I was standing nude on the tundra, ten years old with my water drenched clothes drying by a fire. A short stand of arctic spruce trees provided little protection from the frigid breeze that bit at my skin. Spring snow still spackled the ground, and just down a small hill behind me was the narrow but deep ice-cold creek I had only a few minutes earlier fell into. I was lucky to get out that day, the creek fed into a lake that was still frozen solid about twenty feet down stream. I rotated my body front-to-back, front-to-back, thankful for the warmth of the fire. My hunting partner Roland had helped pull me from the creek and built the fire. Roland was ten as well but he spoke with a calm confidence, “I’m going to take a look around while your clothes dry.”
We were out among the tundra lakes on the southern edge of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to hunt ducks on our peoples’ ancestral lands. Earlier that day we had put on our rubber boots, warm coats, and packed hunting sacks for our day on the land. I had been carrying my uncles’ sixteen-gauge shotgun with a sawed off barrel and no sights. We had crossed the large frozen lake, which had overflow on parts of it, carefully; using poking sticks to make sure the ice was solid enough to hold our weight. There was a breath of relief when we made it to solid ground. Then we had to cross a creek that wasn’t very wide, we were able to jump across. It was on our return that I lost my balance and fell into the creek.
I was fully submerged and the strong current was quick to pull me deeper, towards the underside of the frozen lake. I could see the inner wall of the creek moving by rapidly. With my shotgun still in hand, I knew I would have to let it go to make it out. I dropped it and reached with my hands toward the edge of the creek and upward. The whole thing happened in seconds; completely soaked, happiness spread through me that I was once again on the solid tundra. Roland and I already knew by that age if I tried to walk back to the village in that condition, I might not make it. So, we made the plan to build the fire, dry my clothes, and prepare ourselves better for the walk home.
It was the mid nineteen eighties and our isolated village of a hundred Neetsaii Gwich’in had just a few years earlier acquired electric power. I was five years old when my mother first sent me to the village, after my father left us never to be seen again. Without my mother or father and into the hands of my elderly grandfather and uncle, I had to grow up quick. I learned early to depend upon and provide for myself. Later I realized that this characteristic of ‘hard work to provide for oneself and the community’ is a fundamental aspect of our culture. A good part of the healthy pride we carry comes from being self-sufficient providers, able to do for ourselves.
Yet, as the years went by I became a little extreme in my sense of independence, I developed a hardened emotional shell. I cared about people around me, but felt I needed no praise or positive attention in order to ‘be okay’. I had a difficult time allowing others to become close to me or show me love in any way. At seventeen years old, after glimpsing my emotional blockages and childhood wounds, I made the choice to grow up. It took a conscious decade long effort before I felt successful in peeling back many layers of the shell I had built to protect myself as a child.
I have seen that it is easier to run from hardship than to face it, especially when we sense that it is generated from our own patterns of thought and behavior. It is hard to acknowledge and accept that something is out of balance within us. I have learned that when we face challenges with grace and determination, we move ourselves toward a balanced life, which generates less unnecessary hardship along the way.