Colorblind - Part I

By Patrick Hall

Back in the 1970s, I found myself working at Yupik Eskimo Boarding School in Northwestern Alaska. Saint Mary’s Mission School had been a fixture on the Yukon Delta-Bering Sea Coastal area since1905. The school operated by the Catholic Jesuit Fathers served Yupik Eskimo students from various communities throughout the Delta.

I vividly remember the day I arrived at St Mary’s.  I along with a dozen other educators and staff were shuttled from the airfield on the back of a flatbed truck.  We came to St. Mary's every year to work for a minimal stipend.  It was, for many of us, a ministry.1  However, to be less generous, it could've also been described as a "three-hots and a cot deal," which was somewhat typical of Roman Catholic mission operations at the time.

Yupik Eskimo culture was very different from my urban upbringing as a young Negro boy growing up in the 1950s. Like many of Gussaks, a term that Yupiks sometimes employed to describe outsiders, we were taken in by the many indigenous cultural habits and events that took place. In my first months living in St. Mary's, I, like other staff members were captivated by the different cultural accouterments of Yupik society. We had many opportunities to enjoy Yuraqing or traditional Yupik dance celebrations. We dined on Yupik Eskimo foods such as akutaq (Eskimo ice cream), fertile eggs, ptarmigan, frozen fish, seal, as well as different types of muktuk.  On a visit to the coastal village of Hooper Bay, I even had a chance to sample walrus. Also, in the dead of winter, when the Northern Lights were at their brightest, I remember on several occasions going outside with a Catholic Yupik Nun to whistle at the lights, to make the lights dance.

Here is a quick polemic.  St. Mary’s was a Roman Catholic mission, which would drive today’s leftists Jacobins and “cultural appropriation catechumenates" bonkers. However, many every day realities demonstrated how traditional Yupik spirituality and culture had meshed or mingled decades ago to form a unique Yupik Catholic devotional. According to the native Jesuit Priest, a traditional shaman, "transference of sanctity" had been intrinsic to Yupik native culture when the first Russian Orthodox Christians interacted with Yupik culture as far back as the 18th Century.
Sidebar: The term Gussak which Yupik’s employ to describe Caucasians, had its etymology from the Russian term Cossack.  I was a black Gussak, and many of my Caucasian colleagues were white Gussaks.  But that was the syncretic glossary that existed in Northwestern Alaska. However, something predictable occurred during my time at St. Mary’s.  Everyday life intervened!  
Of Quiet Epiphanies

During the weeks, months and years, I worked at St. Mary's, ethnicity, skin color, how we communicated, and other cultural mores became less critical, if not wholly trite.  This did not mean that we weren't aware of such immutables.  They became tertiary at best. Instructional endeavors were the primary focus of the school. However, we were equally involved in many mundane, if not vital, tasks. These could range from packing hay under school buildings, unloading supply barrages (mostly by hand), that came up from Seattle in the late summer and other monthly insulation and structural maintenance. These were ongoing tasks due to the unforgiving Northwestern Alaskan winters.  In the Yupik villages up and down the Andreafsky and Yukon Delta, it could remain well below 0 Fahrenheit for weeks.  

Also, like clockwork, every Saturday morning, we conducted major maintenance and clean-up of the facilities. Unlike the Government or BIA Schools in the area, St. Mary's had no janitorial staff.  It was left to students, teachers, administrators, and staff to clean bathrooms, rec areas, the residence halls, laundry, the library, chapel, classrooms, warehouses, cafeteria, kitchen areas, and hallways.2   In retrospect, during these moments of performing every day but necessary things, the ephemerals of being black, white, or Yupik faded. It simply wasn't that important, as we became less focused on so-called cultural differences. When you spend hours on your back stuffing tons of hay under a building with someone, day after day, one's humanness begins to show. Once again, I was aware that I was a Gussak from the lower 48, and say, Moses Fancyboy,   Anna Amaqjuaq, and Sister Nora Boyscout were Yupik. Over time, we were able to mitigate the shields of cultural upbringing, and these became more and more relegated to the "ok, so what” realm of everyday consciousness. Our skin color and other cultural peculiarities evolved to be the least important thing about us.  Many others teachers, staff, catholic priests, and sisters (many of them Yupik) had experienced and gone through similar epiphanies.  It wasn't that we became "colorblind." That was, strictly speaking, would be impossible, if not totally beside the point. It was that immutables such as skin color, verbal and non-verbal communication mores became more dampened or muted. Skin color and other socio-cultural differences that today’s Diversity Equity and Inclusion Cabal and CRT bigots are fanatically focused upon became boring or less holy. To put it bluntly, human differences couldn't be used as points of "division, perpetual victimhood, and hate," as Diversicrats and Critical Race Theory neo-racists shape-shifters seem to promote.      
 
Yupik Eskimos were, for the most part, a very kind and giving people. At the same time, as we got to know one another, I found some of them to be complete jerks. But that was ok! We are all sinners. We are the failed products of original sin. To paraphrase the late German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, "being human can be messy" or "unordentlich” to cite the theologian.3   We’re all a little bit untidied, bigoted, racist, disordered, sexist, insensitive, phobic, or even creepy at times. However, despite all our shortcomings, we can engage in a tremendous amount of what is good about our species.

______
1. Patrick Hall. MLK believed there was “no slave nor free” in Christ.  Freedom's Journal Insitute July 14, 2021: [online]
 2. Back in the late 1970s, Anthropologist Judith Kleinfeld published her ethnographic research of St. Mary’s Mission.Please see the book:  Eskimo School on the Andreafsky. Praeger Publishers, 1979.
  3. Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The Cost of Discipleship.  Simon & Schuster: 1963.

[Patrick Hall is a retired university library director. He is a graduate of Canisius College and the University of Washington, where he received three advance degrees. He has published in Freedom's Journal Magazine, America, Commonweal, Headway, Journal of Academic Librarianship, American Libraries and others. He currently volunteers at a local VA hospital in the town of Erie, Pa.]

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