Friday, February 17, 2012


Hello. My name is Denise and I am an addict.

I feel so much better getting that off my chest! My addiction runs deep. So deep, in fact, that it has kept me from my blog! Actually I don't even want to be writing this right now. I’d rather be on!

The obsession began innocently enough; a brief conversation with my aunt that started me thinking. Hmm... One thing led to another and the next thing I knew I surfing the Ancestry wave! There I was clicking on those little leaves and getting a rush. I’m not proud but I’m jonesin’ for a little Ancestry just describing it to you.

Trust me when I say I could go on for a very long time telling you about the things I’ve discovered in my family’s background. There are civil and revolutionary war veterans; heroes even, from the North and the South, Loyalists and Patriots. There are ministers of every variety of protestant denomination - a common thread throughout our family - including a profound number of Quakers. There is a band of outlaw brothers who are referenced in nearly every history book that addresses the revolutionary war. I blame them for everything that’s wrong with my family! There’s even a decent quantum of royal blood. That line dead-ended with a man born in 1440 named Sir Lancelot! I’m just sayin’!

Investigation of the “vegetarian” side naturally led to the same for the “Eskimo” side. That was a short-lived effort. I did find reference to my mother-in-law by way of a census when they lived in Washington and... that was about it.

I’m not surprised. There aren’t many early Alaskan records, and that is compounded by the fact that records of Alaskan Native populations were even more sparse than that of the white population. In addition the obvious and already-stated complications, there is the fact that my husband’s grandfather was the first generation to use more than one name.

You see, in the world that was early 1900s rural Alaska, there was no need to have a first name and a surname. People lived in isolated regions with those they’d known for generations.

That all changed, however, when the missionaries arrived - a lot changed then but those are different stories for different times. Call it an egocentric world view, the selfish desire to be able to call people by names familiar to them, or a method of stripping away the identity of an indigenous population - for several reasons “Christian” names were assigned. In turn, in the case of Gary’s grandfather, his Yupik name became his surname. Hence my husband’s grandfather and all his brothers have different last names. In other words, if you find a Chythlook, they aren’t just related to us, they are very closely related.

Imagine my surprise then when I located a WWII draft registration card written for a 54-year-old man named Nikita Chythlook living in Aleknagik, Alaska. This record provokes several questions. First off, neither my father-in-law or my mother-in-law know who this is. Secondly, in 1942 there were only 5 Chythlooks in existence to our knowledge; my husband’s grandfather and his wife, along with my father-in-law’s 3 older siblings, the oldest of which would’ve been about 8. Finally, all these Chythlook’s lived in Togiak - not Aleknagik - at the time.

One clue about the record is who filled it out: a man named Frank Waskey; who my in-laws know. Frank Waskey was a friend of my husband’s grandfather - the first Chythlook.

Commence pointless, yet amusing, speculation:
It is possible there was another man, living in Aleknagik, with the given name Chythlook, which would’ve then become his surname. The name Nikita, having Russian origin, is one that Russian orthodox missionaries may have given. If this is the case, this man, along with any possible descendants died before our Chythlooks moved to Aleknagik just a few years later because they have no memory of them. This possibility is unlikely though, seeing as these two areas were connected through hunting and fishing. The chances of them not knowing of each other is slim.  

A second possibility is that this man was related in some way to my husband’s grandfather but had not been given a “Christian” first name, and thereby would not have a surname. Frank Waskey may have simply assigned him “Chythlook” in order to fill in the “Last Name” box and have some kind of reference about who the person was. 

Thirdly, there is a chance that Frank Waskey didn’t know very many men with a last name and - in honor of his friend - he simply gave this person the last name of Chythlook!

Naturally I asked my in-laws to shed some light on their ancestral tree. Those of you who just laughed out loud know that’s easier asked than understood. The family tree has so many limbs going in each and every direction it’s more like a bush! In fact, I have decided that may not be able to keep up with the “Eskimos” of the Vegetarian-Eskimos!

So where does that leave my ancestral hunt? Well, filling in the details of name and place may be difficult but it doesn’t matter. I know the answer to my original question.

The Chythlooks are Yupik Eskimos from the Bristol Bay region - the place that’s always been - having lived there longer than any record would show. They are a people who have successfully adapted to a harsh and ever-changing environment to thrive for thousands of years. They are leaders in their community; past, present and future. But most importantly,  they knew who they were before I ever thought to ask the question and I am overwhelmed with the honor of being a Chythlook.