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A 3,000-mile journey in search of love, peace, and home

by Olivia Hill

The edited excerpt below is printed with permission by Olivia Hill and Woodneath Press. It’s taken from her memoir reflecting on living as a Black woman in an Alaska Native village in the 1980s juxtaposed with her own cultural upbringing.

I knocked on the door, and a partially naked woman opened. “You don’t have to knock, come in, no men around.” They laughed shyly and smiled. “We run them off … You like sweat, bathe, ah? … We like it hot, first one we do this year now it’s cold … Put your clothes there then come in quick.”

They disappeared through another door while I took off my clothes, slowly piece by piece, and hung them on the pegs made from birch tree limbs. This small outer room had wooden benches with space to slide your boots on plywood flooring. A naked light bulb hung above my head and offered no help with warmth. The walls and door were the only protection from freezing to death in the unheated changing room, and I could hear the wind whistle at me through the seams. The racing thoughts stopped as my nakedness was exposed to the frigid air. I now was ripping off my clothes and busted through the door the woman disappeared through minutes ago. The woodstove heat rushed to me and bathed my skin in dried stifling air that burned and pricked my cold flesh. Along my back, the cold air bit at my bare behind. Both the wood heat and cold air quickly swirled together and formed a mist that briefly blinded and disoriented me in the dark room.

“Close the door! The door! Ah! let all the heat out,” voices yelled at me from somewhere in front and to the right of me. I closed the door and stood there a minute, trying to let my eyes adjust in the hot dark room where the only light came from the thin gaps in the door and frame and the glow that escaped from the old wood stove. Ms. Elaine’s voice found me in the dark and called me to sit near her. I placed my towel on the bench and sat down next to her and the three other women that chatted softly to each other.

“Glad you come. Ah, heat good when it’s cold like this,” she said as my eyes had just begun to clear, and I could see her. She was a tall woman, taller than me, about five foot nine, solid and wide. She wore her salt and pepper hair short and pinned back out of her face on one side. Her light sun-rich skin absorbed the orange glow of the fire and now seemed to illuminate the room more.

“You have these a lot? Have sweats I mean?” I asked.

“Not like we used to … We used to do this lots. I think maybe work too much now!” They all laughed.

Ms. Elaine got up and put more wood on the fire. This was the third time since I’d sat down.

At age 22, the author enjoys a sunny day in Portage. 

“Elaine, it’s getting nice and hot now, ah … feels good!” one of the women commented.

“Yeah! Sweat out everything, ah … too much food … too much drink … sickness … husbands! Everything come out in the sweat.” We all burst into laughter and the list kept getting longer for a few minutes. Ms. Elaine talked about how the elders sweat all the time to keep sickness away and to balance everything.

“We need this sweat, so we don’t get sick.” A barrel of water sat in the corner, Ms. Elaine dipped a pot in it and rinsed her body of the salty sweat and impurities she said came out of the body.

“Sweat help’ you clear your mind too and let’ you see clearer.” She dipped again and handed it to the rest of us to do the same. She pointed to small branches of cedar and whipped her body gently with them.

My pores opened, and I washed away the salty heaviness and began to feel lighter. Afterward, she splashed water onto large round stones she had been pulling from the wood stove and replaced those that had cooled several times back in. This made layers of thicker and thicker air that formed a heavy gray mist. I listened to the women’s voices that now seemed farther away, like a dream trying to reach me. Ms. Elaine spoke about things I couldn’t seem to comprehend, stories of animals, something about a bear and people and words in Aleut, or maybe I heard a song. The muffled sound of wings covered my ears like the ravens that ruffled feathers in the trees coming over here.

Olivia Hill on the Alcan in 1982.

I sat quietly now, even the inside of my mind was now still, not caring whether I was participating in the conversation or in what they were saying or thinking. Somewhere between the steam, darkness, and sitting on the bench, watching the flicker of orange and yellow light through the gray haze, there became nothing but silence and peace. The voices became heat, and I was water, and we both rose as vapor.  

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