‘Jewelry culture’ brings the world to Skagway

When Najma Saeed was growing up in India, she knew of only one heaven – the Kashmir region of the Indian Himalayas.
The mountain peaks shrouded in ice and snow seem to reach for the divine and make the area frequently called: “Heaven on earth.”
“It’s only when I came to Alaska, that I thought: ‘No, there is another place. There are two heavens.’”
The experience of living in such a place makes bearable the 13-hour days she spends managing Genoa Jewelers and the months away from her husband, who lives in New York.
Saeed, 30, is part of a growing population of summer residents from an ever-broadening range of countries and ethnic backgrounds. The diversity is mostly in seasonal workers so it is hard to measure in statistics.
The change is only observable in the faces added to Skagway’s streets, and in the range of accents and languages overheard among workers as they walk to and from work or take smoke-breaks outside their shops.
Many of those shops are the 23 jewelry stores in town – eight of which are new this year.
Kevin Ballard, store manager for Little Switzerland in Skagway, says the stores have customers from all over the world, so it is only logical that they would have employees from all over the world.
“Jewelry doesn’t discriminate – whatever your ethnic background is,” he says. “It has no age bounds. It has no ethnic bounds,” he says.

‘The Whole World Is Here’
Saeed, a strikingly beautiful woman with dark hair, dark eyes and immaculately tailored suits, was hired by Genoa Jewelers six months ago.
In her hometown of Bombay, Saeed was one of the many highly educated in her generation. She has a post-graduate degree in architecture and is more articulate in English than many native speakers.
But when she followed her husband’s job to New York, Saeed didn’t have a work permit or a job lined up. So she spent more than two years as a housewife.
In New York, she did not miss many of the comforts of home. Indian food, festivals, religious events all could be found.
But in Skagway, Saeed says she’s the only Muslim she knows. She prays five times each day – but privately.
She struggles to find even simple spices, such as talcum powder, needed for Indian cuisine. She asks friends and co-workers to bring the ingredients from Juneau.
“Typical Indian food, I just don’t get it over here,” she says. “That’s the way it is. If you were in India, you could not get the same spices as here. That’s adaptability. You have to change.”
She says she does see a market for a broader range of ethnic foods in Skagway.
“Most of the jewelry stores – up and down the street – most of them are Indian or Indian-based,” she says. “If one of them was to open a grocery store just for the summer, they would make a lot of money.”
In his collection of short fiction, former resident Kris Ide describes the experience of walking down Broadway and hearing “bits of Spanish, French, Mandarin and even some Japanese being spoken.”
One of his characters muses: “The whole world is here... way up in the middle of nowhere.”

Pradeep Chhabria (left) with nephew Dev and sister-in-law Priya at their store Precious Kollections on Broadway. Jeff Brady

With the exception of the Alaskan Natives, everyone could be considered outsiders to the Upper Lynn Canal. Skagway has had international residents dating back to its heyday during the 1898 gold rush. Many of the stampeders were recent immigrants to the United States with a broad range of backgrounds.
But the more recent change occurred when Holland-America ships started coming back to Skagway about 10 years ago, Tourism Director Buckwheat Donahue says. Many of the “Caribbean-style jewelry stores” followed the ships.
“In Skagway, we can’t provide the work force for all the employment needs,” he says. “If we could, like Juneau or Ketchikan, maybe it would be more of an issue.”
So the businesses look elsewhere for employees. Since many of the jewelry stores recruit employees from the more diverse populations in Florida and St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands, more ethnic diversity came with the jewelry stores.
Most seasonal employees – whatever their background – simply do not figure into census numbers. In 2000, the official Skagway population was 862, and white residents represented 92.3 percent of that total.
But that doesn’t account for the summer population increases estimated at double or even triple the official population. The city has no census numbers of summer employees, City Manager Bob Ward says.

In The Cut
At Little Switzerland, Ballard says he often advertises for jobs in Skagway, but he finds few people interested.
His staff comes from as far away as India via St. Thomas and as close as Whitehorse, Yukon. About four people are new this year out of the 18 employees who work at Little Switzerland’s two shops in Skagway.
He says most of his employees were recruited from other stores, which are mainly located in the Caribbean and in Alaska. In the winter, most of Ballard’s staff goes to work in Little Switzerland stores in St. Thomas, V.I. and Key West, Fla.
While Ballard is hesitant to divulge details of earning potential at his stores, he says top sellers can make $35,000 to $40,000 in a single season.
Most people start on a commission-based salary with an hourly fall-back wage, in case they do not make enough in commission. People only rarely depend on that fall-back, and there are plenty of opportunities for bonuses, he says.
Nili Zaviv, general manager for Diamonds International in Skagway, says many of her employees are recruited from shops in the Caribbean. The jewelry employees in Skagway mirror those working in the jewelry stores in the Caribbean, she says.
“You see more Indians,” she says. “It’s just like people who have businesses down in the Caribbean.”
Zaviv, who is originally from Israel, learned about the job with Diamonds International through a family friend. This is her second year working in Alaska.
While she says she always perceived Skagway as a town receptive to new residents, she says she doesn’t see many of her workers developing relationships with permanent residents.
“There isn’t much of a mingling, but maybe that’s because people are so focused on work,” she says. “It’s a small town. If someone walks into your family and they’re a stranger, you have to get used to them.”
Living and working together is part of the “getting used to” process that the staff at Genoa Jewelers has taken on this year. Three of Genoa Jewelers’ six employees are from Texas, and three have Indian backgrounds, although they all have spent time in the United States or in U.S. territories, Saeed says.
All of the employees live together above the store, and she says she’s surprised how well they all get along.
“I thought I could never live with Americans. I was wrong. They’re so nice,” she says.
Saeed says she has found most people in Skagway to be welcoming, when compared to those in New York.
“People here are more accommodating,” she says. “They have time for you.”
However, she says most people see Skagway as only a seasonal stop, which means they don’t require their friends to be exactly like them.
“You are not here to build relationships,” she says. “It’s only when you want to build a long-term friendship, that you start to have that expectation.”

Barbara Dedman Kalen, who’s family has been in Skagway since the gold rush, says little mixing goes on between permanent residents and seasonal workers.
“I don’t really see much of them,” she says. “Most of the people who work in the new stores don’t get acquainted with us, and we don’t get acquainted with them.”
She says she became friends with one woman in town, of Indian origin, who volunteered to assist in the Fourth of July festivities. “But she came to us.”
“They come and they work for the summer, and then they leave. And we don’t get to know them,” she says. “We’re all sort of stupidly busy in the summer... It’s like down south – you don’t know the people who live in the house next to you.”
Police Chief Ray Leggett says Skagway is not quite like “down south” yet – at least when it comes to racial tensions. Leggett says he was required to attend diversity training twice a year when he was working for a police department in Texas.
“Where I come from, it’s a very tense environment. It’s almost a hostile environment,” he says.
But even the occasional barroom brawls in Skagway don’t exhibit racial tensions.
“I’m hypersensitive to that, and I have not noticed anything,” Leggett says. “I don’t even get the hint of it.”
While he’s heard that racial tensions arise in Alaska, he says Skagway is much more laid back.
“This town will treat you as good as you let them,” he says. “They don’t make it an issue if you don’t. They accept you for who you are.”

Little Dippers, Big Dippers
Mike Catsi, who heads Skagway Development Corp., an organization which among other things markets the town to business interests, says diversity is not a new theme in town.
“Skagway’s always catered to outsiders coming in and through it... We’re used to having a culturally diverse seasonal population,” says Catsi, who came from Australia to Skagway more than a decade ago as a seasonal worker.
Since then, he’s made Skagway his home and now serves on City Council.
“We’ve been catering to a diverse population for quite a while,” he says.
He says he notices it most often at Little Dippers Day Care, where his 7-year-old daughter Petra spends her summers.
“When I go pick up my daughter from day care she’s playing with everyone, which is very different from other times of the year when it’s fairly homogeneous,” he says.
Pradeep Chhabria has been bringing his children and his brother’s children to Little Dippers since 2003, when the family opened Precious Kollections, their jewelry and souvenir shop on Broadway.
He says, his children love Skagway even more than St. Thomas, where the family spends the winters.
“Over there, it’s like study, study, study,” he says.

Jasmine Viehe (left) reads about Asian tigers to Little Dippers children for their “Twirl Around the World” program. Jeff Brady

The children spend their summers in Skagway playing on team sports, learning in the day care and, this summer, they’ve even become involved in a Bible Club.
But for Chhabria, who expects to become a full-fledged U.S. citizen next year and whose children are already U.S. citizens, it is important to maintain touch with their Indian heritage.
“They know how to speak Indian. They know about their culture,” he says. “If we put (forth) the Indian culture from when they are a child, they will respect it when they are older.”
He and his family still pray every morning before Hindu gods. It’s a tradition, and it provides an opportunity to bond as a family, he says.
“At times, your family will help you better than anyone else,” he says. “We Indians like to be together.”
He says, it’s important that the kids remain active in the community. His children’s activities provide opportunities for other Skagway residents to meet him as well.
“My child is the only one who’s Indian,” he says. “So they come up and chat.”
Little Dippers Director Angela Hauge says she’s noticed a steady increase in diversity of her young clients since she started working there in 2002. Many of her students come from all over the United States and have parents who were born in Turkey, India and Mexico.
Because her students come from so many different backgrounds, Hauge says she started the “Twirl Around the World” program this summer. Each day, the kids go to a new country or part of the world and discuss a different aspect of life there.
“Now it being such a global world... it’s important to know what’s going on,” she says.
She says children tend to be more open to their classmates’ backgrounds and ideas.
“Kids are immediately receptive and curious and interested and want to ask questions,” Hauge says. “They don’t have those cultural stereotypes.”
It seems the curriculum has caught on, she says.
“Just the other day, I looked over and there were two kids talking and sitting on a bed and holding the globe and spinning it and stopping it and seeing where it landed.”
Saeed says she, too, spun the globe before coming to Alaska.
“I had a globe in my house, and I started tracing it to Alaska,” she says.
She says she noticed it was closer to Canada and asked a friend: “Is it part of the U.S.?”
Her friend told her: “Yes, it is very much part of the U.S.”

Andrea Kenderova at her sales counter in Bobby’s Jewelers. JB

Out of the grip of grizzlies
Andrea Kenderova had only a temporary work visa and a contact when she flew for 45 hours in late June from Slovakia to arrive in Skagway. She didn’t yet have a job.
She quickly learned: “In Skagway, it’s not hard to get a job.”
Within four days, she had a place to live and a job at Bobby’s Jewelers in the old Golden North Hotel on Broadway.
The 21-year-old business management student says she saw the trip as an opportunity to visit the United States and improve her English language skills.
But that didn’t prevent her of dreaming of the dangers she might encounter in Alaska.
“I had horrible dreams about grizzlies coming to eat me,” she says.
For Kenderova, it was a dream to come to the United States, but it was not her first experience traveling outside of Slovakia.
Last year, after Slovakia became a member of the European Union, she followed many of her countrymen and traveled to London. She stayed for about three months, working in a bar.
But this summer, her sights were set on the United States.
“Everybody’s in America now,” she says of her friends, who work in Tennessee, Massachusetts and Washington.
She had to borrow money from her parents to pay for the $3,000 plane ticket.
Even at her “very good” salary of $4 an hour as an accounting assistant, it would take ages to save up enough to get to the United States.
Here, money comes more easily, but Kenderova says she’s not here for the money. She’s here for the experience.
“I’ve never seen so much jewelry before,” she laughs. “I’ve expanded my vocabulary with words like ‘cuff-links.’”
She says she’s had a warm reception from people in Skagway and often visits the bars in the evenings to dance or play pool.
Her job now will give her the opportunity to travel in Thailand before she heads back to Slovakia to finish her last two years in school at the University of Economics in the capital Bratislava. – JC