A blog by Bill Hess

Running Dog Publications

P.O. Box 872383 Wasilla, Alaska 99687


All photos and text © Bill Hess, unless otherwise noted 
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Wasilla is the place where I have lived for the past 29 years - sort of. The house in which my wife and I raised our family sits here, but I have made my rather odd career as a different sort of photojournalist by continually wandering off to other places to photograph people and gather information, which I have then put together in various publications that have served the Alaska Native Eskimo, Indian and Aleut communities.

Although I did not have a great of free time to devote to this rather strange community, named after a Tanaina Athabascan Indian chief who knew Wasilla in the way that I so impossibly long to, I have still documented it regularly over the past quarter-century plus. In the early days, my Wasilla photographs focused mostly upon my children and the events they participated in - baseball, football, figure skating, hockey, frog catching, fire cracker detonation, Fourth of July parade - that sort of thing. 

In 2002, I purchased my first digital camera and then, whenever I was home, I began to photograph Wasilla upon a daily basis, but not in a conventional way. These were grab shots - whatever caught my eye as I took my many long walks or drove through the town, shooting through the car window at people and scenes that appeared and disappeared before I could even focus and compose in the traditional photographic way.

Thus, the Wasilla portion of this blog will be devoted both to the images that I take as I wander about and those that I have taken in the past. Despite the odd, random, nature of the images, I believe they communicate something powerful about this town that I have never seen expressed anywhere else. 

Wasilla is a sprawling community that has been slapped down hodge-podge upon what was so recently wilderness of the most exquisite beauty. In its design, it is deliberately anti-zoned, anti-planned. In the building of Wasilla, the desire to make a buck has trumped aesthetics and all other considerations. This town, built in the midst of exquisite beauty, has largely become an unsightly, unattractive, mess of urban sprawl. Largely because of this, it often seems to me that Wasilla is a community with no sense of community, a town devoid of town soul.

Yet - Wasilla is my home and if I am lucky it will be until I grow old and die. Despite its horrific failings, it is still made of the stuff of any small city: people; moms and dads, grammas and grampas, teens, children, churches, bars, professionals, laborers, soldiers, missionaries, artists, athletes, geniuses, do-gooders, hoodlums, the wealthy, the homeless, the rational and logical, the slightly insane and the wholly insane - and, yes, as is now obvious to the whole world, politicians, too.

So perhaps, if one were to search hard enough, it might just be possible to find a sense of community here, and a town soul. So, using my skills as a photojournalist and a writer, I hope to do just that. If this place has a sense of community, I will find it. If there is a town soul to Wasilla, I will document it. I won't compete with the newspapers. Hell no! But as time and income allow, it will be fun to wander into the places where the folks described above gather, and then put what I find on this blog.


by 300...

Anywhere within a 300 mile radius of Wasilla. This encompasses perhaps the most wild, dramatic, gorgeous, beautiful section of land and sea to be found in any comparable space anywhere on Earth. I can never explore it all, but I will do the best that I can, and will here share what I find and experience with you.  

and then some...

Anywhere else in the world that I happen to get to, such as Point Lay, Alaska; Missoula, Montana; Serenki, Chukotka, Russia; or Bangalore, India. Perhaps even Lagos, Nigeria. I have both a desire and scheme to get me there. It is a long shot. We shall see if I succeed.

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Uiñiq (we-nyik) Magazine explained

Following last night's post, MissSunshine left a comment asking how the heck Uiñiq was pronounced and what does it - already defined as "open lead" - mean. I left her an explanation, but promised that I would better explain it tonight.

I consulted with Jana Harcharek, the Bilingual/Multicultural Coordinator for the North Slope Borough School District and she gave me this phonetic spelling of uiñiq: "we-nyik."

I started Uiñiq magazine in late November of 1985 with funding from the North Slope Borough Mayor's Office and published my first issue in January of 1986. My purpose was to document what I could of life in the eight Iñupiat Eskimo villages located in the Borough, spread out over an area nearly as big as the state of Utah. 

The bowhead whale hunt is the foundation upon which the majority of these villages are built. The bowheads come to the villages through the lead, the water that separates the shorefast sea ice from the pack ice. When the winds and current push the pack ice and the sea ice together, the lead is said to be closed.

When the two bodies of ice are separated, then you have an open lead.

This makes the open lead an extremely important part of Iñupiaq life and so I named the magazine, The Open Lead. 

It was then suggested to me that I use the Iñupiaq word, Uiñiq, so I added it in. The magazine then became, Uiñiq - The Open Lead.

This struck me as redundant, so, in time, I just made it Uiñiq.

I was the sole staff of Uiñiq. I took all the pictures, did all the layout, and wrote all the stories - in that order.

It was my big project for the next 11 years, but, as artistic endeavors of the heart so frequently do, by the end of that time it had driven me so deep into debt and into a situation so complicated and convoluted that, although I loved Uiñiq dearly, I was forced to let it go.

Then, about 5 or 6 years later, the Borough asked me to do another special issue. I have continued to do occassional special issues, about one every two years, since that time.

The picture on the cover above is of flower girl Ruby Aiken, the same Ruby Aiken Donovan pictured with her children on yesterday's post.

An example of Uiñiq without the English words, open lead. The gentleman on the cover - and let me stress that he was a true gentleman - is the late Arthur Neakok.

What a privilege it was, to get to know people such as Arthur Neakok!

What a privilege it has been to do Uiñiq!

My Uiñiq work eventually led to my book, Gift of the Whale: The Iñupiat Bowhead Hunt, A Sacred Tradition.

Those of you who have not already seen them can also find some of whaling work on a website that I begun awhile back but never finished, mostly because I got distracted by this blog.

I must finish it - and refine it - for I had no idea how to build a website when I put this together.

The original series was all black and white. The later, special issues, are all color, thanks to the fact that I no longer shoot film, but digital.

When I bought my first digital camera, I thought I would convert everything to black and white, but it was too much work to get digital black and white right and I already spend an incredible amount of time working on my photos, so I decided to leave it color.

This is Trudy Kippi from the Meade River village of Atqasuk and she has just caught a grayling. The month is August, 2005.

I will note that I did not have a copy stand or lights available and so photographed these covers at 3200 ISO with a Canon 5D Mark II under a solitary hotel bathroom tungsten light. 

With a copy stand, tripod and low ISO, they could look a lot better, but you get the idea.

I must thank George Ahmaogak, who was Mayor at the time I originally started Uiñiq, for the opportunity and also Margaret Opie, a true Iñupiaq woman who gave me invaluable help and support, former Mayor Jeslie Kaleak who kept me going during an interim period between Ahmaogak administrations and current Mayor Edward Itta and his special assistant, Karla Kolash, who have not only given me my most recent opportunities, but have also stood by me in an exceptional way since I took my big fall last June and put myself out of action for the better part of a year.

Actually, the people who I need to thank number in multitudes and include virtually the entire Iñupiat nation of the Arctic Slope.

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Reader Comments (2)

What a shame you had to abandon the work you clearly loved! I wonder if some universities in the lower 48 could chip in, and help you once again document this unique culture?

April 24, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMissSunshine

Once again let me say how much I LOVE LOVE LOVE LOVE LOVE your book. :) This is my favorite quote -

"I realized I was in the midst of something extraordinary and beautiful. The thought struck me that perhaps somewhere deep in the forgotten histories of all people, we might have shared something similar; in a belief that wealth and status is defined more by what you give to others than by what you hoard for yourself. Somewhere along the way, most of us lost this belief"

Beautiful Bill, thank you again. Reminding me that a person's wealth is not measured by what they can gather, but by what they have scattered...

April 24, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSuzy (=^..^=)

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