08/22/1994 at 01:00 AM EDT
NOT LONG AGO, JEANIE GREENE was wearing her fur parka and strolling in Anchorage when a woman accosted her. "She said, 'What kind of animal was that?' " recalls Greene. "I said, 'Wolverine.' She goes, 'Shame!' And I said, 'It tasted really good, too!' "
The woman may not have known to whom she was talking—though almost everybody else in Alaska would have. As the tens of thousands of native Indians and Eskimos who watch Greene's popular Sunday night TV show, Heartbeat Alaska, already know, Greene has an attitude. The 5'2", 42-year-old Inupiat Eskimo with the bouffant hairdo and Tammy Faye eyelashes belies the stereotype of the diffident native woman—and could not care less what they think in the Lower 48. Peppering her speech with Valley Girlisms ("Excuse me!" "End of story!"), she defends native hunting traditions. "Some will object," she says, sitting in the 20-foot by 30-foot storefront studio in downtown Anchorage. "But I'm not the head of a group therapy session. This is life! This is Alaska! This is called 'Either we eat the food that God gives us or we starve.' "
This month Greene's homespun show, seen in more than 250 villages in the Alaskan bush, goes national, becoming available to as many as 300 public broadcasting stations. Though it covers hard news such as fetal alcohol syndrome and teenage suicide, the heart of Heartbeat is the viewers' home videos, which Greene edits, dubs and introduces in her effusive style. Dressed in sequined suits with padded shoulders, Greene is the centerpiece of the show, its Katie Couric. One of Greene's favorites, a video by Edna Peters of Ruby, shows ice floes in the Yukon River breaking up. In another, Kathy Nolan from Savoonga told of hunters who, having reached their quota, spared a bowhead whale. The whale had actually turned on its back, seemingly inviting the harpooner to strike. Instead he stuck his hand in the water, stroked the whale and wept, while speaking to it in his native tongue. "The people believed that the whale also felt bad because he was giving himself for the people to eat," Nolan reported.
"This was a very private moment that happens in the daily life of these people," says Greene. "It may be difficult for outsiders to understand."
Not that this is Greene's first concern; she is more interested in natives understanding each other. "We used to meet and mix with the other tribes," says Emil McCord, the spokesman for the fishing village of Tyonek. "This show lets us see what our neighbors are like."
Greene knows her audience. She was born in the logging and fishing town of Sitka in southeast Alaska in 1952, the third of seven children, six of whom were girls. Her father, Eugene Blatchford, was a truck driver and her mother, Mabel, worked in a cannery. Her earliest memories are of the Eskimo stories she used to hear sitting around the stove at home. At age 7 she studied ballet and gymnastics and was soon staging impromptu plays and dance recitals for her folks.
It wasn't until she was 11 and her family had moved to the predominantly white town of Seward that, as she puts it, "I found out I was a native." Discouraged from participating in school activities, she became a cheerleader anyway. "I got out on the gym floor, and I jumped up and touched my toes and came down in the splits," she recalls. "Dead silence. I took my bow and walked off, and then the applause just broke open. They didn't define who I am; I showed them who I am. I made a statement."
She has been showing people who she is ever since. She attended college off and on, studying theater and anthropology (ultimately earning a B.A. from the University of Alaska in Anchorage) and acted in more than 50 plays before starting her own Anchorage theater company in 1986. "We did the usual fodder of Neil Simon, but also The Real Inspector Hound—some very sophisticated things," she says.
In 1990, Greene, who is separated from her husband, Dennis Greene, 54, a white clinical psychologist whom she married in 1981, talked ABC affiliate KMIO into letting her produce and present "Northern Lives," five-minute native news segments. The show became so popular that Greene formed her own company, creating and producing Heartbeat Alaska. "My show may not have the genius of America's Funniest Home Videos, but it works," she says.
Her fans deluge her with gifts, including 30 pounds of herring eggs from Esther Shea in Ketchikan and a gallon of seal oil from Shirley Goldie in Kotzebue. Greene often samples these goodies on-camera, to honor the gift givers.
"When a person is bombarded with other cultures, they may think their own is outdated," says Greene. "My show is an antidote to all those negative cultural images."
JOHN HANNAH in Anchorage