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After the Snowbird, Comes the Whale Pt 6, Sec 4.

The 2018 Fortnightly Serial.

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The Coexistence of Tradition and the Modern


It was as though, once the engine of America had driven into the village, it infused everything it touched.

IT WAS HARD to believe that my ramshackle cabin in modernizing Tikigaq and the world of Asatchaq’s imagination inhabited the same sixty-sixth parallel north. It was as though, once the engine of America had driven into the village, it infused everything it touched. The past had been quiet, tightly interwoven and conducted at low volume in a language more or less impenetrable to outsiders. Tikigaq’s was a culture of gestures and accomplishment which had been pursued for its own sake: difficult things achieved for the reward of continuation and the satisfaction of rightness. It had never been a culture like that of early Buddhists preoccupied with spiritual purity or higher virtue. There had been vanity, competitiveness and cruelty. But these are global behaviours and Tikigaq was a place like any other, except in that periodically it had exchanged ideas with other Native societies and patterned them to existing custom.

And just as the language operated its own extravagant and severe coherence, and things in the pre-contact period, in ways locally understood, fitted together, on the arrival of America with its self-righteous and homologising ambition, the culture became asymmetrical and experimental. Some aspects of this lopsided synthesis had been materially beneficial. And most people breathed more easily in their freedom from shamanistically supervised taboo limitation which operated more ‘thou shalt nots’ than the easy-going Christianity introduced in the 1890s.



I WASN’T ON the sea-ice the day when Tulugaq arrived at his father’s whaling camp so I can only imagine his experience.

Tulugaq’s father, Pauyungin, was a successful hunter and charismatic village leader. He’d assembled three men like him in their fifties; the six others were younger hunters. Pauyungin’s was one of the fiercest and most competent of the thirteen whaling crews and they expressed a collective energy that counterpointed the immensity of the whales they anticipated.

I’d visited them once during an idle afternoon when I was on leave from Yuguuraq’s more modest hunting outfit. And on another occasion watched them paddling between some convergent in ice floes. The image imprinted on my memory, during the moments they came into sight, of eight men bent forward and concentrated on their agonizing labour against wind and current was both intimidating and impressive. It was as though they didn’t have to succeed. They were there already in the place where they belonged and represented, in their umiaq, each figure ghostlike but compact in the white calico or denim snow shirt that covered his parka, an opaque knot of power that was sufficient in itself, an insignia of rightness, performing, in their inherited environment, what Inupiat must do and which defined them.

Projecting from the bow to the right of Pauyungin’s brother, lay the wooden harpoon shaft. Pauyungin, as skinboat owner and the steersman, sat high in the stern, while all eight men, with harpoon ropes and buoy, rifles, knives and grapples on the umiaq floor, paddled in rhythm. The umiaq was a thick-packed artefact, every part of which was lashed, sewn, stretched and minutely adjusted: a composite of sealskins and driftwood, its ribs and framework tense, flexible and operated by the craftsmen who’d perfected it and the women who had sewn the skins tight. Along with seals, belugas, whales and sea birds, it was a part of the marine environment. And like those animals who spent their whole lives feeding on environmental plenty, its own endeavour was to prey on fellow creatures. One of Asatchaq’s stories compared the skinboat to the jaeger, a sea bird with predatory and speedy flight.

Traditionally there had been year-round rituals that regulated the hunt, though between June and October people could forget about them while they were away from the village in the semi-secularizing twenty-four-hour daylight. The ritual cycle started in the qalgit in the autumn and included singing, masked dances, puppet plays, shamanistic gestes, narrative sessions, competitive games, gift exchange and feasting. This was the period when skinboat owners began to assemble their crews against the spring hunt and also put together the equipment and food that would support the enterprise.

All the umialit who weren’t themselves shamans had their personal shamans who communicated with helping spirits such as tatqim inua, the itivyaaq spirit family who monitored taboo regulations before the hunt and the spirits of nuvuk (the peninsula point) who must be propitiated when a umialik led his whaling crew to and over the land and sea-ice boundary.

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Skinboat owners observed dietary and sexual taboos and female umialit both enacted whale behaviour on the sea ice just before the hunt and then retreated to their iglus where they sat passively in enactment of submissive whales. The sea ice vigil was, for the male hunter, further ritualised through dietary abstention. Men on the watch ate nothing but raw, often frozen, caribou meat. Each member of the crew would have his own magical songs. And new songs were contributed by shamans in addition to charms sung to the whales, to the wind and to sea ice as well as to other items such as the harpoon and the harpoon float with its humanoid face mask which also sang its own song and, not least, the umiaq itself. Each part of the subsistence assemblage was thus dignified with otherwordly import. These were just a few of the practices and beliefs attending the traditional hunt without which Tikigagmiut believed that the bowhead would escape them.


Pauyungin and his Crew

IN SPRING 1976, Pauyungin’s crew spoke a mixture of Inupiaq and English. And even their Inupiaq was, in terms of dialect and historical development, varied. One Tikigaq man had spent half his life in Barrow and so moved between related, albeit sometimes identical, dialects. Another man had been raised by his Inupiaq-speaking grandmother and expressed himself in a slightly archaic idiom. The dialect spoken by the fifty-year-old Pauyungin and his brother represented robust twentieth century Tikigaq, slightly rough. And while the younger men spoke well, their vocabulary was limited. The teenaged Tulugaq and a couple of his near contemporaries knew only a scattering of words and most of the whaling camp conversation was therefore lost on them.

To a very partial speaker like myself, the sound of an Inupiaq utterance was mysterious and musical: each sentence-length word a polysynthetic aria of noun- and verb-stems linked to each other with transformative intermediate connectives whose internal structure communicated in an arabesque of mutually coordinated inflexions and whose combined interaction gave rise to the projection of linear, straight-ahead sense, albeit with digressive side observations.

For Tulugaq, also, this display of the comprehensively expressive, represented a mystery that he accepted as the way things had been and part of which remained current for a limited period as partially, perhaps imperfectly, performed by his father’s generation. He understood the issue of language moribundity and regretted it.

When the generation of our fathers is still active, we tend to project longevity, even immortality, onto its existence. We imagine it to be an omniscient regime that intensifies the childish sense we have of our own low status. But that experience is illusory.

When the generation of our fathers is still active, we tend to project longevity, even immortality, onto its existence. We imagine it to be an omniscient regime that intensifies the childish sense we have of our own low status. But that experience is illusory. Tulugaq knew, as I did, that Pauyungin’s represented the last cohort to speak Inupiaq with competence and thereby knew things that only the old language could grasp. The language was what enabled the eye and the mind both to see and comprehend the complexity of existence. With the death of the language, the multiple realities residing within that complexity, would become inaccessible.


TO AN OUTSIDE observer, the spectacle of six or eight men sitting on the ice next to their canoe might represent a simple picture. And to a straight-forward question, they’d most likely respond that they were just on the look out for whales. Indeed, that’s what one might derive from a surface view. Heine, with deceptive simplicity, summarized such an impression in one his North Sea lyrics:

Wir sassen am Fischerhause
Und schauten nach der See1

Heine goes on to describe some of the complicating phenomena that crop up in conversation with fisher people as they contemplate the sea: things both observed and things imagined: a lighthouse, a ship, distant coasts and unknowable strangers. The poem is filled with the melancholy of inertia, an ambience of enclosure limited by the ordinariness of European weather and intimations of imagined experience of elsewhere.

Tulugaq’s experience might likewise have been exotic. For it would have been difficult and perhaps impossible for him to imagine what his elders were seeing and talking about as he sat with them and absorbed similar views to theirs but without the comprehension that, to them, rendered it recognizable and even ordinary. The ordinary, for Tulugaq, was rendered exotic – perhaps he stood back and considered this – because he knew, indeed blindly trusted, that there were things invisible to his view that were perceptible to his elders and which they could describe only in Inupiaq.


I CAN ONLY imagine what Pauyungin and his contemporaries observed as they sat and ‘did nothing’ (sungitchut). The Inupiaq verb form in the negative quoted here crops up both in modern conversation and in older narrative. When it occurs, the listener knows that ‘doing nothing’ describes either a time of peace following work or a hiatus to be followed either by more labour or by an unexpected, even miraculous, event. A couple are sitting in their iglu doing nothing when they are visited by a spirit that changes their lives or an umialik woman sits on the iglu floor during the whale hunt and the spectre of a whale emerges through Tikigaq nuna (earth).

Inupiat are particularly skilled in the art of relaxation and a hiatus between episodes of activity is part of a pattern in the continuum devoted to subsistence, survival and the conduct of a sane life. Indeed, to do nothing signifies knowledge and control sufficient to letting go.

So far as Pauyungin himself was concerned, the interval of inactivity had to do both with high status and shared responsibility. To do nothing was to suggest that he and his contemporaries were important enough to abstain from action which would lower them to the level of younger people and that these latter could be expected to look after the details of action, thereby taking their part in the collective burden.


Soll es eine Vergangenheit geben wenn es einer
Zukunft gibt?2

‘IT’S ANOTHER WORLD. And another view,’ said Tukummiq about the sea-ice vigil. She was speaking about how the village emptied during the late April whale hunt, observing in particular the sudden uprush of commitment among younger people some of whom were suffering from under employment and disaffection. It had been a long winter and sometimes there wasn’t much to do. Individuals were now swept into a communal project in which their participation was needed, an enterprise to which they could belong and which offered collective meaning. The whale hunt transcended everything. As a member of a whaling crew, a troubled adolescent could transform into a serious adult and identify with tradition. ‘This is our life. We are whale hunters. That’s Tikigaq tradition,’ a couple of sixteen-year-olds put it to me when I too was offered low status participation. (If I have vaunted low status as a badge of post hoc modesty that was a condition of the agreed contract. Given my incompetence it couldn’t have been otherwise.)


I’LL REVERT LATER to specifics as observed, as I imagined, by Tulugaq at his father’s ice camp. Here, I’ll briefly trace two instances of change in ritual practice, the abandonment of, or uncertainty about, taboo regulation in the late nineteenth century.

First, as demonstrated by the shaman ‘chief’ Atangauraq. Second, as preached by the anti-shamanistic prophet Maniilaq in the Kobuk region during the same period and whose teachings reached Tikigaq in the mid-1880s.

Atangauraq Violates Taboo

HERE, THE AMERICAN trader Charles Brower gives an account of Atangauraq’s whaling camp when after a two-day wait on the sea ice, the crew finally struck a whale:

We were no time in getting the boat, to chase after our whale, but before we left the ice Atangauraq started to sing his whale song, as he told me after, it was a very powerful charm and had been handed down to him by his father, and was never known to fail. Avataqsiun (a song to make the whale float rise and buoy up a harpooned whale) is the name of these songs. Every man running a whaling (crew) had one and each was different.3

The next scene contains a sudden innovation:

After the meat had been disposed of, the [baleen] was divided. Our boat took a fourth and the rest was divided share and share alike among the rest of the umiat… While we were working the whale, the old chief thought it would be all right if I sent in to the village and had my oil stove and some tea and hardbread sent out, that we had already killed a whale, and if we lit the stove and made tea back some distance in the rough ice, the whales would not know it. This I also thought would be all right with me, so he sent one of his wives in for what we wanted. They were not gone long and that tea surely tasted fine. The old fraud, however, would let none of the others have any, making them believe that he alone had enough influence with the evil spirit [tuungaq] to do these things that were forbidden.’4

This was a turning point in Tikigaq whaling practice and it was perhaps inevitable that Atangauraq should have been at its centre. To light a fire on the sea ice represented the taboo violation that moved people directly towards the pragmatism and convenience of modern America. Given the ‘chief’s’ influence, the event led to further breaches in custom which would lead to the erosion of hunting ritual. Like most of his contemporaries, Atangauraq had seen white men catch whales without ceremonial precaution, and Brower’s record shows Atangauraq acting on this perception. As with Atangauraq’s cooking innovations, this incident would have its impact on the role of women. Up to this point women were only permitted on the ice after a whale had been taken in order to haul the meat inland. The consequence of Atangauraq’s decision reached into the modern era. Women would subsequently spend long periods on the ice to cook; they would also join men on the umiaq benches.

Atangauraq soon regretted his taboo-breach, and learning that crews to the north who had observed the taboo had taken three whales, he decided that the spirit which had told him that he would catch three whales may have been displeased:

At once Atangauraq was jealous of their luck, and we had to get everything in the boat quickly, and started up the flaw looking for another place to haul out. He told me he thought that maybe the devil (tuungaq) was angry with him for letting me have the tea on the ice. At any rate we had not been in our new place more than four hours before we had another whale come right close to the canoe. He finished his spouting and went down just out of our reach.5

Atangauraq now caught a second and bigger whale, and after the crew had towed it in, they returned to the village for fresh clothes:

…we stayed ashore three days. The first night ashore, a woman died in the village. As soon as she was dead, the body was placed on a sled and taken about two miles up the sandspit. Atangauraq was all worked up over the death of this woman, and he told me that it was a bad thing to have her die just at that time, and to make it worse the woman was pregnant.6

Having vacillated between the pragmatism of the tea episode and a suspicion that he had done wrong, Atangauraq now plunged into personal involvement with the latest taboo emergency. Atangauraq’s relationship with the deceased is unknown. But the death of a pregnant woman during whaling might affect any crew which had a connection with her. As a leading umialik and shaman, Atangauraq took the woman’s death as a matter demanding personal intervention:

However, as he was a great shaman, [Atangauraq] thought he might be able to do something, if he went into a trance and heard what the devil had to say. This he promptly did. As before, he worked himself into a frenzy, and while in this trance said that the woman’s body had to be opened and the child taken from her, the body of the child to be wrapped in sealskin and buried separate. If this was not done there would be no more whales taken that year.7

Atangauraq ordered four women to operate on the cadaver and Brower went to observe. ‘Every superstition that these people had’, he perceptively remarked, ‘seemed to me to have some bearing on their whaling.’ It came, therefore, as no surprise that Atangauraq now looked forward to the third whale which had been prophesied at the start of the season. Late in the migration, Atangauraq accomplished this. And while all the other boats remained out on the ice, chief said that ‘as he was a big umialik, and had enough meat and blubber for the next winter, he did not have to go….’8


ANOTHER SHIFT FROM the forbidden was initiated by a Kobuk visionary in about 1880. Born ca. 1860, the young Maniilaq separated from a childhood shamanistic calling and developed a relationship with a ‘source of intelligence’ which came to him in birdsong. There was both shamanistic and proto-Christian meaning to Maniilaq’s claim that his ‘source of intelligence and of thought’ lay in taatagiik, a father-son spirituality. As recorded in the early 1970s by Christian elders, Maniilaq’s mother continued to insist that her son’s experience was traditionally shamanistic:

‘You must be turning into a shaman or something,’ she told him.

‘No, mother,’ he replied, ‘I cannot say I am becoming anything. However I can now understand what the source of intelligence is saying. I listen with pleasure and it tells me that no harm shall come to me. Mother, I am bringing home a ray of light each time I listen to it… Do not worry, it is only the beginning. I want to listen. I want to learn. I know that something is helping us and that the small bird calls from somewhere, the source of which I do not know.’9

Following this inoffensive inspiration, Maniilaq took on the shamans of the southern river communities in metaphysical combat and at the summer trade fair in Sisualik and Qikiqtagruk (Kotzebue), around 1880, ‘he watched [the shamans] with pity, and sat deep in thought. He felt that an evil spirit was among them and controlled them, resulting in an ignorant people who felt no peace, only arrogance.’

Maniilaq’s sayings fall into roughly three categories. There were straightforward historical prophecies, assaults on the taboo systems which were enforced by shamans, and there were mystical utterances which, as we have seen, proclaimed a new kind of vision.

Like his attacks on shamans, Maniilaq’s critique of taboo came from both intellectual and moral positions. First, Maniilaq was able to demonstrate that taboos were illusory and to violate them had no consequence. Secondly, he attacked taboo which he described as inhumane and tyrannical. It was shamans who enforced taboos and often made new ones, so Maniilaq’s dissent was an assault both on shamanism and systems they upheld. There are several stories about Maniilaq breaking ancient prohibitions with impunity:

When a poor girl reached puberty, she wore a parka with a deep-faced hood which hid her face so completely that men did not see her for a whole year. She was made to live away from people in a winter home built by her parents… Maniilaq said he felt compassion and pity for the poor girl. He told the people, ‘The custom of shunning the girl will no longer be practised.’

In a longer story, Maniilaq demonstrates the unreality of taboo regulations by breaking taboo in public:

…one time he went across to Sisualik. The people there considered it dangerous to eat fresh beluga maktak (skin and blubber) mixed with something. To prove that they would not die if they did eat it, Maniilaq mixed the food in front of them. They fearfully moved away from him but…he showed them that there was actually nothing to fear. He did not become ill or die.

As he said about a previous demonstration: ‘There is nothing to fear. I have demonstrated the freedom that is to come…’

Maniilaq’s prophecies about the future were relatively straightforward. But his predictions of technological changes seem also to have been sanctified by the divine authority he had reported to his mother:

‘Everything will change,’ Maniilaq said. ‘This information I receive from my source of intelligence.’ Looking back, it is as though material progress was being interpreted as an expression of and an accompaniment to, Christianity. But the majority of Maniilaq’s prophecies appear to describe air travel, motor transport and the telephone.

For example:

He said that people would travel through the air. Hearing this, the people found it hard to believe him. So great was their disbelief that they laughed at him and said that he was speaking nonsense.

…he predicted that strange visitors would come from the east and travel down the Kobuk through the sky.

He predicted that people would travel in their boats simply by sitting, without the use of sails.

…he predicted that people would speak through the air with ease. If a person spoke from a far off place, people would be able to hear him.

Other prophecies carried mainly symbolic meaning. The following two pronouncements may suggest climate change and the creation of Kobuk River villages:

The two consecutive seasons, whether they be two summers or two winters, have not yet arrived. It would be a time of great hunger, a time of famine.

One prediction is in a different idiom: Maniilaq’s prophecy that a whale would emerge through the earth near the future village of Ambler on the Kobuk river. A storyteller recalled:

The spot where the whale is to surface is very deep. As children we passed it many times. It is so deep, which makes it all the more probable for a whale to appear there.

This, unlike Maniilaq’s other predictions, has its basis in Inupiaq mythology and relates to stories of hill-top whale bones and to whales that rose from land. Land-whale stories were also told in Tikigaq. In these, a whale either surfaced in a village iglu or was conjured through the earth by a shaman.10

This land-whale prediction stands apart from Maniilaq’s reformist thinking about a taboo-free world. Because the whale prophecy derives from folklore and has its origin in an imaginative medium from which he was separating himself, this like his shamanistic ‘swallowing’ threat, lies within the magico-religious tradition. There may also be other, unrecorded traditional aspects of Maniilaq’s thought.

In a similar vein, Maniilaq predicted ca .1899 that Tikigaq would be destroyed in a repetition of the 1893 storm. This didn’t happen. But Tikigaq did, as we have seen, move to escape flooding in 1975-76. It appears that Maniilaq did perceive the large-scale, long-term dynamics of change: technological, cultural and even environmental: things that hadn’t yet happened, but which would happen.

Maniilaq probably existed. I like to think so and there is the evidence of many stories. Especially, his later years in semi-exile when he travelled north, most likely in retreat from negative reaction from home shamanists. But perhaps, after all, initially, he represented people, or a slowly evolving social movement. Whatever the case, Maniilaq was, par excellence, a transitional figure. A man who lived with sensitivity of awareness in a medium of the non-absolute and perceived the present generations as living in a provisional, in-between time.

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 and was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1979. His 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).

An archive of his previous work appearing in the Fortnightly is here.


  1. ‘We were sitting in a fisherman’s cabin and looking at the sea.’ The penultimate stanza betrays a Euro-centric attitude to the ethnic other which is very much of its time: In Lappland sind schmutzige Leute/Platkoepig, breitmaulig und klein./Sie kauern ums Feuer und backen/Sich Fische, und quaeken und schreien. ‘In Lappland there are dirty people. Flat headed, broad of mouth and small. They huddle round the fire, cook fish for themselves and screech and yell.’ Written ca.1825
  2. Why should we be given a past if we’re being given a future? From Warum soll mein Name genannt werden? Bertolt Brecht
  3. Brower n.d.vol 1 part 1:64
  4. Brower nd. 68
  5. Brower n.d.vol 1 part 1:70
  6. Brower n.d.vol 1 part 1:71
  7. Brower n.d.vol 1 part 1:71
  8. Brower n.d.vol 1 part 1:76
  9. For this and all following Maniilaq quotations see my Ultimate Americans: 251ff. and bibliography under the name Angeline Newlin. The informants include Beatrice Mouse, Charlie Aqpaliq Sheldon, Nora Paaniikaaluk Norton, Fay Uyubaq Foster.
  10. Lowenstein 1993: part 1
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