Every holiday season I think back to Christmas stories from the late Barrow elder and magistrate Sadie Neakok. I met Sadie on my first trip to Barrow back in 1969, and visited her as often as possible. And every time I could smell homemade bread, and hear another one of her stories.
She was born in Barrow, on Alaska's northern Arctic coast, in 1916. Sadie said she remembered being a baby in her mother’s arms in church at Christmas. Families would go to church all day on Christmas back then, taking all the presents along, she said. There were songs and services and a feast including lots of food.
A couple years later she cried when some strange men came into church. They had brought the mail by dog sled from Kotzebue and had some big news --World War I was over. By then it was late 1918, but in those days the news took a while to get to Barrow.
She always had lots to tell, including about the Barrow of her youth, stories of her life dating all the way back to when she started school at the age of 6. “We dearly loved school,” she said. “We would run to the school when it opened. We didn’t have buses to take us there. And when there were blizzards we tied ourselves together with a rope so none of us could wander off until we reached the school.”
When she was growing up, there were reindeer herds in Barrow.
“Our parents had shares in the reindeer herds and they would get the skins, and then make us clothing for winter,” Sadie recalled to me.
She said that such warm Native clothing helped the students brave the frigid Arctic Alaskan weather, saying with a smile, “That clothing would outfox the cold weather."
But sometimes the students would have to delay their trip to school when reindeer got out of their enclosure. She said then each of the students would stand togethera and hold hands and provide a temporary fence.
Even on the coldest afternoon in Barrow, I always looked forward to visiting with Sadie in her cozy little house on the shores of the Chukchi Sea.
The last time I saw her was in the late spring of 2004. I bent down and told her that my wife Chris and I were going to visit family down in the Lower 48 but that I wanted to see her before we left.
She had just been laying there quietly in her bed. But then she opened her eyes and said “have a nice vacation.” Sadie passed away in mid-June at the age of 88. She was always thinking of others , even when dealing with her own pains and health concerns.”
Earl Finkler is a former resident of Barrow and host of the Morning Show on KBRW Barrow -- serving the North Slope. He now lives in Medford, Wisc., with his wife, Chris, and former Barrow Husky "Avu."
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