August 2013

Colleen Mondor


An Interview with Jan Harper-Haines

In Cold River Spirits, Jan Harper-Haines peels back the layers of her Alaskan Native and Irish ancestry to provide a look at the complex lives of her family who grew up in the Alaskan bush. Her paternal grandfather Arthur Harper, born in Ireland, was both a miner and trading post operator and according to the Alaska Mining Hall Foundation is believed to be "the first European man to consider investigating the Yukon River basin as a source of minerals." His numerous letters to those outside Alaska about the gold deposits there are likely the spark that started the Klondike Gold Rush.

Harper-Haines's maternal grandfather John Minook (aka Ivan Pavaloff, Jr.) spurred the rush in the Rampart region in 1893 after discovering gold there. Minook, who was born in Alaska of Athabascan and Russian ancestry, also fought for proof of his American citizenship. This was critical, as Native Americans were not permitted to own, sell or operate (for profit) mining claims during the peak gold rush years. In 1904 a judge's landmark decision determined Minook was an American citizen due to the transfer of Alaska's ownership between Russia and the United States government. In the 1920s this decision was used to open up mineral location and development rights for Native Americans in Alaska and other U.S. Territories.

Succeeding generations of Harpers and Minooks struggled through poverty and alcoholism, barely survived the Spanish flu epidemic and journeyed thousands of miles, often barely out of diapers, to obtain an education. They suffered through losses of culture and tradition while creating Alaska's future. In Cold River Spirits, Jan Harper-Haines provides a uniquely straightforward American story, one that is often wrapped up in myths and legends. She details how her family found their way through a period of history in which change was the rule. Few readers will have any frame of reference for life in Interior Alaska, but inasmuch as we have learned about ourselves from other frontier memoirs celebrating America's west, Cold River Spirits offers an opportunity to bear witness to the lives of an often overlooked aspect of our country's past. This is not the romanticism of Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild, but rather the realities of Alaska's demanding climate and geography as experienced by one family over more than a century.

Cold River Spirits is written in a very intimate style, from frank discussions about birth control to the realities of poverty and alcoholism and the especially hard lives of the young women in your family. Was anyone in your family uncomfortable with aspects of their family story being shared? Did you have any trouble getting to the truth you wanted to write about?

My mother and her sisters had always told it like it was. I suppose they looked for the tragicomedy and preferred to laugh or shrug ironically. Their frankness may be part of the Athabascan culture, but there were limits, too -- not to "air dirty laundry." There was unspoken pride in what they had overcome and achieved despite being non-white and struggling so hard for food, education, recognition and respect. Dignity was sought through it all, although at times alcohol blunted that for some of them.

Most of my relatives were supportive of Cold River Spirits, especially those of my mother's generation. A few cousins were upset with the portrayals and claimed the publisher had forced me to embellish the grittier parts. That never happened. Epicenter Press did not pressure me. In fact, l left out some seamier descriptions, which I felt did nothing for the narrative and would have bogged down the story. I didn't want to whitewash the Native people or my relatives. Romanticizing indigenous people doesn't help descendants and other cultures understand what they endured.

Last year, the daughter-in-law of one of the characters in my book sent a letter to the Fairbanks Daily News Miner. She was very upset and claimed the story about her mother-in-law was false. Three aunts and an uncle had confirmed the basic facts of that chapter before the book was first published in 2000. Since most of the events in Cold River Spirits occurred before she was born, what she knew of her mother-in-law may not have been the whole story. However, had I known about this woman while doing my research, I'd liked to have talked to her.

Along those same lines, was there any story presented in the book that you did not know before your research or that held a surprise for you?

Yes, "Ice Fog," the chapter about my grandmother coming out of her near fugue and the chapter about my aunt Lucy and her daughter who had committed suicide. Both were a surprise. In fact, as I called relatives of which there are many -- and fleshed out the bones of what little I knew, every story had elements of whoa!

"Ice Fog" is the chapter about your grandfather Sam Harper's death and the "near fugue" state your grandmother suffered from where she seemed not to realize until days later that he was dead. Is this how the event was shared with you by your mother or grandmother? Can you explain how you learned this story and decided upon the unique way of telling it?

My mother never mentioned this episode. I think she was in so much shock when Sam was killed, she didn't realize what had happened to Louise (other then that she had fallen) at the funeral of their distant relative more than a week later. I learned of this episode when I called my Aunt Mary who lives in Georgia with some question. Suddenly, in the midst of answering my question, she told me what had happened to her mother just after Sam died.

I was taking a writing class at the time, and format for the story seemed natural to what had happened. It is one of my favorite chapters.

I was especially interested in the mentions of birth control and family planning in the book -- they really resonated with me as my own Irish Catholic family suffered a similar difficulty. I have not read much about this topic in other books by and about Alaska Native life. Can you provide some history on family planning in Alaska Native society -- when did the information on birth control finally reach them?

In the sixties when birth control pills came into use, my grandmother said, rather wistfully, something along the lines of, "Oh how lucky these young girls are! How I wish those had been around in my day." After Sam died and by the time, she met [her boyfriend] George, birth control was less of a mystery. But then alcohol reared its ugly head and birth control for some younger women especially was sloppily practiced, if at all.

Your chapter on your great-uncle Walter Harper, who was the first person to summit Mt. McKinley and was then killed with his wife when the SS Sophia sank, was quite sad -- his story is almost hard to believe. Is he still celebrated in current generations of your family? Do you know how he was regarded in Alaska in the years prior to this death?

Prior to Walter's death, he was apparently regarded as an up and comer. He was six feet tall and good-looking and the girls in Tanana and the villages had their eyes on him. The word spread, however, that he was off-limits because Archdeacon Stuck (who regarded him as a son) wanted to educate Walter and ready him for further education in Massachusetts. Until he was sixteen, Walter spoke only his mother's native tongue, Koyukon Athabascan. However, he wanted to become a missionary physician in Alaska.      

Walter's achievements provided my mother's family with a lot of bragging material. Hudson Stuck had published a book about the climb, praising Walter and the other climbers. That as much as anything -- including the fame of Walter's father, Arthur Harper -- gave the Harper name panache.          

How did you mother decide to go to University Alaska Fairbanks? You wrote quite poignantly about her struggles there -- I can't imagine how difficult it was for her -- but I wondered how she came to attend in the first place. It was such a huge leap; what gave her the confidence to try?

In April, my husband and I were in Oregon and stopped at Chemawa, a Native school where mom and two of her brothers and a sister were for ten years. That is when I saw how little this BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs] vocational school was geared to prepare students for university life. So for mom to go from there to UAF was a huge jump. On top of that, her health, which included two bouts of TB, was dicey.           

Her drive to be somebody and be respected motivated her to overcome (or just do her best to ignore) obstacles. Her paternal aunts, Marianne (aka Jesse) and Margaret, were teachers and role models and mentors. Mom's father, Sam, believed the best way out of poverty and the hard, grim life of the bush was through education and he encouraged mom to get a degree.

Mom had several jobs and one woman -- a Mrs. Call -- made sure my mother put her money in the bank as soon as she was paid. There were definitely times Mom wanted to quit. She also wanted to help and advance the situations of Natives. I suspect if she were a young woman today, she'd be in management for one of Alaska's Native corporations.

A lot of the books written about Alaska focus on explorers or people arriving from outside and "finding" themselves here. There are, as you know, few books about the Alaskan Native experience. As someone whose roots go so far back in Alaska and uniquely can call both the rural and town experience part of your heritage, can you give me your thoughts on the significance of the Alaskan Native perspective to the literature and what you think these voices can contribute to our understanding of the state?

The astonishing thing about stories coming out of Alaska and from people who have lived there is they reflect different, though not conflicting, sensibilities. Most elaborate on feelings toward the country and climate, geography, social makeup, relationships to religious/spiritual attitudes as well as nature. Of course, the emphasis differs from person to person. For myself, I'm caught up in the sheer beauty of Alaska's extremes and the mystical/spiritual uplift I get whenever I'm there. Others might stress joy or hardships in working the land, living a subsistence lifestyle, such as those who write for Alaska Magazine.

Some of the most interesting books I've read are memoirs set in Alaska. Family relationships are often stressed -- if not family, then the land (which then feels like family) and what the writer has learned/achieved or failed at. Alaska is a major player in the characters appearing in any story set there. When I was growing up in Anchorage, I didn't know any of this. I had no idea how different the state (then a territory) was from others in the continental U.S.

Many Natives, people like Willie Hensley, have left to further their education and job experience before returning to Alaska. They circle around, like winged creatures and eventually come home. Although I am not physically in Alaska, it is my spiritual home. I know people from other states who have no strong feelings about where they were born or raised. To me, they seem like orphans.

Last fall, I was part of a panel at the University of Alaska Anchorage bookstore, along with Willie Hensley, Lael Morgan and Dr. Jeanne Breinig. The topic was "Writing the Alaska Native Story, Contemporary Perspectives and Challenges." The discussion veered all over the place, but I recall the main point Lael wanted to address was how can we get more Natives to write their stories or those of their ancestors.

This may not help your question, but it is something Alaska Natives are slowly overcoming. Their big concern, if they are inclined to write at all, is how will their relatives react? How much truth can they reveal without being ostracized? All memoirists, whatever their race, deal with this, and it can be a crippling situation.

To understand the state, we have to understand the people. For that to happen, people have to see how they are affected by and respond to situations -- situations that are often unique to Alaska. All teachers would suggest the individual record daily events -- journal entries are a start. Make it personal. At the end of a month, a year, several years, the writer might discover how their perspective has changed -- or other changes.  This is their arc. The arc is the story and the personal story, when written, can help others.