Being a Half Breed by Marie Andrews (1916-2011), lifelong Alaskan
Just recently, we have become Yupik Eskimos. I am half Aleut and half German. In 1916, I was born in Alaska in the small village of Kulukuk and raised in Togiak where Dad ran a trading store for Mrs. Lowe. When I was eight we moved to Snag Point. As time passed, more and more white couples and their children came and our little town grew.
There was one cannery in our town so we finished in the summer and put up fish for the dogs and our own use in the fall. It was a happy town, no movies and no radios. Our favorite pastime was playing ball in the schoolyard until nine. In the winter we went skating, skiing, and driving dogsleds around the country. We would go into the woods in groups and roast hot dogs and marshmallows.
As we grew up more and more people moved in. We noticed that there was now a distinction between "us" and the "white kids". When we got into a fight with them they called us "half breeds." Also the word "siwash" was used. I thought "siwash" was a pretty word. I didn't know what a "half breed" was but it sounded like a nasty word to me. This made me mad and I went at them with fists and kicks until my brother Adolf grabbed me and packed me home.
I asked my Dad what "half breed" and "siwash" meant. He explained to me that when a white man married a native girl and had children, the children were called "half breeds." I hated the very words and vowed to myself that I would grow up and not be a "half breed." Today my thoughts have changed but I still remember the words that I hated to hear.
By Gladys Meacock (Marie's daughter):
In the early 1900's, large salmon canneries were built along the shores of Bristol Bay Alaska. Most of the 250 inhabitants of the village Snag Point were a mixture of the local native people, Swedes and Norwegian fisherman living a simple subsistence lifestyle. Two common words used to describe someone were Gusuk, (white person) and Native, a mixture of Aleut and Yupik people. The majority of the Native people lived along the Nushagak River above Snag Point in small villages who came to town in the summer to fish and get supplies for the winter. There were few white women in the small village.
As time passed and the fishing industry expanded, more white men traveled to the area. A few of the married men brought families with them. Many of the single men stayed, married the local native women, and began to raise their own families. My mother's German father, Duffy Osterhaus, came from California, stayed, married Anuska from the Togiak area and raised a large family. Their children were called half breeds.
With the village so small, you were likely to be related to almost everyone genetically or by marriage so there was little racial prejudice. When the Spanish Flu hit the area in the early 1900's causing many deaths, the town of Snag Point was moved to where it is today and renamed Dillingham. Most of the natives continued living in their upriver villages and the ratio of the half, quarter breeds in Snag Point increased. By the time it was renamed Dillingham, the population was a pretty even mixture of gusuks, natives, half breeds, and quarter breeds. The native characteristics of the quarter breeds were often no longer distinguishable and the main racial distinction became "up-river natives" and the natives that lived in town.
When my father, Bill Andrews, came to Dillingham with his mother Gladys in 1932, he took one look at my mother, Marie, age 15, and fell in love. His mother promptly sent him back to San Francisco. When he turned 21 in 1936, he returned to Dillingham and married Marie. When I was born in 1937 with blue eyes and blond hair, his mother accepted the marriage and we were a happy melded family of grandparents, parents, and five blue-eyed children. Mom and Dad enjoyed 68 years of marriage until his death in 2004.
Growing up, trying to speak the native language was difficult but I understood the native speaking children. When they came down river to fish in the summer they understood my English. We had fun times, and not speaking the same language and our ethnic makeup was never an issue. We were aware of differences but I don't recall obvious problems. The upriver natives did sit together on one side at the movies theater, not due to prejudice, but because they tanned their own skins and there was a distinct odor. I don't recall hearing any negative comments about this.
In 1944, my Grandmother and I made the four hour airplane trip to Anchorage to get glasses for me. I was thrilled with the cars, sidewalks, tall three-story buildings, indoor plumbing, everything. The long drive into town from Merrill Field was more fun than the airplanes that I saw all the time. I was thirsty. We stopped, and my grandmother bought me a bottled Coke. For sure I knew this was a most wonderful place and vowed I was going to grow up and live here forever. We stayed in the Anchorage Hotel on Third and E Street and from the third floor I could look down on the small cars and people. The next morning, I was excited because we were going to eat in a restaurant where potato chips were fresh and they served cold pop. We walked to the Anchorage Grill on Fourth Avenue and as we went up the steps, I was eye level with the sign on the door.
"NO NATIVES OR HALF BREEDS ALLOWED"
I was stunned. I didn't realize that I didn't show native characteristics. I knew my mother was dark skinned with black hair and had heard the terms "part native" and "half breed." I couldn't talk to my Grandmother. I was afraid someone would hear me, throw me out, but she wouldn't have to leave. I didn't know how to get back to the hotel on my own, and it was cold outside. Anchorage now didn't seem so wonderful. When it came time to order, I was speechless and not at all hungry. Nan was upset as I had been so excited about eating in a restaurant. I huddled in as small a space as possible in the booth and wouldn't raise my head or talk.
I don't remember the rest of the trip or if I ever ate, but this part, I remember vividly.
P.S. When I grew up, I moved to Anchorage where I have lived since 1959.