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After the Snowbird, Comes the Whale 3.

The 2018 Fortnightly Serial.

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The Golden Period

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.’

By 1903, flu, whooping cough and measles had carried off twelve per cent of the community and in July 1904, E.J. Knapp recorded an exodus on whaling ships of fifty Tikigaq people in flight from disease and in search of better hunting. By winter 1904, Knapp noted the end of major sickness. But in 1906, Driggs recorded the lowest ever population figure, though by 1908, his figure of 120 had risen by thirty. Happily, this upward trend continued.

The impact of these traumas can scarcely be imagined. And oral history remained silent on the subject. Asatchaq had nothing to say about what Native people called The Great Sickness. He, his younger sister Uyatauna and their coeval Ivrulik Rock who lived in an old people’s home in Fairbanks, were, in 1976, the last survivors of a period in which they witnessed the deaths of more than one sixth of their fellow villagers. Asatchaq’s solitary position as community historian and storyteller is highlighted by this bleak statistic.1


Commercial Hunters and Neologisms

The Great Sickness brought to a climax the epidemics that had travelled inexorably from the Caribbean in 1492 until it had reached Tikigaq in 1900…

THE WHITE MAN had introduced diseases to which Arctic populations had no immunity and the Great Sickness brought to a climax the epidemics that had travelled inexorably from the Caribbean in 1492 through Central and North America until the twentieth century. With gruesome symmetry, disease transected central and north America for four hundred years and reached the furthest northwest point of the continent at Tikigaq in 1900 where it had burned out by 1906.

The commercial whale hunters who first penetrated the Bering Sea in 1851 not only introduced these diseases, but on an industrial scale, through the use of repeating rifles and exploding bomb harpoons, disastrously reduced the whale, seal and caribou populations, leading Native communities to increasing dependence on American resources.

The inflow of manufactured goods continued and Frohlich Rainey’s ethnographic notes enumerate non-local articles, most of which were in general circulation. Until 1910, each winter, hunting ceremonies were held. In 1940, Rainey recorded these, along with descriptions by elders of the ceremonies.

Figures of whales, seals, polar bears, caribou, walrus, and birds were carved, hung in the qargi, and fed as part of the ritual. A mask with inset ivory eyes was hung above the oil lamp and the whaling captains vied with each other to steal it unobserved. It would be hidden in the victor’s cache and used in the spring as a whaling charm. 2

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Of particular interest is the fact that most imported goods acquired Inupiaq terminology and these neologisms entered the linguistic repertoire. Much of this was highly inventive and sometimes funny. It wasn’t, however, for the purpose of entertainment that mustard became iligam ana[n]a, ‘baby shit’, or the word for sausage was built from usuk, ‘penis’. Such words, along with those describing seven different kinds of imported oil, household equipment, nails, string, hammer, firearms and their components, became assimilated into the language. People might comprehend most of the English terms, but many didn’t fit Inupiaq phonology. There is, for example, no Inupiaq matrix into which words such as ‘rifle’ or ‘stove oil’ fit. A few English phonemes could be harmonized into polysynthetic compounds: ‘seal,’ ‘sea’, ‘sugar’, ‘baby’, ‘tea’, ‘coffee,’ ‘cup’,‘get’, ‘go’ and a number of others could be slipped, with localised pronunciation, into Inupiaq. But the native language on the whole hybridized what it assimilated on its own terms.

In this way, Tikigaq borrowed and adapted both manufactured goods and elements of English language, thus subordinating useful aspects of majority America to the local culture.


The Village Council and Social Order

IN 1920, AS a result of Episcopal Church intervention, Tikigaq elected a village council. As the anthropologist James Vanstone wrote in 1960, ‘The council is surprisingly effective as an enforcement agency. The pressures of public opinion, together with the prestige of council members, are important factors in encouraging compliance with village rules and regulations. The United States Marshall at Nome has jurisdiction over the Point Hope area and he may come to the village to arrest individuals who have committed crimes against the American legal system. Cases of this kind, which are relatively few, are handled with the cooperation of the village council.’ 3

Social control had been exerted by seniors in the iglu and in ceremonial houses…

Social control during the traditional period had been exerted by seniors in the iglu and in the ceremonial houses and village behaviour was regulated by example and precedent. With the social disorganization that followed more than forty years of epidemics and the dissolution, probably by 1900, of the last ceremonial houses, the formation of a village council was a major social initiative.

The first council consisted of seven middle-aged and elderly survivors of the Ataηauraq period. These were men from surviving qalgit who had belonged to or had close connection with the old dispensation but who also lived effectively in the modern period. Samaruna and Peter Kunuyaq exemplified this complex, self-assured identity. These were hardy individuals whose dictat was reinforced by personal example and supported by community consensus.

Asatchaq grew up during the transitional period and successfully negotiated bi-cultural loyalties. Educated in Tikigaq tradition and mentored as a hunter by his uncle Samaruna and his mother Niguvana, he assimilated pre-contact tradition, some of which remained current, while its totality, if there ever was such a distinct phenomenon, made coherent sense to him.

Alert to the material opportunities offered by an America which was itself emerging into the modern period, Asatchaq also took advantage of the manufactured goods — hardware, carbohydrates, cloth — that helped support subsistence life. By the mid-1970s his insistence on the centrality of Inupiaq order and his contempt for what he perceived as a boundariless mid-century disorder, was therefore in reaction both to a semi-idealized culture which preceded his birth and also to the ‘golden’ period of Inupiaq/American cultural co-existence as synthesised by his own elders.


Wasteland — School Ruins

HE INHABITS A WASTELAND on the edge of school house residue abandoned on the north side when the classroom portacabins were transported to the New Town site last August. These light, cheap prefabs were the easy buildings, made for inexpensive transportation and they settled into urbanizing New Town culture until they were replaced by a big and up to date school building.

To reach Asatchaq’s cabin you must first pick your way across wrecked bits of piping which had fed stove oil and drinking water into the school buildings. There was also wreckage from a pumping shed, a ruined workshop and rectangular bald patches from where buildings had been lifted.

The white man, like this architecture of impermanence, was a migrant. While Native people had long settled in their territories, naluagmiut were, as the U.S. Bicentennial attested, modern visitors, their presence in the Arctic dating only from mid-nineteenth century. Tikigaq’s school teachers in the 1970s came mostly from the Midwest and Southwest, and lured by generous Alaskan salaries they stayed only so long as they could stand the cold, isolation and often unreachable students.4


THE DETRITUS ROUND Asatchaq’s cabin is little different from the run of village rubbish. Walking back to Tikigaq from New Town Site, I see how the airstrip cuts kuugaq, the slough that fills with water every summer. Aniqsuaq told me that he’d worked on clearing space there five years previously.

‘There were thousands of skeletons. What do you do with them?’ We retreated from the question.

‘And next to each grave there would have been some person’s hunting gear, their sewing kit or cooking equipment. Their old things, navraaqs. Whose is it when they’re dead?’

A mist has come in and the cloud is low. The remains of overlapping cultures strew the village: earth and gravel disfigured by the churning of machinery is rutted, gouged up, humped, ditched…

I walk round in the gloom. A mist has come in and the cloud is low. The remains of overlapping cultures strew the village: earth and gravel disfigured by the churning of machinery is rutted, gouged up, humped, ditched, scarred by Kat tracks, and the natural contours of the Point with its waves of troughs and ridges, hummocks of old iglus, grasses, wild flowers, dislocated, torn and shapeless, scattered with the refuse of abandoned houses, hunting gear, imported manufacture, owned once and made use of, now abandoned.

The trash round Asatchaq’s cabin is scarcely different: the detritus of prefab units whose serviceable parts will serve the New Town school site before subsiding into further garbage.

Two Octobers back, I watched the village clean up team collect the barrels that had contained stove oil brought each September from San Francisco. On complex contracts and transcending vastly difficult logistics, fuel from cosmopolitan producers and via multiple cooperating agencies is shipped in a four month summer series of provisions north to Alaska and at Tikigaq is lightered to a central tank that’s fueled the village since the mid-1950s.

Brimful with excreta, the barrels at freeze-up are carried to the north side and rolled into the water.


Daisy’s Narrative

I WATCHED IN diagram the overture to Daisy’s tragedy. This started on the north side at Nanny Uyatauna’s.

Uyatauna is Asatchaq’s younger sister, but so far as I know they’ve scarcely spoken since the nineteenth century. Nanny is pale-skinned and emaciated. She stretches painfully to sit up in bed but can only just cry out and wave her arms and moan vaguely in Inupiaq that three years ago I’d heard her talking briskly. Nanny lives with Rose-Marie, her daughter, just east of Asatchaq. They were Tikigaq’s last iglu dwellers and vacated their earth house the week of my first visit.

Nanny inhabits a nineteenth century trader’s cabin which was hauled into Tikigaq from Jabbertown around 1920. It’s a tight little building insulated with black tarp and has an attic, originally a storage space for bear skins, ivory and baleen. Accessible by ladder, the attic also functioned as a sexual annexe.

The transition for Nanny from her iglu to a cabin, repeated the experience her elders witnessed. Her parents, Kiligvak and Niguvana, were in the vanguard of these changes. Trading whalebone with the trader Backland, Kiligvak took delivery in autumn 1912 of lumber from Seattle and the following summer built the first native frame house in the village. It survives in isolation at the far west of the village by Samaruna’s iglu ruins, the furthest northwest building on the continent.

Asatchaq and Uyatauna moved here in their twenties and while Asatchaq continued to live in the house until he was eighty Nanny joined her husband in an iglu.

Rose-Marie, who’s fifty, less than five foot tall and hunch-backed, runs Nanny’s household. In Dickens’s phrase in Our Mutual Friend for little Jenny Wren, she’s ‘the person of the house’.5 And Rose would agree, though she’d never complain: ‘My back’s bad and my legs are queer.’

But while Jenny’s sharp and critical (‘I can’t bear children. I know their tricks and their manners’), Rose-Marie is cheerful and non-judgemental, her movements neat, quick, animated, in the service of her mother. Once when I had eaten what she’d made and shared with me, she ran to the stove where she’d been cooking, swept trash with a gull’s wing brush and scampered outside to throw it in the snow, returning to feed Nanny from a plate of cut up meat she had also been cooking. Like Jenny Wren, she makes her living as a seamstress and wears a snow-shirt she’s embroidered, flitting between tasks around the house as though she’s sewing things together.

I asked ‘What you call these?’ in my hunger for Inupiaq and pointed to the little moons and stars and flowers she’d stitched into the calico. I knew several words for phases of the moon, the beautifully guttural and liquid word for star and excitedly anticipated a term for the blue, branching flowers she’d stitched into her shirt hem.

‘We call that kind forgetmenots,’ said Rose-Marie shyly. For the next few minutes she composed a sentence and I wrote it down from her dictation: ‘I-sewed-moon-stars-and-flowers-on-my-atigiluk.’

‘Good Eskimo language,’ said Rose-Marie, ‘but I never spell it.’ The long, single compound with its inner transformations and assimilations was a string of complex balances and harmonies as though created for a concert aria, while to the speaker it remained a simple sentence, one of millions spoken daily to express routine information.

I thought of the engravings that they used to do in Tikigaq on snow knives and on bow drill handles: animations of routine existence, beautiful and ordinary, scratched on bone and ivory and highlighted with lamp soot.

Later I told Asatchaq I’d known a girl called Jenny who reminded me of Rose-Marie.

‘Ya, Jenny. Yiniiraq, Little Jenny. I call her Qupaluuraq, “little longspur”. Lays eggs in old iglus.’ And he fluttered his lips with a song-like trilling.


Daisy at Uyatauna’s

ON A MID-MARCH evening, Daisy, aged fifteen, and three teenage boys burst into Uyatauna’s cabin. I‘d met Daisy on her visits earlier this month to Asatchaq. Once she’d come down from the New Town store with groceries he’d asked for, but as soon she came in the old man started shouting. ‘He always suak (scolds) me,’ she said sadly. He’d given her a cheque and thirty dollars change was missing. Asatchaq was unrelenting, Daisy passive. She knew he thought that everyone was stealing from him. I didn’t take sides. And Daisy made no effort to defend herself.

She was with the old man on a morning when his stove had flooded. It was forty below and Asatchaq was sitting on the carpet trying to refit the carburettor. There was stove oil everywhere and he had burned his forearms. Before I went out to find a mechanic, Daisy was cleaning the old man’s forearms. She addressed him as ataata, grandpa, and was saying before I hurried away: ‘Arrii ataata, it’s alappaa in here for you! How cold, alas, it is here, grandpa.’

A day or so later Daisy crashed in to Uyatauna’s with a trio of young greasers. I knew one of them. A big lad, whiskered, in a boiler suit with motor oil about him. He’d come to visit me once in my cabin and asked uncannily a philosophic question to the game of divination I’d written. After the other men had their turns, he said: ‘What is the meaning of meaning… I mean, meaning?’ That was the last time that I saw him. A middle-aged man, my first friend in the village, shot and killed him a year later. A clever fellow but a dangerous drinker.

And Daisy: pretty, delicate and dressed as though for skiing in a tight blue snow suit. The four ran in to Nanny’s as if from one century to another.

The boys had no family connection with Uyatauna. They should have been at school or working for their families. They hadn’t arrived with pond ice people melt for drinking, snow for laundry, seal meat from a sigluaq or a barrel of stove oil, but thundered after Daisy because Nanny was her great aunt and she, implicitly, although she slept on New Town Site, belonged here. And this was a safe place — a household of two helpless women.

Asatchaq had described a similar visit.

‘Some boys. They came in. They looked at me and stood there doing nothing.  I said “What do you want?” But they said nothing. And they went away again.’

But Daisy and the boys, I heard later, had broken a window into the clinic and rifled the cupboards. Now without stopping to acknowledge Uyatauna, they swarmed up the ladder and into the attic.


Conversations with Daisy

DAISY AND I had two conversations.

‘Hey, I’d really like to have a conversation with you. Not for you know…’

‘It’s all right. It’s not what I do here.’

‘You tried out Eskimo girls already?’

‘No. I’ve got a girl friend. White girl. She’s in Juneau. Actually, I’ve got another. In Chicago.’

‘Two girl friends. Just like Eskimo old timers. You gotta be careful.’

‘They’ve both got other boy friends.’

‘Wow. Modern person. Why you come round here then? We’re kinda old fashioned.’

‘I’m recording your ataata’s stories.’

‘Yes, he know the stories. But I never hear them. I’ll come listen maybe.’

‘We do it in the evening.’

‘OK, I’m coming. Since I never hear those stories.’

I was nervous when she turned up two days later. This was following a contre temps involving Tulugaq. I hadn’t seen him since he’d come round with Patsy and I thought perhaps there’d been some trouble.

But he arrived, as we’d arranged, to visit Asatchaq and charmingly he brought him seal meat. Not that they acknowledged one another. And clumsily, I failed to introduce them to each other.

That didn’t seem to matter. Tulugaq maintained his distance and crouched by the door as I placed a cassette into the recorder.

‘Ready,’ I said, hanging the mike on a string from the ceiling.

The old man cleared his throat and said ‘Ready’ in English.

Then fixing on the visitor, ‘What’s he doing here?’

‘He’s come to listen.’

‘He doesn’t have to listen. He’s got his own ataata.’

‘Can’t he listen?’

‘Let him ask his own ataata.’

Since his name was Tulugaq, a name with resonance for Asatchaq, I tried an ethnographic gesture:

‘He’s come to hear about the uiluaqtaqs in your stories.’ 6

The joke didn’t work and Asatchaq refused to start till Tulugaq had left us.


Daisy at Asatchaq’s

AFTER THE EMBARRASSMENT of Tulugaq’s dismissal I was anxious that Asatchaq would shout at Daisy. But I didn’t understand the tie that made her presence something he would tolerate. Daisy was his granddaughter and while he’d made a scene about the money, their family connection made the difference.

From the moment she came in she seemed perfectly at home and though she still hardly knew her grandpa, she gave the impression of belonging. It was strange, this transformation of the cabin from a lonely outpost to a household. It hadn’t occurred to me how out of character the old man’s life was. Inupiat live close to one another in extended families. True, elders sometimes used to walk out on the sea ice during a subsistence crises. But this hadn’t happened since the 1800s.

Daisy made tea, removed the Bartlett pear can that held Asatchaq’s urine and sat down to listen. She was suddenly a little girl. I’d overlooked this comfortable, domestic aspect of what stories meant to people.

‘I sure want to learn this Inupiaq language,’ Daisy muttered when he’d finished.

‘I thought you understood it.’

‘I know some words, all right.’

She mimicked singular and plural object suffixes: angutimik (‘man’ in the accusative), angutinik (plural) and playfully repeated ‘—mik, —nik,’ in smiling, slightly mocking sing-song.

‘You know those words?’ she asked me.

‘I’m trying to learn slowly.’

‘People in the New Town‘ve been talking on you. You’re an interesting guy. Kinda weird, maybe. He’s funny when he’s qanga (stoned), they told me.’

‘I shouldn’t use qaaq (marijuana). Your ataata would suak (scold) me.’

‘You gotta do what you like. You can go kinda crazy. Like some dreams I’m getting.’

‘Everyone has funny dreams,’ I told her.

‘Not like my dreams.’ And she changed the subject. ‘Did you know I’m half-breed?’

‘Yes, I knew that.’

‘Gee, I bet you’d like to —kuyak with a girl like me.’

‘I can’t talk about those things.’ I was embarrassed.

‘Gee, I bet you’d like to —kuyak.’

‘I wouldn’t and I couldn’t.’

‘You’re all right, then. That’s what you’re supposed to. I’m like you though. I never kuyak— . I want to be OK with people. Boys, they want it all the time. I can see ‘em uumaaq (get erections).’

I’ve forgotten most of what she said except this last bit:

‘I’d sure like to qaaq— with you and hear you joking.’

‘I’m not going to do that with you.’

‘How come?’

‘I’m too old and you’re too young.’

‘Maybe when I’m older. You’ll be younger.’ Then, as though she thought she had offended me, ‘I jokes.’

‘It’s all right. I don’t mind being older.’

It seemed natural to transport the old man’s voice across the Point in a Japanese cassette machine and convert his polysyllables to modern English on my little Olivetti.

All this happened in Asatchaq’s cabin. He dozed on and off. And anyway he took no interest in our conversation. He knew that Daisy didn’t understand his recitations and that I also comprehended very little. The event was one thing, the translation another and when Tukummiq was absent, as she was when Daisy visited, I carried the performance to her cabin and played it on my little Sony. It seemed natural to transport the old man’s voice across the Point in a Japanese cassette machine and convert his polysyllables to modern English on my little Olivetti.

Daisy’s friendship made me deeply happy. She was vividly alive and clever, beautiful and charming, instant in communication. Her last words I remember were:

‘You gotta tell me about Shakespeare.’

I might have answered:

‘One day you can teach me about Whitman and Thoreau.’

But that wouldn’t happen.


DAISY DIED JUST one night later. Someone saw her walking by herself round Tikigaq. She was tearing off her clothes and weeping. The next day, Uqpik and his search-and-rescue team found her naked body on the sea ice.

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. Ivrulik Rock had, by 1975, become so emphatically Christianised that he wanted nothing to do with pre-contact history. In 1933, he worked, alongside Asatchaq, as an extra in W.S. Van Dyke’s MGM movie “Eskimo”, some of which was shot on Tikigaq’s south shore. Both Ivrulik and Asatchaq had a good time when they were briefly transported to Hollywood where both made appearances by private arrangement with local actresses. The only historical comment I elicited from Ivrulik was an appreciative aside about Jean Harlow. ‘Jeannie…she sure made good hotcakes for breakfast.’
  2. Larsen, Helge, and Frohlich Rainey. 1948. “Ipiutak and the Arctic Whaling Hunting Culture”. Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History, 42. New York: American Museum of Natural History. Quoted in “The Art of Iñupiaq Whaling: Elders’ Interpretations of International Polar Year Ethnological Collections”, by Aron L. Crowell in Smithsonian at the Poles: Contributions to International Polar Year Science,  Igor Krupnik, Michael A. Lang, and Scott E. Miller, Editors. Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press, 2009.
  3. Vanstone 1962: 103.
  4. I understand this because I’m one of them. But as a teenager once put it, ’Taam’s not a naluagmiu (white man). He’s an Inglagmiu (English). He’s a Native from his own country.’ I liked this but remained aware of my migratory status. Another boy added, ‘You lived in England? They taken away your culture too?
  5. There is a coincidence here between Dickens’s locution and an important Inupiaq idiom. The Inupiaq inua ‘its person, owner, spirit’, is used in the context of two metaphysical phenomena. Animals revealed their inua, ‘it’s person’ or human component represented by a face emerging from a non-human countenance. Thus tuttum inua, ‘the caribou, its person’, i.e the human component of caribou soul complex. And tatqim/siqqinim inua, ‘the moon/sun’s person or presiding spirit.’ A living person could also be the inua of Place they presided. Dickens’s locution thus homologises the two seamstresses Rose-Marie (the presiding spirit of Uyatauna’s household) and the assertive personality of Jenny Wren.
  6. Tulugaq, raven, is the short form of Tulu[n]igraq, the trickster shaman who, having seduced the uliuaqtaq, ‘woman who won’t marry,’ harpooned Tikigaq.

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