FAIRBANKS, Alaska — Ida Ross laid out eight bars of Ivory soap on blue plastic plates on a table in front of her.

The soap was for the schoolchildren visiting Ross in the Alaska Room at Anne Wien Elementary School on Tuesday.

The children keep their hands busy carving an animal from the soap, while Ross tells stories about her early life growing up in Kubuk, a tiny village northwest of Fairbanks, in the 1940s.

Ross is one of nine elders who teach students at the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District about Alaska history, particularly the Alaska Native people.

The 82-year-old has been doing this job — she works two days a week — for nearly 30 years. She is the oldest and the longest-serving elder working in the Alaska Room, a mini museum with art, textiles, tools and artifacts representing Alaska’s tribes.

“I am used to working,” Ross said. “I was 9-years-old when I started working.”

A swarm of students from Boreal Sun Charter School, all wearing borrowed kuspuks sewn by Ross, took their seats. Ross instructed them to choose an animal to carve — a walrus, seal, whale or polar bear. Most chose the polar bear.

“My grandma taught me how to sew, how to make mukluks, how to tan skin and my grandpa taught me how to set the trap line,” Ross told the students.

When she was a girl, she liked to sit on top of a sled laden with gear and listen to the crunch of snowshoes breaking trail.

Once, she fell off the sled and no one noticed. When they finally saw that Ross was gone, they turned back. Ross said she laid in the snow sleeping.

She went to school until the third grade. Some mornings, she went to school hungry and the teachers provided oatmeal, she said. But the teachers were mean. They beat the native children if they spoke Inupiaq.

“They spanked us if we were wrong. They got the willow,” Ross said. “Teachers could do anything to us and nobody could do anything.”

Ross picked up a butter knife and sliced the soap, demonstrating a carving technique sort of like peeling an apple.

“You don’t go like this,” she said, making a chopping motion.

When Ross was 9, her father died in an accident while moving some logs on a sled with a team of dogs.

Ross had to leave school and help take care of her younger sister. She also started her first job in the village, she said. It was at the store. The pay was $1 a day.

“They let me mop the floor. I would be on my knees and mop the floor.”

Ross also dusted the canned goods.

A boy had whittled his Ivory soap to a nub. Ross laughed.

“I need to do surgery on the polar bear,” she teased.

In the summer, Ross and her family went to the mountains to pick berries to put away for the winter, she told the children.

She talked about how in the wintertime, she was discouraged from going out alone.

“In Kobuk, when it gets stormy, it’s blowing,” Ross said.

When she was 18, she moved to Kotzebue.

“My friends, they get married, they have children,” Ross said. “Nobody chose me because I love to fight the boys.”

Ross smiled and paused a moment to take in her audience’s reaction.

She did domestic work for relatives, she said. She came to Fairbanks on a small plane after a cousin invited her to be his first passenger. It was the month of September. Ross said her cousin took a nap and she got to fly the plane for a while.

She stayed with relatives and helped with domestic work, she said.

Every time she needed a cab, the same driver came. His name was Kenneth.

“He was a nice-looking man,” Ross said.

They married and raised two adopted children and multiple foster children. Ross said he died of cancer in 1987.

“I love kids,” she said.

Ross admired a boy’s carving. “Hey, that’s a nice one.”

When it was time to say goodbye, another boy said: “Each time when I wash my hands with soap, I am going to remember this.”


Information from: Fairbanks (Alaska) Daily News-Miner, http://www.newsminer.com