Irene Armstrong, Ambler's preacher, wears a handmade fox fur and wolf parkee, a style worn by most of the elders. Coumbia jackets like her granddaughter's mark the shift in Inupiaq culture towards an emerging Western influence.
Minnie Gray, 73, was one of the first seven families to move to Ambler from one of the northern villages. She holds a photograph of when she was younger, seining whitefish and sheefish along the shores of Ambler River. "Things have changed, so many things have changed" said Minnie. "But the hunting and the fishing, that is still good."
The Ambler K-12 School aglow in early evening. Considering there are no restaurants in Ambler, much less a bar, the quietude sets in early save for the occasional snowmobile.
Homeward bound with the mail.
Edna Greist, 85, and her husband Nelson Greist, 87 were the first couple to move to Ambler and have witnessed the history of the village, and experienced all of the changes that have happened in half a century; 1957-2007. "We came from the north" said Nelson, "we arrived by dog."
Nelson Greist holds an old photograph of his family who lived their lives in the northern arctic.
Inupiaq girls: Esther Brown, 10; Erica Johnson, 7; Isabelle Greist, 10; Alice Brown, 6, gather on the bed where Isabelle and Alice sleep with the rest of the family. Isabelle is one of three children Molly Brown adopted into her home, their welfare, however, is still met with concern. Social services in the village are few to speak of.
High school basketball games from competing villages will fill the gym up with the entire community as a source of occasional entertainment for the sport. It was a 30 mile trek on a snowmobile to reach this gym in the village of Shungnak; the away basketball teams are flown over in a bush plane.
Jeff Osborne, one of the few non-native villagers rests on a fractured hip after picking up boxed lard and dogfood for his dog team, including Shep (right). "It's 40 bucks a bag" said Jeff as he priced the food with shipping, "that's 1200 a month just to feed these guys". Jeff and his wife Barbara have one of the few remaining dog-sledding teams in the region; Barbara is bi-polar and the team helps add stability to their lives due to their constant need for attention.
One of the Osborne's huskies stretches in the afternoon twilight. Once snow machines were introduced in the 70's most families disbanded their teams. "Sometimes it's like heaven out there" said Barbara, "and other times its hell, they get all tangled in the rope." The Osborne's usually harness 10-14 dogs for a run. Most of the villagers still keep two or three dogs out of habit, usually chained to stumps in the snow.
This frozen fish, netted in Ambler River during the summer months, will be added to dogfood in the cookpot for the Osborne sled dogs.
Irene Armstrong, village preacher and pioneer for tradition in Ambler, Alaska.
Alice Brown, 6, blows a bubble outside in negative 20 temperatures.
'Papa' chugs several swigs of R&R whiskey during his week-long break from working at the Red Dog mine farther north. The mine is a good source of income for many, however thousands of those dollars are spent on illegal alcohol which runs $150 for a $12 bottle of R&R whiskey like this one. "I want to stop drinking" says Papa, "but I can't". The local seller at the time said he gave him his whole paycheck.
Jimmy sits at home with his youngest child on his lap.
After drinking throughout her entire pregnancy, this woman's child was born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome; a common disease throughout Alaska's villages.
Within the pines, hunters shoot the local game of caribou, moose, tarnegin, rabbit, and wolf. “A caribou migration trail runs right through my backyard,” said Luke Wood who shot the Caribou whose skins hang between the trees outside his canvas and tarp tent. Luke, in his late 30's, tries to live in semblance to how his parents lived, but frequently finds himself seeking heat and television in Ambler.
Sandra Greist, 21, holds her firstborn child, Cody Greist before going over to the high school to play basketball with her girl friends. "I thought about college" she said, but thinks it would be too hard now that she has a baby. To date, none of the students who have graduated from Ambler School have returned to the village with a college degree. "Take my advice and don't have a baby when you're young" said Sandra.
Tristan Pattee revs his snowmobile in an attempt to free it from the deep snow. An extra foot fell overnight which often means fresh powder to cut for the thrill-seekers. With enough fuel, riding snowmobiles around the village, mountains and over the frozen river is equal parts transportation and entertainment.
Sunrises are short and beautiful in Kobuk Valley National Park, enclosed by the Baird and Waring mountains. Inuchuck, 'Old Man Mountain' lies in the distance. The river, now frozen, is a source of life and sustenance for the villagers of Ambler who depend on the whitefish, sheefish and salmon that flood its course during the fall.
Nelson Greist, 87.
Whether through kinship or his teaching, Truman Cleveland, the village's tribal doctor, is the 'grandfather' of Ambler. Truman continues to pass on his knowledge of the Inupiaq culture to the village youth of today's Western generation. "They need to know how we did it" said Cleveland, describing how to build a snow cave and skin a caribou. Also a bilingual teacher, he tries to preserve the Inupiaq language which is scarcely spoken in the younger homes.
"I stopped working years ago and started doing puzzles," said Nelson Greist, whose family was the first to settle in the village. His children and grandchildren come by to chop firewood and in the fall will help stock their freezers with caribou meat for winter. "I like electricity" said Nelson who lived without it for the majority of his life.
Villagers wait for a second plane to arrive on the runway with supplies such as dry goods, oil and fuel. This snowy landing strip is the only road leading into the 300 person village of Ambler, Alaska with a population of 95% Inupiaq Eskimo. Access to the village is only possible through bush plane, snowmobile or dogsled. A network of tracks, scarcely discernible by wooden markers peeking out above the snow, connect the northern villages together.
Ambler River wraps its way through the Alaskan wilderness. Ambler is located along one of its winding bends.
35 miles north of the Arctic Circle, between the Baird and Waring Mountains, the Inupiaq of Ambler, Alaska are in the middle of a cultural transition as they respond to the increasing number of western methods they now have access to. English has nearly replaced the native tongue, time spent creating traditional crafts is being usurped by television, snowmobiles now tread where dog teams used to run, and almost anything can now be ordered through FredMeyer.com - even Netflix has reached the doorsteps of Ambler. Other changes have larger consequences; technically a dry village, alcohol and drugs are severely abused, causing deep problems at home which is reflected in low levels of education and high levels of sexual abuse. This Arctic region is pristine yet isolated, boasts ample freedom but also neglect, and is home to a people who are both dependent yet fiercely independent. However in the face of change, it remains a cultural landscape unique to anywhere else.