To get to this village, named Quinhagak (Kwin-a-hahk), you have to fly in a small plane from Bethel, about 70 miles away, a 30- to 45-minute flight, depending on the size of the plane.
Bethel is the hub for some 56 villages in the Lower Kuskokwim Region, an area 300 – 400 miles west of Anchorage that is sparsely inhabited, mainly by native Alaskans, mostly Yup’ik Eskimos.
What’s remarkable about this village is that one of the school’s teachers made a video last year with his class, featuring students and villagers“performing” the Hallelujah chorus.
The video was posted to You-Tube and has had more than a million-and-a-half hits. In other words, it has gone viral.Going viral sounds like something you’d stay away from at all costs if you had any sense. You wouldn’t touch it with the proverbial 10-foot pole.
But in today’s vernacular, going viral is desirable. Quite desirable, and usually results in somebody making lots of money.
For me the term has a close association with diseases run amok. The deadly Ebola virus comes to mind — an infectious disease that passes quickly from one host to another and kills 90 percent of its victims.
What makes a disease an epidemic is a reproduction rate greater than one to one. Meaning for every person who gets the disease, more than one other person is infected.
My year spent in Quinhagak is one I will never forget. As with many remote places that exist on the fringes of society, there is a culture clash that results in often tragic occurrences, the worst of which is untimely death.
While I was in the village, numerous violent deaths were recorded in Alaska, even in so called “civilized” areas like Anchorage, home to 40 percent of the state’s population.
Drownings, accidental shootings, freezing to death, fatal attacks by bear and moose, overdosing on drugs and alcohol, car crashes, plane crashes, falling through the ice: there are any number of gruesome ways to die in a frontier land with a harsh climate.
There was a regulation in the Lower Kuskokwim School District that put a limit on the temperatures during which a school’s students or teachers could fly: If it was colder than 30 below zero, you were grounded.
The rationale was that if the plane crashed, survivors wouldn’t have much of a fighting chance to keep from freezing to death.
When you factor in poverty, unemployment, illiteracy, poor nutrition and a diminished respect for cultural traditions, it’s a wonder people survive in places like Quinhagak, let alone succeed.
Success is of course measured in many different ways. In the U.S., we are prone to measure success by the size of one’s bank account.
But in places like Quinhagak, success can be measured by the number of people who have indoor plumbing.
When I taught there in 2005 –06, very few homes had flush toilets. The problem in the tundra is the permafrost below the ground’s surface. It does not lend itself to septic systems: The ground constantly contracts and expands, and the water table is extremely high.
Therefore, most people, including me when I lived in the relatively cushy teacher’s housing, still have to dump their 5-gallon “honey buckets” in a larger hopper that is dragged to the dump and unceremoniously tipped out onto the ground.
An above-ground sewage system is under construction, but progress is slow as the building season is short and the conditions very problematic.
Many people here in America would consider living in conditions like Quinhagak’s barbaric. This is where that relativity of success comes in.It is said a culture that loses its language will die out within two generations. Across the world, every two weeks a language dies.
In Quinhagak there are elders who do not know the English language. Yup’ik is taught to all young schoolchildren, and there is a concerted effort to keep cultural traditions, especially the language, alive.
At least partly thanks to fourth-grade teacher James Barthelman, the creator of the YouTube Hallelujah video, the school now boasts more computer technology, a film club and a greater sense of pride.
The people of Quinhagak may not have flush toilets, and they may be prone to infectious diseases, but they also know another kind of viral experience, one that has given them a big boost and opened doors to new possibilities.
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