River on the south side and Cataract Creek on the north.
The tip of the vee pointed due west. The surface of the wedge was flat and topped with a thick slice of verdant soil raised a hundred feet in the air by the earthquake. That earthquake had also fractured a way to the surface through the granite uplift for an underground spring. The spring’s outflow trickled down the south face of the wedge, over time carving a channel for a little stream too steep to support a salmon run and too shallow to be good for anything but watering the blueberry bushes that grew thickly along its sides. In spring, this slope was first to thaw, snow and ice giving way to a fairyland of wildflowers, the brash orange and yellow florets of western columbine, the shy blue of forget-me-nots, the noxious brown blooms of chocolate lilies, the elegant pink paintbrush, and the dignified purple monkshood.
By luck of the geologic draw, the land across the river remained largely undisturbed by the earthquake, remaining a flat marsh covered in thick grass, cattails, and Alaska cotton. Over time glacial silt carried downriver filled in the marsh, and alder, diamond willow, and cottonwood grew out to the water’s edge. The force and flow of the combined currents of river and stream undercut the banks to provide habitat for river otters, mink, and marten, and carved tiny tributaries to be dammed by beavers and colonized by salmon.
Two hundred winters before, the Mack family walked up the frozen river. It was a wide river, not too deep, with a good gravel bottom. When it thawed that spring, even on a cloudy day an endless silver horde was visible through the peaty water, a solidly packed, seemingly inexhaustible mixture of king and red and silver salmon moving inexorably upstream. Tobold Mack, the little clan’s patriarch, had led them south from the Interior, where a wasting disease had affected the moose population. A decade of famine had led to inter-tribal competition among the local Athabascans over the remaining food sources, and to a disastrous decline in population of man and beast alike.
That summer, Tobold looked long on where the white water rushed to join the brown, at the arrows in both left by the dorsal fins of the struggling salmon, the birch stumps left by the beavers and the willow stands gnawed down by the moose. He looked up at the mountains that cut into the eastern horizon, beautiful and terrible, and yet comforting all the same in their solid impenetrability. With mountains like those at his back, a man felt safe.
“We have walked far enough,” he said.
They built a weir and a snug dugout on the south shore of the river. Drying racks were next, for fish in summer and moose meat in winter, and caribou when the Quilak herds came down to the river to calve in spring. Babies were born and lived, and elders survived long enough to contribute their accumulated wisdom to the tribe, and for everyone in between there was enough food easily available that there was time to sing and dance and play and laugh. Time to not only make a birchwood bowl for eating, and time to carve decorations around its edge. Time not only to make a parka from beaver skins warm enough to withstand the worst winter could throw at them, and time to embroider the parka with trade beads and dentalium shells.
This village they named Kushtaka.
Seventy winters before the present day, Walter Estes and Percy Christianson came up the river, trappers looking for beaver. They were new to the country but not to Alaska, being Aleuts displaced from the island of Anua by the war the Japanese had brought to the great land. Walter and Percy had fought together in the islands and knew firsthand how little there was to go back to. Now they looked for a new place to call home.
The Macks, like any Alaskans happy to see a new face in the long dark doldrums of winter, made them welcome. Estes was half Italian and Christianson was half Norwegian but they both comported themselves as men should, sharing the game and the fish they took in equal measure with their hosts. There was still more than enough for all, then.
Five years later, Walter and Percy moved across the river and built their homes on top of the big wedge of rock rising in the vee between the creek and the river.
The Macks approved. Ownership of any part of river and creek and its adjacent lands was not a concept the people of Kushtaka understood. They hunted the moose that browsed through the willow and the caribou that calved on the riverbanks, they trapped the beaver and the river otter and the muskrat, they gathered the crowberries and the blueberries that grew on the south-facing slope of the wedge, and they cut the wood of the spruce and birch and alder for fuel. They took enough, never too much, because there was always next season, and they knew from hard experience handed down from Tobold Mack himself that there was always the chance that the next season could be a bad one, with the long cold returning, scarce game, and too many mouths to feed. In this vast land, there was still plenty of room for all, and a good neighbor was always welcome in hard times.
Percy sent for his bride, Balasha, who was half Russian, a plump, lively woman who settled down to smoke salmon, weave grass baskets in the fashion of the Aleuts, and pop out healthy children at the rate of one every two years. Walter married Nancy Mack, who joined him up on the wedge, in the log cabin he built for her.
They called their village Kuskulana. It was not as conveniently placed as Kushtaka, being a hard slog uphill from the salmon-rich waters of river and creek, and a longer, harder slog uphill when burdened with the hindquarter of a moose. But the spring that bubbled up provided much better drinking water than the Kushtaka wells, which were brown and brackish, and its sharp point hid a good-sized plateau that widened to the east, a good site for an airstrip. Walter, inspired by the sight of the fighters and bombers who had filled the air over the skies of the Aleutians during the war, was determined to learn to fly and promptly hacked an airstrip out of the alders, tied a red flannel shirt on a pole at one end for a wind sock, and bought one of the first Piper Super Cubs.
Twenty winters on, President Eisenhower signed Alaska’s statehood act, and among other things, the federal government began to build post offices in the Bush. Air taxies all over Alaska got federal mail contracts. Kuskulana and Kushtaka both applied for the post office, which went to Kuskulana because they had the airstrip, and Walter’s son, Walter, Jr., got the mail contract.
And because the post office was in Kuskulana, a Christianson got the postmaster’s job, a rare prize in Bush Alaska, full-time federal employment with a steady paycheck and benefits.
Twelve years after statehood, President Nixon signed the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, in which Alaskan tribes gave the federal government a right-of-way across aboriginal lands from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez for the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, built to bring North Slope oil to market. In exchange, the tribes received forty-four million acres and almost a billion dollars.
Some Alaska Natives claimed that, with the formation of tribes into corporations, their homes, their ways of life, their very cultures would be forfeit, requiring them to become white in an already too white world. But land and money, those two possessions by which white culture measured itself, were powerful inducements. As most tribes did after enduring three hundred years of forced secondary status, Kuskulana opted into the agreement.
Kushtaka was one of the handful of Alaskan villages that did not.
ANCSA money flowed into Kuskulana coffers, and the village blossomed out with new houses and the villagers with new skiffs and drifters and four-wheelers and snow machines.
Kushtaka rechinked the steadily increasing gaps between the logs on their fifty- and hundred-year-old cabin walls, and made do with boats and Snogos inherited from their fathers.
Kuskulana was given its pick of parcels of prime land in the area, and every Kuskulaner of any age from six months to sixty years became the proud owner of a five-acre lot, many of them on the Gruening River and several of which encroached on the land where Kushtaka’s fish wheel had stood for generations. Roger Christianson, Sr., even tried to lay claim to the fish wheel site itself. Said claim was quickly quashed, but the Kushtakans didn’t forget. It didn’t help matters when Kuskulana built their new boat landing almost directly across the river from the Kushtaka fish wheel. The wash from the Kuskulana skiffs muddied the water near the fish wheel and frightened the salmon.
Dale and Mary Mack at Kushtaka opened a little store in their living room, stocking it with items they bought in bulk from Ahtna and Anchorage and selling them at a modest markup, dry and canned goods, cases of pop and potato chips, aspirin and Band-Aids.
And then Roger Christianson and Silvio Aguilar opened a full-service store in its own building in Kuskulana, with everything the Macks’ store carried plus fresh fruit and vegetables and even fresh milk.
The Macks’ store was out of business in three months. Dale Mack and Roger Christianson bumped into each other at Costco in Ahtna and had words that were witnessed by people from both villages, words that lost nothing in the retelling and only hardened the attitudes of everyone who heard it second- and thirdhand. You couldn’t trust a Kuskulaner not to steal your idea and cheat you out of your business, the Kushtakans said. Those Kushtakers, said the Kuskulaners, they hadn’t really made it into this century yet, you know? Probably wouldn’t ever, the rate they were going. They hadn’t even managed to muster the wherewithal to pay for a power line across the river, and there wasn’t a flush toilet in the entire village.
Whereas every new house in Kuskulana had hot and cold running water.
Teenagers of both villages, quick to pick up the elder vibe, began a series of hormone-driven confrontations at various potlatches. Outnumbered five to one, the Kushtakers took home the majority of the bruises, but so long as the hostilities were confined to the occasional tribal celebration held far away from either village, the adults were inclined to look the other way.
Two years before, the world’s second-largest gold deposit was found sixty miles north-northeast of where the creek and the river met.
Before the first backhoe was airlifted into the Suulutaq Mine, the population of Kuskulana climbed onto its many four-wheelers and beat down a serviceable trail between their village and the mine site. With ready access winter and summer, the trail made their people more attractive as employees to mine management. Given the working airstrip, Kuskulana became the designated alternative landing site in case Niniltna and Suulutaq were both socked in at the same time. Which made the Kuskulana strip eligible for federal funds for runway improvements, an electronic weather-reporting station, and the construction of a hangar.
Kuskulana was, therefore, enthusiastically pro-mine, and their people came home to spend their paychecks.
Kushtaka, on the wrong side of the river, sent fewer workers to the mine. Those who went seldom returned, preferring to resettle in Kuskulana and Niniltna and Ahtna and even Anchorage, where there was cable and Costco, and Beyoncé concerts only a 737 ride away. Kushtakans, fearing the drain on their population and resenting the ever-increasing wealth of their parvenu neighbors, came down hard against the mine, on the side of the fishermen and the environmentalists and the conservationists who were devoting their considerable resources to stop it.
That September, Zeke Mack was out moose-hunting on the south side of the river. Inexplicably, he missed the bull with the four brow tines on both sides and instead put a hole through the trailing edge of the right wing of Joe Estes’s 172. Joe having just taken off from the south end of the Kuskulana airstrip and at that time 150 feet in the air.
Joe got back down in one piece, but it soon became known in both communities where the shot had come from, and there was some subsequent conversation about just how bad Zeke’s eyesight was. A lot of laughter accompanied the conversation in Kushtaka. Laughter was conspicuous by its absence in Kuskulana, whose pilots started taking off to the north.
The following May, the state announced that it was closing the Kushtaka school because enrollment had fallen below ten students, and that Kushtaka students henceforth would attend the Kuskulana school. Truth to tell, Kushtaka had been fudging the numbers for years. Roger Christianson, Jr., in Kuskulana and Uncle Pat Mack in Kushtaka—on the whole, sensible men—did think privately that perhaps some of the hostility between the two villages might abate once the kids started having to sit next to one another in class.
That, of course, was before someone tried to set the Kuskulana Public School on fire with a five-gallon can of gasoline and a blowtorch.
And last September, Far North Communications built a cell tower in Kuskulana. They dedicated one of the antennas on the tower to Kushtaka.
Geography informs who we are.
Kuskulana, flush with ANCSA, state, and federal dollars and land, a post office, an airstrip, a store, a school, a cell tower, on the same side of the river as a world-class industrial development and with a trail navigable by ATV and snow machine between the two, flourished.
Kushtaka … did not.
Copyright © 2013 by Dana Stabenow