Field Trip: A Birthday Party

Birthday parties are a regular part of life in Shishmaref. We were lucky enough to get invited to one last night, and you were lucky enough that I brought my camera.

Invitations to birthday parties come via phone calls. Because nobody has a house big enough to host all of their friends and relatives (which pretty much encompasses the entire island), guests are called in waves. As soon as some leave, more are called.

We got our invitation call at 9:15 pm. This was a pretty early phone call. We've been invited to birthday parties as late as 11:00 pm. This is probably due to the fact that we're not related to anybody, so we're never "first wave" guests.

After our phone call we put on our coats and walked to the house. The house above is an unusual Shishmaref house because it has two stories. Everything else about it is pretty typical of the homes in our village.


Most walls are covered in family pictures. There are lots of pictures of the family's children and grandparents.



Cash is the typical gift at birthday parties. Once in a while people bring presents, but most just bring bills. Most birthday kids have a money cup. You walk in and put your money in a cup. This birthday boy was holding his loot in his hand (He was not very cooperative about posing with his cash).

If the birthday child is little, Steve and I usually bring a few dollars. Older kids get five dollars. If we know the family really well or are especially fond of the birthday child, we will give up to twenty dollars (for the record: I am outrageously more generous than Steve).


(The birthday boy obviously had no problem posing with his tongue.)


Food is a central part of birthday parties. A typical spread includes birthday cake (called "Nome cake," it's flown in from Nome for about $120), berries, homemade donuts, pies, and jell-o (always, always, always, always, always jell-o).


People in Shishmaref love Nome cake because they only get it at birthday parties (it tastes just like a Costco cake). This little guy loved it so much that he was willing to lick the crumbs off of his face!


These are the berries. They grow locally. Women and children pick them during the summer and freeze them to eat during the winter. The orangish berries are salmon berries. The purple ones are blueberries (but they're not like the blueberries in the Lower 48). The really dark round ones are blackberries (again not like the ones in the Lower 48). Daph also told me that there are cranberries (of the Alaskan variety, not the Thanksgiving-Ocean-Spray variety) mixed in. Berries are my favorite birthday party food. I usually eat lots of them.


I also look forward to the donuts. Here they are in all of their deep fried goodness! I was very proud of myself for maintaining my self control and only heating one half of a donut (my strapping husband ate the other half).


Blueberry pies are pretty popular. They are usually made with canned blueberries, not the same kind of blueberries pictured in the previous picture of a bowl of berries.


Birthday parties are also a good time for admiring babies. This birthday party had two very cute babies to admire, and I got to hold both of them. This baby belongs to a former student. I heart him because before he was born, his mom would come over to our house, and we would order baby clothes online. Every time I talked, his mom would feel him move!!! I like to think it was because he couldn't wait to meet me.


This is the other precious baby. His mom is the preschool teacher. She always tries to get me to play basketball. (Have you ever seen babies with bigger cheeks?)


The babies were even introduced to each other during the party! And I was a witness!


Steve didn't pay very much attention to the babies. He spent the evening riling up all of the other kids and provoking them to be really loud by tickling them, wrestling with them, etc. (Sometimes I am amazed that we continue to get invited to birthday parties. It seems like this type of behavior would have blacklisted us by now, but we've been in this home several times).

I tried to convince Steve to let me throw him a Shishmaref style birthday party, but he won't let me. My birthday is in the summer, and we're always downstates. When we have kids, I am totally going to bake up a storm and invite everybody over. It will be fun.