The power of shared history – Chenega Bay

Community Corner:

Lisa Matlock
Lisa Matlock

Council Outreach Coordinator

On June 6, nearly a hundred people gathered to commemorate the residents of the former Native Village of Chenega lost to the Good Friday earthquake fifty years ago. 26 residents, more than a third of the community’s population, died in the earthquake and its devastating tsunami. Survivors, family members of those who died, descendants representing multiple generations, and village friends gathered together at the site of the old village to share memories of March 27, 1964, to grieve for those who were lost, and to reflect on changes wrought by this event.

A beautiful bell, blessed for the occasion by Chenega Bay’s itinerant Russian Orthodox priest Father Christopher Stanton, tolled for the village’s losses before the gathered group shared a festive lunch. Father Christopher held a memorial service for the people of Chenega who lost their lives to the earthquake and tsunami and to “honor Chenega survivors whose faith, fortitude, and perseverance has kept the spirit of the Chenega Family alive.” It was an event of the heart, moving and sad, but uplifting as well.

In his memorial service, Father Christopher spoke of why it was important to celebrate the passing of so many people. With his remarks, I was reminded of our own council staff considering how to properly mark the 25th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill last spring. Like Father Christopher, we worked through our collective language trying to find a way to remember this shared history. The events needed to both celebrate the efforts of so many who responded to the spill while also focusing on what positive changes the council has witnessed and helped to generate since the Exxon Valdez fetched up on Bligh Reef.

Celebration is a term often used to recall important dates, but that felt wrong for an oil spill caused by human error and complacency. Commemoration was the term the council finally settled on, but even that never seemed quite right. How do you observe a bygone day that forever changed a place and its people? “Vechnaya Pamyat,” a Slavonic term meaning “memory eternal” was printed on the earthquake memorial’s program. That phrase may illustrate why we share stories of times past, including terrible incidents, that change our way forward. Without memory eternal, we might forget those who came before us and we might make the same mistakes over and over. We share our stories of the hard days in history so we can move forward thoughtfully.

The Chenega IRA Council and other partner organizations assembled the gathering. The citizens’ council was invited to attend and helped partner in the event by providing in-kind transport for the priest, his family, and an event medic. Current citizens’ council board members Roy Totemoff and Ian Angaiak attended along with several former board members. In parallel with the council’s own struggle to resist complacency, attending board members reaffirmed the need for support of the people of Chenega Bay who have endured so much. They survived the loss of their family members and their village fifty years ago. On March 28, 1989, a few days after the Exxon Valdez hit Bligh Reef, and almost 25 years after the date of the earthquake, the people of Chenega Bay awoke to find oil spilling onto their beaches, forever changing the world around them yet again. The “Chenega Family” has had to be incredibly resilient in the face of these disasters, while remaining ever mindful of the lessons of the past. We can all learn from this powerful shared history.

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