In Unalakleet, auction unifies community in low times

Hand-made booties and gloves were some of the big-ticket items. Although the night's final item was a quilt that sold for $1,200. Photo: Zachariah Hughes.
Hand-made booties and gloves were some of the big-ticket items. Although the night’s final item was a quilt that sold for $1,200. Photo: Zachariah Hughes.

A charity auction in Unalakleet over Thanksgiving weekend raised nearly $20,000, with all the proceeds going to worthy causes in the village of 720. The community is pulling together amid half a dozen recent deaths in just the last month.

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Around 11 p.m. on Friday evening a crowd of a hundred or so people spread across folding chairs inside the cafeteria of Unalakleet’s school. Volunteer auctioneer Karl Erickson pushed up bids on a hand-made baby blanket.

There were more than six hours worth of items. Everything from handmade quilts and kuspuks in a riot of colors, to can cozies made from simple scraps of otter, wolf, and seal hides.

“We also have some gals here that knit with qiviut yarn and really make some beautiful neck-warmers and hats,” said Betty Oyoumick, a member of the Sewing Circle in town that organizes the annual event.

Auctioneers in Unalakleet hold up a hand-made Afghan, one item of many sold at the annual benefit. Photo: Zachariah Hughes, KSKA.
Auctioneers in Unalakleet hold up a hand-made Afghan, one item of many sold at the annual benefit. Photo: Zachariah Hughes, KSKA.

Those sell for hundreds of dollars. Partly because they’re beautiful, but also because the bidding battles push past purely economical price-points; everyone knows the money is going to a good cause.

The auction’s roots stretch all the way back to the 19th century, says organizer Blanche Cragle, when the wife of a Swedish missionary pastor with the Covenant Church arranged the first one.

“We’ve had the auction ever since,” Cragle said during a brief break for cake.

All the money goes back into the community. Some to elders, or to church repairs, or to single-parent homes to help with holiday gifts. Proceeds are also set aside as a rainy day fund for funeral expenses.

“Some of the men get the plywood from the Native store,” Cragle said, “and then us ladies order the fabric and have it lined inside the casket.”

Middy Johnson shows off a walrus tusk etched by Gary Sockpick of Shishmaref. Photo: Zachariah Hughes, KSKA.
Middy Johnson shows off a walrus tusk etched by Richard Sockpick of Shishmaref. Photo: Zachariah Hughes, KSKA.

It’s been a rough month for Unalakleet. Six people have died — four elders and two young people, one of whom was laid to rest the day after the auction. That’s not counting a dramatic search-and-rescue effort to locate 74-year-old Vivian Foote, who went missing days before her daughter’s wedding, and has not yet been found. Cragle says hard times like these are when collective efforts carry the most weight.

“We help the whole community. It starts from the babies up to the elders, and the church, and the funeral that’s going on,” she said. “It goes back right into the community.”

In total, the auction brought in $19,032. One big ticket item was a beadwork wall-hanging of a wolf done by Judie Kotongan, with four lupine talons dangling from the bottom. Unalakleet’s mascot, as the auctioneer barked out, is the wolf pack, a force of nature greater than the individual sum of its parts.