Bering islanders take grievance to summit
As the precious rays of sunlight glint across the frozen tundra of the Bering Strait, Patrick Omiak can look out the window and see the Soviet Union. ``You open your curtain, and there she is,'' says Mr. Omiak, a native Alaskan working to restore contact between the aboriginal people of Alaska and Siberia.
Only three miles separate Little Diomede Island, where he lives with about 175 other Inupiaq, from Soviet Diomede Island. But the ties that bind Alaska with Siberia are even closer: The people on either side are family.
Now, there's a possibility that the borders closed in the Cold War days of 1948 will reopen. A proposal to resume travel, communications, and trade between Alaska and Siberia has been added to the agenda of this week's summit meeting between President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
``It used to be the aboriginal people paddled across [the Bering Strait] in skin boats, or walked across on the ice,'' says US Sen. Frank H. Murkowski (R) of Alaska, who was instrumental in convincing the White House to put the topic on the agenda. ``Alaska has long had a close association with Siberia as a consequence of the family relations.''
The senator has also proposed that a regular summer-season air route be established between Nome, Alaska, and the Soviet port of Provideniya, 220 miles directly across the Bering Strait.
The flight would represent ``an extraordinary opportunity for seasonal tourist access'' to the Soviet Union, he says.
Patrick Omiak, interviewed via the island's only radio telephone, is certain citizen-to-citizen contact would resume if the two superpowers agreed to lift the barrier. He says he's eager to see some of his cousins on ``the other side,'' whom he last saw 40 years ago when he was a boy.
``I just want to see things go back to normal, like they used to be,'' Mr. Omiak says. ``It would be nice to eat and dance and have fun together again. Some of them [his relatives] used to come over at Christmas.''
Alaskans are optimistic the Soviets will agree to discuss the idea of renewing Siberia-Alaska ties.
``I think that the time is right,'' says Dixie Belcher, founder of Alaska Performing Artists for Peace, which toured the Soviet Union last year. ``I think the borders are going to be opened. Maybe not in the next three days, but soon.''
Officially sanctioned exchanges, such as the tour, may have helped to pave the way for superpower talks on the issue, she says.
Alaskans have also been heartened by a recent goodwill message sent to Nome from the mayor of Provideniya. Conveyed by a research ship that had been in Provideniya, the letter read in part: ``Let us exchange books, letters, presents and let visits, friendship, and peace become a tradition.''
``The mayor wouldn't be able to send a letter like that on his own,'' says an aide to Senator Murkowski. ``He would have had to get higher approval.''
Still, the Soviets could yet refuse to discuss the issue at the summit.
Potential problems include concerns about security, embarrassment about the relatively poor standard of living endured by aboriginal people in Siberia, and fear of pressure to open other parts of the Soviet Union to family visitation.
Visits International for Soviets and Americans, an organization working to smooth the way for family visits between Soviet and American relatives, sees the Alaska initiative as a possible first step down a much longer road.
Senator Murkowski's request ``is an interesting example of the problem shared by an estimated 3 million Americans,'' says Visits International co-chairman Daniel Horodysky. ``Many of us are also unable to visit relatives in the European part of the Soviet Union or are forced to take tours, which are unsatisfactory.''
Visits International, based in Berkeley, Calif., has also been working to get the family-visit issue on the summit agenda. ``We hope and pray that President Reagan will make this an important part of the summit human-rights agenda,'' adds Mr. Horodysky.