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Alaska Village Romance

My name is Jennie. My husband, James, is Gwich'in/Irish and I am white. The Gwich'in are an Alaskan Athabaskan tribe. His paternal grandfather was an Irishman who moved to Alaska in 1911. James and I met while I was doing research for my Master's thesis in his village (population ~650 depending on the season). We were introduced by his sister-in-law, Kathy. I had become friends with Kathy and her husband in the course of my research and she decided that James and I should get together. I don't know whether she really planned the whole thing or not, but it makes a good story. I was walking down the road in mid-April when Kathy drove by and told me she wanted to take a snow machine ride to another village 60 miles away. I hopped in the car and we went to find James and borrow his snow machine. I could see from the look on his face that he thought we were crazy, but he agreed to accompany us along with another friend. Later he told me he went inside to his friend and I told him "pack your things, we're taking Kathy and a white girl on a snow machine trip." There was no way he was letting us go on our own. The trip was beautiful; only about 20 degrees and the northern lights lighting the trail for us. Along the way James and I talked a little. I thought there was something about him and he about me, but we didn't say anything. I wasn't sure it was appropriate for me to date someone from the village I was studying in and he was a bit shy.

The next week he added me to his nightly visiting schedule. He would come by the cabin I was staying in each evening and we would talk for a couple hours before he would continue on his way. It was at this time that I discovered one of the cultural differences between us. When he was ready to go he would just get up and leave. There was no lead in like I was used to ("well, I really should be going" said at least five minutes before you actually leave) and I wondered if I had said something wrong. I finally realized it was just his way and later discovered that it was a cultural difference between many Native American cultures and Euro-American cultures. The Gwich'in don't have a lingering goodbye ritual like my white family and friends do. When they are ready to go they leave. I can still remember wondering what happened to James while we were visiting my parents and discovering him in our truck, having assumed that when I said we should be leaving I really meant it. Now, we do it my way with my family and his way with his.

James and I have very different communication styles and we have both had to make adjustments in our relationship. I am a Harvard graduate and used to a very aggressive, fast style of debate. My mother still loves to throw out some controversial topic and watch my father and I go at it. James is an airplane mechanic and pilot with what I would consider a traditional Athabaskan way of communicating. For example, he doesn't speculate about things he doesn't know about (a white person will always give some answer, even if they have to guess). Also, Athabaskan people tend to speak more slowly and have longer pauses than white people. For a while I couldn't figure out why James would answer a question he was asked five minutes ago after we had moved on to some other topic. I finally realized that I was not pausing long enough for him to feel comfortable answering. Sometimes I still forget to wait for him to finish and he says I jump to conclusions before he is finished speaking.

James has made some adjustments too. Once while we were dating he told me to meet him at the small plane airport at a certain time and then was an hour late. He was operating on "Indian time" and I was furious. Now, he lets me know if he can not predict the exact time he will be somewhere and he checks in with me to let me know where he is. For those who think "Indian time" is a derogatory term, I disagree. It describes a lifestyle in which there are many variables that can not always be predicted (weather, river conditions, hunting success, equipment failure). Also, I'm not sure that the modern lifestyle, so tied to the clock, is a very healthy way to live.

I think that our differences in educational background actually gave us more pause than our cultural differences. When we began our relationship I wondered if I would be able to stay with someone who did not enjoy long analytical discussions about politics or social issues. Then I thought about the debates I had with my former boyfriend, another Harvard grad, and realized that we could never discuss a serious issue without it degenerating into a fight. With James I have learned a much more relaxed and cooperative communication style and I am rewarded with his deeper insight into the human condition. For James, I think the concern was whether I had the skills necessary to live a rural lifestyle. He didn't expect that I would enjoy living in a small town. We have lived in the village for three years now, and with the help of his large family I have managed just fine. We decided to get married about six months after we first met. I think we both thought about it a lot, but in the end we were drawn together. I decided against going outside the state for more graduate study and he started working in the North Slope oil fields so that he could support a family. We now have a 13 month old daughter, Jeanetta, who is the delight of all her aunties. Probably my biggest question about the future is how we will balance my heritage with James' heritage in the future. Will our kids speak village English or standard English? Will they learn to analyze the world as I do or accept it as their father does? Will they be Gwich'in or standard American or both? A Gwich'in friend of mine is currently working on several projects to begin educating Gwich'in children in the Gwich'in language and cultural values. I am committed to helping him, but sometimes I wonder where Jeanetta will fit into all of this. James worries more about how she will succeed in broader society.

I'm sure some people wonder how we have overcome these differences. I know that I make it sound rather routine. I think part of the answer lies in our families. Neither of our families had any negative reaction to our being together. His family has had a lot of cross-cultural marriages and my family is from Alaska and familiar with Alaska Native cultures. In fact, we actually had more in common than it might seem. James was raised in a rural area and sometimes spent the entire year in the Alaska bush at his father's trapping cabin. I was also raised in a more rural area and spent several months a year on my parents' commercial fishing boat. The fact that we both love Alaska and rural living was very important. We don't have to worry about one of us wanting to retire to Florida. We also both grew up in rather volatile families and both wanted a calmer relationship for ourselves. Our dedication to reducing most conflict in our lives (or at least handling it without shouting) has extended to any cultural misunderstandings we have. Finally, I think we both accept that the other person is different and we don't try to change each other. Why would we when we both got what we wanted?