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After the Snowbird, Comes the Whale: Introduction and index.

The 2018 Fortnightly Serial.


Introduction and index.

THIS IS AN open-ended text that I continue to write; as of January 2018, I am about half way through. I first went to Alaska in summer 1973 when I visited Tikigaq on the northwest coast of the state and recorded a series of short stories for an education programme run by the Alaska State Museum. When these had been translated from the original Inupiaq, I returned to the village in spring 1975, and spent four months in Fairbanks, where I studied Inupiaq and met Asatchaq, born 1891, who was convalescing in a care home. In December 1975, I returned to Tikigaq with Asatchaq and for the next five years, until his death in 1980, worked on narratives and ethno-historical lore that he and his contemporaries recorded.

Some of these materials have been published in these books:

The Things that Were Said of Them, University of California Press, 1990. By Asatchaq, with Tom Lowenstein.

Ancient Land: Sacred Whale: The Inuit Hunt and its Rituals, Bloomsbury 1993; Farrar Strauss and Giroux, and Harvill Press (paperback, 2000); by Tom Lowenstein.

Ultimate Americans, University of Alaska Press, 2008, by Tom Lowenstein.

NOTE: In The Fortnightly’s online template, illustrations are thumbnails with captions or onward text links embedded. To enlarge an illustration, click on it. To read a caption, hover over the illustration. To play an embedded video in a larger size, click twice.

The first two of these volumes are about pre-contact Tikigaq. The third is a history of Inupiaq relations with Euro-Americans at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The present text is, I hope, largely focused on place and people. At first, before I started work in the village, I imagined that I would be entering a world of the prehistoric. But when I realized that Native Alaskans had known Euro-Americans since the 1880s, I came to accept and to study culture change. Much of the present text is about the double nature of Inupiaq life and its relationship with modernising America. Some of this is implicitly expressed in the day to day narrative. But perhaps the most explicit analysis of double mindedness is expressed by Mrs Charlotte, the hundred-year-old missionary widow whose conversation I have reconstructed in the passage preceding an account (in process) of the Trans-Alaska oil pipeline construction.

In contrast, nonetheless, to descriptions of cultural transition, Asatchaq initiated, during the first year of our work, a recitation of a long series of traditional stories and an account of this process will form the centre of present writing.

—Tom Lowenstein, January 2018.

Editorial note: This serial originally comprised four main parts. The present (January 2018) version has sixteen instalments to enable serialisation. The publication schedule is shown below.


Part One.

Night visitors and telling stories.

Publication: 15 January 2018.

HE KNOWS I know his name is Tulugaq, but still I call this mighty individual Sharva, who visits me these late spring evenings. A specialist in kungfu manoeuvres reproduced from Bruce Lee movies, small hours, visio­nary conversation, Sharva’s passage through the village keeps the girls awake and some in terror as he guns his machine to the edge of my storm-shed and opens the throttle in a final bellow. Then in the after-blast, he strides through the snow, my outer door groans and his glove smacks the lintel. ⇒ To the text.



Secular and Sacred: The Phenomenon of Removal.

Publication: 1 February 2018.

IT HAPPENED HERE,’ said Asatchaq after his first recording. It was January 1976 and he had just recited Tikigaq’s creation story. ‘I’ll show you in the spring,’ he said, ‘the wound hole where Tulunigraq harpooned the animal.’

The wound, he told me,was a hollow on the north side near his present cabin where the Raven Man harpooned the sea beast whose body then transformed to Tikigaq.

I took Asatchaq that summer to the spot he had identified. This was the first of two excursions that we made together. It was bumpy for his wheel chair and we didn’t get far across the tundra. ‘Stop here,’ he shouted at the place intended…



The Golden Period.

Publication: 15 February 2018.

AN ERA OF relative social harmony from about 1910 lasted until the mid-1960s. But between 1900 and 1906, the worst but happily the final epidemics hit the village. In June 1901 Dr Driggs reported:

‘The past season has been a very busy one, there being an unusual amount of sickness. A little over one-sixth of the population have died. Heavy as the death rate has been, it does not begin to compare with other places where whole villages were nearly depopulated.’




Publication: 1 March 2018.

DAISY’S DEATH HAS so shocked the village that both churches are holding extra meetings every evening. I have attended two of these. First with the Episcopalians and then at the Assemblies, listening to prayers, hymns and confessions from grief-racked women taking on the burden of the crisis. They unpack sins they think have led to alcohol and drug use, rape and fighting. They throw down knives and ulus that they use for cooking as though to purge themselves of things they think they’ve done and to punish themselves for secret wrong doing.




Publication: 15 March 2018.

THE SOUTH BEACH evokes thoughts of journeys in two opposite directions. It’s a barren shoreline. There are nothing but stones and sea or sea ice, with Cape Thompson thirty miles away on the horizon.

To travel this strip is to retrace Ukunniq’s path that led him to the shaman woman he would fight and marry. The journey also led the young initiate through visionary meetings with birds, animals and amuletic objects that he wrested from the spirits that confronted him.



Snowbird and Crane.

Publication: 1 April 2018.

THE SNOWBIRD FABLE and the krauncha story are parallel in theme, virtually the same in structure and identical in presentation of a love-death drama. Erotic pairing in both narratives is violated by a hunter and the happiness of partnership is followed by the dirge of the survivor. At the core of each story lies a love-death sorrow, so quick in conversion of one into the other they are almost coexistent…

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Part Two.


Night visitors and telling stories.

Publication: 15 April 2018.

September 5 1975

I SWING THROUGH the doors of the Care Home with the casual self-assurance of a thirty-five year-old with no anxiety about his legs and who doesn’t expect to lose his balance. An octogenarian whose legs and hips, by contrast, have been worn out on the sea- or river-ice and by transporting heavy animals, observes the mobile arrogance of a younger man with blazing and reflective recollection and sees deep, through cataracts and semi-blindness, as if by x-ray, into working joints and ligaments.




Publication: 1 May 2018.

OUR MEETINGS CONTINUE through the autumn. In my happiness at having found him, I forget the things that people in the village told me. They’ve warned me that he’s different. When I press for examples, what comes through is ‘Funny about money,’ and ‘Girl friends, maybe…’

I’ve suddenly acquired an Alaska State grant and this makes money less a problem. Last year, the museum where I worked paid $6 per hour for storytelling sessions. That month in the village was harmonious. The old people were charming, the youngsters funny. Everyone was friendly. Then I worked last winter in the school eliciting some children’s pictures. Sent them south to Juneau to be published in a booklet…

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Part Three.


The Mind’s Division between Memory

and the Demands of the Present.

Publication 15 May 2018.

I SPEND MOST mornings in the campus library where instead of studying ethnographies that might provide a context to my field work, I evade the challenge, browse Virgil’s Aeneid which I’d last read in the 1950s and ponder a line I’d written out from Monsieur Teste a teacher had dictated to us. ‘Que peut un homme?’ the teacher read out, qua spelling exercise — while the question, whether or not I got the words right, continued to haunt me.

It was autumn in Fairbanks. In three or four months, I‘d be back in Tikigaq and assumed with optimistic vagueness that the pressure of necessity would give my work some shape once started…



Interlude with Narrative Poem.

Publication 1 June 2018.

IT WAS MID-OCTOBER. I was running out of money and had so far funded my Alaskan journey both with savings from the university and income from a flat in London that I rented. I now needed a job. But while everyone I knew in Fairbanks either drew a teaching salary or worked for mega-dollars on the pipeline, I could do neither and must slip where I could into the service economy, which, given how pipeline construction was booming, was reasonably easy. I found two positions. First in pizza hell, though this, for metaphysical reasons, lasted only a week. And then as a bellhop in a down town motel…



Nivarana — Hindrances.

Publication 15 June 2018.

A PSYCHOLOGICALLY HELPFUL term in Buddhist writing is nivarana. Breaking the word into a primitive etymology, the ni– suggests the idea of ‘without’, while varana presumably derives from the Sanskrit verb, vr– ‘to move or flow’. The sum of the two parts suggesting blockage. Orthodox theory teaches that hindrances to spiritual development derive from human weakness. Whether or not that’s true, nivarana is a description of the relationship to time as the individual moves through the unknowable spaces of the future…


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Part Four.


At the Priest’s House.

Publication 1 July 2018

September 17 1975

ASATCHAQ WAS FOND of women and one of his most loyal supporters was the priest’s wife who visited him regularly in the care home and bought him clothes from local thrift stores. Gifts of clothes and other supplies — a large crate of eggs, a woolen dressing gown, a blanket — were particularly welcome once Asatchaq had returned to Tikigaq. But given that Tikigaq lay within the Episcopalian diocese, the warmth of the relationship was also in part a formality. It lay, after all, within Elizabeth’s pastoral responsibility to minister to members of her husband’s state-wide congregation. Still, they loved each other…



The Photograph.

Publication 15 July 2018

‘IMAGINE HOW WE settled,’ continued Mrs Charlotte. ‘It was 1925. Brought up little daughter Libby. Blossom of the Mission. Wordsworth’s Lucy babbling Lakota. In the country the world recognised as north America, that was alien to those who used that label much as China and New Zealand. We were strangers. Elite Americans among pagans. Well, it took a photograph to teach us what our status was there.’ I’d prompted this digression, describing views I’d seen from the window of the Otter as it banked round Tikigaq last autumn. I’d been there three months and absorbed its dark-to-dayness. Even, for the first time in my life, had met some people who openly detested me: white men, teachers, who’d initiated, so I thought, hostilities: nationalistic, ethnic.



Mrs Charlotte and the Party of Proust.

Publication 1 August 2018

MRS CHARLOTTE LEFT the field as I’m about to enter. An inadequate explorer. Seeking the Great All. In its whale-shaped dimension. The world’s enormous. Its old paths faintly visible. I choose blindly, blunder forward. My surroundings wither. Focus on direction subordinates alternatives. The hinterland looks beautiful. I stride forward, in the tutelage of Whitman, to embrace the wholeness. A place in the sunset of two half-defunct traditions. The globe’s circumference girdling my own uncertain stomach.

barbed rulePart Five.



The Pipeline.

Publication 15 August 2018

CERTAINLY THERE WOULD be changes in the sub-Arctic. But this was 1975 America, not nineteenth-century Russia. There would be people affluent enough to do what they wanted, in which case the use and pursuit of the hand-made would become an issue of choice. Presumably they would be stacking their wood sheds long after Prudhoe Bay oil started flowing in ‘77. And there would also be poor people who would have no choice but to continue cutting firewood by hand, providing trees continued to exist. There were those on the other hand, for whom wood-burning stoves would become antique, obsolete, or transformed to decorative features in a centrally heated, oil-fired domestic space.



The Movement of People and their Land Use.

Publication 1 September 2018

THE EXTRACTION OF life-sustaining goods — which might be anything: timber, minerals, animal products, oil – depends today either on ownership of land or on the purchase of leasehold. As mentioned later, land since the federal Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971, is shared in Alaska by separate Native, federal and state owners. Companies like Atlantic Richfield, Exxon, Standard Oil, Shell and BP wishing, for example, to pursue oil extraction, have to buy or lease land. ⇒



Fairbanks Journal, Autumn 1975.

Publication 15 September 2018

LATE AUGUST. I’VE NOW been in Fairbanks twelve or fourteen days and I’m reeling already. I’ve spent two months in Juneau, a smaller, gentle town, low slopes of mountains lined with hand-built clapboard buildings: pretty houses with a smell of carpentry, whiffs, here and there, of marijuana. South east Alaska is damp and bountitful. There are lupin meadows by the water, walks into the foothills among wild flowers and berries. I went sailing with friends between islands to fish halibut and browse samphire on mud flats.

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Tulugaq walks out to his Father’s Whale Camp, Spring 1976.



Publication 1 October 2018

BECAUSE I WAS in Tikigaq to record an old and sacred tradition, I was confused to be living a society that had been moving towards commercializing America since the late nineteenth century and unnerved also to realize that Tikigaq was a minority culture like countless others in the American melting pot, not every one of whose components had been dissolved or made mutually but democratically equivalent.

But things were changing.



Language Change, late-Nineteenth and early-Twentieth Centuries

Publication 15 October 2018

Many Euro-American goods entered early twentieth century Tikigaq and acquired Inupiaq terminologies that described them in coexistence with a local language that remained healthy, albeit in a retreat that by 1970 became a rush.

Such imported goods became part of Inupiaq reality. The many kinds of animal oil on which the Tikigaq diet and economy depended were supplemented by new kinds of oil for heating and lubrication – kerosene, gasoline, motor oil, grease, gun oil. The Inupiaq language was accordingly bent to these innovations. Here is an account of this process that I wrote earlier:

‘INUPIAQ AND ENGLISH were the main languages of the peninsula, and these were criss-crossed, modified, sometimes enlarged, and at other times submerged by a trading jargon based on both languages, along with smatterings of Russian and Hawaiian…




Elizabeth. RIP 2015.

Publication 1 November 2018.

I DIDN’T KNOW HER well. She was a beautiful young woman who confronted the world with witty self-confidence and a satirically bruising independence. Elizabeth’s father Pauyungin, was a public man, a successful local hunter and, in the American economy, in demand as a heavy machine operator. Elizabeth’s Inupiaq-speaking mother had brought up seven children. Elizabeth was one of two daughters, Tulugaq was a younger brother.

I was too timid to establish many personal friendships, especially with women. And so I remember Elizabeth from encounters in which I was usually a spectator…




The Coexistence of Tradition and the Modern

Publication 15 November 2018.

IT WAS HARD to believe that my ramshackle cabin in modernizing Tikigaq and the world of Asatchaq’s imagination inhabited the same sixty-sixth parallel north. It was as though, once the engine of America had driven into the village, it infused everything it touched. The past had been quiet, tightly interwoven and conducted at low volume in a language more or less impenetrable to outsiders. Tikigaq’s was a culture of gestures and accomplishment which had been pursued for its own sake: difficult things achieved for the reward of continuation and the satisfaction of rightness. It had never been a culture like that of early Buddhists preoccupied with spiritual purity or higher virtue. There had been vanity, competitiveness and cruelty…




Introduction to uivaqsaat

Publication 1 December 2018

MANIILAQ’S REFERENCES TO uivvaqsaat come in two parts. On some occasions, Maniilaq (see previous chapter, sec. XXI) identifies uivvaqsaat as an unknown people who will ‘come round the bend in the river’. ‘…Believe it or not,’ he said, ‘you shall receive visitors who travel swiftly along the surface of the water in a new way.’ These new people would ‘come from the east…They would come from the ocean rounding points and bends.’



April 1976

Publication 15 December 2018


 ‘AFTER THE SNOWBIRD,’ Agniin murmurs in the camp stove gas flare of the Mission house, ‘after that snowbird…comes the whale.’

I watched snow buntings fly in last month: tiny sparrow-like creatures that migrate from south Alaska, Missouri and Nevada. The buntings swoop in low and at speed. They twitter as they land, revisiting cracks in old meat caches and iglus where their ancestors, presumably for many generations, nested. Then they settle down or fuss. The males arrive first and build nests of grass, moss, fur and feathers. The snow is receding. The air’s clear and bright. But the buntings are like hardy snow flakes. They know what they want…





I’ve been on the sea ice for four days…

Publication 1 January 2019

…SLEEPING IN SNATCHES, while the mind associatively shuttles between memories of childhood holidays on chilly English beaches. There is also Buddhist emptiness to this boundaryless inactivity which opens like a colourless flower, while on that bitter English shingle, stiff wet towels chafe salt into the thighs, teeth chatter, wind flings grit into fish-paste sandwiches and we drink frugal draughts of diluted Kiora (gruesome, ersatz squash we took for granted). Time passes, changes and repeats in memory. Here on the ice, the emptiness is inhabited by scavenging sea birds, and the expectation of death to be followed by a rejoicing which is its contradiction.



Publication 15 January 2019

Excursion to Cape Thompson

Project Chariot

I’VE WRITTEN A LOT about culture contact and the changes Asatchaq had seen in Tikigaq. But the word ‘contact’ doesn’t properly or adequately express the process. The word change is also misleading. Even during the traditional period change had been continual. And local culture had always been a slowly evolving phenomenon. Once the Caucasian American presence had been established, these changes in Inupiaq society were bigger and more rapid. In this connection, I have also described aspects of the American presence in the northwest Arctic. And perhaps the word ‘impact’, in addition to ‘contact’ should be introduced into the discussion of this complex but accelerated course.

The climax of the contact/impact process came in the late 1950s….


barbed rulePart Seven.



The House of Time .

Publication 1 February 2019

NO BELLS RANG, no trumpets blazed for Asatchaq’s return. Like many western people, I’d lived by chimes, pips and announcements ever since we’d listened to the WW2 news that structured time that otherwise, apart from war news, was childishly indefinite. Now, as I floated, part in the old man’s time, part in indecision, things seemed little different. I was waiting for a climax. What this might be lay far beyond imagination…




Natural noises.

Publication 15 February 2019

IT WOULD BE easy to look back and construct an historical melodrama. There would be truth in such a scenario though I’d be embarrassed to render it a melodrama. The elements are simple. Old Tikigaq, before contact, like most pre-industrial societies, operated within an environment of silence. This is not hard to imagine. But complete silence would always be compromised by natural noises, and these, in the great spaces, must have been relatively few….





The Death of Daisy—Long unipkaaq

Publication 1 March 2019

ASATCHAQ SAID NOTHING about Daisy in the aftermath of her disappearance. This had been a child who had called the old man ataata, grandfather. The event was too horrible to talk about and I couldn’t introduce the subject. Daisy’s disappearance was, I felt, not my business. I was a bystander. The tragedy of that death affected me deeply. But, wrongly perhaps, I didn’t feel like intruding. It was for Daisy’s relatives and for the village to mourn. I’d learned to exercise this distance soon after the war. I had, so I felt, no right to suffer. The tragedy was someone else’s and I must respect a distance that forty years later I no longer feel. I mourn Daisy today perhaps more than I allowed myself at the time.

[This is the final portion of this serial.]

Tom Lowenstein was born near London in 1941 and educated at Cambridge. He has worked since the mid-1960s as a teacher. Between 1973 and 1989 he recorded materials deriving from intermittent residence in an Inupiaq (north Alaskan Eskimo) village and was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1979. His previous publications include three books of poetry: Filibustering in Samsara (The Many Press), Ancestors and Species: New and Selected Ethnographic Poetry (Shearsman Books), and Conversation with Murasaki (Shearsman Books). His three studies of Point Hope are The Things that Were Said of Them (University of California Press 1990), Ancient Land: Sacred Whale (Bloomsbury, Farrar Strauss and Harvill, 1993-2001) and Ultimate Americans: Point Hope, Alaska 1826-1909 (University of Alaska Press, 2009).

An archive of his previous work appearing in the Fortnightly is here.

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