Military News

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Yup'ik Airman thrives on family, military traditions

by Air Force Staff Sgt. Sheila deVera
JBER Public Affairs


9/10/2015 - JOIN BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska -- Growing up in Scammon Bay, a remote village in Alaska with a population of fewer than 600, the Yup'ik native wanted to see the world.

Known as Angiiraq Apakaq to her elders and Janette Ulak to her friends, she grew up surrounded by a small community that thrived on hunting, fishing and picking berries to provide for their families to survive.

"Growing up, the women and children did the housework, while the men would go out hunting," said Senior Airman Janette Ulak, 673d Dental Squadron dental assistant.

"In our culture, women might bring bad luck if they go out hunting because their sole job is to stay home and take care of the family. But it's changing now - some women can go out and hunt."

With only 12 seniors in her graduating class, she pursued college education for a year until she accepted a job as a dental health aide back home.

That experience inspired her to join the military as a dental assistant.

"A lot of people wanted to stay in the village, but I wanted to get out of the community and see what's out there," Ulak said.

Ulak has relatives serving in the Army, Marines, Navy and Army National Guard. After consulting with her family members, she decided to join the Air Force.

She reached out to an Air Force recruiter in Anchorage, Alaska, and, at the age of 24, started a new adventure in 2009.

"At first, some people in my village were concerened about me joining the military," she said. "I just Ulak is the first Airman in her family and village.

When she landed in San Antonio, Texas, 3,000 miles from home and in a bus on her way to Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, Ulak was very observant of her surroundings.

"I was in shock the whole time," the sister of 10 siblings said. "I didn't know what to expect."

In basic training, her training instructor was intrigued to find out she was an Alaska Native.

"My T.I. would ask me to say something in my language," said Ulak, recalling her time in basic training. "I guess he was just interested because he had never met or seen an Eskimo before."

"I was also bombarded with questions such as if I was living in an igloo, can I see Russia from my backyard, or do I know Sarah Palin - all silly questions," Ulak said, laughing.

"I expected to get this mixed reaction when people found out that I am an Alaska Native. I knew questions would come out like that or about my culture because they were just so fascinated about it."

"I remember a day when my family decided to go on a boat to another island so we could go clam digging until we saw a pod of whales spouting in the distance," Ulak said. "There were six of us in a boat and my uncle decided to go after the whale and we started chasing it."

When they came within range, her cousin started shooting the whale when he had a clear sight.

"We would bang on the bottom of the boat if we could not see the whale, when it resurface my cousin would start shooting again repeating the same process until my cousin ran out of ammunition," she said.

"My uncle instructed us to take out our harpoons and started throwing them. Once we successfully got the harpoon in, the second boat started shooting at the whale and killed it.

"We brought it to the shore and since it was my cousin's first catch, he had to share it with the whole community."

Under the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, subsistence hunting occurs throughout Alaska all year long and is central to the customs and traditions of many cultural groups.

The International Whaling Commission allows Alaska Natives to continue the whale hunt.

While stationed at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Ulak decided to bring some local dishes for her coworkers to try it out.

"I brought raw whale blubber to work and some had mixed emotions," Ulak said.

"Some mentioned that they couldn't taste it, while some focused on the texture."

Air Force Staff Sgt. Destinee Spates, currently assigned to the 18th Dental Squadron, Kadena Air Base, Japan, was one of the few who tasted her dishes - whale blubber and akutaq ["Eskimo ice cream" - a concoction made from reindeer fat or tallow, seal oil, water or milk, fresh berries and sometimes ground fish].

"The whale blubber was hard and crunchy. I could not taste anything so it was more about the texture," Spates said.

"As for the akutaq, I couldn't taste the halibut, but just the berries."

"I was not at work that day when she brought in some Alaskan dishes, but she often shares stories of life in her village," said Tech. Sgt. Andrea Andrews, 673d DS dental assistant. "I like listening to her stories and they are mesmerizing."

Finding out that Ulak was a local native, was an exciting for Andrews.

"My squadron has taken an interest in her culture and it gives our clinic an insight to the real Alaska," added Andrews.

Even though she prefers to be called Janette while in the military, to some she will always be Angiiraq Apakaq.

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