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Pondering Identity at Icy Edge of the World

June 1, 2006 By:
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Steven Dinero (right) with Evon Peter, a former village chief

Steven Dinero decided that 11 p.m. is as good a time as any to light Shabbat candles on Friday night - at least, when he's up in Arctic Village, Alaska. After all, during the summer months, the sun never really sets in this town of 160 people, situated more than 700 miles north of Anchorage, well inside the Arctic Circle.

In order to keep kosher in one of the most remote communities in America, Dinero - a professor of human geography at Philadelphia University in East Falls who resides in Cherry Hill, N.J. - has to stock up on vegetarian staples in Fairbanks, Alaska, and ship the food by plane to Arctic Village. Once it arrives, a friend of Dinero's - a member of the Gwich'in tribe - stores the food in a freezer often packed with caribou meat.

"Folks up there think we are weird. Their whole diet is meat-based," said Dinero, who has returned to Alaska several times a year since 1999 to study the culture of the Athabascan Gwich'in.

"My wife tried making challah one year, but she waited days for the flour to be flown in, and it really was a hassle," said this native of Buffalo, N.Y. "The kids cope, despite it being a bit odd. They know the drill."

He described Arctic Village as one of the poorest communities in the United States, a place where resources are meager and expenses are hefty since nearly everything has to be flown in. For instance, when he first visited the area - where caribou, moose and duck are staples of the diet - gasoline was going for more than $5 a gallon.

"Now, you may ask, if they are living off the land, what do they need gasoline for? They need it to fill up the boat in order to go up river and hunt moose," he replied rhetorically. "They are as American as you and me, but they live under very difficult circumstances."

The member of Congregation Beth Tikveh in Marlton, N.J., originally earned his academic reputation by studying a different nomadic people - Israel's Bedouin community, generally considered among the least educated and poorest of Israel's citizens.

After years of writing about the Bedouin, he decided that he needed to spend time with another tribal group for a comparison study. In the early 1990s, he'd spent a summer in Alaska, and decided to go back.

Still, so far, Dinero has not penned a comparative study of the native Alaskans and the Bedouins. Instead, he's gotten directly involved in the life of the area, trying to improve the situation there ever so slightly.

"The village elders came to me and said, 'We're losing them - our youth. They sit around all day and watch TV, at night they wander around the Village. Losing our youth means we're losing our culture - they don't want to hunt any more, they don't want to fish anymore.' "

To help address the problem, Dinero obtained a $600,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to build state-of-the-art computer laboratories in two high schools.

Part of the project involved the creation of a Web site - arcticways.com - that allows local craftsmen to to sell their creations - from traditional items like moccasins and beaded earrings to more contemporary creations like cell-phone holders - and earn far more profits than if they sold their wares to shops in Fairbanks or Anchorage.

Dinero noted that the money these artists earn is not the most important thing; the real upshot is that it teaches young Gwich'in that their work - indeed, their very way of life - is valued by the rest of the world.

Despite obvious differences, Dinero sees some similarities between native Alaskans and Jews. They're both ancient societies trying to understand how to hold on to culture and collective identity in a changing environment.

"What does it mean to be Gwich'in? Don't we ask the same kinds of questions?"

 

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