I’m really not sure how it happened, but twenty-some years ago, after I’d completed Prescription for Adventure: Bush Pilot Doctor, my second-grade school teacher, Anna Bortel (Church) and I sat across my dining room table and leafed through letters, newspaper clippings, and school newspapers she’d saved from her teaching experiences in Alaska; and then we projected Kodak slides against a blank wall.
Never did I think a video-trailer was in the future. I was writing with a pencil, mailing rewrites in stamped envelopes, and wondering how to turn slides into half-tones into photos in a book. It’s not always a bad thing to have a slow-growing project.
Why did I persist? I was captivated and inspired by Anna’s heart-warming, humorous, and amazing stories. Just as the Alaska spawning salmon swim upstream, so had this single woman pushed against a society that expected her to fit the mold of wife and mother. When this rite of passage eluded her, Anna did not bemoan her singlehood. Instead, in 1954 she drove from Ohio, up the Alaska-Canada Highway, to Valdez, where snow was measured in feet and an Easter Egg hunt unheard of. There she taught for three years.
Her curiosity about Alaska wasn’t quelled. In 1957, she pushed farther north to Tanana, an isolated Athabascan village along the Yukon River. Teaching and living in drafty Quonset huts with freezing oil lines at 50 below zero added to her teaching rigors. Discouraged? Yes. Daunted? No. That’s where I met her. That’s when she became my mother’s best friend. That’s where she accompanied my physician father on a medical field trip to Anaktuvuk Pass, Alaska, where the last roving bands of Nunamiuts, and the only inland Eskimos in Alaska, followed the caribou.
The trip to Anaktuvuk Pass took her even farther north. While my father checked for ear infections, tuberculosis, and nutrition issues, Anna assessed the need for education. The elders of the clan were determined to provide education within their settlement, rather than send their children to boarding school. The obstacles were daunting for a school teacher: no school building, no tent or sod house available for a teacherage, no roads to transport building supplies, no airstrip, no wood for fuel except willows, no public services besides a post office, and few English-speaking adults and children. Simon Paneak and other elders begged her to return and teach – in a place where sled dogs outnumbered the 98 people.
She returned to Tanana, She prayed. She waited. In 1960, Anna became the first permanent school teacher in Anaktuvuk Pass. Because of her willingness to live in a sod house, melt snow for water, use a kerosene lamp for light – and – teach children that ‘A’ is for ALASKA, ‘B’ is for BEAR, and ‘C’ is for CARIBOU, and adults to write their names, an airstrip was build to haul in construction materials for a school. And, the Natives ceased their perpetual migration to settle in the middle of the wide, windswept pass.
In 1960, Ernest Gruening, U.S. Senator from Alaska, described the dilemma Alaskan educators face and the determination of the Native people to obtain an education. He held up Anna Bortel as the ideal teacher, “one able to comprehend their problem, one kind and sympathetic, and above all one able to adjust to all conditions that might face her.”
Over the course of 20-some years, Anna and I worked with her stories. She had the facts, details, conversations, and photos. I crafted her material into chapters with settings, additional facts, geography, flashbacks to childhood, foreshadowing, transitions, and conclusions. I expected the results would be one book. The word count was too high. The stories over-flowed into two books.
‘A’ is for Alaska: Teacher to the Territory covers the drive to Alaska, Valdez (1954 – 1957), and Tanana (1957-1960).
‘A’ is for Anaktuvuk: Teacher to the Nunamiut Eskimos grabs some pieces from the first book, to orient the reader, and then documents the history-changes of the Nunamiuts from 1960-1962 – all in humorous, heart-wrenching, and compelling stories.
I wanted Anna’s story to be written down –and shared with her family and friends. At the same time, given how my German-Russian Mennonite heritage is significant to me, I wanted the Nunamiuts to be able to know, read, remember, and pass along their traditions and heritage.
The Simon Paneak Museum is eager to use ‘A’ is for Anaktuvuk: Teacher to the Nunamiut Eskimos as a resource in the museum, for tourist awareness, school education, and resident pride.
Now, twenty-some years later, Anna’s story is told, a segment of the Nunamiut’s history is recorded, and a video-trailer is made. Now, Anna smiles from much deserved accolades and congratulations. Now, I smile that twenty-some years of work is completed.