Children of the First People: Sequel celebrates Alaska Native culture
A quarter of a century has passed since Tricia Brown and Roy Corral began work on their groundbreaking book, Children of the Midnight Sun.
The book, written by Brown and photographed by Corral, featured eight Alaska Native children from across the state. It was published in 1998, at a time when there wasn’t much awareness about the diversity of Alaska Native cultures among school children.
Today, the kids showcased in the book are grown and have children of their own. A few of them were on hand at the Anchorage Museum on Saturday to celebrate Brown and Corral’s new book, Children of the First People. The celebration included a book signing and slide shows about the children in both books.
The sequel has the same format as the first — a mix of colorful portraits of Alaska Native children, along with candid photographs of them engaged in traditional activities, such as dancing or gathering subsistence foods, woven together with stories about their day-to-day lives.
Children of the Midnight Sun targets a middle school audience and has been used in classrooms all over the country to teach students about life in the Arctic, seen through the eyes of children.
Brown hopes the new book will do the same, but says it’s more than just entertaining and educational.
“It’s also a connection. It lasts for a long time, for life,” she said. “These kids, I will know for the rest of my life.”
In a slide show about the Children of the Midnight Sun, the audience got an update on the lives of those featured in the first book. One has gone on to be a commercial fisherman, while another works with the tribal government.
Andrea Hoelscher, now Andrea Hoak and married with children, reminisced about her chapter in the book, which explained Russian Orthodox Christmas traditions in Lower Kalskag, a community in Southwest Alaska. Hoak recalled how Corral kept trying to make her laugh when she posed in front of the church.
Another boy was supposed to be profiled instead of her, but after being overwhelmed with shyness, he changed his mind and suggested Andrea. She also remembers being nervous about taking part in the project.
“First, I kind of backed off, but then I said, ‘No. Let’s do it. Let’s represent Yup’iks,’” said Hoak, who called the chance to be in a book a blessing. She says she tells her children with pride that she is in a book.
One photo, her portrait in front of the Russian Orthodox Church, brings mixed emotions. As she showed her youngest daughter, Qulvaq, the picture, she broke out in tears, pointing to a spot beside the church, where her 9-year-old daughter was buried after she died from cancer. Though painful, Hoak said she was glad to have the picture to talk with Qulvaq, who is six, about the loss of her sister.
Corral says it’s an example of how the stories and photographs from Children of the Midnight Sun have taken on a life of their own and he expects Children of the First People to do the same.
“I am the messenger,” he said. “These photographs, I have to let go. I literally have to let these photographs speak for themselves.”
Every photograph has a story that’s not part of the book, Corral said, like the image on the cover of the second book, which he calls “Kicking the Sun.”
It shows Tyler Kramer, a Kotzebue boy, leaping across a ridge, as the sun was about to set. Corral’s photo captures the 10-year-old airborne, as his foot appears to kick the sun.
Corral laughed as he recalled asking the boy to jump repeatedly, just so he could get the right shot.
“He did this countless times for me, which was just a blessing, and he was just doing it in pure abandon," he said.
When Corral and Brown worked on the first book, they were surprised how much children could tell them about their culture, much to the pleasure of the parents, who weren’t really sure their children had absorbed the lessons of their elders.
Corral and Brown were also impressed with the cultural knowledge of children in their new book.
“You’d be surprised how much you can learn from children, “ Corral said. He described trying to keep up with Leah Moss from Hoonah, an energetic pre-teen, whose story is told in the second book.
Moss, who signed copies of the book on Saturday, said she’s especially proud of her portrait in her Tlingit regalia. The bright red colors stand out against a backdrop of fishing boats.
“It makes me feel powerful,” she said, “Because it feels like I have my ancestors there with me.”
Corral and Brown say they probably won’t do another book of children’s portraits, but say they’d be happy to help an Alaska Native writer and photographer take over the project because they would be better suited to tell their own stories.
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