Skip to content

After the Snowbird, Comes the Whale Pt 2 Sec 2.

The 2018 Fortnightly Serial.

← Previously

Next→

XII

Niguvana

AT THIS STAGE of my work, I glimpse only the vastness of old Tikigaq culture. I’ve been reading Froelich Rainey’s field notes from his 1940 fieldwork. One of his informants was Niguvana, sixty-five when Rainey knew her. Died 1942, she was Asatchaq’s mother.

Here is the list she dictated to Rainey of the things she kept by her:

  • fish-skin sewing box with bleached seal-skin bottom
  • needle case
  • steel ulu1 with whalebone handle
  • sinew from rump and back and front caribou-legs (different kinds for different kinds of sewing)
  • jade needle-maker (jade from mountain to the south)
  • bow-drill with ivory mouthpiece and sinew bow
  • seal-skin bag for keeping clothes
  • brown caribou-skin boots with seal-skin soles
  • striped caribou waist-high boots
  • boots with white at front and back, brown on sides; white stripe up thigh, with wolverine-skin fringe
  • women’s mittens
  • belt from caribou-throat-skin (white)
  • bearded seal-skin belt for pants with knotted thong
  • long underwear pants from summer caribou skin
  • seal-skin pant-boots, up to waist, bearded seal-skin bottoms
  • hip length seal-skin boots
  • water-proof sea-skin boots
  • winter boots up to knee or waist
  • short pants to below knee
  • men’s knee-length socks
  • fawn-skin boots
  • fancy caribou and wolverine boots with stripes and checks
  • short boots with belukha-skin soles
  • bird-skin socks
  • caribou-ear underpants
  • seal pants for winter with strip of reindeer above belt
  • insoles of shaved, wadded-together baleen
  • two parkas (to be worn one on top of other)
  • short baby boots
  • seal-skin diapers, with moss
  • seal-skin baby’s sleeping mat
  • polar bear mittens
  • thin caribou-skin gloves
  • caribou mittens, hooked to belt
  • caribou-leg mittens, fur on back outside, on palm inside
  • wolf and wolverine parka-ruff
  • seal-gut rain parka
  • scraped seal-skin rain parka
  • walrus-gut rain parka
  • water-proof boots, high and low
  • spotted seal-skin bag for clothing
  • sleeping bags for winter camping
  • caribou and reindeer matresses
  • iron pots
  • big wood pot for lamp-oil
  • stick for hanging blubber to drip over lamp
  • wooden mallet for smashing lamp-blubber
  • wooden spills for carrying light
  • seal-skin bag for fire-making equipment, includes two kinds of flint, charcoal, cottongrass
  • big wooden spoon
  • sheep-horn ladle for drinking water
  • wooden platter for large hunks of meat
  • men’s eating dish (wood)
  • big wooden pan
  • children’s plate
  • soup bucket with handles
  • wooden spoons
  • seaweed for hand-towels
  • moss for wicks
  • pot for lamp-soot and discarded bones
  • wooden slop-bucket
  • boy’s slop pot with handle
  • husband and wife’s night-pot
  • girl’s pot
  • gulls’ wing brushes
  • woven whale-bone strip mat for entrance
  • wooden frame for entrance hole
  • wooden wind-break for entrance hole
  • entrance passage frame for hanging parkas
  • log-splitting wedges of four sizes
  • adzes
  • hammers
  • skin-scrapers of wood and mammoth ivory
  • scraping-board
  • caribou-horn and ivory combs knife-sharpener
  • ivory and bead ear-ornaments
  • copper bracelets
  • bead necklaces and for binding braids personal animal amulets
  • reindeer-skin tobacco bag
  • entrance passage drying racks
  • iglu chamber drying racks
  • stone lamp by entrance
  • stone lamp under drying rack

Rainey also cites a list of men’s equipment, excluding sleds, skinboats, kayaks, masks, figurines and other gear. There are forty-six items. The lexicon describing each and the elements that make up the equipment matches, in elaboration, the material culture. Each artefact, down to its minutest component, had its terminology. I note one example:

There were five stones, each a different shape, that fixed to leather thongs, composed a bird sling. To find each shape, boys crawled along the south beach on their hands and knees to find the pebbles. Each shape had its name, describing the form and size of pebble:

  • qutchunuaq (like water-drops)
  • manninuaq (egg shaped)
  • qivluinnuuqtuaq (square)
  • satuquyaq (flat one)
  • uqatuga (leaf-shaped)

A collective noun, pasanigiuta, denoted the five stones together. Some slings had seven thongs for seven stones. But the sixth and seventh names, by 1940, were forgotten.

The stones and thong in combination are called qilamitaun, bird sling, whose final n is replaced by –auti when the word is fitted in a polymorpheme. This is what young Tulugaq did when he told me that he used a sling to hunt snipe and squirrels:

Qilamitauti-qaq-tuanga, ‘I had a sling’. What hope do I have, with my shabby education, of mastering a system whose detail makes that level of demand?2

XIII

I’M HERE WITH beer and burgers which cool in my pocket as I wander through the corridors. They’ve moved Asatchaq to share with an old man from the Yukon who sits up on his bed and shouts a dance song:

Ayaya! Ayaya!

then falls back on his pillow. The second time this happened, Asatchaq turns and scolds him in Inupiaq, then in English: ‘We’re trying to work here!’

Asatchaq is always hungry. Here in Fairbanks, six hundred miles from his coastal village, he’s starved of wild meat: ‘real meat’, caribou, whale, seal and polar bear.

‘That’s what I call it.’ He thrusts out his jaw and grabs the Mcdonalds with strong back teeth to trap it.

‘These teeth,’ he gestures, one day, to his canines, ‘they’re called kiugitiik. They’re like a polar bear’s. I always had these long front teeth. Like polar bear. And when I was born, I never ate whale meat. Only caribou, bear or seal meat. Until I was twenty.’

‘Which shaman put you in taboo?’ I ask him. The old man cocks his head and squints. He drags the left side of his mouth down when he’s thinking. It’s as though, as he does this, broadening a screen within him, scenes and people, otherwise forgotten, enter. They’ve been sixty years gone. When they enter fresh and lively, he projects them.

‘It was Tiguatchialuk. He was the shaman. He showed my mother the three spirits at Itivyaaq. Before we took the skinboat out for whaling. My father paid him. Gave him ivory and seal skins. He worked as our shaman when we went whaling. When my father caught a whale in 1920 and they pulled it from the sea, they found Tiguatchialuk’s tooth marks on the flipper. He’d bitten that flipper when he visited the spirits. But while everyone ate whale meat, I ate polar bear…’

XIV

IT’S MID-SEPTEMBER and just weeks ago, I came from Tikigaq. It’s hot in the interior. No one in the village knew of Asatchaq’s whereabouts.

‘He’s having a rest,’ was the neutral, generalised opinion. After all, he’s eighty-five, his breath is short and his knees are paralysed with arthritis.

Asatchaq is vague about the future. ‘I’m going back. When you go back, we’ll go back together. Then I’ll tell stories.’

He’s started to prepare some recitations. And since, at our first meeting he’d fought to stand and greet me, it was as though he had re-entered an abandoned history which reached into the nineteenth century, then further back to myths and legends and histories reaching into modernizing America. Born at the end of a native tradition and the start of the early Christianising dispensation, Asatchaq associated with the values both regimes embodied. And though feared and shunned by many in the village as the last local ‘heathen’, he was honoured as a sage and scholar.

In the meantime, this hygienic island, this sunny, well-kept bungalow’s his refuge. And to the white folks working here, Asatchaq is just another pleasant-mannered ancient. Not that any resident’s neglected. But their native past, in memories and opaque languages, is unreachable.

Inupiaq, Yup’ik, Gwitchin, Koyukuk, Tlingit, Ingalik, Aleutic. Most Alaskan native groups are represented here, living out their final days in virtual silence. Stranded in their rooms and in front of the TV, the old folk sit, in thrift-store shirts and trousers, a patchwork map of tribes from a country the size of Germany and Scandinavia, and whose people, in their tiny riverine and coastal villages, seldom meet except when they come to be cured of white men’s diseases, or to die in isolation.

As for me and this archaic stranger, I’m as innocent as the high-school kids who clean the room and change his linen. I’d spent six months in the village and now I’ve found him in this ordinary environment, the quest seems suddenly, uneasily, too complex and too easy.

XV

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.3

Now and then, before a story, a narrator would say: ‘Listen, I don’t know much. I’ll do what I can. But if you want stories, you’d better find Asatchaq.’

Tradition demands modesty in every life department. No-one boasts their hunting prowess. The spirits, otherwise, wreak vengeance on a braggart.

This was, in part, a conventional disclaimer. Tradition demands modesty in every life department. No-one boasts their hunting prowess. The spirits, otherwise, wreak vengeance on a braggart. Dancers and singers must likewise be prudent, defer to precedent and to previous elders. ‘There are those who are better. I can only do a little.’

And just as animal spirits observe, take note, report back to their spirit families, and punish boasting, so stories, songs and dances are performed according to ancestral precedent. If gestures or words are casually performed without respect to form or detail, then the souls of the ancestors, whose lives were more perfect than present people’s, will show their displeasure.

Just as animal souls must be returned contented to their ‘countries’ where they’ll be reborn and re-appear to hunters, so stories, retrieved from realms where the ancestors inhabit them, are living entities. ‘Watch out,’ one man warned me, ‘Don’t make mistakes. Don’t tangle ‘em up. Don’t leave things out. Those stories otherwise will get you.’ By which he meant that narrative itself – words, memory, tradition – has shamanistic energy. They have spiritual power and demand perfection.

The death of a seal brings life to humans. Stories, likewise, restore life from ‘back then’4 to the present. Both animal and narrative must be hunted and brought here in the right condition. The order of things depends on right conduct.

Remote as this might be to Big Macs in Fairbanks, my relations with Asatchaq depend on these proprieties. He anticipates my deference, expects submission to his age and status. I must acquire the appropriate behaviour.

Sketches of pre-contact life emerge in semi-formal ethnographic conversations. At this stage in our work, these sketches don’t approximate a formal recitation. The stories themselves must be precise narrations following prescribed decorum. Meanwhile, Asatchaq experiments with conversation in mixed English and Inupiaq. And in order to locate his ancestry he starts with his great uncle Asatchaq, the last great pre-contact culture shaman.

XVI

HIS ENGLISH ISN’T good. My Inupiaq is rudimentary. The history is complex. I get tangled. He’s talking about Asatchaq, one of the last shamans to make spirit journeys and who made a famous flight to fight a rival in Siberia. Mid-autumn’s taken over. As we sit on his bed, the window dark behind him, the opaque tale unfolds in fragments. I strain towards him:

There is travel to the further shore, probably East Cape in Chukchi Siberia. There are fights, gestes, tricks, a supernatural murder. Someone’s flying. The traveller adopts a weird, flight posture, one leg bent backwards. There’s a carving5 that shows Asatchaq in flight. I’ve seen a photo. Asatchaq’s familiar, a carnivorous rodent creature, executes the killing.

Counter-shamanistic visits happen. Tikigaq and East Cape swing unsteadily across the sea ice. Shamanistic competition. Power issues.

‘I’ll carve you a kikituk,’ says Asatchaq one evening. The kikituk’s the rodent-like familiar that a shaman harboured in his armpit and which he dispatched to eat into a rival’s heart, for it to scuttle back into its owner’s parka.

‘I’ll make Elizabeth one, too,’ the old man added. Elizabeth, the high priest’s wife, was one of Asatchaq’s most faithful supporters. He didn’t get round to giving her a kikituk, though late next summer he carved one for me.

There’s no point in asking Asatchaq the meaning of the gift intended for a pious Christian. In a good, eventful life Elizabeth’s acquired no enemies. Though she might buy a kikituk qua mantelpiece collectable.

These twilight evenings are unnerving. The Inupiaq I’ve learned comes quickly unravelled. Asatchaq’s talk is arcane and involuted. I shift restlessly, ask baffled questions. Asatchaq is disappointed. He sees how little that I understand. He’s irritated, withdraws to strangerhood, resorts to silence. He turns his back. I stumble out and walk home through Fairbanks.

‘You should listen,’ he would growl, ‘then you’ll learn the story.’

XVII

September 15 1975

INTERNAL EXILE: ALFRED from London and Henry from Chicago are both a long way from their homes of origin. Almost all of White Alaska shares this distance. By contrast, Native people became displaced in their own country. There were, however, in Alaska, no wars of conquest and extermination. Unlike the Indians of Lower States whose lands were stolen or appropriated, no Alaskan Natives lost home territory. But their settlements were changed unrecognizably by culture contact. The nomadic hunters of the Kobuk and Noatak rivers were, for example, ‘settled’ into river villages where trade and Christianity could happen. Autonomous people thus became dependants of the white man.

XVIII

LATE NINETEENTH CENTURY was the heavy contact period. Most summers, they stood as children, these wheel-chair-limited men and women, on Arctic beaches or the banks of rivers and watched bearded men row towards them. The white man carried firearms, exchanged beads and tobacco for furs, ivory and what they called curios. In small groups, they seemed harmless. They were often useful and many, as at Jabbertown, forged helpful friendships. Some white men settled in the villages, others moved south before freeze-up, their boats riding low with furs, ivory and whalebone. They came and went. They were few in number. What remained in Native cultures, with or without the presence of the white man, were European habits, manufactured things and new technologies.

XIX

SOME VILLAGES WERE wiped out by diseases. Others such as Tikigaq endured, surviving disease and alcohol addiction. In Tikigaq’s first five decades of the twentieth century, they patched a compromise together. Those who lived through measles, T.B, scarlet fever, flu, diphetheria and syphilis, travelled and hunted like their forebears. But they also attended schools the whites had established, acquired trade goods for skins, meat, baleen, ivory.

Tabulated below are some of these exchanges from a page of Heinrich ‘Cooper’ Koenig’s trade journal. It’s from Jabbertown, just south of Tikigaq, July 1889. Hard to ignore, given the subsistence crisis, how small were quantities of goods that Tikigaq let go to the white man.

Received from natives Given by Koenig
Whalebone 25 lb 425lb flour
Dogskin boots 1 yard drill
1 large, 1 small sealskin 250 primers
1 coil seal line 5 yard drill
6 deer skins 50lb flour
whalebone 16 lb 5 foot long 75 lb flour, 4 ?drill?
seal line 1 package matches
whalebone 18lb, 5ft long 25 lb flour, 100 .44 cartridges
1 seal skin 1 small tin cup
frame for small canoe 100 lb flour, 5 yards drill
large sealskin 25lb flour
1 larger seal skin 25lb flour, half lb tobacco
1 white fish skin [beluga] 25 lb flour
2 small seal skin 150 primers
1 spotted seal skin tanned 3 lb flour
1 seal poke [bag] 1 lb flour

September – October 1889

9lb small whalebone 5 foot long 3lb powder, 250 primers, bar lead
3lb whalebone do 200 primers, 2 bars lead
1 pair deerskin boots half lb tobacco
1 deer skin 5 bars lead
underclothing 3 bars lead
6lb whalebone [skullbone & jaw] 20lb flour, 11 b?
1 white fox skin, 1 mink 5 yards print
110 white weasel skins 6 yd print, 5 bars lead, 1 tin cup
1 dog 25lb flour, 1 qt molasses
2 deer skin artiga [parka] & 2 pair pants 75lb flour +?
1 pair deer skin boots half lb tobacco
? seal line 4lb tobacco
2 fishnets 25 lb flour 1lb tobacco
1 red fox and 1 white 2 knifes [sic]
1 white fox half lb tobacco
1 squirrel skin shirt ?
3 white fox skins half lb tobacco
1 coil seal skin line 3 lb lead
1 dog some sugar and little other things.6

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.

THE JOURNAL FOR the next two years is relatively uniform. Then in 1893, the food inventory grows more varied. In addition to the staples noted, Koenig inscribes lard, baking powder, fresh and dried potatoes, syrup, dried tomatoes, apples, peaches, bacon, butter, oat meal, corn meal, ginger, cinnamon.7 Such was the beginning of the composite diet which was an aspect of a barter/cash economy. Most people still lived in iglus. Some started to build houses. Christianity and shamanism co-existed. Hunters took seals with both harpoons and rifles. Some people began to wear calico snow shirts over skin parkas. Spent rifle shells on amulet assemblages jangled against teeth and bird claws. People ate both what they hunted and what they could afford in barter. Inupiaq terms for parts of animals and artefacts, were augmented by a new and complicated lexicon.

While the people entered American time, they also continued to live beyond recorded time, where they moved within patterns out of reach of white men.

Material life was soon visibly changed; the people changed more slowly. Village people spoke Inupiaq, preserved some old ways that tied them to the landscape, ancestors and animals. And in spite of Christianity, stayed in touch with local mysteries. Thus while they entered American time, they also continued to live beyond recorded time, where they moved within patterns out of reach of white men. 8

I look round these shrunken figures in their secondhand store clothes. Within each body intelligence still plays, rehearsing in silence incommunicable systems. These, like Asatchaq, are heirs of two traditions, the local and the Euro-American. Perhaps cultural displacement for the children of these elders became yet more more alienating.

XX

September 16 1975

NATIVE COMMUNITIES TAKE care of their old people. But behind each person in the nursing home lies a complex of events which displaced them.

A woman from the Kobuk River had three children. Two daughters left for An­chorage where they married. The woman’s son stayed home and hunted. Then one day on the river, her son broke a leg and died of exposure. The old woman went crazy. No-one could console her. One night in her grief she set fire to her cabin. A social worker flew in and brought her to Fairbanks. Now she sits here, waiting for transfer to a home in Anchorage where her daughters can visit her.

Another: a man aged sixty from an Athabascan village on the Yukon. Three years ago in the course of a moose hunt, he crushed his rib-cage. He was taken out to hospital, convalesced here in the nursing home and then suddenly gave up, refusing to go home. His son travelled to town to fetch him, but the old man said he’d die pretty soon and might as well do that here as anywhere.

An old woman of eighty-five: spry as a fifty-year-old, she lived with her disabled daughter and then had a stroke. Paralysed and dumb, she came south, lay six months in room 15, while her daughter in the village died of pneumonina. So she lies here staring at the ceiling.

And the storyteller, Asatchaq, about whose village I’m supposed to understand so much? What brings him to a bed in Fairbanks? On the one hand there’s his separation from the modernizing village. The kindly, competence of social services accounts in part for this privilege of upkeep. Here are care notes that summarise his recent history:

Medical Notes for James A. Killigivuk

Born: Tikigaq ?March 1891
Religion: Episcopalian
Admitted with bronchitis, September 1974

11- 74_____Discharge planning
___________depression
___________inability of care for self & manage funds
12-74_____ Intraoperative cardiac arrest (resolved)
1-75______ Irregular pulse
7.75______ Bells palsy, left cheek
__________.cataracts
_________._old TB
_________._arthritis; pain both knees
7.75______ Anemia
9.75______ bronchitis

Comments: Apparently no-one at home can take responsibility to have James die at home. Any future travel there would certainly be temporary, but definitely therapeutic for him.

He enjoys a change of scene. Activities: He plays Bingo regularly, has done some crafts, enjoys Happy Hour, church, movies etc. He REALLY enjoys going out to dinner, parade, Alaska­land theme park and ‘Eskimo Olympics’. Plan and goal: Keep him busy in the above.

XXI

Historical Interlude

FROEHLICH RAINEY WAS one of the archaeologists who excavated in Tikigaq in 1939. It was he, with Helge Larsen and Louis Giddings who uncovered the houses and burials of the Ipiutak people who colonized the peninsula between about 0 and 900 AD. Rainey returned to the village in 1940 and recorded interviews with elders born in the 1870s and his surviving notes contain the best information we have about Tikigaq culture before contact with the Yankees.

One of Rainey’s informants was Niguvana, born ca. 1875, who survived Atangauraq’s tyranny and lived to bear Asatchaq in 1891.

I have edited Niguvana’s account as she told it to Rainey of Asatchaq’s birth and added some paragraphs about the social and religious systems to which Asatchaq became affiliated. It is hard to imagine a more complete contrast between life as Niguvana describes it and existence in the carehome where Asatchaq was living when I met him.

At the height of his authority Atangauraq commanded a household of five wives, and having established profitable relations with whaler traders and coast guard men, he planned to build the first Euro-American house in the village with lumber and a stove that he had ordered for the summer of 1889.

It was not to be. Atangauraq had turned the majority of Tikigaq against him and on the morning of St Valentine’s day 1889 he was shot dead as he lay in his iglu.

Atangauraq’s household had included several adopted children who had taken refuge in Tikigaq from southern villages. One of these was the teenaged Siuluk, and in about 1887, Atangauraq contrived a marriage for him with Niguvana, then about fourteen. This marriage had two main functions: one was to extend Atangauraq’s family. The other was to bring a clever young woman into a modernizing household through which large quantities of trade goods were passing.

Niguvana’s marriage was without issue and outlasted Atangauraq’s death by a matter of weeks. As the household broke up, Niguvana was snatched away by Sirvana for her son, Kilig­vak. This marriage lasted until Kiligvak’s death in the early 1920s. There were two surviving children, Asatchaq and Uyatauna.

‘My mother was capable and clever’, Asatchaq told me.9 ‘My grandmother, too. She was also strong. When she was a girl she could outrun a caribou fawn.’

To have taken Niguvana for Kiligvak, was a gesture of hope. The elders of both spouses’ families had long opposed Atangauraq, and the village needed a new generation uncontaminated by the strong man’s influence.

The village population was disastrously diminished. Many had emigrated to hunting grounds to the north, joined commercial whaling ships as labourers and harpooners or succumbed to diseases. Measles, flu, whooping cough, chickenpox, pneumonia, TB, scarlet fever and venereal disease, all transmitted by whaler traders, had, by 1890, according to the missionary Driggs, reduced the village population from about six hundred to a hundred and sixty. And although worse was to come during the Great Sickness, as Natives called it, at the turn of the century, reducing Tikigaq’s population by 1906 to 121, the new family thrived. Kiligvak, who had been shamanistically assaulted by Atangauraq in about 1885, survived until 1925, when he died, according to his son, ‘because of an old shaman.’10 Niguvana lived until 1942 – long enough to work as an informant to Froelich Rainey. Here is a genealogy as Asatchaq explained it:

Siuluk = Niguvana = Kiligvak
(ca.1875-1942) (ca.1870-1925)

Both Kiligvak and Niguvana came from skinboat owning families who had weathered contact with the white man since the 1880s. And while Atangauraq had terrorized both families, their dealings with the white man had been businesslike and this enabled them to prosper a little. To deliver a son at this historical moment was a major event.

XXII

The Birth of Asatchaq

IN EARLY SUMMER 1891, when the whale hunt was over, Nigu­vana and Kiligvak left the village with about fifteen relatives and travelled north in skinboats to a native trade fair at the mouth of the Utuqqaq River. With Niguva­na were her mother, father and three older brothers. Kiligvak had his parents and a brother with him.

Stopping to gather eggs on the cliffs around Cape Lisburne, the party reached Cape Beaufort in early July. Here Niguvana went into labour, and while her husband and brothers were building a hut in which she and her child would be secluded for the summer, Niguvana gave birth.

Four old women, Utualuk, Aglaq (‘brown bear’), Qiina and Sininga­luk were present as Niguvana delivered. They sat and watched as she knelt behind a mound of earth and the child came out on a skin. Niguvana, who would later become a mid­wife, started to get up, but the after-birth had not fallen.

‘Wait for the placenta!’ shouted the old women. Niguvana did as they said, then picked up the child and put it on her lap; it was a boy.

The old women came running over and Qiina cut the cord with a stone knife and tied it with caribou sinew. Niguvana wiped the child down with wet sealskin. Then they dressed him in a fawn-skin parka and trousers made by his grandmothers and slid him inside a sleeping bag. Niguvana crawled into the birth hut and the child was handed to her. There she sat in taboo – ‘to keep the child alive’ – until about early September when most of the party returned to Tikigaq.

On the night of Asatchaq’s birth, Niguvana’s father came to hold the baby and he put it inside his parka while she rested. Later, when the baby wanted milk, Piquk woke his daugh­ter and she fed him. All this time the baby never cried. That’s what she said later.

On their way up coast that summer, Niguvana’s father had made a small clay pot for her. On the fourth day after the birth, the older women built a fire outside her hut and started to boil water. Niguvana had been fasting and had had nothing to drink. Three small bits of caribou meat and a piece of whale skin with blubber, no bigger than a finger-joint, were cooking in the pot her father had made her.

Niguvana was thirsty but didn’t feel like eating. The women offered her two spoonfuls of broth. She drank these and then kissed the baby’s nose and genitals to keep him from making too much water. Then she blew on his right hand and his left foot and stretched him long. ‘T-t-t-t-t!’ she whispered. This would make him grow big.

Next, Niguvana ate whale skin, followed by the bits of caribou. Then she drank some more broth and threw the rest away. If she had eaten before the cord was dry, the child would not have grown up to be a good hunter.

The Spirit Guardian (Qumnaaluk)

Soon after this, Asatchaq’s guardian visited the birth hut. The guardian was a non-family member who would act as the infant’s spiritual mentor. The baby Asatchaq appears to have had two guardians, the shaman Nuiraaq and his daughter, whose main functions were to give the baby markers of social and spiritual identity. In total, the guardian would present the baby with name, amulets, taboo rules, ritual affiliations and membership of one of the football teams to which almost everyone in the village belonged.

The guardian’s visit would also constitute the child’s first social event. Until now, while welcomed as the family’s most important new member, the baby existed outside the framework of village identity. The act of naming was also important. With name (atiq) the child became allied to several Tikigaq people of the same name. One of these, among the living, was an aunt called Asatchaq, another was the recently deceased male shaman, a great uncle. A third was a maternal great-grandmother, long deceased. In naming him after these elders, the newborn was thus bound into a continuum that had both historical significance and present urgency.

Traditionally, the significance of namesake connections had to do with soul theory. Human beings were animated by three principle souls. Two of these were personal, but the ‘name soul’ (atiq) was shared by other individuals, at least one of whom, in most instances, had recently died. The naming process, which sometimes involved whispering names into a baby’s ear until it smiled at the one it wanted, enacted a delayed process of transmigration. The moment the name was conferred, the infant became the deceased namesake.

Given that the child was also associated by name with two female relatives, one of whom was still living, the baby’s identity incorporated both male and female, shaman and non-shaman and both living and dead souls. Thus within the tightly woven texture of the society as a whole, each individual enjoyed a multiply textured self, and the present Asatchaq was defined by three older people who anchored him both within contemporary life and in local genealogy.

TK-Asatchaq’s Family

Nuiraaq* Suuyuk__________Kunuyukauluk = Asatchaq (f)

Iqayugaq*___Kunuyaq = Sigvana(f)____Piquk = Kakianaaq___Asatchaq (m)

Aqupiurun = Asatchaq (f)

Kiligvak = Niguvana (f)

Asatchaq Aqupiurun Suuyuk Piquk

(Jimmie) (Elizabeth) (Eunice) (Solomon)
*qumnaaluk
– – – temporary adoption

His Amulets and Taboos

Once he had a name, the guardian’s next gift was a squirrel skin, which would be the baby’s first amulet. The parka squirrel, whose burrows abounded on Tikigaq peninsula and which was one of the first animals that boys hunted, is a small, harmless creature, with correspondingly moderate soul power. Later, Asatchaq became associated with the polar bear, but for now he was affiliated with one of the creatures on which he would practise hunting.

A second amulet was determined by the child itself. This was the moment that he laughed for the first time. It’s tempting to assume that this represented the baby’s earliest communication: an expression of both emerging consciousness and participation. At this moment, one of Asatchaq’s uncles tied a sinew bracelet with a flint attached to the baby’s wrist.

The nature of the amulet remains ambiguous. One the one hand it could have represented a traditional stone amulet which bestowed physical strength. On the other, it might have been a worked flint from one of the muskets which currently were being displaced by rifles. Or it could have been an arrow head excavated from an old iglu. Whether ancient or modern, the fact of its having been donated at this moment of transition, placed the action within traditional practice.

This was also true of another amulet: a scrap of umbilical cord, probably his own, which identified the amulet class to which Asatchaq was assigned.

In a taboo system probably unique to Tikigaq, most people in the village belonged to one of three classes relating to the polarities of birth and death – with a sub-group of having therapeutic relationship with the process of menstruation.11

Perhaps to reinforce the optimism with which his birth was received, Asatchaq was assigned to the birth class. This meant that to activate the healing potential of his personal amulets, he must rub them on the body or the clothes of a pregnant woman, a woman who had recently given birth or some object connected with birth.

People in the death or menstruation groups empowered their amu­lets by bringing them to grave goods, human relics or menstrual pads.

This archaic system with its existentially profound but also problematic implications was perhaps the most extreme of Tikigaq’s taboo regimes and it fell into disuse quite soon after Asatchaq’s birth, to be displaced by Christianity.

The last of the guardian’s gifts was a prescription of avoi­dances. For Asatchaq, this involved a taboo, lasting until he was nineteen, against eating whale meat. ‘When the others ate maktak (whale skin), I ate polar bear,’ he said eighty years later. That Asatchaq should have grown up within a whale hunting family as a non-whale eater suggests an abstinence that harmonized grimly with the subsistence crisis into which he was born and historical tensions generated by the destruction of the whale population.

It is also significant that Asatchaq stressed that he ate polar bear meat when he could have mentioned seal, walrus and caribou which he also ate freely. Not only were polar bears still plentiful, but the bear was a source of spiritual hunting power whose meat, skin, teeth and claws bestowed success on those who carried parts of it as amulets.

Building polar bear meat into the young man would thus enable him to become an adept in both the polar bear and the whale hunt.

Building polar bear meat into the young man would thus enable him to become an adept in both the polar bear and the whale hunt. The young Asatchaq was also believed to have a kinship with polar bears. He grew unusually long canines, two of which he retained into his mid-eighties.

Lastly, Asatchaq was assigned to a football team. Everyone in the village belonged to one of two groups, and Asatchaq joined his paternal grandmother in the team that carried land amulets and kicked away from the Point towards the land. Games of football usually happened in the winter under a bright moon when someone spontaneously announced that they were starting to play. At this signal, both young and old climbed from their iglus and joined a sometimes violent struggle between the land animal people and those who had sea mammal amulets – the latter kicking, often over several miles, towards the point of the peninsula.

The one social affiliation for which the guardian had no responsibility was ceremonial house membership. A boy joined his father’s qalgi; young women entered their husbands’. To avoid the guardian being accused of recruiting future hunters for his own ceremonial group, custom dictated that he came from a different house to that of the child’s parents.

These gifts and affiliations complete, the child was ready to enter village society. This followed the mother’s period of seclusion which generally lasted about three months. Asatchaq would thus have arrived in Tikigaq for the first time in September – rather late to have risked the journey along the stormy north coast. Perhaps Niguvana over-wintered at Cape Lisburne, which was Tikigaq’s largest satellite village, before venturing south at a safer time to travel over inshore sea ice.

XXIII

October 7 1975

HE LIES ON his bed. Slippers by the bedside table. Most days I sit quietly, grateful for the absence of talking. Still, in desultory fashion, we’ve started work together. I’m pleased to have a name that ties me to the namesake system. Some strangers just get labelled Big Man, Eats Fast – names that describe a character or habit.

A Tikigaq name ties its owner to both past and present. My local name is also a fictional extension, a local self, a mask connecting me to village history. I’m both sceptical and acquiescent. I am and am not Aniqsuayaaq. It doesn’t matter. What I’ve brought to this bedside is a name that’s part of Asatchaq’s experience. My other self has no existence.

Asatchaq discourses on my namesakes and their families. ‘Aniqsuayaaq. His wife was Nigaaluk, mother was a shaman.’ His narrative extends to genealogies. He orders me to write the names down. I trip on the spellings and lose track of the pattern.

His English is hard to follow. When he puts in his teeth, the words take form. But English doesn’t fit his mouth. The words, like letters on a crumbling wall, are deformed and faded.

Now that he’s fixed me in my namesake’s history, he sits up as a courtesy and pulls on slippers. His English is hard to follow. When he puts in his teeth, the words take form. But English doesn’t fit his mouth. The words, like letters on a crumbling wall, are deformed and faded. My Inupiaq is still less efficient and my ramshackle proficiency renders what the old man says more frustratingly ambiguous. His gestures likewise. The movement of hand to eye or a gesture of his forearm, evoke relationships within a story whose connections he expects me to interpret. Almost everything is dark to me.

Darkness is our medium and it’s what, these dark sub-Arctic afternoons, we share. I’ve spent three months in Tikigaq, walking the surface and chattering in English. Suddenly the village history yawns and the present floods backwards, sucking, as the old man talks, the central heating in his bed room into prehistoric winter.

Somewhere in this void, subverting my comfort, a Tikigaq magician, the old mastodon’s uncle, wanders the coast of north-east Asia engaging rivals in a game of violence. Or he’s on a soul-path to the moon, freezing in the radiance of the lunar spirit.

But the journey to the other side, as Tikigaq people call Siberia, and his uncle’s moon-trip, collapse across my hemispheres. Stone lamps, harpoons, masks and shaman effigies circulate in darkness and are swallowed by the same abyss that generated history. The past spirals like a cinder.

XXIV

I TAKE HIM beer and we sit watching chickadees outside his window while a vaccuum cleaner moves towards us in the corridor. To Asatchaq, both bird and vaccuum cleaner, are foreign. He has first hand knowledge of all Arctic species and a grasp of genealogy that stretches through the nineteenth century. The chickadee and vacuum cleaner are anonymous phenomena, as is the care home and the white man from London. This nescience is mutual.

A black woman enters to dust and vacuum. She retreats into the corridor and Asatchaq stabs a finger to his usuk: a muscular harpoon thrust gesturing the sexual weapon. ‘I fucked one like that. In Nome. 1930,’ he tells me.

At home, I rehearse the harpoon gesture and reconstruct the nursing home encounter. The woman dusts round us. Asatchaq observes her with benevolence his stroke-crooked mouth and slanting eye appear to radiate. Then his features converge and his appetite leaps out at her.

I think of Tikigaq peninsula, slate harpoon points, small flint arrows, the Raven Man’s bird beak, his overwhelming Trickster usuk, the gendering of north and south in Tikigaq mythology: the north wind is a man, the south a woman …


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. woman’s knife
  2. The nearest I came to such attention to detail lay in homework in the 1950s. Nobody explained the rationale of learning rhythmically organised groups of prepositions:

    ante, apud, ad, adversa,
    circum, circa, citra, cis

    But it’s possible these came in handy when we embarked on Livy. In response to this mechanical imposition, here is the rhyme with which we defended ourselves from learning anything we might find useful later:

    Caesar et sum iam forte
    Brutus et erat
    Caesar sic in omnibus
    Brutus sic in at.

  3. Alaska State Museum, Juneau, 1976.
  4. The Inupiaq taimmani corresponds to what historians of religion call illud tempus: ‘that time then’ of myth time.
  5. Puguq
  6. Koenig trade journal: 1880-1914, University of Alaska Library Archive, Fairbanks.
  7. One drawback contained within this commerce was the increasing place of carbohydrate, low in fat and vitamins, in previous Inupiaq all-meat diet. A second lay in the tobacco trade, and many Inupiat became addicted. A third was that throughout the 1890s, much dried fruit, sugar and flour would go into liquor production. As if the disease situation were not bad enough, even the most innocuous commodities were capable of being turned into poisons.
  8. The dietary and economic changes that degraded well-being and autonomy were bad enough in themselves. The squalor, poverty and humiliation inflicted on other Native Americans during the same period were almost certainly worse. Many of the Sioux described by Mrs Charlotte in a later section were dependent on government rations such as beef, flour, bacon, sugar and coffee for which they had to apply at reservation agencies.
  9. ‘Capable and clever’ is a rough translation of the term agnagiiksuq, a verbal form built from agnaq (woman) + giik (good) + suq (is) = literally ‘is a good woman’.
  10. The accused was Isuagalaaq, an old woman who also, according to Aviq, put a hex on her own pregnancy during the same period.
  11. The terms for these three classes were igniruaqtuqtuq, qunguqtuqtuq and agliqtuqtuq for birth, death and menstruation respectively. The inland animal football group were the Qapquamiut and the sea mammal team were Utquamiut.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *
*
*

You can add images to your comment by clicking here.