Sunday, 8 January 2017

The Great North (2): One IKEA and two New Year's Eve

I guess for many readers, the idea of spending the whole Saturday at Ikea will cause them an anxiety attack and  an uncontrollable need to flee. To me, despite my passion for all that is Swedish, my blood runs cold when my wife says resignedly: "On Saturday, I fear that we will have to go to Ikea". Thousands of people, children running around between "Bjursta" tables and "Sultan" beds, and couples discussing whether it is better an "Ektorp" or a "Beddinge" sofa...

But what's the relation between remote and isolated places, and crowdy Ikea warehouses? Maybe for you, the Swedish furniture store is a nightmare, but there are people who consider Ikea as the best destination!

At the Gulf of Bothnia northern end, in the Baltic Sea, the Scandinavian Peninsula merges the European continent. The border between Scandinavia (Sweden) and the mainland (Finland) is marked by Torne river (in the map above is written in Swedish: "Torneälv"), that runs from the coast, northbound to Kiruna surroundings (see the first post of the series). At the same point where Torne river flows into the Baltic, there is a city; well, actually two cities; no wait, it's just one, Oh! forgive it!. People on the east bank of the Torne River lives in a town called... Tornio (long live originality!) that belongs to Finland. The town on the west bank of the river belongs to Sweden and is called Haparanda (Swedes are so creative!).


I said the fact whether it was one or two cities because, originally, it was a single village. For many centuries, Finland was part of the Kingdom of Sweden and the city of Tornio (in Finnish), or Torneå (in Swedish), was a prosperous city, considered the center of all trade with Lapland. Even there are some historians who assert that, during the 17th century, the town was the richest in Sweden, despite its few half thousand inhabitants.


Sweden's defeat at war against Russia in 1808, made Finland fall into the hands of the Russians. By desire of Czar Alexander I, Tornio went on Russian Empire's side. But as border was established in the Torne river, and there were houses in both sides of the river, a small part of the city remained on the Swedish side. So the Swedes gave to this few houses that remained in their hands the name of Haparanda.

Russian laziness made the once prosperous Tornio fell into utter decay; and neigbouring Haparanda was too small to be able to prosper alone. With Finnish independence achievement in 1917, the situation did not improve much, and it was not until after the Second World War when Tornio's economy improved, especially thanks to the production of the successful local beer: Lapin Kulta.

  
But make no mistake, at the beginning of the 21st century, both twin towns, Tornio and Haparanda, did not offer many opportunities for young people. Many people was leaving towards the south, either Sweden or Finland, for studying or just to look for a better job. And this depopulation was not only happening in the main two cities; all region was losing inhabitants year by year. 


In the early 2000s, Haparanda's mayor, Sven-Erik Butch, had an idea. It could seem a foolish idea for those living far from the Arctic Circle, but for him and his team was full of sense. The mayor was able to contact Ingvar Kamprad, Ikea's owner, and asked him only one question: "Take a map of the Nordic countries, put it upside down, and tell me what you see" said Sven-Erik. So did Kamprad, realizing that lots of people, distributed in four countries (Sweden, Finland, Norway and Russia), had no access to any Ikea. 


On November 15th 2006, more than 5,000 people lined up neatly (as always in Sweden!) under a heavy snowfall, waiting for Ikea Haparanda's doors opening for the first time. Success was immediate, and in some months, Torne river commercial area attracted many more stores: I-Huset, Haglöfs, Candy World ... many brands found that the Arctic was a fantastic market! 


But, the economic potential expected by Mayor Sven-Erik Butch, was it real? Yes. Following the success of Ikea Haparanda, experts analyzed what the population of Arctic Circle represented as a consumption market. After the Ikea experience, however, survey showed the market was not splitted by borders; they analyzed the entire area population, no matter if people were Swedish, Finnish, Norwegian or Russian. And so, studies showed that there is a population of nearly 1.5 million people eager to buy, just as any European would, with the only difference of long distances. No matter in which country are they living, and in which country are sold the goods to be bought. If you look at the parking lot of Ikea Haparanda, any regular day, you will notice a difference when comparing with the rest of Ikea around world: it's full of coaches! Coach plates (and also car plates, of course!) show people come from every corner of the Great North to Ikea Haparanda. Many coaches leave early in the morning from remote locations, either in Arctic Russia, Norway, Sweden or Finland, full of Arctic inhabitants ready to travel more than 400km, and buy in Ikea. Then, at dawn, they get back on the bus and travel back home, maybe for more than 5 hours. Seems crazy, but Haparanda's Ikea has been able to revitalize the economy of both cities and stop their depopulation. 


Oops! And the two New Year's Eves from the post's title? It's simple: Haparanda-Tornio is one of the few cities (well, I do not know any other) that are separated by a border ... and in two different time zones! So, while Sweden uses CET (Central European Time, or UTC + 1), Finland is located in EET (Eastern European Time, or UTC + 2) zone. And this allows that each New Year's eve, people celebrates the first midnight 12 strokes in Tornio, and then, they cross the border and celebrate again a New Year, just one hour later, in Haparanda! 


As you can see, Tornio and Haparanda enjoy a very good relationship, and it's getting closer and closer. Gradually, both cities started to share municipal services, institutions and schools and now, they even share a golf course located in the border. So finally, they have decided to go one step further and become (legally) a single city. And how are they going to call the new merged town? Tornio-and-Haparanda? Haparanda-Tornio? None of these! Flaunting of great creativity skills, both cities have decided to get renamed (oh, my God!) as EuroCity! 

Thursday, 29 December 2016

Celts that came from afterlife


In this post, I'm going to change from usual remote geography topics to linguistics topics, or rather "remote linguistics". I'll start writing about an European language that has the impressive amount of.... 700 speakers: Cornish.
 
But what is most impressive about this language is that it has returned from afterlife! It was completely extinguished, and now has reborn!

Let me travel a lit bit back in time. Just mere 2,500 years ... At this time the Celtic languages dominated Western Europe. They were divided into two groups:

  • Continentals: among others, Celtiberian from the Iberian Peninsula, Lepontic language from southern Switzerland and northern Italy, and Gaulic (or Gaulish) from Gaul,... yes, Asterix and Obelix obviously did not speak anything remotely similar to French. They spoke a Welsh related language that became extinct before year 600 DC.
  • Insulars: Irish Gaelic, Scottish Gaelic, Welsh, Breton (Hey! Brittany is in France so not an island and should, therefore, be a Continental Group language...). Other languages, as Cornish and  Manx are also Insular Celtic.

    The Romans arrival, and some years later the invasions of Franks and Goths (in Continental Europe), and Angles and Saxons (in Britain), shelved these languages that formerly had dominated Western Europe for centuries. The Lepontic language disappeared, and so did Celtiberian and Gaulish. Britonnic took refuge in France becoming present-day Breton (nowadays 200,000 speakers) and that's why, even being spoken in France, so "Continental" Europe, Breton belongs to the Insular Group, as its ancestor is "Insular" Britonnic. Other Celtic languages, as Irish and Scotish Gaelic, struggle to survive, and only Welsh resists the attack, but suffering a lot.

    And a similar fate suffered Cornish:

    Cornish language was spoken in Cornwall, which is the region located in the southwesternmost point of the Great Britain island.



    Cornish was a close relative of Britonnic, the language spoken in England when Romans arrived. And, therefore, related also to Breton, currently spoken in Brittany, France (Brittany, before Bretons migration was known by the Romans as Armorica, and there was where Asterix' village).



    Around year 1300, Cornish reaches its moment of maximum splendor and extension. But in the sixteenth century, the British government decided to create a law, the Act of Uniformity that aims English as lingua franca, role played until this moment by Latin. That law shows that English government was aware that, in Cornwall (and also in other parts f the kingdom), there was a large part of the population not able to speak a single word in English,... so they were Cornish-only speakers. In a report addressed to King Edward VI in 1549 is said:

    "In Cornwall is two speches, the one is naughty Englysshe, and the other is Cornysshe speche. And there be many men and women the which cannot speake one worde of Englysshe, but all Cornyshe."


    The new law did not try to remove Cornish language(or Welsh, Scots or ...) but since 1400, Cornish was already losing speakers. English language pressure was harassing Cornish to the west.


    It is considered that Cornish language disappeared completely during the eighteenth century. But a quite big amount of Cornish-written books remained. All of them were written without any standardized grammar and orthography. So each author wrote the way he wanted.

    The last monolingual speaker of Cornish died in 1676. His name was Chesten Marchant, and it's said he had only a very basic knowledge of English. The
    last person to be able to speak Cornish fluently was a fishwife from Mousehole village called Dolly Pentreath. He died in 1777 and, after her, no one else was able to speak Cornish fluently. Only a few old men were able to understand it o sing some old songs.


    In the early twentieth century, of course, no one could speak or understand Cornish. The only rembembrance of the disapeared language were some books and a few names of towns, rivers and mountains of Cornwall. But in 1904, Henry Jenner created a series of manuals intended to teach Cornish, and 25 years later Robert Morton Nance published a Cornish grammar (as Pompeu Fabra had already done for Catalan language some years before). This standard Cornish became known as Unified Cornish and was based on the Cornish spoken during its apogee, around year 1300.

    During the following years several new grammars appeared and fighting started among linguists. Ugh! Linguists fighting; must be worse than gangs brawls!

    Anyway, at the beginning of the 21st century, an agency to regulate Cornish language was created, the Cornish Language Partnership and a definitive grammar was agreed. Incredibly, year by year, a sense of cultural identity began to rise around Cornwall. Some years ago, schools began to teach Cornish. Even in 2010 the Cornwall College kindergarten in Camborne began a Cornish language immersion program for children from ages 2 to 5. The problem came when they realized they needed to teach Cornish to kids' parents, so immersion could also be done at home! Also BBC Radio Cornwall and some regional broadcasters have begun to introduce programs in Cornish.

    And the result has been spectacular! This map shows the percentage of households in each municipality whose main language is Cornish:


    This might seem ridiculous, even for me, a Catalan speaker; I know that these rates are very low, but consider that, for a language that 30 years ago nobody even understood, there is now a 1% of households that have Cornish as their main language!



    So, for the first time in history, UNESCO has been forced to make a small but significant step, and change the classification of a dead language: Cornish changed from "extinct" to "strongly endangered"! Never before, an extinct language had its status been changed... and it happened twice! Another Celtic language has also recently returned from the kingdom of dead languages .... Guess which one?

    Here you have a video so you can hear how Cornish sounds. If its progression continues, who knows if Cornish will become the language of the future!

    Sunday, 4 December 2016

    Mr. Rodionov's garden

    In the morning, Mr. Rodionov likes to drink a coffee just after waking up. If the temperature allows it, he goes out home, on the porch, with a cup of coffee and sits on an old chair, watching his garden. When weather becomes too cold, he enjoys the same morning routine, but from inside his house, watching through the window.


    Anatoly Rodionov's garden has considerable dimensions: 150 km long and 125 km wide. And that's because Mr. Rodionov is the only person that lives year-round on the island of Wrangel, located at the eastern end of the Russian Arctic.



    Wrangel Island is named after the Russian explorer, Baron Ferdinand von Wrangel, who leaded three expeditions to the island (1821, 1822 and 1823) and  in none of them, he was able to find Wrangel Is. It was not until 1867 that an American whaler, Thomas Long, discovered the island, giving it the name of the poor Baron. Is said that Thomas Long discovered Wrangel, but it would be more correct to say that he discovered it for Westerners; for Chukchis, Siberia's coast native people, the island has always been known, as their territory was the closest populated land to Wrangel Island. Finally, in the early twentieth century, Russians claimed Wrangel Island, establishing a settlement there during the 20s, and a Red Army military base during the 60's.



    During the 20's, the island was the center of a rescue operation that lasted four years! In 1926, the Soviets sent an expedition to the island with food and goods for three years. The arrival on the island was relatively easy because during the summer, the ice allowed navigation around Wrangel. What they didn't know was that 1926 had one of the most unusually ice-free summers in the eastern part of the Arctic Ocean. During the following years, the ice prevented the access of any ship, and in 1929, four years after landing, Moscow's government suspected that the expedition should be in a dramatic situation, or even dead by starvation and cold. A new expedition was organized, using an icebreaker rescue ship called "Fyodor Litke". This ship, rather than "icebreaker" should be called "ice-cutter" because, instead of breaking the ice from above, as icebreakers normally do, the "Fyodor Litke" had a sharp bow to cut the ice like a knife.



    In September 1929, the "ice-cutter" Litke reached Wrangel after many vicissitudes and rescued in dramatic conditions, but still alive, all the members of the expedition arrived on the island in 1926. That feat made the expeditioners and the crew of the "Fyodor Litke" become one of the first heroes of the Soviet Arctic.

    But let's go, now, to 1976, when Mr. Anatoly Rodionov's story begins. That year, the Soviet government designated Wrangel Island as a Nature Reserve. Don't think the Russians had a big environmental conscience; It was just that the military base and the tiny settlement  of Wrangel Is. had been already abandoned, and the island could not offer any other interesting resource. So a ban to access the island was set and a group of guards or "Rangers" was designated to monitor and protect the island's flora and fauna.



    Anatoly Rodionov belongs to the last one of those Rangers promotions sent to Wrangel, and he's currently the only one of islands' four Rangers staying all year there. The other three Rangers only spend a few months, normally guiding scientific expeditions that work on the island during summer. Anatoly enjoys his work with passion and a high degree of responsibility. His sense of commitment was so big that, when his wife stated him the dilemma: "family or work," Anatoly chose Wrangel! So Anatoly's wife left... I cannot understand her reaction! Who comes up not wanting to live isolated on an Arctic tundra island with temperatures of -50º and surrounded by seals and polar bears! Women's behaviour is so unpredictable...


    Among Anatoly's tasks, there's controling and counting wildlife, guiding tourists and providing support to scientific expeditions. But there's another very special task in his working contract: Anatoly Rodionov is responsible also, very patiently and step by step, of taking down all scrapped debris and garbage remaining from the dismantled military bases. Gradually, this man is cutting, separating and stacking all the junk that was left behind when Russian Army left the island: tanks, trucks, containers and cabins. For years and years, he has been the responsible of avoiding polluting spills and minimize the impact of waste and stacks while cleaning. Do you remember the robot from Pixar's animated film Wall-E? Well, Anatoly Rodionov is Wrangel Island's Wall-E!


    The island is the paradigm of tundra. Miles and miles of plains and hills where only grass, moss and some small bush can grow. The fauna is a sample of what frozen steppes of Eurasia were: wolves and arctic foxes, seals and walruses, musk oxen, lots of arctic birds, and especially polar bears. In fact, this is the place with the highest density of polar bears in the world!





    The most curious of all is that, because of Wrangel Is. is located at the northeasternmost point of the Euro-Asian continent, it has become the last refuge for species that have gone extinct gradually in Europe and Asia. The most surprising one is the mammoth. Yes, I mean the hairy prehistoric elephant! On Wrangel Island lived the last mammoth specimens only 4,000 years ago; so they subsisted isolated in Wrangel during 6,000 years after these pachyderms disappeared from Europe. To give you an idea: in ancient Egypt, they were already at the 11th pharaohs dynasty, and Wrangel mammoths were still alive!


    But now, unfortunately, megalomaniacal delusions of current Russian president, Vladimir Putin, have made Wrangel Island again a point of interest. Last year Russians settled a new military base, consisting of a series of prefabricated barracks and an airfield. Russian aspirations in the Arctic have caused Anatoly Rodionov not enjoying his morning coffee as calm as before!



    Meanwhile, the island has also opened to a controlled tourism. You can cruise with Heritage Expeditions to visit the island and discover the wildlife on board a scientific vessel. If you are interested you have to book quick, because there are few places for forthcoming departures!
    Wrangel Island has also benn part of a dramatic legend, which is not known whether true or not. During World War II, the famous Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg saved thousands of Jews in Budapest from Nazi death camps. When the Soviets liberated the Hungarian capital, Wallenberg disappeared mysteriously and nobody never knew anything else from him. Although there has never formally been no Soviet prison camp in Wrangel, some Russian Jews who migrated to Israel have stated that they were confined to Wrangel and met there Wallenberg in the early 60's. But that mysteries will probably stay buried under the ice of Wrangel Island forever!
    This post would not have been possible without the invaluable support of Jordi Fontbuté. Thanks for the idea and fonts!





    Monday, 28 November 2016

    Whiskey War (and also Schnapps!)

    International law states that National Territorial waters extend up to 12 nautical miles (about 22 km.) from the coast of each country. In the case of narrow straits, such as the Strait of Gibraltar, cosidering both countries are so close to eachother, the limit of territorial waters is set at the midpoint between the two coasts. But that would happen with an island right in the middle point?


    In Nares Strait, north of Greenland, the line between territorial waters of Canada and Denmark (for the moment, Greenland is still part of the Danish territory) is set about 10 miles from both sides. And right at that midpoint lies Hans Island, a piece of rock just a little bigger than 1 Km. from end to end. As you can see in the picture, following this blog's tradition, Hans Island is a very busy place. The nearest towns are Canadian Forces Base "Alert"  (the most northerly inhabited place on the planet) and the villages of Qaanaaq and Siorapaluk in Greenland, all both located more than 200 km far.


    During the 30's, the League of Nations (predecessor of the UN) established that Hans Island belonged to the Danes. But Canadians alleged that, with the disappearance of this institution, the decision is invalidated and, for the moment, United Nations doesn't want to get their feet wet.

    For more than 70 years, the two governments agreed a list of 127 geographic points that delimited the maritime boundary between both countries in the Nares Strait. But between points 122 and 123, they decided not to draw any lines there and, therefore, not define the border: it was Hans Island.


    But don't think that this remains quiet. Tension between the two countries is very strong and we could even talk of one of the hottest geopolitical spots of the world: a sample of uncontrolled violence, is repeated every year of confrontation between Canadian Armed Forces and Danish "Forsvaret" (Army).

    Every August, Canadian Army carries out some military exercises in the area of ​​Ellesmere Island. When Canadians pass near the Hans Island, they land there a few soldiers and remove the Danish flag, hoist the Canadian one, and next to the mast they leave a bottle of Canadian whiskey with a message: "Welcome to Canada". The Danish army remains not far behind the aggresive Canadians in the disproportionate use of force. And so, every spring, they send a detachment to Hans Island which is responsible of picking up the flag of Canada, place the Danish one and, after drinking the Canadian whiskey, they let a bottle of Schnapps with a letter that says: "you are in the territory of Denmark."

    The maximum tension, however, occurs when vessels of Danish and Canadian Armies found eachother in the viccinity of Hans Island: in order to frighten the enemy, each boat .... hoists a flag of their own country!


    No doubt that, the so called "Whiskey War" is limited to a merely exchange of liquor bottles because the object disputed, Hans Island, is only rock; bare, icy and inhospitable. Despite this, during the 80's, Canadian Company Dome Petroleum did some research on the island. There were, however, neither oil nor gaz. It is clear, therefore, that tiny Hans Island does not have any value at all; Well, yes, a bottle of whiskey and schnapps per year.

    But disputes over Hans Island are not limited to Canada and Denmark. Some years ago, a  mysterious internet-based "Hans Island Liberation Front" appeared. The independence movement is led, with an iron fist, by two mysterious men ... Hans and Hans.



    The last act of protest by Hans Island Liberation Front has been to propose that, seeing the strong expansionism of Russia in the Arctic, Santa Claus should move to live to Hans Island. "We try to avoid" said one of the two Hans (it's unclear if it was Hans or... Hans), "that poor Santa Claus gets forced by the Russians to present, as Christmas gifts, only vodka, LADA cars spare parts and back issues of Pravda newspaper!"



    Monday, 21 November 2016

    The Kids from Nowhere

    The Bering Sea could seem, for us Westerners, the end of the world. Take a look at this map:


    The standard world maps are focused on Europe and, therefore, the Bering Sea, which separates the far western Alaska, and the easternmost part of Russia, is shown divided in two, giving the false impression of being two "cul-de-sac" instead of one single sea. On its banks, the population is very sparse, both in American and Asian sides. And, in addition, maritime traffic is reduced because, further north the Bering sea, the ice doesn't allow to navigate during many months per year. In summary, it can't be considered the center of the world, indeed.

    But if we change the point of view, you can realize that the reality is quite different. Here is a map of the Earth but centered at the North Pole:


    The whole Arctic, from Scandinavia, Greenland and the Arctic shores of Russia, Alaska and Canada are part of the same great culture. Ethnic groups like Yupik, Aleut or the Inyupiats have inhabited the shores of the Bering Sea historically unaware if they were living in America or in Asia. Even in the most tense moments of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States, these ethnic groups kept contact and exchange between both sides of the border. The Arctic is therefore the center of his world.


    Within the limits of the Bering Sea, there are a group of islands, some of which are American and some other Russian. As I said before, they are populated mainly by people of the same ethnic group or ethnic groups: they are all Inuit (despectively called Eskimos), and speak as mother tongue one of the several Eskimo-Aleut family languages spread in the region, and as a second language either English or Russian, depending on which side of the border the island is located.


    Some names will fool you; although Karagin and Komandorskiye are logically russian, and St. Lawrence, St. Matthew and Nunivak are American as all the Aleutian islands, the Pribilof group, however, although the name sounds like a brand of vodka, are American. In the red circle on the map there are two small islands: the Diomede. The Big Diomede is Russian and Little Diomede is American and sooner or later will have their own post on this blog.

    But today I wanted to tell you about St. Lawrence Island and, especially, about its exceptional school.

    The discovery of St. Lawrence Island was during St. Lawrence day of 1728. A few days earlier, during St. Matthew day, it was discovered the neighboring island of.... Saint Matthew (of course!). The discoverers were two ships from a Russian expedition that had also discovered the Bering Sea and were commanded by a
    Russian-Danish captain called Vitus Bering. Despite having a great talent as a navigator, Captain Bering couldn't be honored for having a great creativity when naming his discoveries!


    The island, however, was already inhabited; as I said at the beginning, Yupik, Inyupiats, Aleuts, all kind of Inuits lived in the Chukchi and Bering Seas area since long time ago. In fact, it seems that all Native Americans have some ancestor who has been in Saint Lawrence: It is considered that this island is the last vestige of the land that connected Asia and America during ancient times when sea level was lower. This piece of land was used for the first time about 15,000 years ago, when Siberian tribes crossed the Bering Strait to colonize America. Until then, there was no human presence in all America.


    In the nineteenth century, Saint Lawrence passed from Russian to American hands in  one of the worst deals ever seen (all Alaska was sold in exchange of some tons of furs and a small amount of money). But, as Russians did, the Americans continued also to ignore Saint Lawrence. The entire population of the island, mainly composed of ethnic Yupiks and Siberian Yupiks was concentrated in two settlements: Savoonga and Sivuqaq. The 4,000 inhabitants lived on fishing and hunting whales and walruses.In 1887, the Reformed Episcopal Church of America decided to Christianize the "poor savages" and decided to build a wooden church in Sivuqaq. A boat landed tools, wood and a carpenter and with the aid of the Sivuqaq people, the building was constructed. Once work finished, the carpenter embarked again and departed; and the church door keys were left in the hands of the Yupik chief. As the poor Carpenter did not speak Yupik, he wasn't able to explain the use of that wooden building, the first the inhabitants of Saint Lawrence had ever seen. So nobody at Sivuqaq knew what was the purpose of that strange building, and it was left empty. Over the next three years, Episcopalians were looking for missionaries to occupy that vacancy, but found no candidates.  
    Nobody wanted to go to the remote and icy St. Lawrence Island.



    At the end, the church was sold to the competitors, the Presbyterians. These, rather than just a reverend, they looked for someone who also could become a teacher. And finally, they found him: in 1894 a couple of Iowa reached Sivuqaq; the Gambells were to become the teachers of the old church, now reconverted into a school. Four years later, Gambells had to come back to the mainland, accompanied by his daughter, who was already born in Saint Lawrence, in order to treat a mother's illness. Unfortunately, during the trip back to Saint Lawrence, the boat sank and the Gambell family died. Since that day, Sivuqaq village changed its name to Gambell, in honor of the first teachers of the school.


    Currently, schools in Saint Lawrence are what in the United States are called K-12 schools, ie for children and boys up to 17-18 years. There is one in Gambell and another one in Savoonga and are part of the Bering Strait School District. I imagine this must be, probably, one of the world's largest school districts: 200.000km2 for only 1,500 students!




    But until the 80s, I don't think what Gambell had could be called "a school". The few students who were there, considered the school as a waste of time when, at home, were constantly required to assist in everyday tasks, all of them crucial in an environment as tough as the Arctic. In addition, the school was mostly in English, and for those children, English was not his native language. In Saint Lawrence Island, considering that almost all of the population was ethnic Yupik, they only spoke Yupik! So many of the teachers who had been destined to the island simply described her students as "un-educables."

    In 1982, a new teacher landed in Gambell: George Guthridge. The scene he found was devastating. The school did not have a single computer and had virtually no books. Absenteeism was very high and the level of the students was very low; some of the 12 year old students had a reading level of a 6 year old child or were not able to write a complete sentence.

    Guthridge applied a pedagogy system created by himself and, in addition, began to seek resources and materials for his school. He adapted
    reading and writing classes and methods to a non-English speaking idiomatic and cultural environment. Team working, brainstorming and class participation became the new main method at the classroom. And in 1984 he launched the most incredible challenge to his students, and so, registered them at "Future Problem Solving" (FPSP) competition.


    This school competition is considered one of the most prestigious and tough events for children under 18 years worldwide. At that time it was only an American competition and only the country's best schools were represented. Even, in some cases, some of the contestants were schools for gifted children (high IQ).


    Prof. Guthridge achived to motivate his pupils so much that, in his own words: "boys were studying while carrying water, while removing fish scales, while hunting whales ...". They were able to overcome all kind of obstacles, including the boycott from two school district administrators, who tried to close the school for uneconomic; students did everything to be present at competition.


    Most of the Gambell school students that were going to attend FPSP competition, had never traveled further than Nome, a small town with 3,700 inhabitants in mainland Alaska, and therefore had never seen a train or used automatic escalators, or been in a hotel. Some of them even felt scared when using an elevator!

    And what was the result? Those 11 boys and girls between 12 and 17 years were able to win both competitions they were registered at; one for kids from 12 to 14 years old and another for 15 to 17 years old, so they were United States winners! During the competition, they worked on subjects as genetic engineering or nuclear waste. Some months ago, they even didn't know this subjects existed! They were able to beat the rest of schools, all coming from USA's continental States, becoming the first school of mostly Native Americans attending the competition ... and won twice!


    Winner Team. Guthridge is on the right wearing a Mickey Mouse T-shirt.

    From that experience, a book was published, written by Guthridge himself, called "The Kids from Nowhere" that tells the conversion from kids evicted from the school system to bright students, all done without losing their Yupik culture.


    And apart from this academic success, how's life in Gambell and Saint Lawrence? Well, frankly, it's still hard, but maybe a little less than before. The population of the island has stabilized at about 1,200 inhabitants, half of whom live in Gambell and the other half in Savoonga. The island has no trees, only green fields of arctic willow, a shrub that grows no more than 30cm and has adapted to the long winters of the Bering Sea. Nevertheless, life can be found everywhere in the Island: walruses, birds and whales are present in large quantities in St. Lawrence.


    The island's economy is still very focused on hunting whales and walruses, although the sale of ivory carvings (taken from the tusks of walruses) is an important source of income. Recently, interest in nature started to bring tourists to St. Lawrence, and even a hotel with eight rooms was opened in Gambell. Oh, and for those who think that Gambell and St. Lawrence Island are insignificant in this huge world, let me tell you that Gambell is considered the world main city in one subject: it is the world capital ... of quads! Yes, those four wheeled motorbikes my wife always calls by mistake... "quackers!" No doubt they are the ideal way of transportation for the summer gravel roads and winter snow.

    Logistics is always complex in a place as remote as St. Lawrence but this can have a curious effect. Gambell or Savoonga have virtually no shops; Then, how does Santa Claus brings gifts for the children of St. Lawrence? Here comes, then, "Operation Santa". Every Christmas, US National Guard organizes this operation, which requires moving Santa's Christmas gifts to Alaskan remote villages. Santa Claus and all his presents fly from village to village in a National Guard cargo plane so he can give his present to everybody:


    And what happened to Professor George Guthridge?
     

    After the experience in Gambell, where he stayed for a few more years, he decided to standardize his teaching method, and began to implement it in other remote schools of Alaska. The success has been overwhelming and, with pride, he explains that in recent years, universities like MIT, Stanford or Yale have received many Alaskan students educated with his method; among them there are lots of Yupik, Inyupiats, Aleut, Atabascans, etc ...


    He has also become a successful novelist, publishing several sci-fi and fantasy literature books. A few years ago, he was named one of the 100 best teachers in the United States. During 90's he submitted back again to Future Problem Solving competition several students from another school in the Bering Sea, Elim school and..... won again, also establishing a new high score!