A blog by Bill Hess

Running Dog Publications

P.O. Box 872383 Wasilla, Alaska 99687


All photos and text © Bill Hess, unless otherwise noted 
All support is appreciated
Bill Hess's other sites

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.

Blog archive
Blog arhive - page view
« Two studies of the young writer, Shoshana; dog in the post office; six scenic views taken through the window or a red Ford Escape in the vicinity of the Little Susistna River and the Manvil H. Olson Bridge; breakfast | Main | Moon over bare trees; picnic table in the nightwind; Kivgiq fans - please! Don't give up on me! I am plugging away! »

Kivgiq 2011, part 9: Chie Sakakibara of Japan, beloved in the Arctic, and Ernest Nageak become ravens in Barrow

I am continually amazed at the coincidences that occur in my life. Early this morning, a bit after midnight, I was still working on my first edit of my Kivgiq pictures. Finally, I reached the first frames of the Grand Finale and I thought, "it is time to take a break."

So I decided that I would go into the house, get a glass of water and then come back to my desk. I also decided that before I began to edit more pictures, I would take a couple of minutes and send a message to my friend, Dr. Chie Sakakibara, because I hadn't sent one for awhile and I wanted to be sure she knew that she continued to occupy a place in that portion of my brain that is devoted to kind thoughts.

When I stepped into the house, I found Margie watching the TV in horror and amazement. So I looked at the TV, too. There, I saw what probably all readers have repeatedly seen by now - a horrible tsunami, rushing across the Japanese countryside - smashing, destroying, killing, sweeping cars, houses, buildings, animals and presumably people away as though they were tiny toys.

My mind, of course, immediately focused on Chie. I knew she would be safe - she was in Oklahoma. I reasoned that her family and her dog, Poochie, in Japan would also be safe but I had no way to know for certain.*

So I got my water, watched the TV for awhile, then came back here to my office and computer, pulled up her Facebook page, dropped in a public comment of hope, and then sent her a private message.

As anyone who knows Chie would suspect, many people were sending her comments of encouragement and prayer - and most of those messages were coming from Arctic Alaska.

This is because Chie is well loved in the Arctic.

I think just about everybody who knows Chie loves Chie - and that includes me. And I do not use the word "love" lightly, as it is so often used.

I mean "love," in that people care about and cherish her. Especially Iñupiat people, whom she has embraced and with whom, working with Dr. Aaron Fox of Columbia University, she has helped to repatriate many Iñupiaq songs that had been recorded in the 1940's but then lost.

Chie was at Kivgiq, where I caught her in this photo just as she reached the end of a invitational "fun dance" with the Nuvugmiut Dancers of Point Barrow.

After Doctors Fox and Sakakibara repatriated the songs to Barrow, the dance groups there all took great interest in them - and some performers were so inspired that they formed a new group, the Taġiuġmiut Dancers.

The singers, drummers and dancers of Suurimaaŋitchuat also incorporated many of the repatriated songs into their performances.  Suurimaaŋitchuat also loves to put on the Raven Dance, which originated in Alaska, migrated to Russia, and then faded away here.

After the ice curtain melted in the late 1980's, there was a great reunion of the Inuit peoples of Alaska and Russia and the Russians returned the Raven Dance to Alaska, where it has been enthusiastically performed ever since.

On the final night of Kivgiq, as Suurimaaŋitchuat prepared to again perform the Raven Dance, Ernest Nageak was looking for his dance partner but could not find her. 

Someone shouted, "Get Chie!"

So he did. And Chie, who had not expected nor prepared for such a responsibility, put her camera  down on the floor and joined Ernest. Chie, btw, is an excellent photographer - I would not say it if it were not so.

Here they are, Chie and Ernest, about to become ravens. Chie studies Ernest's movements even as she dances with him.

Ernest flaps his raven wings. Chie flaps her raven wings.

Ernest takes a charming little raven hop...

Chie takes a charming little raven hop...

Oh, how these ravens danced!

...and danced...

...and danced...

...they flapped their wings... they strutted...

...they checked each other out...

...it was not the first time Chie had ever danced as a raven...

...it was the second...

"The day before, Mattie Jo Ahgeak danced the same raven dance with me, so I knew the movements and development a little better when I danced with Ernest," she explained to me on Facebook this morning.

"When I danced, the joy and excitement overrode my shyness and Japanese politeness. I was simply happy to have become part of the circle of music, friendship, and generous sharing of bounty - including the strong tradition of Inupiaq expressive culture - based on beautiful subsistence and human relations."

Chie saw someone sitting at the front of the crowd, smiling big at her, taking her picture repeatedly. She decided to go tease him.

It was Roy Nageak, Ernest's father.

"He's my favorite Inupiaq man and whaling captain. Also, he's my godfather. He gave me my first Eskimo name, Kuninga. He was also smiling so happily as he kept shooting our photos as we danced ... I could not leave him alone on the floor! I was hoping he would dance with us, but oh well, the time was too short."

"In Inupiaq culture, I particularly love their strong belief in sharing based on traditional human-animal relations," Chie Facebook messaged me

"I am fascinated with various ways in which reverence towards people, animals, and places is woven into the acts of singing, dancing, and drumming. Drumming unifies the minds and bodies of the people and the whales (sometimes caribous and other creatures), and singing and dancing enhance interpersonal/intertribal relations. I see that music is a basis of Inupiaq cultural resilience and sustainability."

Dr. Chie Sakakibara - the Raven - whose homeland has today been hit hard by an 8.9 earthquake and a devastating tsunami.

"Invitations to join the dancers by Ernest and Mattie Jo almost made me cry with joy," Chie told me. "This is my 7th year for my arctic research, and it feels like I literally grew up with them as a person (although I am 10 years older than Ernest).

"I love the Inupiat, and they love me so dearly. I can never thank my adopted families enough for how generously they have incorporated me (and my friend, Aaron) into their whaling cycle and cultural fabric. Barrow is definitely my home now, and my heart will always be there no matter where I may move during the rest of my life.

"As the Inupiaq call themselves "People of the Whales," I now feel that I am also made of the bowhead (I still eat muktuk everyday that Julia Kaleak gave me last month). This is truly happy feeling. I am proud to be an adopted Inupiaq."

I had hoped to get some comments from Ernest as well, but I have been unable to reach him.

So, when it comes to his regard for Chie, I will let this closing picture speak for him.


I just heard that Mac ping that tells me a new email has come in. Let me go check...

...it's from Ernest! This is what he has to say:

"We always bring people out to dance the Raven dance with us - it's a crowd favorite. So I went out, asked a few people to join me dance and they said no. So I seen Chie so I went straight to her cause I knew she wouldn't say no!

"It was fun dancing with her - even if she didnt know the song. She went along with it and did great! She means a lot to me cause the family of PK13 (whaling crew) took her in on 2005 when she went to our whale and helped butcher and cooked until we were done!

"She is like my Aunty - that's what all us young people call her! Everyone loves her on the North Slope 'cause she's so nice and caring and has no negative thoughts towards people! I was thinking more about Japan just cause I know Chie and her family is there. She is like my family!"

*Chie posted this message about her family on Facebook:

"Thanks for your thoughts & prayers, my friends. It is certainly a very sad and difficult time for Japan, but thankfully my family is safe. My brother who lives in Tokyo described that the experience was "simply beyond words."


View images as slide show


PrintView Printer Friendly Version

EmailEmail Article to Friend

Reader Comments (4)

Holy Whale! Quyanaqpak, Bill, for such a beautiful blog post. You literally brightened up my day by reminding me of such a wonderful moment that I was able to share with my nephew, Ernest (Aiviq). Hi Aiviq, SO GREAT TO HEAR FROM YOU. I am such a lucky one to be adopted by your family. Yes, it has been a very difficult and sad day for the people of Japan, but we should stay strong. As I've learned so much from the Inupiaq people, we should strongly hold onto our cutlural heritage and tradition to survive this time of difficulties. Thanks for keeping me in your prayers, Bill and Aiviq. Your love and friendship get me going. Last but not least, here's to my beloved family and friends in Barrow - Happy whaling, and we'll do Nalukataq together once again this summer.

March 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterChie

I love those two people very dearly!! Thank you for sharing and posting this blog!!!!! My younger brother is an inspiration to me!! when my ex-husband left; my younger brother was going to college at UAA and living with us and he helped me a lot through a difficult part of my life and my boys lives... I love how he teaches my boys how to hunt and "make them tough Inupiaq boys soon to be men!" okay... i'm getting teary eyed...he stepped up and played a big part of my boys life guiding them, teaching them and most importantly being there for my boys!!! Chie Marie :) I gave her my middle name she calls me Frieda Marie and I respond yes Chie Marie :) I remember when I first met Chie at PK13 Nalukataq I was living in Anchorage and i went to Barrow and my family said this is your Auntie Chie!!! during our first naluqataq I went on the blanket toss in respect to first whale and my grandpa and broke my ankle.. it was painful i remember Chie was there a shared my pain and ache!! Awesome lady!!! Thanks again for sharing

March 11, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterfrieda nageak

Dear Bill

What a beautiful post about a beautiful person. Chie Sakakibara introduced me to the Iñupiaq world almost four years ago, and in doing so changed my life. You're exactly right: everyone who knows her comes to love her. She just gives her whole heart to other people.

Hoping for the best for her country and her family and friends. On my way up to Barrow tomorrow.


March 12, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAaron Fox

Thank you for the wonderful pictures that taught me even more. I am happy Dr. Sakakibara's family is safe, and our prayers continue for the people of her country.

March 12, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKathryn

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>