At Home on the Tundra
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“At Home on the Tundra,” Ensign, Aug. 1989, 56

At Home on the Tundra

In an isolated Alaskan village, an LDS family finds the warmth of the Spirit reaches into their home.

If there were such a place as Nowhere, it would be very close to Brevig Mission, Alaska. Brevig Mission, an Inupiat Eskimo village of 170 people, lies sixty miles north of Nome (yes, there is a north of Nome!), on the coast of the Bering Sea, about eighty miles south of the Arctic Circle.

Temperatures range from a high of sixty-five degrees Fahrenheit in the summer to a low of one hundred degrees below zero (including windchill factor) in the winter. While the sun does dip below the horizon in the summer, the sky remains light twenty-four hours a day. On the shortest day of the year, the sun peeps above the southern horizon at about 1:00 P.M. and sets two hours later.

Brevig Mission is one of the most traditional villages in the Bering Sea region. Villagers pick berries and greens during the summer months. They fish and hunt walrus, seal, and an occasional whale or moose for their livelihood. A traditional delicacy is stink flipper, or stink meat—walrus flippers which have been buried in the sand and left to marinate in their own juices for a number of months. One of the most sought-after delights here is Eskimo ice cream, a combination of blueberries (or salmon berries), seal oil, ground reindeer fat, and snow.

Brevig Mission has no restaurants, hospitals, theaters, or shopping malls. There are two stores. They carry no food, but they do sell all the spark plugs and snowmobile runners your heart could desire. There is a health clinic staffed by native aides who are in constant touch with the medical center in Nome. In the event of an emergency, patients can be rushed to a hospital by plane.

There are no roads or automobiles, either. Transportation is by three- or four-wheeler, snowmobile, or, yes, dog sled. In an airfield adjacent to the village, single- or twin-engine planes from various bush airlines land nearly every day (providing the weather cooperates).

Brevig Mission also has a post office, telephones (since 1983), and cable television (since 1984). The village has only had electricity for the past seven years. Oh, yes, there is a school, and that is the reason my family and I are here.

Three years ago, I was an elementary school principal in the Salt Lake Valley when I felt prompted to investigate employment possibilities in Alaska. I learned that in order to be considered for a teaching or administrative position, I had to attend the Teacher Placement Fair that June at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks so I could be interviewed by school district representatives. After much fasting, prayer, and discussion, my wife and I decided I should fly to Fairbanks. I left home with strict orders that I was not even to think about working in the North Slope Borough (around Barrow) or in the Bering Strait region.

Sure enough, my first (and last) interview was with the Bering Strait School District. I was offered a contract and given twenty-four hours to decide. I made a long-distance call to my wife and family, advising them of the development and pleading for their fervent prayers in weighing the offer. I called them again the next day, and after surprisingly little discussion, we agreed it was the right thing to do. I returned to Salt Lake City with a contract in my hand, never having seen Brevig Mission, and with a mixture of faith, hope, and apprehension in my heart.

Family, friends, and ward members doubted my sanity and were concerned for the welfare of my wife and three children, but with their help, we completed our preparations and headed north to Alaska.

Nome, where we spent the night before departing on the final leg of our journey to Brevig Mission, was a sobering experience. We had been excited about the grand adventure that lay before us; but of Nome, it would be best simply to say we found that the city’s beauty does not lie on the surface. It might be described as spartan, or perhaps utilitarian.

There was a bright side, however. The pilot who flew us north from Nome was Douglas Holee, president of the Nome Branch, the nearest Church unit to Brevig Mission. From President Holee, we learned that a young Brevig Mission village girl was a member of the Church.

Brevig Mission surprised us. Although it is treeless, there is a stark beauty to the area. The school, a $4,000,000 structure, is large, modern, and well-equipped. The school district provides housing for teachers; our home is a three-bedroom trailer. While it is quite a step down from our new house in Salt Lake City, it is the Taj Mahal of the village. We have hot and cold running water; at the time, many of the villagers lived in shacks along the beach and were compelled to haul their water in buckets. While it is somewhat cramped, our living situation took on a different perspective when we learned of a family of six living in a one-room shack the size of our living room. (Incidentally, Eskimos do not live in igloos.)

It is a challenge to live without supermarkets or even drive-in convenience stores. While I knew there were none of these in the bush, I had been expecting food in the village stores. When we discovered, to our dismay, that they had no commodities, we were very glad for our experience with the principle of fasting. We were also glad that we had felt impressed to mail food before we left, as well as to bring with us cases of tuna and of macaroni and cheese.

Those first days until we could have food flown in from Seattle were really a challenge! But during our two weeks of macaroni and tuna, none of us complained (not even our usually finicky boys). We felt truly grateful to the Lord for the food we did have. Even now, fresh bread, milk, fruit, and vegetables are rare treats.

It is a great privilege to gather for our Sunday family worship service (to which Ada Wellert, the young native member, her sisters, and her occasional companions are welcome guests). We meet weekly in our living room, with permission of the Anchorage Alaska Bush District presidency, following the outline given in the Church’s Family Guidebook (stock no. PBMP0087). We seek the guidance and direction of the Spirit of the Lord, and we feel our meetings are weekly spiritual feasts. Where else would a ten- or eleven-year-old boy have the opportunity to offer an opening or closing prayer in a worship service? What a marvelous opportunity to address the spiritual needs of our family!

During our meetings, we make sure that all (in our very unmusical family) have the chance to sing the children’s songs and hymns of Zion. Using the Church-produced cassette tapes of vocal and instrumental accompaniments, Songs and Hymns for Latter-day Saints, we are able to practice, sing, and learn at least one hymn and one children’s song each month.

In addition to having a Primary lesson or listening to a recorded talk from one of the General Authorities, we study a variety of gospel topics. At one time, we devoted a Sunday or two to each of the Articles of Faith. We took turns speaking on different facets of the topic under study that day. There is also joy in sharing our testimonies with each other. And there is a great personal blessing in the weekly self-examination, renewal, and recommitment of taking the sacrament.

These meetings are sacred, joyous times for my family and me, times when we know that even though we are far from an organized LDS congregation, we can still be close to the Lord. We still share the same blessings of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and we are as much a part of the Lord’s church as when we were in Salt Lake City. The Holy Ghost is certainly not hampered by geography.

One of the first lessons that we learned came on our first Sunday in Brevig Mission. Expecting to find stocked shelves in the stores, we had not thought to bring bread we could use for the sacrament. We used instead a portion of a pancake made from the mix we had sent ahead from Salt Lake, but not until we first read from the Doctrine and Covenants, section 27, verse 2:

“For, behold, I say unto you, that it mattereth not what ye shall eat or what ye shall drink when ye partake of the sacrament, if it so be that ye do it with an eye single to my glory—remembering unto the Father my body which was laid down for you, and my blood which was shed for the remission of your sins.” [D&C 27:2]

I emphasized for our boys that we couldn’t substitute something else for bread on a whim, but in this case, as we had no bread, we made an exception because of our great need for the blessings which can come through partaking of the sacrament worthily. This somewhat unusual sacrament service was a great spiritual experience for us all.

We have found that the Church is not far away, even in Brevig Mission. The Bush Branch of the Alaska Anchorage Bush District makes provisions for its widely scattered membership. Latter-day Saints residing in scattered Alaskan villages usually are working as teachers, government employees, or military personnel. The branch sends these members videotapes of general and district conferences and of special Church broadcasts, as well as Primary, Relief Society, and priesthood manuals.

We were blessed with a new son here in the north, and my wife devotes full-time effort to our family. Those days alone in the trailer with two babies, while our older boys and I are at school, can get rather long. A surprise telephone call from her visiting teacher in Anchorage or a letter from our “home teacher” can be a real lift. There was even a member (an itinerant eye doctor) who visited us once!

A number of things available throughout the Church help us grow individually and as a family. The monthly Ensign is a real blessing; it is eagerly awaited and devoured. Family home evenings have been regular opportunities for growth, learning, fun, and an increase in love for each other and the Lord.

The scriptures have taken on a whole new meaning in our lives; their message is very real and comforting for us. We have commented on numerous occasions about the great faith that Lehi and his family demonstrated in leaving home, belongings, and civilization to enter the wilderness. While I do not imply that we are faced with the trials Lehi underwent, it is easier now to liken this and other scriptures to ourselves.

Prayer, too, has become absolutely vital to our well-being. I would like to think that we have always been prayerful, but never before have we needed to plead with the Lord to restore the electricity so the temperature in our trailer wouldn’t drop so low that the children would become ill. On Christmas Eve (and this was not an isolated incident) we held special family prayers that the pipes would thaw so we could have water for Christmas.

Prayer, revelation, and priesthood blessings have taken on new significance in another aspect of our lives. VerNene, my wife, faces problem pregnancies. In Salt Lake City, she came close to death following a miscarriage. Yet we had been promised on numerous occasions that we would have more children. During her pregnancy here, we recognized that there was no hospital or medical staff nearby to handle a serious emergency. One Sabbath, following our family worship service, VerNene asked for a priesthood blessing. I felt prompted to promise her that in this hour of need the Spirit would serve as her physician and that all would be well. She, of course, did all she knew that she should do to care for herself wisely. We now have another future missionary in our family, born without serious consequences for my wife while we were on vacation in Salt Lake City.

I believe our real reason for being here in Brevig Mission is the villagers—especially the children. The native children are a delight to teach. They are eager to learn, and discipline problems are few and minor. Being in an isolated setting has its challenges for a teacher, however. It is difficult to have students read about trees, horses, and subways when they have never seen any of these. Course offerings, while strong on the basics, are naturally limited when the entire school population (kindergarten through twelfth grade) is forty-six students.

During our first year in Alaska, we had decided that one year of this kind of experience and blessing was enough, and we wanted to return to Salt Lake City when school ended. Yet there remained a nagging feeling that I still had work to do here, that I was to continue to teach and serve to the best of my ability. Time and again I hoped that I was wrong and that we were to return to our familiar surroundings. Time and again we felt that our future was here in Alaska. After many prayers and many long family discussions, we decided to remain.

Perhaps the lesson I have begun to learn is that happiness is not a matter of geography or other external circumstance. Happiness comes from service and growth, from relying on family and the Lord.

I know that our Heavenly Father and his Son, Jesus Christ, live. Our family’s time in Alaska has helped me learn, better than ever before, that both of them love us and know us as individuals. Our needs and feelings are important to them, and they seek our happiness and well-being, in whatever circumstances we may find ourselves.

The stark setting of Brevig Mission, Alaska, is home to the Douglas New family. (Background photo courtesy of Brevig Mission School; family photo by David Miller.)

Michael New finds friends among the Eskimo boys at school. Ada Wellert, shown with Matthew New, is the only member in Brevig Mission besides the New family. (Photos by Douglas A. New; background photo [not shown] courtesy of Brevig Mission School.)