JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska — The holiday spirit filled the air in Nuiqsut’s Trapper School Nov. 29, with an exceptional combination of sounds coming from the brass of the 11th Airborne Division Band and rhythmic beat of the drum and singing from traditional Inupiaq songs.
For Staff Sgt. Bethany Hyson, a musician with the 11th Airborne Division Band, who has served in the U.S. Army for more than 17 years, Operation Santa Claus was her first opportunity to visit the North Slope Borough.
“I knew I’d be flying north and playing Christmas music while kids got presents from Santa,” said Hyson, who had no idea what to expect during the Alaska National Guard’s annual community outreach program that brings tidings of good cheer to remote communities across the state.
During the event, Hyson played seasonal tunes on the tuba with the rest of the six-member group playing three trombones, a trumpet and sleigh bells. Community members of all ages gathered and swayed in front of the festive ensemble, soaking in the harmonic sounds.
When envisioning the event, Hyson didn’t consider that locals do not get to see many live music performances in the isolated community. Nuiqsut is located just 35 miles from the Beaufort Sea, part of the Arctic Ocean off Alaska’s northern coast.
“So many of them wanted pictures, were curious about our instruments and were just happy we were all there,” said Hyson, originally from upstate New York. “It made it feel special and rewarding.”
Along with the band, a 176th Wing HC-130J Combat King II aircraft flew Santa, Mrs. Claus and more than three dozen helper elves from the Alaska Air and Army National Guard, Salvation Army and community partners to the Nuiqsut airport that provides the only year-round access to the Inupiaq community of approximately 500 people.
In partnership with the Salvation Army, 191 children received backpacks filled with snacks, hygiene supplies, books and a special gift for their age. The Clauses handed out the backpacks, candy canes and snapped a photo with each child. The celebration continued with ice cream sundaes and fresh fruit for everyone.
Martha Lampe, a Nuiqsut resident and former code talker in the Alaska Army National Guard, reminiscent about her time spent in uniform using her tribal language to secretly communicate. During her 15 years of service, she met her husband who served six years in the AKARNG. She laughed that she outranked him, and her paycheck was always a little bigger.
Originally from the Northwest Arctic Borough village of Noorvik, Lampe decided Nuiqsut was the community in which she wanted to raise her children. She and so many other community members were happy to share their community for the day.
“This is a once in a lifetime thing for these service members to experience,” said Lampe, hoping the service members would text their friends and families letting them know they were above the Arctic Circle, giving to kids and experiencing the culture. “We are able to spread the love, share knowledge and our tradition.”
Following the 11th Airborne Division Band’s performance, the Nuiqsut Dance Group surprised the helper elves with traditional Inupiaq songs. The music drew a crowd of people to the gym floor where dancers bent their knees slightly and moved their hands and feet as a unique expression of culture and spiritualty. Eventually, the Clauses and service members were all pulled to the dance floor.
“I don’t dance, and I’m a fairly shy person, but they told me to just move my arms and bounce to the beat,” said Hyson, who was nervous at first but happy she was asked to join. “They were very encouraging and accepting, and it was nice to just move around, feel the rhythms and enjoy the dancing like the kids around me were doing.”
Amongst the celebration, Lampe shared another tradition with the volunteers in the form of homemade scarves and headbands. Her grandson hand delivered the treasures to unsuspecting elves who added them as another layer of insulation for their return to Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson.
“I was taught if people are going to be good to you, you be good to them,” said Lampe, sharing the holiday spirit with her new friends and fellow Guardsmen who served after her. “This is also a tradition where I am from.”
“I love Alaska and getting to experience some of the culture this way was truly special,” said Hyson, who has been stationed at JBER since February 2021. “Being able to make those I have an opportunity to perform for happy is one of the top reasons I serve, and this mission helped bring a smile to their faces and mine.”
In its 67th year, Operation Santa Claus delivered 3,850 pounds of gifts and countless smiles to 581 children in Scammon Bay, Minto and Nuiqsut. The operation is possible through the 53-year partnership with the Salvation Army and community partners who donate, help wrap gifts and spend hours personalizing each child’s gift with a holiday card.
For the combined operations, Santa traded his sleigh to rack up 3,350 air miles in multiple fixed and rotor-wing aircraft, including an Air National Guard C-17 Globemaster III and HC-130J Combat King II from the 176th Wing, a KC-135 Stratotanker from the 168th Wing, and Army National Guard UH-60 and HH-60 Black Hawk helicopters from 38th Troop Command.