Over my previous trips to Alaska, I have seen the work ethic of Alaskans. Alaskans are tough and often work long hours for weeks at a time and/or in extreme weather conditions. The biggest revenues for business in Alaska are fossil fuels (oil, coal, natural gas), fishing industry, and tourism. In addition to the work ethic I have seen, I’ve also witnessed the fruit of these industries while living in Healy, a coal mining town and while working for Princess, a big tourism company. On this fourth and longest trip to date, I have begun to see a different side of the Alaskan people, mainly, their hearts.
As I approached my first winter in Alaska, I was never concerned and always prepared the best I knew. Layers are key, especially in keeping your skin from drying out or from getting frostbite. Alaska is a tundra after all; a frozen desert. I’ve even worked outside in -36 degrees Fahrenheit. However, it became evident the gear I had could use an upgrade. When my friend Dennis saw my boots; side note here – I bought my snow boots from Cabela’s in Hamburg, Pennsylvania and informed them of my conditions in Alaska and was assured that walking around in them would be sufficient. They were wrong, very wrong. Anyway, back to the story, Dennis offered me his bunny boots that he bought for work but never used. The boots were rated for being able to work outside in negative 20. Those boots served me well all winter and I have been so thankful for them! Best part, he insisted I take them for free, as a gift from a friend who had what another friend needed. Ike, my Alaskan best friend and now brother gave me one of his good hunting knifes for my birthday last December. I had no such knife to use until then and certainly no money to buy one. My brother Farren saw that I was always wearing layers and that my winter coat had taken it’s beating over the years. Pretty sure I’ve had that snowboarding coat since college. One day he was given a winter coat for free and immediately thought of me. The new winter coat has two layers built in and keeps me toasty. Sometimes it’s not cold enough to wear and I sweat if I do wear it. Next, my new friend Ray noticed I always wore lined pants but never snow pants. He had an extra pair he was given and was no longer using. Once again, I was given a gift because a friend had something that his friend needed. No money was asked of me. When walking in knee deep snow, sledding with the youth, or being out in negative 20 or even below that, those snow pants have been a huge blessing. Bunny boots, hunting knife, new winter coat, & gently used snow pants – all of these gifts were easily $400 in total value or more. These are some of the bigger examples but I have been given many smaller gifts over these last 5 months as well.
I’m often offered a place to stay, food to eat, a warm shower, washer & dryer, more food, gas or gas money for rides, yet even more food, and even just the fellowship of being in their homes. What’s beautiful about the Alaskan culture is that I have experienced this giving heart from both native and non-native cultures. I’ve also witnessed it being done to others. Recently the community Jr & Sr. youth group came together to cut wood for someone in the area that just had neck surgery and could not cut up any wood for their wood stove. Heat is essential in this weather! Another example is when I lost my wallet. During my first week of subbing, I was wearing new pants with short pockets. I haven’t lost my wallet in at least 10 years. However, it wasn’t to be found anywhere. Not in my cabin, not at the school, nowhere that I retraced my steps. I reported it lost to my banks and the local state troopers and began requesting replacement cards. However, they would not arrive before I needed to leave for my ministry trip to Willow with LightShine. Since I was delayed I was able to be in town for church and had to call a friend for a ride. The pastor of Tazlina Fellowship, Kim, heard me talking with Dennis about a ride home and inquired about my car. Once he heard I lost my wallet and didn’t have money for gas, he offered to fill it up! I was so blessed by this gesture. He even gave me cash to help me with any other needs. When two other friends heard the same story, they made similar offers. It really blessed me to know I am taken care of in times of need.
These experiences have been an adjustment for me. I’m not accustomed to this kind of generosity. Whenever I’ve had something someone else could use I’ve maybe given it away for free a few times. But I’ve always felt like oh, I could at least get a couple bucks for it. And that by giving it to them for a super cheap deal was the favor. Yet, here I watch people without hesitation give away things that they have so they can meet other’s needs. They give as if it were second nature to them. I’m here surprised and shocked by the awesome gift I’m being given and they are just putting on a smile, happy to help.
I have also seen this type of heart expressed in the native traditions during a funeral. Their funerals involve the entire community and a week to prepare. Funeral services are held over two days with three different types: visitation, funeral, and Potlatch. Potlach can be both a noun, for the celebration event of the person’s life at the end of the week as well as a verb for the gifting that goes on during and at the end.