In rural Alaska villages, cake walks make hard times a little easier
The small Western Alaska town of Unalakleet, nestled on the shores of Norton Sound, is know for its abundant king crab and salmon seasons. It's a tight-knit community; when someone is in need, everybody helps out.
For decades, residents have performed cake walks for families who've fallen on hard times.
"When we are going to have a funeral for a family, we try to build up some money for the donations," community elder Theresa Nanouk said. "We help the family out."
Cake walks work sort of like musical chairs. People in the community bake cakes or donate any items they like. Numbers are arranged on the floor in a large circle. Players pay a dollar per chance, then stand on a number. Music is played and the people walk around the circle, placing their feet on a number which each step. When the music stops, everyone stops walking. A random number is drawn and the person on the number, wins the cake. After each round, people can sit out or buy another ticket for a chance. The game continues until all the cakes and prizes are won.
"We can give two days' notice and they pull together," organizer Teri Paniptchuk said. "To help them pay for airline tickets, casket costs, anything they need. Bills, if they have bills."
On this occasion, Unalakleet resident Donna Erickson had company over for the Iditarod. She received a call around 6 p.m. about a cake walk that would start at 7 p.m.
"We're all connected and we all know each other very well," Erickson said. "When someone passes away, you automatically want to help the family."
Erickson multitasked what she was doing for her guests and still cranked out two cakes while delivering them on time to the cake walk. She said dropping what she was doing is just what the community does for one another.
"Someone we loved died. It was one of the elders," Erickson said. "You just want to help and it doesn't matter if it is someone old or young. Someone in need of financial assistance. If they lost a home in the fire, had an accident or a death. We help each other out."
The families don't seek the communities assistance, instead, it's the community that asks the family for permission.
"It's a big relief," Paniptchuk said. "It's scary to think how you're going to pay that bill or bills. We helped a coworker of mine that broke his neck. When my brother passed away, the cake walk made over $4,000 in one night to pay for his casket. They actually raised more than what was needed."
It's these kinds of gestures that are ingrained in each member of the community, regardless of age. All in an effort to take care of each other and always look out for one another. In Unalakleet, it's just not a good deed, it's a way of life.
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