The Only Thing That Has Changed in 500 Years
written by: Jim Latham
Katt says to me, “Tim, do you know how to French braid?”
It’s not the sort of thing we usually talk about.
I tell her I don’t know.
“Why not?” she asks. Her hair falls to her waist in waves. Some of it she’s dyed red. The rest is a flowing, gleaming black.
I ask her, “Do I look like someone who would know how to French braid?”
“I don’t know,” Katt says. “You’re not Native. Maybe you’re French.”
Katt and I are the skeleton crew at an empty worker’s camp on Alaska’s North Slope. She works days, I work nights. We keep an eye on things and do just enough maintenance so the lights stay on and the pipes don’t freeze.
When the ‘Rona broke out worldwide, the price of oil crashed and our part of the oilfield shut down. Katt started making virus masks, sewing for hours after working from six in the morning to six at night when I come on shift. She’s setting up now, sorting her fabric into piles and plugging in her iron.
Katt turns on the speaker blue-toothed to her phone and starts her playlist. The Judds come on, asking Grandpa about the good old days, asking him to paint a picture of long ago.
I’m not French, not even long ago. I’m from California. Before that my people came from South Carolina, where they got off a boat from England.
My last name comes from the northern part of England, where the Danes ruled for a few hundred years. Roughly a hundred years after the English kicked the Danes out, Harald Bluetooth ruled Denmark and Norway. The runes for his initials form the basis of the Bluetooth logo on Katt’s phone.
Katt is from Nuiqsut, a village eight miles south of this oilfield archipelago of gravel islands built in the middle of an ocean of tundra stretching from the Brooks Range to the Arctic Ocean. Her people have lived here for thousands of years.
On a clear day, we can see Nuiqsut from camp. Northern England, on the other hand, is a hell of a long way away from here.
I say, “When I was a kid I would watch my sister braid ribbons into her horse’s mane.”
“I want a French braid,” Katt says, reaching behind her head and gathering her hair into a bun. “Not ribbons in my hair. Didn’t you ever braid your daughter’s hair?”
“Not really. Her mom taught her how to braid. Sometimes, when she was little, I would brush it for her after she took her bath.”
Whenever I brushed my daughter’s hair I thought about my dad brushing my sister’s hair. She’d stand in front of him in her flannel nightgown, her bare feet on the kitchen linoleum, Dad’s arthritic knuckles bent around the handle of the brush he pulled gently through her wet hair.
When I come back from doing my nightly inspections, Bob Seger’s singing about running against the wind. Outside, there is no wind. Snow falls straight down.
Katt picks up her iron. She smoothes the seam running down the middle and presses both sides of the brightly colored mask. She sets the iron to the side. Her sewing machine hums as she attaches an elastic loop for each ear. She snips the excess thread and adds a finished mask to the small pile of finished masks.
Bob gives way to Bruce. A lady Bruce is watching is all dressed up in blue. Maybe she’s been watching him too. I’m watching the snow through the windows of the camp as it sifts down and blankets the stacked pallets of supplies that nobody needs, not right now anyway. Maybe never again.
An arctic fox walks down the middle of the road, heading east toward the rest of the silent, virus-stricken oilfield. I grab my phone to take a picture, but by the time I get it pointed out the window the fox has moved on, leaving only his prints.
“It’s getting to be like the Donner Party around here,” I say, setting a plate with half of the last ice cream sandwich on it next to Katt’s sewing machine. Just like the employee headcount, the grocery orders have been cut to the bone.
“Is that something that happened in California?” Katt doesn’t look up from her sewing. “You’re always talking about California history. You need to learn Alaska history.”
“In the eighteen hundreds a group of white settlers got a late start out of St. Louis and took a wrong turn. They got caught in the mountains. Snowed in. They ended up starving and eating each other before they were rescued.”
“That wouldn’t have happened if it was a group of Iñupiat,” Katt says.
“We know how to hunt.”
“Natives have gone cannibal before. Archaeologists in Arizona found human bones with butchering marks on them. There were residues of human proteins inside cooking pots.”
“The word ‘Native’ covers a lot of different groups of people, Tim. The people that did that were probably farmers,” Katt says.
“Come to think of it they were,” I say. “They grew corn and beans and squash.”
“We know how to hunt,” Katt says again. She counts out a pile of ten masks that don’t have straps and picks up her iron. Then she says, “I didn’t know it snowed that much in California.”
“Some places. The Donners got trapped in the Sierra Nevadas. That means snowy mountains in Spanish.”
“We don’t learn Spanish up here,” Katt says. She holds eye contact for a few seconds, something unusual for her. Then she starts to laugh. “Not enough words for snow,” she says. When she laughs, which is often, her eyes disappear.
“I took Spanish in high school,” I say, “for my foreign language requirement.”
“English is my foreign language,” Katt says.
“Iñupiaq is your first?”
“Do your kids speak it?”
“They do. A lot of our young people, though, they don’t speak Iñupiaq much anymore.”
For a moment, it looks like Katt is going to keep talking. But she doesn’t. She goes back to sewing, working more intently than before.
I wonder about what Katt didn’t say. If she was thinking that up until the 1970s, Native children in the United States were forced to attend boarding schools where they faced a different kind of foreign language requirement : white, Christian teachers beat them if they spoke their own languages. When the children became parents, most spoke only English to their children.
“Speaking of Spanish,” Katt says after a while, “did you know an Iñupiaq lady helped with the vaccine for the Spanish flu?”
I look up from the boiler manual I’m using to write up a parts order. “I didn’t know that.”
“I read it in the ADN,” she says, meaning the Alaska Dispatch News. “When the Spanish flu came through in nineteen eighteen, it killed almost everybody in the village.”
“What village?” I ask. “Yours?”
“Brevig Mission,” Katt says. “Over by Nome. Seventy-two out of eighty people died.”
Seventy-two out of eighty is ninety percent. Nine out of every ten. I try to imagine nine out of every ten people in my hometown dying. I try to imagine that happening across the whole country. The survivors probably would start eating the dead — or each other.
I find I don’t have anything to say. So I look out the window. The fox tracks are fading away, filling up with snow.
“During the flu time,” Katt says, “they had miners come to thaw the permafrost with steam so the bulldozers could dig a mass grave. They buried everybody in there together. Then in nineteen ninety-something scientists came and the elders let them open the grave and they found some of the flu virus frozen in the lady’s lungs. They took it and made a vaccine from it.”
“I didn’t know that,” I say.
Katt nods. “We never had epidemics before white people came,” she says. “First it was Columbus and the Pilgrims with smallpox and measles down south. Then the sickness when the whalers and the Russians came here. Then the Spanish flu. Now corona.” She thinks for a moment and says, “I might not be speaking English right now if it weren’t for those epidemics killing so many of us.”
“The Russians were hardly angels,” I say.
“Believe me, Tim, I know that,” Katt says adding the last mask to her pile. “It’s funny,” she says, but she doesn’t laugh. “Us Natives, we just don’t learn. We keep saving you white people from yourselves. First what’s-his-name way back east in the Lower Forty-eight teaches the Pilgrims how to grow corn. Then Sacajawea leads Lewis and Clark around so they don’t get lost and starve and eat each other like white people do as soon as you run out of beef jerky and fast food. And now here I am now making you big, tough oilfield men coronavirus masks because none of you know how to sew.”
I don’t say anything. I watch Katt count the masks she’s made.
“That’s another hundred,” Katt says. “I’m done. I’m gonna drive them over to the main camp. You wanna carry my sewing machine down? I’m gonna sew over there with Jasmine tomorrow night.”
“No problem,” I say.
Katt unplugs the iron and starts putting the sewing machine in its box. She stops and looks at me. “Tim, do you know why I’m sewing these masks?”
I shake my head. “No.”
“I’m sewing them because I’m just like that poor Gram they dug out of her grave. I have no choice.” She looks out the window. “Nuiqsut is only eight miles from here. Even with almost everything shut down, hundreds of people fly up here from Anchorage every week. If anybody here gets sick, my babies might get sick.” She takes a breath. “My babies are sleeping eight miles from here. Eight miles. And the virus has already gone around the world.” Katt looks at me. “That’s why I’m sewing these masks.”
Katt packs the new masks into a Tupperware container and sets the container in her fabric box. She says, “It used to be boats. Now it’s planes. That’s the only thing that has changed in five hundred years.”
I look out the window again. The snow has covered everything, even the tracks the fox left passing us by.
NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR:
This story grew out of personal experience. I was working in Alaska’s oilfield at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, and an Alaska Native co-worker started sewing virus masks for the entire facility. That experience led to other conversations between myself and some of my Alaska Native friends, which led to writing the story. Like the narrator, my ancestry and last name come from Northern England. My intent in writing the story is to share a fictionalized version of the experience as well as some of the history of which I was ignorant before moving to Alaska and having the privilege of meeting many Alaska Natives.
I would like to thank Stephanie Husted, Colleen Timmer, and Jen Stever Ruckle who helped me by reading drafts of this story to help with cultural sensitivity concerns.
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