Another Alaska

By Beverly Slapin

My Name Is Not Easy
By Debby Dahl Edwardson
(Marshall Cavendish, 2011)

The elders say the earth has turned
over seven times, pole to pole,
north to south.
Freezing and thawing,
freezing and thawing,
flipping over and tearing apart.
Changing everything.
We were there.
We were always there.
They say no one survived
the ice age but they’re wrong.
There were seven ice ages
and we survived.
We survived them all…

The residential schools, run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs or various church denominations, were established in Alaska in the early 1900s. Until 1976, when the Molly Hootch settlement required the state to establish local schools even in the remote “bush” regions, Alaskan Native children were sent to these boarding schools, which were hundreds or even thousands of miles away from their homes and families. Children were away for years at a time. As a result, cultural ties and intergenerational relationships were broken, and languages and ways of seeing the world were unlearned. The wounds were deep and the scars remain. For the most part, people still don’t talk about their residential school experiences.

In My Name Is Not Easy, the young man we come to know as Luke does not say his Iñupiaq name because it’s “not easy” for white people to pronounce. Along with other Iñupiaq, Yup’ik, Athabascan, and some young white people, he and his brothers have been sent to Sacred Heart, a Catholic residential school for children who live in the far north. The time is the early 1960s.

The lives of the students are turned upside down as they struggle to survive the harsh climate of the residential school. A harsh climate that includes heartache, loneliness, and the isolation of being thrust into an unknown place, away from home, family, and everything that has meaning. That includes being forbidden to speak their languages, severe punishment for minor infractions, and a system of abduction and adoption into white families. That includes being forced to ingest radioactive iodine in a “scientific investigation” of why “Eskimos” do so well in cold weather.

Debby Dahl Edwardson’s writing is crisp and clean. Middle and high school readers will be able to recognize indigenous culture in the voices of the students; there is no need for wordy explanations. The way Luke, for instance, sees the world—his cultural logic—is imbued in his description of Sacred Heart as an alien world:

This place is not right. You’re supposed to be able to see things when you’re outside. You’re supposed to be able to look out across the tundra and see caribou, flickering way off in the sunlight, geese flying low next to the horizon, the edge of the sky running around you like the rim of a bowl. Everything wide open and full of possibility. How can you even tell where you’re going in a place like this? How can you see the weather far enough to tell what’s coming?…

Back home there’s a breeze coming in off the ocean ice, and I wish I could feel its cool breath on my sweaty neck right now. Wish I was sitting in a boat with chunks of ocean ice just sort of hanging there in between the smooth water and the cloudless sky—drifting with their reflections white and ghostlike against the glassy water… How can anybody breathe in a place where there is no wind, no open sky, no ocean, no family? Nothing worth counting?

Although My Name Is Not Easy is fiction, the stories and events are essentially true. Luke and his brothers’ experiences are based on those of Edwardson’s husband, George, and his brothers at Copper Valley, a residential school that enrolled some whites as well as Iñupiaq, Yup’ik, and Athabascan students. The historic events—the military’s horrific experiments with Iodine-131, the massive 9.2 Good Friday earthquake, the act of civil disobedience known as the Barrow Duck-In, and Project Chariot, the proposed detonation to demonstrate the “peaceful use of nuclear power”—all happened.

Something else happened in the Alaskan residential schools as well, something that the government and church authorities never intended: The students—“Eskimo” and “Indian”—came together, family was created. This changed the force of history in the state, drove the land claims movement, and increased the political power of Alaska Natives. “Across the state,” Edwardson told me, “there’s a generation of pretty powerful leaders. George, for instance, who was known as ‘Pea Soup,’ is now tribal president.”

Nevertheless, the younger generation of Iñupiaq, she said, “has grown up with the pain of loss of the language because their parents and grandparents were punished for using it.” As in the rest of the United States, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia, language revitalization efforts continue. “We are working on a language immersion preschool program that will also create an Indigenous teacher track for educational strategies specific to our communities. So, in a sense, we are actually decolonizing the language and trying to heal so much pain.”

My Name Is Not Easy is really a political coming-of-age story; what starts out as Luke’s personal narrative ends as a community narrative. The young students are courageous. They’ve learned how to survive. “Yes, we learned,” Luke says. “We learned how not to talk in Iñupiaq and how to eat strange food and watch, helpless, while they took our brother away.” They’ve learned to withstand Father Mullen’s vicious beatings and “the words Father says that sting worse than the blows.” And they’ve learned how to laugh softly, “when something bad happens and there’s nothing left to do but laugh.”

It’s only in the last pages that we’re told Luke’s Iñupiaq name. As Aamaugak reclaims his name, he leads an act of civil disobedience that unites the students who, ultimately, come to realize that what brings them together is more powerful than what separates them.

Edwardson relates the students’ stories with honesty and beauty—and without polemic, without hyperbole, without expository digressions. My Name Is Not Easy is an antidote to Ann Rinaldi’s toxic My Heart Is on the Ground and all the other middle school novels that romanticize “Eskimos” and “Indians,” and minimize the pain of the residential schools. Thank you, Debby.

were here.
We were always here,
hanging on where others couldn’t,
marking signs where others wouldn’t,
counting kin our own way. We
survived. The earth
can’t shake