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After the Snowbird, Comes the Whale 2.

The 2018 Fortnightly Serial.

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Secular and Sacred: The Phenomenon of Removal

‘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. There was long grass and bird bone. But the hole wasn’t there. It had been swallowed by the ocean. And though the new land from the south across the Point looked more or less identical with what it had left the previous century, the place of the wound hole no longer existed.


Tikigaq’s inua

THE NATURE OF the beast, like much in old stories, was ambiguous. It was sacred and dangerous and belonged to a class of spirits that inhabited the myth world. Many survived to haunt the nineteenth century and Asatchaq convinced me of their existence.

These beings were a species of inua or resident spirit, a word modified from inuk, ‘person’, meaning literally ‘its person’. The most powerful of these was tatqim inua: ‘the person, spirit, owner of the moon,’ who was dangerously ambiguous. This spirit had been Alinnaq, a human, a god and an anti-hero. Having raped his sister, he ascended to the moon where he presided over a tub which contained the sea mammals on which Tikigaq depended. The sister he’d abused ascended to the sun as siqinnim inua: the spirit of the sun.

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Lesser inuas continued to exist on both land and in water. Most larger geographic features held spiritual inhabitants. A giant flounder brooded in the waters of the inlet. The sea north of the Kuukpak river mouth held a giant mollusc. This, in summer 1899, sucked down a boat full of coal and murres’ eggs that the Irishman O’Hare had gathered near Uivvaq. There were also ‘families’ on the Point: three Itivyaaq spirits who lived in what looked like a squirrel burrow near the Mission house and the Nuvuk ‘people’ whose support was enjoined in the run-up to whaling. Angry spirits inhabited places where babies had been murdered and whose vengeful ghosts rendered a place sinnikagnailaq, ‘don’t sleep here’. At Capes Thompson and Lisburne were resident giants. The task of mythic heroes was to visit and destroy inuas, thereby clearing the region for human habitation.

The inua that Tulunigraq destroyed transformed into what became the presence lending Tikigaq inner actuality. Since settling on the peninsula, the people of the Point had hunted whale and it’s not difficult to see how Tulunigraq’s inua was remade into the species central to subsistence.

The ‘whale’ Tulunigraq harpooned is never named as such. The story takes place in the vague sphere of ur-time, before the world as people know it was completed. Things existed in transition. The earth was soft. Humans walked on their hands. The sexes were uncertain. What existed already was topsy-turvy. Caribou and seal fat were each other’s opposite. People had no language and wandered in the dark until Tulunigraq tore daylight from the skin container where it had been hoarded. Like Alinnaq, his mythic co-eval, he ripped through taboo to break into creation.

Reverting to Tulunigraq: on account of its size and because the Raven Man harpooned it, the animal was implicitly perceived to be a whale. Asatchaq called the creature nigrun, ‘animal’. And nigrun was a nickname for the peninsula. People standing on Cape Thompson looking west would say, ‘There’s nigrun:’ the animal Tulunigraq killed which was Tikigaq nuna.

Likewise, when the Raven struck, he sang to make the harpoon and its drag float stay in place to tether the animal as it sounded. Harpooners used the same song when they struck a bowhead: ‘Uivvaluk, uivvaluk!’1

This convergence of belief and actuality is concretised in iglu architecture: the iglu dome being made from whale bone, while ceremonial stories evoke magical events in which whales come up through dry land to an animated iglu.2

The notion that the Point’s an animal, harmonized, in imagination with the geologic rhythm of its building and decaying cycle. Tikigaq is made of the ur-whale’s body and people live inside it: this sustained within land whose female and male beaches grow and die in counterpoint. The whale hunt, in parallel, is conducted by a partnership of male and female skinboat owners. While the husband hunts out on the sea ice, the wife sits in the iglu, as though dwelling in the whale’s head and, as in old stories, encountering at heightened moments a whale rising in the semi-subterranean iglu.


The Sacred and the Secular —1

WHEN IN 1904, the priest E.J. Knapp described Tikigaq’s graveyard as ‘weird’, he was suggesting the place was strange and uncanny, or in the old sense, having supernatural properties.

Tikigaq’s graveyard covered a large area of the Point and was integrated with the village, where life and death were therefore co-existent. Weird likewise would describe the dancing, singing and drumming which occupied the ceremonial houses each October and made Tikigaq shake, thus conjuring power to bring whales to join the sacralised and metaphoric body of the ur-whale that was Tikigaq nuna (land).

The French anthropologist Marcel Mauss described the manner in which Eskimo spirituality was generally a winter phenomenon. Summer was a secular time in which people lived with an agnostic autonomy and forgot about the spirits and taboos that preoccupied them in the dark season.

There was truth in this description. Significantly here, the sacred or magical character of local geography was largely a phenomenon of Tikigaq Point itself and the mythologized animation described in stories and enacted in ritual had little or no relevance in the more secularized hinterland.

Dedication to beliefs and ideas as expressed in narrative and ritual was passionate and genuine. But relationship to the sacred could be subverted and converted, if never quite abandoned. And just as travellers moved from the ritual intensity of winter and spring to the more agnostic freedom of summer in the interior, so in July 1909, at the behest of a new missionary, they participated in the separation from Tikigaq of the cemetery where their ancestors had lain for generations as a part of the village.


Hoare’s Cemetery Removal

IN JULY 1909, when Asatchaq was eighteen, Augustus Hoare, the second missionary, ordained the removal of Tikigaq’s cemetery to a space he consecrated a mile west of the village.

This action was perhaps the most drastic act of contact history wherein old Tikigaq was ordained into Christianising regulation.

To early white visitors, the village looked confusing. The first European to set foot here was the English naval officer Frederick Beechey who noted in August 1826 that the whalebone uprights in the village looked like a ‘forest of stakes’ — a relatively neutral phrase, suggestive nonetheless, of an uncivilized disorder.

Similiarly, to Charles Brower in 1884, Tikigaq ‘looked like a forest of small trees with the tops cut off. There were thousands of these whale jaw bones’. 3 Similarly, E.J. Knapp in 1904, found this ‘weird Eskimo graveyard two miles and more in length resembled trunks of blasted trees…the bodies…dissolved. Many of these graves have fallen into utter ruin and the bones and clothes that shrouded the dead lie scattered on the ground.’ 4

In summer 1909, the landscape of the Point with its presence of the ancestors, many of whom could be identified by their bones and relics, was, in the space twenty-four hours, changed for ever. The transformation, with the co-operation of the Native community, was described by Hoare in Spirit of Missions:

One of the first duties, not of Christianity only, but of common humanity, is the seemly and safe burial of the dead. Yet to guard effectively the graves of the departed is not an easy thing in some parts of Alaska. The fence which may be erected so promptly in [our temperate] part of the world becomes a problem, in a land where practically all the wood is — or is not — brought in by the tide. To this problem [Rev. Hoare] addressed himself with the following result:

‘I am sending you,’ he wrote, ‘a picture of our new graveyard, which is probably the only one in the world enclosed by a fence composed of the jawbones of whales. Each bone is from six to ten feet long, and curved like a rib; the butt is buried in the ground and the bone curves outward, forming a picket fence; as in old times no one was allowed to bring a jawbone on shore until he had killed four whales, and then only one of the jawbones, and as there are over 2,000 bones on the point, you can see how many whales have been killed in times past.

‘The graveyard was completed in one day. Every living person of working age on the Point assisted. While some were building, others were patrolling up and down, collecting the skulls and bones of those who, in time past, have been laid on the surface of the ground to await decay. In one common grave we buried over 1,200 skulls, and about three cartloads of bones; and since then a heap of a hundred or more skulls awaits burial. 5

The assumption that the new enclosure offered the dead spiritual protection was possibly well-intentioned. But if the reburial of human remains was an expression of Christian altruism, the removal of the old umialit’s gravemarkers subordinated local autonomy to the new dispensation. Here was an enactment of the doctrine that Alaska’s Education Commissioner Sheldon Jackson had learned from Alexander Duff whose rhetorical idealism (‘While we throw down, we also rebuild…’) was made concrete by Hoare.

‘The white man man was pukiq, clever. He was clean and powerful.’ 6 The speed with which Tikigaq people converted to Christianity after centuries of autonomy is relatively common among Inuit and many small societies. Some traditional Inuit, at every generation of elders, held the belief that time was anyway coming to an end, that they were the last and that their line would perish. This partly had to do with a self-disrespect deriving from idealized ancestral superiority. The balance between modesty and virtuosic survival energy marked Inuit with a peculiar and ambiguous character. To minimize public expression of what you know is in part a survival stratagem. Leaving room for doubt is to generate foresight. To boast is to invite nemesis by neglecting the implications of the moment and environmental contingency.

But there are different complexions of truth in self-abnegation. When Umigluk, aged seventy-two, tells me that he knows very little he is deferring to Asatchaq who is fifteen years older. Umigluk of course knows a great deal. And Asatchaq speaks with similar deference about his uncle Samaruna. And so the shared confessional recedes in a mixture of conventional modesty, social and psychological self-protection and pragmatic self-knowledge.


The Sacred and the Secular — 2

IN COMPARING THE 1909 cemetery removal and the village transfer to the New Town Site, there lies one ironic contrast. Hoare’s relocation of ancestral relics to a newly plotted environment represented the removal from one sacred place to another of sorts. There is no record of what people said about the event. The cemetery removal engaged a reduced population of about a hundred and thirty people who were emerging from three decades of epidemics and were in the process of abandoning the shamanistic religion which had been discredited by the missionaries and who were content or at least resigned to being guided, even governed, by Euro-Americans whose mission was ostensibly to bring them spiritual salvation and material prosperity.

Hoare regarded the cemetery removal as an act of purging. The language of the missionaries contained frequent reference, as already quoted, to cleaning and rebuilding. Elijah Edson, in particular, was preoccupied by a relationship he conceived between physical and religous purity (‘For God’s sake,’ he wrote in 1895, ‘send us towels.’) Hoare’s new cemetery was above all an orderly and contained space. Human relics that had lain scattered on the tundra — and which therefore had the tendency to move around: a worrying resurrection issue — were now buried and enclosed. At least some of the aboriginal mess had been sealed with the possibility of a Christianised assurance. Birth, death and resurrection could from now on proceed along a coherent trajectory.

The cemetery move had been the act of a church autocrat. The village move was an expression of a democratic process which had its basis in environmental science and economic necessity.

The 1975 move was predicated similarly on a control imperative. This time it was federal government as represented by the Secretary of the Army and not the priesthood that initiated the transition. And Tikigaq, by this time, had emerged further into the modern world and entered the American economy. The move was agreed in coordination with the village council and the North Slope Borough, members of which were articulate people who had received an American education, were bilingual in Inupiaq and English but remained loyal to the place and the people they represented. The cemetery move had been the act of a church autocrat. The village move was an expression of a democratic process which had its basis in environmental science and economic necessity.

The two events nonetheless shared one key element. Both constituted removal from a sacred environment. And while the cemetery move involved only the dead, the 1975 move took the living population from its ancestral home, consecrated, as we’ve seen, by the precedent of myth, to a secular, tidied up environment with its, in many ways, welcome new architecture and modernizing potential.

This represents an historical change with other long-term implications, the transportation of the community signifying an evolutionary step towards urbanization. ‘New Town/Tikigaq’ terminology hints at this, the phenomenon of town emerging from abandoned village lying at the heart of the transition from one place to another.

This process represents a completely reasonable materialization of North Slope Borough thinking and it is not be faulted. The safer and rationalized siting of Tikigaq’s New Town renders it accessible to a process of modernization which would not have been possible within the boundaries of the old village, irrespective of the flooding issue. While the land on the Point is geographically limited, on New Town Site, there is space for expansion, the new village is supported by stable, freshly engineered foundations, the deployment of streets with more or less uniform rows of houses meaning that there could be roads and therefore cars and pickups besides the traction-driven vehicles that were only able to operate in old Tikigaq for the transport of buildings intact enough to be lifted.


Ataηauraq’s Burial Monument

FOR ALMOST TEN years until his murder in February 1889, the shaman and self-proclaimed chief Ataηauraq created a goods exchange monopoly with visiting pelagic traders and enriched himself at the expense of the diminished Tikigaq population which he also held subject in a regime of terror.

Atanauraq pursued his business with the help of a group of armed employees in the course of which he accumulated five wives, some of whom he had snatched from previous wedlock, kept household slaves and himself murdered five fellow villagers. How one individual could intimidate a community whose majority held him in contempt is hard to comprehend. But the ‘chief’s’ intelligence and initiative were eventually undermined by addiction to alcohol encouraged by both the pelagic visitors and the worst of the south shore Jabbertown traders who taught him to distill moonshine. That he over-reached himself in creating an autocracy of terror also led to an inevitable, although belated, downfall.

Unique as he was in his generation, Ataηauraq was also the last in a tradition of dominant shamans whose careers are the main focus of the nineteenth century ancestor chronicles that run parallel to mythological narratives. On the one hand one can read historical shaman tales as re-enactments of mythological trickster stories. On the other, they evoke the lives of single-mindedly competitive individualists who used shamanistic status as a means of accumulating social and economic power. There’s relative truth in both points of view.

One paradox of Atanauraq’s success lay in the fact that by creating a native enterprise through the help and at the expense of white men who would otherwise dominate Tikigaq economy, Atanauraq adopted the white man’s ideas, technologies and culture materials, becoming, as Asatchaq remarked in a sequence of narratives, ‘like a white man’; or as a bemused Inupiaq from the Kobuk River remarked about an improvised table in Ataηauraq’s iglu, ‘he’s made himself into a white householder.’ Thus while Ataηauraq’s murder restored harmony to Tikigaq social life, his regime also generated sufficient digust for the shaman world to make it possible to accept and even welcome the white man’s religion. The death of Atanauraq in 1889 thus helped prepare the way for the missionary Driggs who arrived in 1890.

Tikigaq’s movement towards nineteenth century America was accelerated in a number of other ways by Ataηauraq. However, when Hoare ordained the cemetery removal, one major pre-Christian feature at the centre of the peninsula remained standing. Whether this was left in place by chance, oversight or design, Ataηauraq’s grave, with its whale jaw uprights which once held planks supporting the dead chief’s body stayed conspicuously in position at the centre of the village. There are two smaller graves in remote parts of the peninsula. Ataηauraq’s monument, like the personality of the man whose burial it marks, is both central and enormous.


Epilogue to Ataηauraq’s Story

THERE’S A FINAL episode to Ataηauraq’s story in which official intervention into village business is presented.

It was well-understood by federal and church authorities that contact between commercial whalers and coastal Inupiat resulted in a destabilising firearms and liquor trade. The social consequences of this barter were clear as early as 1880, from which period a U.S Revenue Cutter (Coast Guard) travelled every summer up the northwest coast to intercept that trade and do what it could to impose a measure of American order. By 1886, the Cutter’s arrival off Tikigaq saw deputations of village umialit boarding the big ship from their skinboats and pleading with the Coast Guard to arrest Ataηauraq and get him out of the village.

The details of the situation can’t be reconstructed. But one thing that was known in the village was that Michael Healy, commander of the U.S.S. Bear and himself an alcoholic, illegally sold alcohol to Ataηauraq. It was partly this astounding paradox, and the protection that came with it, that kept the ‘chief’ in position.

When the Bear reached Tikigaq in July 1889, Ataηauraq had been dead for five months. Informed that Kayuktuq, one of Ataηauraq’s killers, had taken refuge at Cape Lisburne, the cutter steamed north to apprehend him. But when a dingy was launched from ‘Bear ship’ as local people called it, Kayuktuq went into his tent and pushed his wife out with a loaded shotgun. ‘When the coast guard saw her standing there,’ Asatchaq concluded, ‘they went away again.’


Ataηauraq’s Grave Marker

WHILE IN THE mid-1970s, the generations born after 1950 had virtually no access to local history, almost everyone knew something about Ataηauraq. And despite his lifetime unpopularity, there were now people who looked up to his memory. He was a recent and larger than life ancestor and radiated something of a hero’s glamour. Lip-service to a dead shaman was also prompted by the impact of Ataηauraq’s burial markers which on a sea-level peninsula from which every other traditional upright had been deracinated, was a conspicuous feature.

But Ataηauraq’s grave was also a reminder of a turbulent period which put the disturbances of 1976 into at least some historical perspective. The fact that conflicts of the late nineteenth century had been part of a history most of which was now inaccessible was a partially normalizing and historically connective factor. If disharmonies had occurred in the nineteenth century, then what happened in the twentieth century had an antecedent that provided what was at least an identifying component.

The Ataηauraq monument in fact expressed two opposite things. First, it was a memorial to a murderer and his abuses. But also it pointed to the end of those events and acted as a divider separating the present from the chaos of the late nineteenth century.

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. 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).


  1. Difficult to translate, but the term derives from the verb stem uivvaq– ‘to go round’, here suggesting the circular motion of the bladder float on the surface as the struck whale sounds. This interpretation is complicated by a possible connection with the late nineteenth century cult of Uivvaqsaaq, a syncretic Inupiaq-Christian cult aimed at ‘bringing round’ the souls of ancestors lost during the first decade of Euro-American contact. See my Ultimate Americans, 2008 chapters 23 and 24.
  2. This phenomenon is discussed at greater length in my Ancient Land:Sacred Whale, 1993.
  3. Brower: n.d., Part 1:43
  4. Knapp: July 29 1904. These images harmonise paradoxically with that of a forest described in a legend describing Tikigaq as a forested area whose trees were all destroyed by a grief-stricken man who felled the trees by hurling his mittens at them.
  5. ‘This marks the passing of a superstition connected with the exposure of bodies. The people have accepted Christianity, and are doing their best to carry out its teachings.’ Hoare, ‘Cemetery and Sanctuary’ Spirit of Missions 1909: LXXIV:945.
  6. Umigluk 1977.

One Comment

  1. wrote:

    Especially rich and suggestive are the accumulating metaphors for the point as accumulating metaphors for accumulation of memories: deposit, storm, whale inua, whale jaws, graveyard, and many more.

    Thursday, 22 March 2018 at 02:13 | Permalink

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