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After the Snowbird, Comes the Whale Pt 6, Sec 1.

The 2018 Fortnightly Serial.



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



When Asatchaq disappeared I began recording narratives from several other Tikigaq elders and I have distributed translations of their stories through this and previous texts.

Asatchaq’s absence was a source both of anxiety, relief from intensity and his weeks away also gave me a chance to broaden my knowledge of Tikigaq society.

The following interlude emerges from this experience. As with earlier sections, the continuity of the narrative is disrupted both by recollection and future events — such as episodes from the spring whale hunt which started in the late spring following Asatchaq’s return.


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

Caught between an archaic culture that had more or less been swept away and modernity, the people born within these interactions live in an intermediate history.

But things were changing. And there was no resolution to the ambiguous and often invisible interaction between an archaic culture that had more or less been swept away and the mobile, transformative cultures of modernity. The people born within these interactions live in an intermediate history. This is a bewildering environment in which past culture looms indistinctly with which many people want to identify without being able to touch it. Most of this section dwells on this experience of intermediacy. Such, is an environment to which I myself also belong. It is difficult to define and not always pleasant.

Just as in Fairbanks I had divided my time between visits to Asatchaq and my life as a thirty-five-year-old Euro-American, so now in the village I associated both with Asatchaq’s generation and younger people who scarcely knew of the old man’s existence.

In imagination I had plunged into a myth world, whose truth, as Asatchaq described it, filled both my waking time and sometimes dream life, while much of my day took place in the milieu of young Tikigagmiut who had been disinherited from the traditions to which Asatchaq clung as a higher reality. These parts were incongruous but in some degree I colluded with both.

Part of present reality lay in this very separation of the generations. Nor of course was Asatchaq the only elder. But apart from him, his sister Uyatauna and the solitary George Omnik, the other elders lived within extended families. These were sociable and mutually supportive kin groups. As in the traditional period, old people quietly provided advice and instruction while younger women looked after the house and children and young men hunted and dealt with stove oil and water supplies.

Cultural separation was nonetheless marked. The elders spoke in Inupiaq, younger folk talked English. One man, the seventy-year-old Umigluk, was demonstrating for me a string game (ayahagaaq) and singing the song that accompanied it while his ten-year-old granddaughter who was hanging on his chair back watched. At which the old man stopped and told her to go away.

“You don’t have to see this,” he said roughly, and so communicated to the ethnographer who was paying him for an hour’s worth of information, a component of his own childhood. The girl took the incident in good heart, but it also illustrated ways in which she continued to be cut off.

Significantly on another occasion Umigluk remarked, “We’re not Eskimos any longer. Our ancestors. They were Eskimos.” He made this observation in the context of several Tikigaq narratives which he’d spoken in mixed Inupiaq and English. Witty, cynical, insightful and often world-weary in the face of modernization he couldn’t keep up with but observed with ironic wisdom, Umigluk was also quite painfully conflicted. He was a leading Tikigaq dancer and was affiliated to traditions that dance perhaps represented more deeply than any other activity. It must have been difficult for him therefore to recognize, as clear sightedly he did, deceptions both in a shamanistic system about which he was dismissive and a Christianity that skeptically he regarded as a convention. The shaman Asatchaq, great uncle of the living Asatchaq, said Umigluk, “hadn’t really travelled to the moon. He said he had. And people believed him. But he imagined it. Or believed in stories.”

And in connection with Christianity: ‘

I didn’t agree with the missionary Goodman. He made things up to keep control. Threatened he’d confiscate the crosses that he’d given people if they went hunting on a Sunday. Well, I went hunting. And he took my cross back. I didn’t agree with him.”

Umigluk colluded with the Christian dispensation but he looked at it coolly and perceived ways in which it had been introduced for the sake of social amelioration.

The confiscation episode, which had shaken several other, often more pious converts, happened more than forty years ago and still it both rankled and shook Umigluk’s confidence in church authority. The incident also highlights a fundamental discord between the nature of Christian symbolism and the function of Inupiaq amulets that people were still carrying in the 1930s. Whereas the cross was taught to be both a sign of faith and a protection against the Adversary (helping spirits had been characterised by the missionaries as devils), an Inupiaq amulet was functional and of the present moment, as needed.

I was forced to accept that the archaic was transmitted through a medium that had been compromised, transformed, as things began changing in the late nineteenth century…

But disjunction and sometimes discord between mid-twentieth century generations was something that I had no right to disparage and I attempted to weave the contradiction into my experience of the archaic. I was forced to accept that the archaic was transmitted through a medium that had been compromised, transformed, as things began changing in the late nineteenth century, through the retrospect of history. Niguvana and her family, as I knew, had delivered the new-born Asatchaq into a construction for him of a traditional environment. It was important nonetheless to remember that in July 1890, precisely one year before Asatchaq’s birth, the missionary had arrived. And while Dr Driggs assimilated more successfully into Inupiaq life than the Inupiat initially absorbed Christianity, his very presence, even as a member of the territory-wide evangelical initiative, was a marked symptom of change.


Given that I was in search, through Asatchaq, of a version of Ur time, this historical limitation was disappointing. But however much the remote past penetrated present reality, I could not renounce current reality. I might not like it, but today was here. This was something, inadvertently, that the teenagers taught me.

In which connection, a 1976 journal entry, reads:

“Am I in Tikigaq to deploy an otherwise threadbare talent?

Is this work in the village for me and in the service of my own writing?”


“Am I deploying my literary inclination in the service of the community and perhaps especially the semi-disinherited children?

Or both in some measure?”

Only twenty-five years later, when I started working on a history of Inupiaq and Euro-American contact, did I come more fully to understand how Asatchaq himself had been born into a time of change: and that while he identified with Tikigaq traditions, he had always made rational use of anything that the white man provided to make existence maximally productive – tools, cloth, firearms, carbohydrate, petroleum products and other imports.

And change during Asatchaq’s early twentieth century was as unsystematic as it appeared, in 1976, to be haphazard – when now, following the Native Land Claims settlement (1971) and ongoing Pipeline construction, a new but intermittent affluence was filtering into the village. From the earliest moments of contact in the nineteenth century, people had adapted, in varying degrees, to anything that happened to come in. Such things could be steel needles, rifle cartridges and transportable machinery. Or they might be ideas, the dominant language of English or elements of Christianity picked up from missionaries or evangelizing Inupiat.

Nor was it a case of one thing simply taking over from another as might happen, say, in replacing a machine part. This is how sometimes we imagine the process of evangelism. But it wasn’t a question, as in the manner of retrospective imagination, of one thing coming in, suddenly and with finality, as a functional replacement. Conversion to Christianity happened to individuals in different and often unaccountable ways. Nor can intangible elements of intellectual life and affiliation ever be given an interpretably absolute identity.

In which connection, Rainey asked Dives Qukuq in 1940: “Why did you change religions?” Qukuq replied through a translator:

Because though at first he believed the shamans and they helped him, his brother told him about Christianity, and when he and his wife capsized on their way from Kivalina to Kotzebue they were able to swim (though he had never been able to swim). He believed after that in the power of Christianity. He thinks that other people changed over because they were afraid their shamans would prevent them from going to heaven which the missionary told them was a nice place where they would have no worries, a good place.

— Dives: 29 from Rainey 1940

Both the material and intellectual phenomena that came north from America arrived in the Arctic in a condition that was curiously deformed by its displacement from its previous environment. Every Tikigaq individual utilized these phenomena in his or her own way and at different tempi. And in this respect the old timers of 1976 and earlier were comparable to today’s youth whose minds, behaviour and expectations were similiarly in transition.

 Here I will adduce some changes that followed Euro-American contact. We have seen how Atangauraq transgressed, somewhat nervously, at whaling in the late 1880s. The following section is in two parts. First, testimony of elders born in the 1870s as recorded by Froelich Rainey in 1940. Second, extracts from my own interviews in the mid-1970s.


 Changes, Concrete and Non-material – from Rainey’s field notes, 1940

In contrast to the six weeks of the spring whale hunt, seal hunting remained Tikigaq’s central activity and from October onward it was men’s daily work to bring home the seals to fulfil subsistence needs. These needs were roughly as follows:

Seal meat and blubber……..daily human diet
Seal meat and blubber…… food
Blubber……..rendered for lamp oil and medicinal use
Seal skin……..material for footwear
Seal skin……..material for lashings
Seal bone, teeth, claws……..tool and amulet construction

With the arrival of technology based on metal, traditional dietary and heating needs remained. But guns and ammunition smashed a hole in pre-contact practice which depended on harpoons, spears and arrows. And while the gun offered a quick and accurate kill, harpoons and floats made for more secure retrieval. 1That said, some hunters born in the 1870s continued to use harpoons. As Qukuq told Rainey, “some men used harpoons after they had guns – safer – might lose [seals] when shot”.

Qukuq continued with this inventory:

Some rifles in village when Qukuq was a child in the late 1870s.
Most men had guns when the Mission came, 1890.
Flint locks.
Shot shells.
Long shells whose iron fittings could be adapted.
.45 and .70 rifles with ‘no hammer.’
.45 and .60 with big iron fittings.

With the arrival of manufactured hunting equipment came a parallel change in human behaviour during the hunt. This change involved both men and women and also signified a new relationship with both seals and other animals. Qukuq and Rainey set out the Before and After as follows:

Before Contact in the 1880s

A hunter used harpoon, arrows, drag lines and bindings to secure prey. He returned from the sea ice, called down the iglu skylight and his wife came out to give the seal a drink of fresh water. After the woman had taken the seal into the house, the man entered, changed his boots, cleaned the harpoon head, returned to the ice, shook his clothing into a shore ice crack and said that while he had taken a seal, he hoped it would soon return [reincarnated].

Before the hunt, a man sat at the iglu katak (entrance hole), sang, lifted his right foot and stepped through the katak. Every hunter knew hunting songs. Dogs were forbidden on the sea ice, in case they got stranded, except on the less productive north side where the ice was more stable.

Post Contact

The technology became semi-mechanized. Giving seals a drink and shaking off clothes stopped after the missionary came. Dogs were used pragmatically. Qukuq said in 1940 that no hunting songs were now used. Many people once had them, and he himself sang whaling songs after he was married [ca. 1900]. Some missionaries said it was all right to keep good luck songs. Others said it was against religion.

While mechanization, whether it was the rifle or the sewing machine, often boosted domestic and community economy, it was more significantly a factor in dismantling the relationship between humans and animals, and the complicated structure of Tikigaq belief systems. For when animals were no longer spiritual beings and became, more mechanically, a source of food, then the intangible, shamanistic component of human/animal coexistence was compromised. Christianity played a part in this. For as Driggs, who sporadically evangelized in the 1890s, told his flock, ‘giving seals a drink of water is giving a drink to the devil.’ Many therefore desisted. Others surreptitiously maintained old practices. The most enthusiastic converts were relieved to be entering a place of new religious safety. Shamanism was frightening and taboo observation a burden. Christianity may not have made a great deal of sense. But to move into the fold represented a departure from anxieties attached to the old dispensation.


Here we move from Rainey’s notes to passages derived from my own work which focus on contact relationships, ca. 1880-1910.2

Important here to remember that five miles south of the village, commercial whalers and traders established a community in 1897. This was the Jabbertown shore station whose mixed race residents were augmented by Inupiat from remote communities who travelled to Tikigaq in pursuit of employment. This, paradoxically, at a time when the Tikigaq remnant was also afflicted by hunger and disease and some Tikigagmiut were on the move to Barrow and the Mackenzie River in the north east.

Inter-cultural Assimilation – Joe Tuckfield and Nuvuk Koenig

The hunting, socialising, fuel gathering, gold prospecting and goods exchange in which Inupiat and white men were often equally involved are recorded in accounts of deals, routines and mishaps. Some of this interaction can be appreciated most vividly against the backdrop of new settlement topography.

In addition to the south shore whaling and trading station at Jabbertown, there were white men living on the north side, extending from the Mission House, Marryat Inlet and the coal-bearing cliffs beyond Cape Lisburne. But all this was fluid. The traders Kelly and Nelson who ran a station on a large bluff called Pingutchiaq were both itinerants. And paradoxically, while Kelly employed southern Inupiat who travelled from outlying Inupiaq areas in search of subsistence, at Pingutchiaq he attracted Tikigaq people to his northerly Barrow operation. The Swansea born whaler trader Joe Tuckfield, on the other hand, had started his early career at Barrow and then moved to Jabbertown. From there he decamped to live for part of each year on a boat at Marryat Inlet.

Tuckfield was probably the white man who most successfully assimilated into Native society. While remaining close to the Jabbertown-based Heinrich Koenig, he married an Inupiaq shaman woman from the Kobuk River and also entered local custom by adopting a young Inupiaq immigrant and naming him Bob Tuckfield. The story of Bob and of Joe’s marriage to Bob’s aunt offers, as follows, a diagrammatic picture of uprooted mid-1890s life in the northwest Arctic.

Born in 1884 on the Kobuk River, Bob’s Inupiaq name was Qimiuraq. In the diseases and famines that claimed many in the lower Arctic, Qimiuraq lost his parents, his adoptive grandparents, and in 1893 the boy and his shaman aunt Avagruaq walked north to Tikigaq in search of food and shelter.   Stumbling up the beach from Cape Thompson, the two migrants found shelter at Jabbertown, and within a few months they were living as a family with the whaling man from Swansea. 3

“Little Joe” Tuckfield4 had worked for Charles Brower in Barrow in the late 1880s and had travelled for Brower to the mouth of the Mackenzie River where he discovered new bowhead feeding grounds. 5 Tuckfield’s find initiated the rush to Herschel Island from where the final bowhead whale hunt was launched by steam whalers at the turn of the century.

Like the footloose adventurers in Joseph Conrad’s stories of the same period, Tuckfield lived comfortably in a world of traders-gone-Native and Natives who frequented white “outposts of progress”. On his schooner Emily Schroeder, which Koenig had bought from another Jabbertown trader, Peter Bayne, after it was damaged in the 1893 storm, Tuckfield and his wife provided frequent refuge for travelers at their mooring site in the mouth of the Kuukpak River. One story, which evokes the social mix of travelers and residents at this intermediate point in local geography, describes how the Irishman Jim O’Hare, Yiiguuraq, perished just north of Tuckfield’s home:

One summer Yiiguuraq (“Little Jim”) took off with Peter Pigaaluk, a “coloured man” (in the language of the time) and also a man from Noatak who worked at Jabbertown. They sailed to Corwin to fetch coal and to gather eggs from the Cape Lisburne cliffs. On the return, their boat was sighted by Tuckfield’s wife Avagruaq and another Tikigaq woman. It was a clear day with no wind, and the two women had a good view of the boat.

After they had watched it for a while, they went back to their work and forgot about the boat. Then they remembered Jim’s boat again. Perhaps the boat travellers had landed for something? Travelers often used to stop at Tuckfield’s to eat. But they never showed up. Some boats went up the coast to look for them next day. They found nothing. Capsized. Sunk… And people said the boat must have been swallowed by an aqalugluk (giant shellfish). This was an area where those shells were found… [Lowenstein 1973-89. Told by Umigluk].

An American world of schooner and coal mine, assimilated here with local folklore, provides a richly textured backdrop to the Tikigaq, Noatak, African-American and European individuals, while the story itself is seen through the eyes of a local shaman married to a Welshman. Two years later, a letter from Jim’s brother in Ireland gives us a flavour of the late Jim’s own dialect. Likewise, we can eavesdrop through Tuckfield’s letters, on his own Swansea idiom: ‘We are all well and happy’, ‘The old woman’s pleased with the sewing machine’, and ‘The trader is leaving yere [sic]’ and ‘with love to hall [sic]’. By 1907 there are ‘byckles’ at Jabbertown, albeit ‘on the shelf…no pump and no tires, you had better send a set for Nuvuk’s Bycles.’ In this audibly Celtic music of comradeship and practical affairs, some of Jabbertown’s more endearing chatter survives.

Tuckfield’s “old woman” at her sewing machine provides another kind of vignette. In addition to wood-burning stoves and metal kitchen equipment, the sewing machine was a significant addition to women’s domestic technology. It was a superb new tool. With a mechanism of visible parts for which some replacements could be improvised, the machine complemented, but did not displace, the arduous process of skin-sewing which still had to be done by hand. The machine was perfect for making clothes from calico and cotton drill. But it also gave women the opportunity for creating outfits for Europeans, and this brought women into the new economy. Unlike those early bicycles, which would, if they materialized, have been only practical on flat parts of the beach before snow in the autumn, the sewing machine was there to stay, and it remains an important item in Tikigaq women’s working inventory.

Another of Tuckfield’s and Koenig’s friends was “Nuvuk” Koenig, Heinrich “Cooper”, Koenig’s brother-in-law through his wife Pausana. Before Koenig went south in 1907, Nuvuk had adopted the German surname and with Tuckfield took over the management of Koenig’s trade station at Jabbertown. Nuvuk had learned to read and write as an adult at the government school established at Jabbertown in 1904 and his English language letters reveal something of the mind of a twentieth century Native who has converted to Christianity and who, like everyone in Tikigaq, continued to struggle with imported diseases. Nuvuk was perhaps the most economically successful Tikigaq man of his generation, and we may assume that Koenig had married into prominent umialik family. Here, in 1907, after Heinrich Koenig had removed to Washington State with his mixed-race family, Nuvuk writes from Jabbertown to his nephew:

My dear Nephew Fred Koenig: Are you good? Me speak to you mama all time of Blessed Jesus. All people Eskimo Blessed Jesus come. And Bertha, Dredrich [Hachmann], Charly Marlin me give you best greeting. [Tikigaq] men shot 4 white Bear…a Kobuk man shot other man dead. I go after fish come back quick. Me go to sled Kobuk. I will write to you letter. You write to letter come back. My baby boy…she is a little sick…Kakoon baby girl she is 3 day sick. 6

It might be easy for readers to smile at Nuvuk’s grammar. But given the circumstances in which his generation adapted, Nuvuk’s is accomplished writing.

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. A retrieval issue that was partially resolved in the early twentieth century by adoption from Bering Sea communities of the one-man umiaq which, in the absence of a harpoon float, could be launched into small areas of open water. Tikigaq hunters also made use of line-held hooked wooden grapples.
  2. Extracts that follow are from my Ultimate Americans, 2009
  3. Lowenstein 1973-1989
  4. In Inupiaq, Yuuguraq: “Little Joe”
  5. Bockstoce 1986: 255
  6. Koenig:1880-1914; Lowenstein 2008:123 ff

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