This weekend marks the seventh anniversary of the death of a youngman most of you have never heard of. His name was Mike Weyapuk. Hewas 26 years old when he died. He lived in Wales, a Bering Straitvillage hugging the westernmost tip of North America, where you canactually see Russia from the shores of Alaska. I first met Mike in summer 2000 while on a personal quest to learnmore about this special place he called home. |
Until Yankee whalersand epidemics decimated the population, Wales had once been one ofthe largest Native villages in all of Alaska. I wanted to see whatthe village was like today. I was younger then, and the idea ofstanding atop the Continental Divide, staring at the shores ofSiberia was irresistible. I left my girlfriend in the Lower 48 totake a job at the Anchorage Daily News, in large part because I hadan image of myself doing just that.
Writing about Wales and itshistory, this place I stumbled upon while writing a paper incollege. Read Part 1: To live and die in Wales, Alaska It didn t take long after I arrived on my first visit in 2000 --my first summer "vacation" in Alaska -- to find that most peopledidn t want to talk about their history. Some simply didn t knowit. Others were skeptical of a journalist asking questions. Ananthropologist who was in Wales at the time scolded me, even as shedid her own research on the people s history.
I becamediscouraged and started spending my days walking the beach,wondering how I had ended up on the end of the earth. I climbed the sand dunes, where I came upon a mass grave containingnearly 200 people who died in an epidemic in 1918 -- more peoplethan have lived in Wales ever since then. Wales is a windy place,and the grave was eroded, with femurs and skulls and other bonespoking from the sand. I was lost and ready to go home. Then one sunny evening as I was returning to the city s apartmentin The Dome, a weathered geodesic building that looked like adirty snowball, I met Mike.
He was standing on the doorstep of hishouse, which sat next to The Dome. He talked to me, more so thanany other folks in the community had since I'd arrived. He invitedme inside to his house, where I met his father Walter and few othermen. We hung out for a while, and then went into Mike s bedroom sohe could show me his collection of guitars.
I play guitar, and sowe just sat there jamming, gazing outside at Siberia -- it was thatclear that July evening under the midnight sun. Over the next several years, I kept returning to Wales, each visitspending most of my time with Mike. I asked him if I could profilehim for a story. He gave me his permission to record ourinterviews.
Sometimes he would say some pretty harsh things abouthis fellow residents of Wales, or tell me horrible stories abouthis past, and I would ask him, Are you sure you want me toinclude that in the story? Fuck it. I don t care. It s the truth, he said in onevariation or another each time sensitive topics came up. The village, with about 130 residents, can be the friendliest andmost intimate place on earth. But Wales can also be a dysfunctionalfamily, as can most tightly-knit communities anywhere in the world,especially during the long winters near the Arctic Circle.
The truth was that Mike was having a hard go of it in Wales. I knew that much. So did others in the village. You could see it inMike s eyes. You could hear it in his voice.
Every time I leftWales, I wondered whether I d ever see him again. He promised mehe'd never but we all knew -- some of the people of Wales and I-- Mike was toying with a death wish. When I heard the news of his suicide in 2005, I couldn t help butbeing mad at myself and some people in Wales. This didn t have tohappen. We Alaskans all should have done more to save Mike.
Trying to find some peace In 2002, I wrote about Wales while reporting for the AnchoragePress, some of which I worked into the series you're reading thisweekend. I kept up with Mike after that story and continued toprofile his life. I then wrote about him again after he killedhimself sometime between May 25 and May 27, 2005. I offered Mike s story to the Anchorage Daily News, but they nevergot back to me (this is one reason why I created Alaska Dispatch in2008 -- because such stories weren't being told anymore by thepaper). Two other non-local publications (The Paris Review and TheWalrus) wanted it, however, and I ended up choosing The Walrus , a Canadian literary and news magazine.
To Live and Die inWales, Alaska ran in a special Arctic issue in November 2007. But most Alaskans never got to read it. And that had alwaysbothered me. So today, on the anniversary weekend of Mike s death -- andbecause this story never appeared in Alaska -- I share it with you.It originally ran as one long story. But for Alaska Dispatch, Idivided it into three parts, which will run through Sunday.
My intention of sharing Mike s life and death, as well as thestory of one of Alaska s most historic villages, is to put a faceon the troubles -- suicide, sexual abuse, family violence,alcoholism, unresolved grief, mental illness and racism -- thathave all too long plagued many of our communities. For many readers, Mike s death simply adds to the horrificallyhigh statistics of suicide in Alaska. For others, he was a son, abrother, a relative, a neighbor, and a friend. Tony Hopfinger is the co-founder and editor of Alaska Dispatch.Contact him at tony(at)alaskadispatch.com.
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