The village of Nanwalek recently held its annual Fun in the Sun festival. For the kids, it’s a weekend of swimming, lawn games, face painting, and contests. But for the adults, it’s a way of teaching traditional values to the next generation.
In the mountains outside Nanwalek, about 70 kids are splashing around the cool, blue water of Second Lake.
Salt and pepper haired Rhoda Moonin is sitting on a beach towel, surrounded by haphazardly piled bags and kids’ clothes and snacks.
“Lots of memories. Lots of beautiful memories coming up here and seeing all this fun, seeing the children being happy and laughing,” says Moonin.
She’s looking out over the lake, keeping a watchful eye on the children playing in the water and by the trees.
Over by the woods, nine-year-old Tula is making sure her little sister Aurelia doesn’t wander off too far. Tula escorted me on the several mile trek up here, picking berries and explaining the plants and rivers and lakes we passed along the way.
“We have to walk up lots of hills, and you go past Humpy Creek which has a lot of fish in it, and you’ll know if you’re almost there if you see a bridge to a waterfall.”
Younger kids and older adults catch bumpy ATV rides up to the lake. For elders, there’s a special tea time.
“They have the elders down in the village at the community hall playing games while the younger kids, they bring the kids up and they have them swim all day and picnic. It’s really fun because we get to swim!”
Tula’s uma, Pauline Demas, is sitting in her four-wheeler on the beach, also keeping an eye on everybody’s children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
“It’s just exciting. Everybody’s having a wonderful day and it just makes me feel good. Anybody can come here and sit on the beach and would have a very fun day. It’s so positive,” says Demas.
Pauline says being outside, swimming, and picnicking, especially during this Fun in the Sun festival, has benefits for the whole community. It’s also a good way to show kids how to coexist with each other and the nature around them.
“We were taught from the very beginning, I remember, to respect everything. We get all the food that we have to have from the earth and the water, everything has to be with respect. It will be here forever if they keep it clean you know and everything they have to,” says Demas.
Rhoda Moonin says that’s one of the most special parts about this festival. It was started many years ago by an older couple who noticed that many of the kids in Nanwalek couldn’t afford to pay for the snacks and games at the annual Fourth of July celebration. So, they promised that after that, there would be a special festival every year, just for the kids. The food and activities would be free and it would be by the community for the community. Now, Moonin says, the main event is the daylong lake swim and picnic.
“I reminisce when I see children swimming here. I grew up with my parents here at the cabin, my mother Juanita Melsheimmer, and my father, Sergius Kvasnikoff had cabins here,” says Moonin.
She says when she was young, she and all her brothers and sisters would come up with their parents to go fishing. They spent hours exploring the forest and swimming. Her brothers used to spend all day in the water.
“Us girls, we’d be out helping mom picking berries,” says Moonin. “She’d give us little cups or little cans to go fill up with blueberries. Behind here is so many berries, there’s an abundance of berries. Days when it was kind of rainy or whatever, she’d go down to the first lake and grab dinner.”
She’d even let the kids take some salmon roe and go and fish for trout for breakfast.
“It was so neat, so beautiful back then. Today I’m 56 and when I come up here, I think about my mother and my dad a lot and my family and how much fun it used to be. I try to come up every year and bring my grandchildren and let them feel th e same effect I had when I was younger,” says Moonin.
Times have changed in Nanwalek. Subsistence is still the core of most people’s diets, but now there are stores across the bay. There’s packaged food. There are outside influences that have brought hard times to the village.
But along with that, there’s resiliency and determination. There’s a group of adults, like the ones by the lake today, that work tirelessly year after year to teach the next generation their values.
“How to respect their land, respect their food, respect each other,” says Moonin. “It’s the most important thing for children to remember here, away from all that city life. It’s so different. Everybody likes to help everybody out here. It’s just a big family.”
It’s looking back to move forward in a positive way. Moonin and Demas both say these children are the future. And as they grow up, if they can remember days like this, where they are all working together, playing together, having fun in the sun, the future looks much brighter.