NOME — Google Little Diomede and the first article on the list describes it as remote. It is remote. It’s a community on an island with the same name in the middle of the Bering Sea. Of course it’s remote.
But talk with Sistuq Ozenna about her home island, and the first word that comes to mind is far from that. Little Diomede is vibrant. Lush. Sustaining. Unique. Life-giving. She knows people talk about Diomede and the issues residents face. “There are some things that are not so great,” she says in a measured, solid and knowing voice. “Things occur. But, looking at everywhere else, things occur everywhere else as well.”
And Sistuq doesn’t let others’ perceptions define her home. Not one bit.
In fact, talk to Sistuq about her home and she beams. She tears up. She smiles a lot. She laughs. She gives advice. She speaks of a place like no other. She talks about climbing cliffs to pick murre eggs. About picking greens for the table in the spring. Picking greens for storing later in the summer. About splitting a walrus hide and how she learned from simply watching her aunties. How her mother showed her how to angle her ulu to keep it from getting dull. She talks about sewing a walrus skin, burying the stitches to make the umiaq watertight — and doing it perfectly because the men rely on the security of those stitches when out hunting.
“We want to do it right,” she says.
Sistuq has lived on Little Diomede her entire life. She loves it. Ask her why and she says, “Because of family.” She talks about dancing and how she loves dancing with them, especially dancing while her son is drumming and singing. Her son uses the drum he made out of a walrus stomach. Justin learned how to make the traditional drum from his uncle, who learned from Sistuq, who learned from her uncle Dennis. She and her family sing and dance together every week and they all look forward to it.
“I was born a dancer,” she says. “I felt it. I just knew it.”
And now that fall is coming, Sistuq will enjoy hiking around the island, picking akpiks, seaweed, a wild root vegetable they call a potato and wild cabbage. I told her I don’t really enjoy picking greens. “Especially the little ones that take a long time to pick,” I admitted.
“Go in the morning,” she responded. “You do your work the best in the morning. If there’s something you dislike, it’s best to do it first thing. You put your heart into the first thing, be it cleaning your house and picking up, getting chores done you couldn’t finish the night before. You tend to do it a little bit better in the morning. And the rest of the day you feel really good.”
Sistuq talked about climbing the cliffs and gathering murre eggs one last time. “You can egg from the end of June to mid-August,” she says. “Each murre can lay up to six eggs a year. After the first heavy rainfall in June the murres and puffins go into labor and they all lay their eggs. Everyone goes to the cliffs.” Sistuq has climbed the cliffs on Little Diomede Island since she was very young. She says the ladies used to go in groups. “We’d have big picnics with grandmothers, mothers, cousins and we’d go to the sloped cliffs, easy for the elders.”
Most people today store their murre eggs in the freezer in Ziploc bags, scrambled and ready for frying. Her dad taught her how to store whole eggs in oil, rendered from the fat of a baby walrus. The oil is boiled to kill bacteria. Once it’s cooled, the oil is moved to a barrel where the eggs are placed. In a really dark, cool place, the eggs can be stored until the winter.
All the things she knows, she shares without hesitation. She is a master at living in the middle of the Bering Sea. And while many people have moved away from the island of about 100 residents, Sistuq chooses to stay.
“You choose how to raise your family,” she says. “The things I enjoy, I incorporate it into my family. A majority of my time is spent with my family.” She has six children, two she adopted. Sistuq says that once the harvest season is over, she’ll focus on taking that food and cooking for those she loves. It’s apparent that love comes full circle for Sistuq. She loves life and life loves her back.
At first I wondered how a person can be so solid. So sure of herself. So knowing. Wise.
Then she explained. One of her favorite things to do is to hike up on the cliffs with her favorite coffee, a boiled murre egg and sit there. “You kinda got the impression I enjoy life, ah?” she said with happy tears in her eyes. Then she described one of her proudest moments. When she was an adult, her dad once said to her, “You really belong here.”