A Story of Camp Pigaaq

In early spring of 2011, I sat down to visit with Lance Kramer in Kotzebue at the Ferguson Building to talk about how we could reach out to young people and offer support to help prevent suicide and break cycles of abuse. I had begun working in the Northwest to develop the Maniilaq Wellness program starting in the fall of 2010 and was told Mr. Kramer would be a good person to visit, as he was already reaching out to young people in the region. One of the first things he said was, “we need to call up Aucha (Adeline Kameroff) and invite her to join us in this discussion.” Aucha didn’t hesitate and came right over to meet with us. We introduced ourselves and jumped into a discussion on what we could work on together.

Lance is an Inupiaq family man from the Northwest, a hunter, and former full-time schoolteacher. Aucha is a Yupik grandmother and hunter from Emmonak who works for Juvenile Justice Youth Service in Kotzebue. I’m Gwich’in from Arctic Village with a background in Indigenous leadership development and prevention work. Almost sounds like the start to a joke, “an Inupiaq, a Gwich’in, and a Yupik walk into a meeting room...” but we found that we had several traits in common. Among the most important were a deep appreciation for our cultures, values, land, and a drive to get things done to support young people.

On that same afternoon we envisioned a culturally based youth camp that would be held out on the land, following in the footsteps of our ancestors. We would live from the land, learn from one another about our cultures, share stories of hardship and strength, and focus on building healthy relationships. We wanted to provide an opportunity for youth to reflect on their lives, learn about the history of our peoples, gain hands-on experience with survival from the land, and have a safe space to talk.

We spent the rest of that afternoon planning what would become our first camp, to be held two months later in early June, in time for spring seal hunting, egging, and bird hunting. We asked Walter and Belynda Gregg for permission to use their campsite at Sadie Creek, just south of Kotzebue, which they agreed to allow us to use. The Maniilaq Wellness program was operating under a Methamphetamine and Suicide Prevention Initiative (MSPI) grant that focused on four villages a year in the Northwest region, so youth would be invited from Noorvik, Kiana, Buckland, and Selawik, as well as a few from Kotzebue to attend.

We invited Keggulluk (Earl Polk) to join us as a camp counselor and leader, as I had been working with him on several other camps and weeklong retreats, such as Camp Igaliq in the Nome region and the statewide Arctic Institute for Indigenous Leadership. He brings a wealth of knowledge about the land, his Yupik culture, maqiivik (traditional steam bath), and working with youth. We also invited local guest presenters to join us to speak with the youth, as the campsite was within four-wheeler driving distance of Kotzebue.

We split the coordinating and preparation responsibilities between our Wellness Coordinator Dollie Hawley, Lance, Aucha, Keggulluk, and myself to spread the workload, as we had a short window to get all of the pieces in order. Kathy Burgo from Kiana joined our team as the camp cook and Marsh Chamberlain joined us as a camp filmmaker to capture the experience on film. It all came together very well and in early June, youth and mentors began arriving from the villages into Kotzebue.

A few days earlier, Lance, Keggulluk, Aucha, and myself had begun hauling supplies by boat and set up a twenty-four by twenty canvas tent with a wood stove to serve as our base and cookhouse. In total we had eighteen youth, four mentors, and seven staff heading by boat, van, and four-wheeler towards Sadie Creek to finish our camp set-up together. Each group of youth had to put up their own tent, cots, and prepare for the first evening.

That first evening we were strangers to one another. The youth were shy and it took a while to get everyone to introduce themselves loud enough for us all to hear. But that changed quickly as we worked together building a maqiivik, catching fish and seals, cleaning animals, making seal oil, hanging black meat, playing games, going up Sadie Creek to set-up duck blinds, hiking out on the land, and hauling wood and water.

We spent time in the mornings to talk about more serious issues in our lives and communities, how we can help end cycles of abuse and be there for one another in our families and communities. In smaller groups or pairs we would make time to visit and support one another. We all laughed and learned, some of us cried, and we all built relationships, some of which will span a lifetime. It was a powerful and moving time on the Northwest coast.

We produced a short thirty-minute documentary film entitled Camp Pigaaq 2011 that premiered at the First Alaskans Institute Youth and Elders Conference in Anchorage during AFN that October. A couple of the youth, Lance, Marsh, Keggulluk, and myself were in attendance and had a panel conversation following the film on statewide television. We were encouraged by the Maniilaq Board to share what we were learning about helping to prevent suicide and abuse, as they understand it is a statewide issue. The film and panel provided us with an opportunity to contribute to the statewide conversation with a positive message and focus. The Camp Pigaaq 2011, as well as another film Camp Igaliq 2011 are both available to view online for free or a DVD copy can be requested from the Kawerak Wellness program.

We have since hosted the second annual Camp Pigaaq, this time at Riley Wreck, which we expanded to include youth from more villages in the Northwest. The Camp is unique in that we are sharing knowledge and experiences from several cultural backgrounds, as well as intentionally creating spaces that are safe for youth to open up about their experiences and receive supportive counseling. It is hard work, but it is worth every ounce of energy, time, and resource that make it happen. The Maniilaq Wellness program is very thankful to all the organizations, individuals, leaders, families, and youth who are making the Camp successful.

Published in the Fall 2012 Issue of RuralCap's Village Voices , where you can view more photos of the Camps.