Russians visit Savoonga to celebrate shared ancestry
Over 30 residents from five towns in Chukotka arrived on St. Lawrence Island in the past month. The Chukotkans, from Anadyr, Velkal, Provideniya, New Chaplino and Sireniki will be in Savoonga until July 12. John Waghiyi, in his own words, has served as the “catalyst” between Chukotkan and Alaskan Siberian Yupik relations, and has organized several trips.
The purpose of the visit, Waghiyi said, is to develop friendship and fellowship between Siberian Yupiks on the Russian and Alaskan sides of the dateline. Though the physical Bering Landbridge is a thing of the past, the metaphorical connection remains. “It’s important to keep the bridge between Alaska and Chukotka,” Waghiyi said.
According to Waghiyi, the days of the visit have been filled with traditional singing and dancing, tea drinking and eating. The visit also coincides with Savoonga’s centennial celebration and the Fourth of July festivities.
This year, the cultural exchange, entitled Sivungam Nevngallgha Quteghllagmun, which translates as “Savoonga’s Bond and Connection to the Great Land (Chukotka)”, is funded by a grant from the National Park Service. The Park Service provided $50,000 in support for three years, ending after 2018.
Waghiyi said this group, 31 Chukotkans and a translator, is the largest group that has come so far.
St. Lawrence Island has always been connected to Chukotka, Wahgiyi said, but the first physical contact with Russian relatives on the island was in 1988. Since then, there have been several different gatherings and extended visits on St. Lawrence Island.
For a few years after the 1988 Friendship Flight, Siberian Yupiks on both sides of the border crossed back and forth regularly. People primarily traveled by boat, which resulted in a few catastrophic trips across the 70 miles of water. In response, Russia once again restricted travel. In 2012, the regulations loosened, and relatives on both sides of the border began planning for another visit. Two years ago, Chukotkans from the town of New Chaplino visited their Alaskan relatives in Savoonga for the first time in 14 years.
Waghiyi said coordinating travel with Chukotka is still “ridiculously difficult.”
“The American side is just as bad as the Russian Side,” he added. Savoonga is not a U.S. Department of Homeland Security designated port of entry, so people cannot fly directly from Chukotka to St. Lawrence Island. Federal agencies, such as the State Department, “don’t understand the importance of maintaining the connection with our ancestors,” Waghiyi said. The visitor had to come to Nome for customs clearance and then fly to St. Lawrence Island. However, Waghiyi feels the imposition of coordinating oversees travel, which includes “lots of phone calls,” is worth it in order to extend the connection with the past into the future.