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After the Snowbird, Comes the Whale 6.

The 2018 Fortnightly Serial.

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XLV

Snowbird and Crane

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.1

Sanskrit culture has adopted the Valmiki/krauncha episode to claim the origin of poetry.

Sanskrit culture has adopted the Valmiki/krauncha episode to claim the origin of poetry. The bunting story makes no comparable assertion. Instead Tikigaq custom reaches back to the snowbird fable. ‘Children! Go hunt longspur, snipe and parka squirrel. But don’t shoot the avataliguugaq,’ goes the elders’ warning, abjuring in this way the outcome of the bunting fable.

‘Don’t shoot at mating couples. The buntings are in the village at their reproductive moment. They’ve migrated for that single purpose and arrived to make their home in human iglus: in the homes, furthermore, of ancestors we remember.

NOTE: To enlarge an illustration, click on it. To read a caption, hover over the illustration.

‘Refrain from widowing a breeding couple at the moment when the bowhead’s coming. The snowbirds arrive in married couples. They raise their children in our iglus. These are the days when Tikigaq will hunt the bowhead. The men take their skinboats out onto the sea ice. The women sit silence in their iglus. They contemplate the hunt and draw the whales towards them. All this as snowbirds nest around them.’

XLVI

SOMEONE JABS MY shoulder.

‘Taam! Wake up. You gotta tell a story. We want to hear an unipkaaq2 the old man told you!’

I’m stretched on a mattress Aniqsuaq had sledded from the village.

‘I don’t know stories.’

‘You know stories!’ It’s Elizabeth, who last year shouted that I’d come to steal their language.

What Elizabeth had said was childish. But her scolding contained truth. The white man in the Arctic has almost always been a predator. Along with contact epidemics and the decimation of the bowhead, came language loss — and that continues.

You can’t steal language. But you can create conditions in which one language dies and another replaces it. Elizabeth herself was a victim of this history. Her father, born in 1920, was bilingual. Her mother spoke a little English. Elizabeth understood Inupiaq but could speak it only at a rudimentary level.

More concrete was the theft of artefacts for both personal profit and American museums. Since dollar value in remote communities was frequently an unknown factor, a ‘legitimate’ sale, in which both parties were in apparent agreement, approximated stealing.

But respectable folk also perpetrated naked pillage. In the 1890s the missionary Sheldon Jackson cut down totem poles in south-east Alaska and also secretly appropriated masks in Tikigaq. This was routine practice. Most strikingly in Tikigaq, the Ipiutak excavations of 1939-40, unearthed a treasure trove that went into museums. And this converted locals into archaeologists. Elizabeth herself was a keen collector and showed me pieces that might otherwise have been shown in New York, Washington and Copenhagen galleries.

I didn’t collect artefacts but I was in the village, nonetheless, as a collector. Recording stories was part of the process. Converting one medium into another represents another type of appropriation.

‘Since you learned ‘em, you gotta tell us,’ Elizabeth continues.

‘But listen. It’s not for me to tell your stories.’

‘You belong here now,’ says Elizabeth casually.

‘And anyway, we want to hear ‘em,’ growls a stranger. ‘We want to hear those anatkuq stories.’

‘You better tell us. In Inupiaq.’

‘It’s a test,’ growls Elizabeth.

‘We won’t understand if you tell ‘em in English.’

Paralysing tension binds me to this. It’s five in the morning, the sun is high and it’s bitterly cold. Someone dumps branches onto the fire. A shocking heat assaults my body.

Words form in the throat and are trapped against the larynx as though birds’ wings are stuck there in a frantic, semi-paralytic hatching. I grasp, sending my teeth down, a verb stem and grope in an opposite swallowing motion for an infix. I gulp down for another. The sentence starts to separate but holds together. I detach another verb-stem that was threatening to drop back and inflect its ending which grafts itself onto the next one till the sentence emerges. The shaman Ukunniq staggers out from it, his boots kicking up the stones we lie on till his small back vanishes against the headland.

‘You talk our language like a baby,’ gasps Elizabeth when I’ve finished. She is weeping with laughter.

‘And when will you find yourself a uiluaqtaq, down there on the river?’3

‘She might cut off his usuk!’ groans a voice from the mattress.

The fire has collapsed but the laughter continues.

End of Part One.


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).

NOTES.

  1. While this version of the snowbird story sidelines the bereavement in favour of a comic confrontation, the krauncha’s misfortune provokes ambition to raise natural experience to literary composition. The Sanskrit connects shloka (verse) and shoka (grief). This is unsubstantiated etymology. Still, love and death are fundamental to both narratives.
  2. Unipkaaq: myth, legend, traditional story.
  3. Uiluaqtaq: separatist female shaman.

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