The people of Little Diomede in Alaska and Big Diomede in Russia had been trying to arrange reunions for years. Archives were stuffed with records of their efforts — letters to politicians, to families in Russia, to contacts on the mainland. And now it was happening.
Years in the making, the expedition would spend two weeks traveling the Bering Strait coastline, touring the far reaches of Chukotka, the Russian district at the northeasternmost tip of the Eurasian continent.
In July, Kirsten Swann of Alaska Dispatch News flew to Chukotka on a journey led by Anchorage-based Circumpolar Expeditions. Over two weeks, the group traveled more than 300 miles along the coast in 18-foot aluminum boats, documenting the shared history across the Bering Strait — just 51 miles wide at its narrowest point — between Alaskans and Russians as well as modern-day dreams of building a tourism industry.
NOME — Sitting in the Bering Air terminal here, Etta Tall clutched her grandfather’s book in her lap, heart pounding, waiting.
This was the day she’d been praying for, the journey she’d dreamed about since she was a girl.
“I’m excited,” she said. “I got ’flies in my stomach.”
Outside, the Beechcraft turboprop rested on the tarmac. All around her, people fiddled with their cellphones and chatted with their seatmates: the documentary film crew from Mexico City, the political science professor, the author, the adventure traveler, the tour guide. Soon, they’d all gather their bags, take one last picture outside the terminal, board the plane and fly west, bound for Russia, 233 miles away.
The expedition would spend two weeks traveling the Bering Strait coastline, touring the far reaches of Chukotka Autonomous Okrug, the Russian district at the northeasternmost tip of the Eurasian continent. The voyage was years in the making.
It was 46-year-old Tall’s first trip outside the country. She’d stuffed a massive blue duffel bag with everything she needed: waterproof boots, sleeping bag and the big winter coat that belonged to her son. A trained Alaska Native healer, she packed salves and ointments made from plants she’d gathered. She planned to give the liniments to people she met along the way. She wanted to pass along the skills to make them, too.
In Chukotka, she hoped to find relatives — especially people related to Michael Francis Kazingnuk, her maternal grandfather, born on Big Diomede island sometime around the turn of the 20th century. It was his book she carried.
The photocopied volume documents the history of the region; how the Inupiat people, separated by less than three miles of ocean, created families and trade networks between Big and Little Diomede islands. How the 1867 Alaska Purchase established an international border between them.
A decade after Kazingnuk wrote his book, on the eve of the Cold War, the border was closed. It remained sealed for decades. People from Big Diomede were relocated to Naukan, a village on the Chukotka coast. Big Diomede became a military base. Family ties were severed.
Kazingnuk passed away on Little Diomede in 1964. By the time Tall was born on the same island a few years later, Big Diomede was just a mysterious outline on the horizon.
She always felt a strange pull toward the steep island across the water. Sometimes Russian radio stations would crackle through on the FM signal. Sometimes, as a child, she’d play on the ice over the international date line — one foot in today, one foot in tomorrow.
“I always wanted to go there, I always wanted to touch it,” Tall recalled. “I always wanted to see why I love Big Diomede.”
She never got the chance. Instead, she grew up and joined the National Guard, moved away from Little Diomede, got married, had children.
Then one day, at an eatery in Nome, she ran into an old friend.
“You need to meet this lady,” he said, introducing the silver-haired woman next to him. “She’s going to help you find your relatives from Big Diomede.”
Tandy Wallack has been to Chukotka before.
From her home in West Anchorage, Wallack and her husband run Circumpolar Expeditions, an adventure travel business that brings tourists to Alaska’s North Slope and west coast and Russia’s Far East. Itineraries run the gamut. Wallack’s trips sought out polar bears in Kaktovik and an old prison camp in Vladivostok. She once helped plan a circumpolar tour for Gov. Wally Hickel. This voyage was different.
It all started in 2008, during a visit to Little Diomede with the same Mexican film crew. Elders on the island had a request: Could Tandy bring them to Russia to find their relatives?
“How could I say no to that request? Because I know all those villages, and many of the people in those villages,” Wallack recalled. “I said, ‘Yeah. I’ll try and help you.’ ”
The people of the Diomedes had been trying to plan reunions for years. The Little Diomede archives were stuffed with records of their efforts: letters to politicians, to families in Russia, to contacts on the mainland.
Following 40 years of estrangement, the political Ice Curtain between Alaska and Russia melted in 1988. The lauded Friendship Flight between Nome and Provideniya brought a planeload of delegates, Native people and journalists to the shores of Chukotka. A visa-free travel program was established for indigenous people on both sides of the Bering Strait.
But nearly 30 years later, travel between the two places remains difficult and rare. Old Diomede family connections were never re-established.
“The concept of visa-free was beautiful with the Friendship Flight. It was a beautiful, beautiful thing, and it used to be easy,” Wallack said. “But it’s gotten so political.”
Visiting relatives through the visa-free program means contacting the Bering Strait Regional Commission, completing the application, then receiving or issuing an official invitation to travel. It requires paperwork on both sides of the Bering Strait.
Since 1993, the U.S. State Department has authorized about 4,800 visa-free visits from Chukotka, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The number of Alaskans visiting relatives in Russia is harder to track down: According to U.S. Chief Commissioner Vera Metcalfe, around 30 Alaska Natives have traveled visa-free to Chukotka since 2013. Data from previous years was not available.
Wallack remains diplomatic.
“We don’t want to get anybody upset that it’s not working,” she said. “But quite frankly, it’s not working.”
Park Service funding
It took more than five years to organize the reunion trip. The plan was costly and complicated. Wallack needed boats, pilots, cooks, apartments and translators in Chukotka. She needed special security clearances to travel through the closed border zone. She needed money.
In 2013, the project received two years of funding — some $86,000 — from the National Park Service’s Shared Beringian Heritage Program. Since 1991, that program has granted more than $9 million in funding for scientific, cultural and educational projects in Alaska and Chukotka.
A year after the grant, the Diomede Island Family Reunion project was briefly sidelined by tumult in Ukraine. Then, finally, everything fell into place.
‘Family is incredibly important’
The day before the flight to Chukotka, Wallack crisscrossed Nome, calling on old friends and business connections.
At the Nome City Hall, she spread a map across the conference table and laid out her plans to Mayor Richard Beneville.
“It’s fabulous, and I am your greatest supporter,” he said. “Family is incredibly important. In the far north, it’s incredibly, incredibly important.”
The expedition was just the beginning, Wallack said. She told Beneville about her dreams for a family reunion on Big Diomede. She talked about building tourism between Chukotka and Alaska.
“You’re a pioneer, you really are,” the mayor said. “You’re like Daniel Boone.”
Wallack just smiled.
“So the message you want me to give: What do you want me to say to the mayor of Provideniya?” she asked Beneville.
The mayor considered for a moment.
“In 1989, Provideniya became our sister city, and we don’t have much going on between us,” he said. “We need to change that. Not just on a cultural basis, but just because … we share the neighborhood. We share the neighborhood.”
“Ooo, I like that,” Wallack said.
Next, Wallack knocked on the door of the little house where Tall stayed in Nome.
Inside the cozy living room, Tall packed her duffel bag while her father, Andrew Kunayak, watched an old documentary about Little Diomede. As the black-and-white images danced across the screen, Kunayak told Wallack stories from the old days. When he was a boy, before the border was closed, people used to come in boats from Big Diomede. They traded and danced and drank on the beach. Then the visits stopped.
“So, what message do you want to pass on to your relatives in Chukotka?” Wallack asked before she left that afternoon.
“I don’t know anyone anymore,” Kunayak replied.
Uniting long-lost families
Later that evening, in a conference room at the Nome National Park Service headquarters, Wallack again outlined the journey to a small gathering — members of the expedition and about half a dozen other people who were curious.
She talked about the history of the region, the deep connections and the long separation. She said she hoped this trip was just the beginning. She told the audience about her dreams for a family reunion, about uniting long-lost families from both sides of the Bering Strait.
When she talked about Big Diomede, the crowd murmured. That’s where my mother was born, one man whispered.
“My hope on this whole thing is a spirit of cooperation once again,” Wallack said. “And it’s not about Russia, it’s not about the U.S., it’s not about Putin, it’s not about Obama. This is about families.”
She wanted to fill the plane with the descendants of Big Diomede residents. Now, on the eve of their departure, there was only one. Some of the elders had passed away. Others had no passports — or the birth certificates or government-issued identification necessary to get one, or a nearby office at which to apply for one.
“I wish that we had more people to go over with us, but Etta is a beautiful example,” Wallack said to the small crowd. “She understands her traditions, her culture, and we’re going to go over, from village to village, just like we’re doing here, and just talk about Alaska, and who we are.”
Tears and healing
Tall found Kazingnuk’s book about five years ago — by a crazy chance after Googling his name. The tome had been digitized and copied to the Alaska State Archives. The spidery handwriting was hard to read on the computer monitor, so Tall printed a copy to carry with her.
“My grandpa would say to my mom that he lived a very hard life, and I always wondered: Who was our relatives on his side?” she said.
But Tall’s mother disappeared in Nome in 1990. When Justina Kunayak vanished into the night along Front Street, Tall felt like a branch of her family tree disappeared with her. She found it again, 20 years later, within the dog-eared pages of her grandfather’s book.
Reading those pages brought tears — and healing. They were filled with old family names: Anewna, Mookoolook, Ahknutook. What happened to them? For Tall, studying Kazingnuk’s book sparked a desire to follow in his footsteps.
Waiting at the Bering Air terminal, she felt like she finally was.
She breathed a silent prayer. She called her husband and children in Chevak. Then there was a break in the clouds and the airline staff was pushing the group out the door. Tall hugged her friends goodbye and climbed on the plane to Chukotka.
As the flight soared into the clouds over the Bering Strait, she wrapped her homemade qiviut scarf around her neck and rested her forehead against the cold window. The dark water shimmered below.
She wondered what she’d find on the other side.
Kirsten Swann is a journalist living in Anchorage. She’s writes for Alaska Dispatch News’ 61° North magazine and ShowMeAlaska.net.
Kirsten Swann is a journalist living in Anchorage. She writes for Alaska Dispatch News’ 61° North magazine and ShowMeAlaska.net.