Alaska Shorts: “Nome, 1953” by John Tetpon

This excerpt comes from Tetpon’s memoir-in-progress.

SOON AFTER GRANDMA was buried, our family moved to Nome, a small Northwest Alaska town with a long history of gold fever, frontiersmen, lawlessness, taverns, bars, cars, and churches. In 1953, the atmosphere of a rowdy frontier town still hung heavy in the air. Some bar owners wore cowboy hats, chewed tobacco, and wore fancy cowboy boots — like the one who allegedly kicked a Native man to death in front of his bar. The owner said the man had made a pass at his wife. Some said that in exchange for a $250,000 bribe, the bar owner got off.

The town’s newspaper, a tabloid-sized publication called the Nome Nugget, rarely ran a story about Native people. It was as if Native people didn’t exist. In Nome, Native people were like background noise — and looked upon as nuisances. Shopkeepers, restaurant owners, bar owners, and owners of seedy hotels hung signs on their windows that said No Eskimos or Dogs Allowed.
Nome was a small town, and everybody seemed to know everybody else’s business. Dad would always remind us we were to keep the family name clean. He and Mom never drank like lots of other Native people did in town. So we didn’t grow up in a home that was terror-filled as our neighbors did. Which is probably a good thing. But we were tied to a religious lifestyle, with dysfunctions similar to those of families crippled by alcohol.

In Nome, the Evangelical Covenant Church, of which I was a member since birth, practiced an acceptable form of racial division — white members sat on the left side, and Native members sat on the right side. I didn’t think much of it then. It was normal. And although “love thy neighbor as yourself” was preached from the pulpit, the all-white leadership never said a word about prejudice, bigotry, and discrimination in Nome, which was everywhere.

Having grown up in the small, protective village of Shaktoolik, I was unaware of the evil that people can visit upon others, especially evil from those who hide behind religion and Jesus. One such man was a choir director at the church, a man who also was a radio announcer at the local Armed Forces Radio Station, AFRS. He would spend time at our home, eating with us and visiting. 

One day he asked my parents if I could spend the night with him at the Covenant Church parsonage. I didn’t think anything of it because he was supposedly a man of God, a good person. Upon getting to the home where he lived, he undressed me and placed me up on his bed and covered me and crawled in beside me. I felt his hands on my private parts. That night he introduced me to feelings I had never before felt. I was at once ashamed and dirty. He told me to never let anyone know.

Other times, he would bring me to the radio station and touch me where I knew deep inside there was something wrong. I began to hate seeing him in church and having him at our house, laughing and talking with my parents as if there was nothing wrong. I grew to hate him. I knew deep within that something was taken from me, something that was sacred. 
I could not tell my parents. What would they think? What would they do? I kept that experience buried deep inside. In my adult years, I drank a lot. The pain never went away. It was always there.

After attending the University of Alaska in Anchorage and Fairbanks, John Tetpon was awarded a year’s fellowship at Yale University. A former reporter for the Anchorage Daily News and the Anchorage Times, he also worked for the Alaska Federation of Natives, the Alyeska Pipeline Service Company, and several Native organizations. After forty-plus years in public service and the private sector, he is now retired and spends his time as an artist, writer, and musician.

3 thoughts on “Alaska Shorts: “Nome, 1953” by John Tetpon”

  1. Jerry Hassfield

    I had the pleasure of being stationed at marks afb in1953 and was the station manager the armed forces radio station at nome. i gained many friends there and found the wallace hotel(bering sea club) to a second home. miss those days

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