The short version: this is the description of two years in the life of a teacher working in Wainwright, Alaska, from 1924 to 1926.
The author had dreamed for years of the Arctic, and at last, in 1924, she applied to and was accepted by the Alaska Division of the Native School and Medical Service (Department of the Interior); in short order, they gave her a post in “The Eskimo [sic] Village of Wainwright”. A territory for only twelve years at the time and yet thirty-five years from becoming a state, though owned by the United States for some years previously, the northern regions of Alaska were Ultima Thule, both literally and physically. With some help from the department secretary (all congratulations to department secretaries!), Richardson planned out all the supplies she would need to bring, and bravely set out to a part of the country that has maybe two months of ice-free access to the coastal waters and less than that of above-freezing weather.
As one might guess from the full title of the division which hired her, Richardson’s job combined teaching the children and providing medical treatment for any in the community who required it; this last was largely what might be described as first-aid in a modern setting, given the lack of drugs or medical facilities within less than several days travel.
The book is based largely on a combination of her own memories and letters and diaries written at the time. She remembers it fondly twenty-five years later–the book was published in 1949–though one always has to wonder how much of books such as this are rosy tinted memories of youth. Today, I’d call it more a period piece, describing a long-gone world, than a description of teaching technique, much less how the indigenous cultures should be treated or are managing themselves. While training teachers to work in the more remote areas of Alaska is a concern even today–the combination of the distances separating the communities from more populated areas and the extremes in seasons deters many who might otherwise come up from the lower forty-eight–the demagogic techniques have changed, to say the least, in the intervening eighty-five years, not to mention attitudes on how Caucasian interlopers ought to act with the locals. The book’s an interesting window into the past, however.
It’s an interesting, though now more than slightly dated, description of life in the northernmost part of Alaska; they lived within a few days travel by dogsled of Point Barrow, the northernmost point of the state of Alaska. Not brilliant writing at the time of its publication, nevertheless I can see this being an interesting introduction to the culture of the Inuit for readers in the lower forty-eight at the time, and an at least diverting description of the historical period for readers today. As with many other books of this type at this period, it could be argued that the Caucasian writer is working from a conscious or subliminal “white man’s burden” perspective. Nonetheless, Richardson does seem to respect the local people; while she finds their dwellings somewhat backwards compared to her own, I get the feeling that she at least acknowledges that while she would not like them, this is part of the Inuit heritage.
And I have to confess that I admire her for taking on the doyen of the Arctic, Knud Rasmussen–he and friend Peter Freuchen would have been contemporaries of hers–by saying that while the Inuit1 heritage and culture are admirable, it may not be sufficient to ensure their continuing ability to hunt in the traditional ways, given that (gee golly whillikers!) the non-Alaskan whalers have laid waste to the sea creatures the Inuit traditionally hunted! Better, she agrees, to figure out how to preserve their traditions while adapting their lifestyles to modern exigencies–in the case of this book, reindeer herding.
1I think that the group/culture she was dealing with were indeed Inuit; there are however several other cultures in what is now the political ‘Alaska’.