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After the Snowbird, Comes the Whale Pt 6, Sec 3.

The 2018 Fortnightly Serial.

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VIII.

Elizabeth. RIP 2015.

I DIDN’T KNOW HER well. She was a beautiful young woman who confronted the world with witty self-confidence and a satirically bruising independence. Elizabeth’s father Pauyungin, was a public man, a successful local hunter and, in the American economy, in demand as a heavy machine operator. Elizabeth’s Inupiaq-speaking mother had brought up seven children. Elizabeth was one of two daughters, Tulugaq was a younger brother.

I was too timid to establish many personal friendships, especially with women. And so I remember Elizabeth from encounters in which I was usually a spectator. Perhaps it was this third party status that magnified my impression of her high octane power. Tulugaq expressed some of the same dynamism. And it was partly on this account that I associated him with the god Siva.1

Realizing only vaguely that that he whom I called Sharva and Elizabeth were siblings, I homologized Elizabeth with Kali Durga, the Mother goddess who was also a version of the Kali Ma, the creative deity who was Siva’s consort. The Durga Kali myths are complex and express the ambiguity of female divine nature. An ancient hunting society version of the Indian narratives lay in Inupiaq stories, which themselves were variants of mythology shared by Siberian and north American peoples.

Inuit myth as expressed most forcefully in Central Canada and Greenland, is dominated by the figure of Sedna or Nuliayuq, the Mistress of the Sea Beasts. Nuliayuq is an abused young woman whose father abandons her but who reaches the sea bed to become the mistress of marine animals. Not unlike Tikigaq’s Moon Man, she is both angry and creative and it was the role of shamans to placate her. But Tikigaq’s most convincing version of the Nuliayuq deity is the ‘woman who won’t marry’ (uiluaqtaq) with whom the Trickster Raven creator (Tulungigraq) allies himself to establish a family. Another parallel version of Nuliayuq is Tikigaq’s sun deity, the abused sister of the ambiguously generous Moon Spirit. These are the women who shout into the night sky in pursuit both of a spiritual connection and to assuage their families’ hunger. Perhaps Durga’s best known story has her mounted on a lion or tiger which carries her to fight the Buffalo Demon which she destroys.

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But Elizabeth was a real person and while these mythological interconnections harmonise with Tikigaq stories, they are, in relation to Elizabeth and Tulugaq, largely associative.

Later, when I studied Sanskrit, I learned the words tejas and tapas. Tejas is splendor. Tapas is burning spiritual energy. Durga had both. And I associated these attributes with Elizabeth — most particularly when she entered Tikigaq’s annual dog sled race. The temperature in March 1976 was thirty below zero and while the men dressed in parkas, Elizabeth roared home, laughing, sweating, contemptuously arrogant, in a T-shirt. The fact that she’d won was just part of the mystery of how her tejas or her tapas warmed her.

Elizabeth also hunted, fished for sea trout in the summer and worked in her father’s whaling crew. Just as Atangauraq broke taboo by taking women on the sea ice to reinforce his crew in 1884, so Pauyungin inherited his ancestor’s boldness, and in 1977 I wrote a journal account of seeing Elizabeth among her male hunting partners:

Elizabeth has meanwhile appeared, looking sunburnt, wild and magnificently pretty. She joins the men on the beluga-line and works alongside them with exaggerated vigour. Her face emerges in flashes behind flying hair and the wolf-ruff of her open parka. Then she stands with the hook-line, undoing a tangle. When she looks up and sees me, she clownishly slips on the ice and pretends to fall over. ‘Hey, when did you arrive?!’ she shouts over. Her great heart-shaped face sends out solar pulses. Beaming radiantly, it sweeps across the ice at me. The wind carries off her next exclamation whose current, switching between me and K, jolts my circulation….‘And then suddenly he’s here!’ she explodes in laughter. The sea-ice starts to rock below me.

‘Shazam!’ I shout back, brazenly unzipping my down insulated parka as though to expose to her alone the god I cultivate in my thermal underwear. ‘You’re like…’ The wind rips away her satirical volley.

‘And I’m like Isis!’ she adds, cracking the ice-ridge with her laughter.

It would have been too dangerous to pursue infatuation further. And I grieved helplessly for her fifteen years later when she lost her twin daughters in an accident from which she can scarcely have recovered until her own death at the age of seventy.

If there was anyone who made me weep, it was Elizabeth – which she did, both later for her bereavement, and also when she attacked me one evening during the period of her seal-flensing episode. It was an unthinking and flamboyant shaft she let fly. And I felt I had been wounded by Durga or an Amazon, as though she had galloped past at speed and casually discharged an arrow, both intended for me personally and also because I was in the path the arrow would anyway have taken.

A propos of nothing much, and in the middle of a card game at which I was a spectator, Elizabeth shouted at me after somewhat feebly I’d said something in Inupiaq:

I know. You’ve come here to steal our language!’

And not having the sense to receive this as nonsense I went out to weep. I was wounded, I suppose, because I both repudiated Elizabeth’s accusation, and also because I believed in the partial truth of an anger that my presence generated.

IT WOULD HAVE been useless to try parrying the absurdity of Elizabeth’s accusation. And one thing that drove me to tears was the impossibility of arguing. I made the same mistake a month or so later when Q wanted to beat me up and tried to get me to fight. I, on the other hand, wanted to talk our problem through as though we might have been in an encounter group at Big Sur. The problem lay, however, in an insoluble combination of Q’s anger and his disdain for my ethnicity.

‘Don’t smile at me, white man,’ he muttered audibly in the post office queue a few days later. ‘I hate you. I shall always hate you.’ Inupiaq friends of mine overheard this remark and shifted uneasily. The corrugated iron walls of the post office would have enclosed an uncomfortable place to stage a dialogue.

Similarly for Elizabeth, at the moment of her attack, her awareness of historical injustice must have been what burned her. Yes, the white man had, in a sense, stolen Inupiaq. Or rather, Inupiat, in response to a hundred years of exploitation and culture contact, had started giving up their language. And while Elizabeth inherited the burden of this, she perceived me, with some justice, as a representative of accumulated forces. I was here, after all, as a post-contact outsider. However benign my motive, I wouldn’t have been in Tikigaq if traders and missionaries hadn’t blazed the trail.

A concluding memory. Both of us were older people when I visited Elizabeth and her twelve-year-old adopted daughter on my final trip to the village. It was 2009 and Elizabeth by then was partially disabled. But she had spent many years digging, pakak-ing, for ancestral artefacts and owned an impressive collection. Two thousand years after the disappearance of the Ipiutak people, there were, despite beach erosion, still things to be found. Much of Elizabeth’s collection was from nineteenth century iglu ruins: household detritus and bits of hunting equipment. But she’d also dug up some Ipiutak relics. She laid one long heavy piece along her palm. It was the effigy of a seal in dark fossil ivory, and together we admired its tranquil beauty.

IX.

SEAL MEAT, SEAL SOULS AND THE SOULS OF PEOPLE.

A FEW DAYS after the seal-flensing episode and during a visit to Pauyungin’s house, I was offered the meat from the seal Elizabeth, Pauyungin’s daughter, had worked on and which had been distributed between the hunter’s household and relatives. Several of the elders were given shares. Given that I’d participated in the original hunt, I was offered a portion. Traditional proprieties of distribution continued to be the way people looked after each other.

As I sat at Pauyungin’s and ate a seal rib, I remembered what the shaman Aua had told Rasmussen in the Canadian Arctic in the nineteen twenties. ‘The greatest peril in life lies in the fact that human food consists entirely of souls. All the creatures that we have to kill and eat have souls… which must therefore be propitiated lest they take revenge on us for taking away their bodies… (Rasmussen 1929:56)

‘What’s happened to this seal’s soul?’ I wanted to ask Pauyungin. And I heard in his imagined reply an agnostic silence. We ate quietly. And the meat we consumed was as inexpressively material as the rabbits for which my mother used to pay the postman sixpence to supplement our post-war rations.

The old ways were beautiful and had infirmed Tikigaq life for hundreds of years. But as both Christianity and materialist relativism took root, it became apparent that most of the pre-contact spiritual order was an illusion.

The vast apparatus of pre-contact Tikigaq human and animal soul theory had, at the latest by 1960, become a thing of the past. The old ways were beautiful and had informed Tikigaq life for hundreds of years. But as both Christianity and materialist relativism took root, it became mortifyingly, underminingly, apparent that most of the pre-contact spiritual order was an illusion. Promoted by the shamans, who themselves represented an orthodoxy of believers, spirit world metaphysics were a deception which in Tikigaq more or less collapsed with the arrival of the missionaries and their assurance of salvation via the intervention of a Christian priesthood and the ‘Heavenly Father’ who would gather the faithful to him in the afterlife.

But there was no more reason to believe in these latter day propositions than there had been to credit the existence of taqtim inua. And while the church functioned well to promote social order, it had, by the 1970s, become difficult for younger people to take its teachings any more seriously than they did ancestral beliefs about which they knew no more than they did Episcopalian theology. There continued to be church stalwarts but the majority lived in an agnostic medium with no metaphysical boundaries. The consequent emptiness was familiar to me who lived within the same relativistic order.

Christianity and secularity developed in parallel and, in a sense, one was a version of the other in that both obliterated the processes that connected Tikigaq people in complicated and intimate ways to life forms. Christianity was an enclosed and enclosing system. It took place at church and in the presence of a priest and his congregation. A convert could leave church filled with spiritual optimism and a sense of having been blessed. Such feelings might be life-long and infuse an individual with the positive experience of grace. The convert might thus also become liberated from taboo-related anxieties and withdraw from complex Inupiaq soul theory. The important thing now was the integrity of the Christian soul and avoidance of behaviours forbidden by the new orthodoxy. But animals and things no longer had souls. Christianity had de-animated the environment.

The new religion was also an ambiguous good. On the one hand it homologised the risk of departure from inherited standards, whatever inherent dangers these implied. On the other, it offered a benign spirituality (the religion of love) and a structure to replace what had started to fall away. The new church was safe, and remains today a place of good works and benign intentions in which the worth of an individual is validated by standards of personal virtue, respectability and commitment to ecclesiastical activities. From the outset, it offered a haven from the uncertainties of shamanistic animism and also suggested positive things to do. To attend church advanced the assurance that you were a worthwhile person adhering to a core of values and an institution in which decency was promoted. To a population remote from centres of political power, the church was also a manifestation of national government. Traditional practice was complicated and involved continual adjustment to uncertain regulations, part of whose rationale was to work within an environment of instability. To attend church was relatively simple. It involved a series of more or less single actions taken in the course of a well-defined time table. And to ‘believe’ was likewise to say and think in ways that were less trouble than the performance of the myriad actions demanded by taboo.

During the period of my work in Tikigaq, I became a typical liberal-leaning supporter of inherited ways. And an opponent of the evangelists.

During the period of my work in Tikigaq, I became a typical liberal-leaning supporter of inherited ways. And, as Mrs Charlotte suspected, an opponent of the evangelists. Such was my somewhat crude position, but it was unspoken and I was always on friendly terms with Christians, albeit white Americans knew that I was a free-thinking Jew and Inupiat assumed that, coming as I did from a foreign land where things were unknowable, I was a loosely affiliated Christian. Whenever I attended church in Tikigaq I was always given to understand that I was being a good boy and getting back on the rails after semi-involvement with dangerous, archaic doings represented by what Asatchaq and one or two other shamanistically informed elders were telling me.

In an earlier section I have reproduced the account that Niguvana gave Rainey of the birth of Asatchaq. This happened north of the village in summer 1891 during the decade when both Christianity and American manufacture were entering the village. Niguvana’s narrative is beautiful and makes clear that her family contrived, in remote fastness, to construct a traditional environment for the child to be born into. There was far more to childbirth, amulet association and the traditional donation of social and taboo affiliation than in the brief process of Christian baptism – though the latter could be a profound experience.

My tendency as his student was implicitly to applaud Asatchaq’s parents’ conservatism and the implication that the baby’s family had distanced itself from the village in an act resistance to modernising trends. And this, in part, was in order to initiate Asatchaq into the old dispensation, a gesture that might have been difficult within the inter-cultural cross-currents of nineteenth century life. But it would be simplistic, from today’s perspective, to adopt a judgemental position from which to condemn the Inupiaq/American compromise as corrupt. The old ways were were of the utmost value but they did not represent an absolute good; nor, de facto, is modernising development an evil. The truth is more complicated: partly, taking the issue of religion as a measure, because Christianity, by the mid-twentieth century, had lost the hold it had established by 1920, and the value of the old ways represented a desideratum.

By the 1970s, in the face of alcohol and drug abuse, the church also continued to offer a haven. It also offered careers, a compelling dress code, ritual paraphernalia, and a secure place in which to pursue virtuous conduct. And as in the aftermath of Daisy’s death, safe, consoling community support and a means of retreating somewhere that people could both reveal their hurt and draw on the comfort of communal belonging.

X.

The Traditional Dispensation and Its Ambiguities.

AS SUGGESTED, IT was partly because the church offered comparatively little to younger people – roughly those under forty – that pre-modern and pre-Christian lifeways appeared attractive. I was, in this connection, encouraged for my work in trying to ‘save the culture’. ‘We’ve lost our heritage,’ was another frequently expressed opinion. ‘We don’t know where we come from. We’ve lost touch with how our ancestors lived.’ Q who later threatened me with violence, expressed a similar opinion. ‘Carry on, you’re doing a good job with the old man. He’ll tell you what we want to know,’ he said. ‘We can all learn from those old stories.’

I was both encouraged and depressed by comments like these. Many of them came from teenagers. And it was helpful to have my efforts reinforced by some of the younger people that I felt I was working for. I believed in what I was trying to do and idealistic about a project of cultural reclamation that Asatchaq himself was promoting in what would be one of the final acts of his life. For Asatchaq would retire that summer to his Fairbanks care home, and this is where he died in 1980.

Rather like a child who grows up in the care of a healthy adult generation and who assumes its longevity, I assumed that the Tikigaq I knew in the mid-1970s represented an enduring reality. I took for granted the continuing existence of Asatchaq’s generation and of those born before 1920. These were Tikigaq’s tradition bearers and they would be here for ever. I valued them as knowledgeable old people. Their lives would, however, be limited. In this respect, I was lucky to have arrived in time. Thirty years later most of them would have joined the ancestors to whom they had introduced me.

The Inupiaq language belongs after all to specific places and describes them in detail often impossible in English.

Local opinion was both personal and generational. But degrees of cultural affiliation and identification were mixed and largely indefinable. What young people meant by the ‘old ways’ was often vague and represented dissatisfaction with the present without much idea of the nature of a previous alternative. Rainey and his informant Dives Qukuq in 1940 drew up a partial list of pre- and post-contact activities and the same could perhaps be attempted (not by me) on a larger scale over the following generations. Neither Krauss nor Kaplan, in their work to restore or revive Native languages, labour under the assumption that post-contact education programmes could promote linguistic fluency. What they can provide is familiarity with and a grounding in a home language. And a feeling of connection with inherited linguistic expression. The Inupiaq language belongs afterall to specific places and describes them in detail often impossible in English. And today’s people who grow up in such places are entitled to be in touch with inherited but lapsed speech patterns. One must assume that it is the same with the rest of the old order. The alternative is to be born into a condition of rootlessness in the very place to which historically one belongs and where the ancestors put down roots they were incapable themselves of extending to future people.

But of course those ancestors were themselves transitional people. Their lives, beliefs and habits were changing all the time. Such changes were often imperceptible: there existed frameworks of practice which, given the old world’s slower pace of change, could be identified as orthodoxies. Once Euro-Americans arrived, the pace of change accelerated. Still, one characteristic of the fast changing modern age is the desire to be in touch with the traditional world and the increasingly inaccessible identity of what appear to be stable forms.

XI.

Past and Present. Time and Change.

ELIZABETH’S ARTEFACT COLLECTION was beautiful but not unique. In June 1977, on the day that two RCA engineers activated the satellite dish connecting the community to satellite TV channels, I was mortified to discover that large numbers of Tikigaq people owned collections (navraat – old things) they’d excavated. Having thrown the TV switch, the operatives toured the village, mopped up private collections of bone and ivory carvings and flew out with their collections in shoe boxes.

I used to spend long hours beach-combing, and would have been a collector if I hadn’t been shy of obtruding a financial interest into sub-surface Tikigaq and appearing eager to clean up on the things that people were, in fact, keen to exchange for currency. I was already paying my informants for verbal navraat and, paradoxically, was embarrassed by the prospect of appearing to be a greedy white tourist. I was, in fact, involved in a long-term collecting activity. And however idealistically I might frame the project as an act of reclamation, it predicated a process of hoarding.

On the floor of my cabin lay the floppy green compartmentalised canvas hold-all that I’d bought in Chicago to take on previous holidays and into this I threw the cassettes on which Asatchaq and other informants had recorded songs and stories. Logistically I was a beginner, operationally a buffoon. Tukummiq would talk about the old man ‘filling’ a cassette. And that’s how I started to experience the materialisation of time, memory and narrative that Asatchaq and other old people imprinted on my little plastic tablets. Casually, I ignored the presence of this accumulating pile of recorded orality, but was gratified by moments when I could snap a tape out of my little SONY and drop it, having scribbled information on the label, into the bag that lay half-open on a patch of lino.

Visits to this village inevitably made white people greedy. And I was no different. Awareness of past realities was overwhelming, rather as when Driggs’s temporary replacement, E.J. Knapp, observed what he called an atmospheric ‘weirdness’:

…a short distance to the southward [of the village] is the weird Eskimo graveyard two miles and more in length by about a third of a mile in width…Exposed to the weather the jawbones have bleached so that they resemble trunks of blasted trees, and the bodies have dissolved. Many of these ancient so-called graves have fallen into utter ruin and the bones and clothes that shrouded the dead lie scattered on the ground. 2

Like Bishop Rowe before him, Knapp sketches a picture of strange colouration: the grey/white metaphysically ambiguous bones of the Tikigaq dead with flowers and driftwood crosses rising among them:

It is a curious sight…There are human crania and other bones lying above the surface of the soil, but it is pleasant and hopeful to see growing up among them delicate wild flowers of the most beautiful forms and colors – the daisy, the yellow poppy, the forget-me-not, both blue emblems of the resurrection…when these dry bones shall live. And more hopeful still it is to see the rude wooden cross that marks the more recent graves where rest the bodies of the Christian dead, sometimes buried under the ground, but as often placed above it…3

And sometimes I felt that while Tikigaq’s anterior history no longer existed, that past exerted so strong a presence that it pulled one down and backward as though exerting a gravitational drag that inevitably would take one with it. We tend to imagine the past as a fantastic and partially comprehensible dream. What happened long ago exists in narratives and memories and even when materialised into contemporary media, it remains dimly out of reach, a film-like, one-dimensional backdrop to the concrete nowness in which we experience tangible and ongoing present movement.

The opposite in Tikigaq seemed sometimes closer to the truth. While the past, whether it lay in dark, cold tundra or in enigmatic narratives, even when these must be excavated by sometims intrusive ethnographic pestering, was present reality. Some of this, in the shape of burial relics and animal bones, lay visibly on the surface revealed by snow melt and in summer grasses.

But the weight of the past, its vast, dignified and largely unknowable accumulation, lay mostly hidden, albeit magnetically drawing the mind to dwell in its presence, a presence that even given the prior, biological fact of death, refused to die and was still here animated in its own afterlife while the present flitted above it: and that it was the present that constituted the unreality: our shared, changeful and indeterminate present with its transient, mobile, superficial procession of calculable minutes which were haunted by our sense – in comparison with the semi- or imaginatively perceived wholeness of what lay behind – of incompleteness.

XII.

WHILE IN THE mid-1970s I still longed to engage young people in my research and create a communal initiative, I soon began to realize that I was really more of their party than that of the elders and this generated in me a kind of inertia that suggested that I should simply live in a present as experienced by teenagers. This especially in the period of Asatchaq’s absence.

But with this difference. I had the enthusiasm of a quasi-evangelical newcomer. For the kids, any serious curiosity about the ancestors was a fact of life that would outlive elders from whom they were already disaffiliated. And I too was a modern person, hovering between varieties of western cultures. Thirty years later, the North Slope Borough commissioned me to write a social history of the village for high school students. But this would not be published for yet another thirty years and would reach the children and even grandchildren of people I knew as kids. Here was another demonstration of change and the ambiguous impact of a white man’s enterprise.

XIII.

THE HISTORY OF social change is too complicated to be summarized and the process of change also changes, as it continues today. Here I can only identify two aspects of the transformations that moved through Tikigaq when commercial hunters arrived in the 1880s. These two mutually connected changes lay in the phenomena of both language loss and secularization. True, Christianity had partially replaced shamanistic animism by the early twentieth century. But in so doing, the church had swept aside the mass of spirit lore that had infused existence and whose metaphysical theories connected all departments of life, from whale hunting to the rituals surrounding eating and child birth.

XIV.

April 1976. Tulugaq Walks out on the Sea Ice.

ONE AFTERNOON AT the outset of the whale hunt in early spring, I watched Tulugaq leave the village and launch himself onto the sea ice till he disappeared behind a pressure ridge. Straight backed and alone, he walked fast and purposefully and unlike a seal hunter who would have carried rifle and backpack and most likely be pulling a sled, Tulugaq strode along empty-handed.

With his namesake in mind, Tulugaq accompanied his progress with a raucous, throaty howling as though hatching himself into a complication of the traditional and the secularly liberated.

What was he up to, travelling that afternoon into the immensity? Tulugaq was a thin young man and, more to the point, he was doing something weird with his arms as if priming his body for take-off. He held his arms bent at the elbows and he was pumping them forwards and backwards, as though ploughing the air with wing stubs – this, to no audience than myself unobserved in the middle distance. Perhaps with his namesake in mind – the mythic Raven Man who had created Tikigaq – Tulugaq accompanied his progress with a raucous, throaty howling as though hatching himself into a complication of the traditional and the secularly liberated.

Yes, Tulugaq (‘raven’) was croaking convincingly like the ravens he’d watched circling over carrion on the cliff tops at Capes Lisburne and Thompson. Maybe he was stoned. He certainly seemed happy and happy to be alone – though he was moving in the direction of the family skinboat where his father and uncles were watching for bowhead, and talking Inupiaq.

Whether or not he had tuned in to the Raven myth that he’d read in my notebook, Tulugaq communicated a solitary and euphoric freedom. Liberated from taboo, free like a detached observer, to visit his father’s whaling camp, munch doughnuts his mother had fried in seal oil, free to sit and, like his father’s anthropologist, observe Tikigaq’s hunting practices as they had evolved, free to come and go, stage fights on dry land, sleep with girl friends and insist on his own kind of food – canned sardines and tuna fish – that separated him from tribal history. Free, not least, to squawk and bellow, whether or not he was associating with the mythic namesake he had encountered in my folder of translated stories.


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. See Part 1.
  2. Knapp, Letter, July 29 1904
  3. Knapp, op.cit

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