Hazel Koweluk Nyberg was born in 1954 in Wales, Alaska, a village steeped in native tradition that in many ways has seemed to stay frozen in time. According to Nyberg, who has traveled back to Wales almost every five years since moving to Astoria in the early 1970s, little modernization in town infrastructure has occurred since her youth. “Wales looks about the same as I remember it as a child, although technology has modernized it in some ways,” Nyberg said.
Nyberg, an Inupiat woman, was raised in Wales as the middle child of a family of seven children. The westernmost city in mainland North America, Wales is the oldest community in the Bering Strait region located on the Seward Peninsula at its closest point to Siberia.
Most of the residents of Wales are Inupiat or Native Alaskan although some are of other backgrounds. With a population of about 150 people, many are related or interconnected.
“The town has a post office, clinic and two small grocery stores with a limited supply of such staples as coffee, flour, sugar and powdered milk, as fresh vegetables and fruit are not readily available,” Nyberg stated. “My diet there as a youth and when visiting consists of pancakes and sometimes bacon for breakfast and other meals of fish and other meats like walrus, seal or whale and whatever plants are available such as onions in addition to salmonberries, blueberries or other berries.”
Nyberg continued, “There is no running water, so families must buy water to store in large barrels to use for washing themselves, clothing and dishes. Clothes washing is done by hand with a washboard. In 2012 a laundromat opening in Wales was a major event where locals can wash clothes and take showers. Five-gallon containers called honey buckets are used for toilets.”
Wales has one school that is K-12, so teachers teach multiple grades. To attract teachers to Wales, the school has been supplied with running water and flush toilets. Many of the local students go on to higher education or the military after graduation. Although many leave the area, many choose to return to the “simple” life there Nyberg said.
There is only one church in Wales. When Nyberg attended as a youth the services could be Lutheran, Presbyterian or Catholic depending on which denomination’s minister or priest could come to the area that month.
According to Nyberg the church missionaries, who came to Wales in the 1890s, had a negative effect on the language and other traditions of the Inupiat. For example, Nyberg was forbidden to speak her native Inupiaq language, and consequently, lost the ability to communicate well with the elders of the village. “I spoke Inupiaq as a toddler, but was told I couldn’t speak it at school or otherwise so I forgot much of the language which is sad because I couldn’t connect with the older people who don’t speak English,” she said. “Now, I am happy the language and traditions are being preserved again.”
“Primarily a hunter-gather culture, the Inupiat women gather driftwood for the winter, as there are no trees in the area, and men hunt for food. They forage for berries and roots and mainly eat fish, walrus, seal and whale,” Nyberg said.
Wildlife such as fish, walruses, seals, whales, musk oxen, red foxes, lynxes, porcupines and badgers abound in addition to polar bears. In fact, villagers take great care transporting local children to school to avoid run ins with the local polar bear population.
“Part of the Inupiat culture is to eat what the ground or sea produces. It is also important to give the first of the food that is gathered to the oldest living person to be blessed, so the ground or sea will continue to be fruitful, a tradition that still continues today, “ Nyberg stated.
“When I was young, fish and other meats were dried, smoked or salted and food supplies were kept fresh or frozen in the ground throughout the year, as refrigerators or freezers weren’t available like they are today in Wales,” said Nyberg.
With low temperatures averaging -20F in winter and permafrost all year, everyday living can be difficult as well as brutal. When Nyberg’s aunt died in February of 2015, the young men of the village dug her grave in the frozen tundra by hand which took them many hours, but produced results that looked like it had been done by machine. They did not consider this too difficult because of their love and respect for the elderly woman Nyberg stated.
She further explained that until the 1940s Inupiat mothers selected good providers as husbands for their daughters. ”My grandmother selected my father for my mother to marry and it proved to be a successful marriage of 70 years. In fact, when my father passed away it was very hard on my mother.”
Nyberg also remembers when her grandmother was the medicine woman for the town, as well as the midwife, as there is no hospital. “My grandma could tell a pregnant woman how big her baby would be and whether she would have a boy or a girl just by looking at her.” Though still lacking a hospital today, there is now one home health nurse at the clinic where diagnoses can be made remotely and patients can be transported by plane to other areas of Alaska.
Although immersed in tradition, the village has been impacted by technology. Television came into Wales in the 1970s and today airplanes and smartphones link the village to other communities and the outside world.
Villagers take pride in working on native arts and crafts utilizing ivory, whale bone and beads throughout the long winters. The items such as necklaces, earrings and doll faces are intricate and require much time, patience and skill.
Nyberg’s family lived in Wales until she was five years old and then moved to Nome, Alaska, a larger and more modern town. Her father was employed as a stevedore and in the army where he was rose in rank to master sergeant and her mother became a nurse in a local hospital. The family eventually moved to Anchorage when Nyberg was a teenager.
Nyberg met her husband Carl, a native Astorian, when she moved to Astoria in 1972 and has one son and one daughter. She stated that she had no problem adjusting and fitting into the Astoria culture and would not want to go back to Alaska to live again as she enjoys the Oregon climate. However, during her children’s school years her family traveled to Alaska every summer so that the children could participate in the culture and traditions there. “My children became more connected to the culture than I did in some ways because my parents passed down the tradition to them,” she said.