Columns 2015

Etok – the Inupiat rebel

Etok, Charlie Edwardsen, Jr., was definitely one of the most colorful people it has been my privilege to know. He was amazing in many ways, and in just as many ways could make friendship a challenge. He was who he was and made no apologies for that.

Etok managed to keep his passion for his people alive through more decades than any of us thought we’d survive. When I first met him in Barrow in the early seventies, I knew nothing really about the struggle for land claims or the indigenous rights of Alaska Natives. I had been seduced there by an ad in the back of the American Journal of Nursing recruiting nurses for an adventure in a “remote Alaskan village”.  My knowledge of Alaska came from 4th grade geography as taught in the 1950s. My knowledge of Eskimos was slightly less informed.

My first night in Barrow, I was invited to a welcome party at the apartment of the IHS physician. One of the memories I have of that night was of a very young Oliver Leavitt leaning against the doorway to the kitchen telling me all about the formation of something called the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation and how it was going to be a game changer on the Slope. I had no idea what he was talking about.

Then, not very long after that, I met Etok. I got a master lesson in what Oliver had been saying. Getting it from Etok’s point of view, of course, meant I got a slightly different perspective than that promulgated by the majority of people involved in the land claims settlement. It was a perspective that Etok would spend a lifetime fighting for.

I got to know Etok personally over many a long night of pinochle games with an ever-present pot of coffee simmering on the stove. Etok had an alcohol problem that he, like so many of his contemporaries, battled his whole life. Along with his devotion to the fight for his vision of the future of the Inupiaq, this was the struggle in which he constantly engaged, sometimes more successfully than others. And one summer, while he fought to keep his sobriety, we got into a pattern of late night pinochle games with a couple of friends. The more coffee he drank, the more awake he got and so the games would go on all night. For those of us who had to go to work the next day, these all-nighters could be deadly were it not for listening to Etok explain the world through his perspective. It was always a fascinating take on the issues closest to his heart.

In later years, when I was working at the borough’s Public Information Office, Etok would arrive around the same time as the ASRC annual meeting. He’d wander into my office and tell me he needed the copier. I knew better than to try to tell Etok that anything on the North Slope was off limits to him. This was his land, his government and his corporation. About two thousand copies later, he’d leave and head off to the annual meeting to be the gadfly that wouldn’t stop buzzing.

While the rest of us grew old and to some degree lost the fire in our belly that we’d once had as rebellious youth, the fire never went out in Etok’s heart or soul. He never stopped believing. While Oliver Leavitt started wearing suits and graying at the temple, while Jake Adams and other Inupiat leaders were steering ASRC towards becoming the most successful Native corporation in the state, Etok was holding on to the ideals that first caused him to fight for his people. Those ideals didn’t always, if ever, jive with the thinking of the Native leadership on the Slope. But that just seemed to stoke his fire even more.

Years passed and yet, when I spoke with Etok, it was as though they faded away and I was a young rebel in the sixties all over again. I loved him for bringing that feeling out in me, for reminding me of those times and how amazing it was to feel something so passionately and fight for something no matter what the odds.

I have no doubt that Etok is right now in heaven organizing the angels and explaining to them their indigenous rights. Heaven will never be the same.