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After the Snowbird, Comes the Whale Pt 6, Sec 5.

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XXIII.

Introduction to uivaqsaat

MANIILAQ’S REFERENCES TO uivaqsaat1 come in two parts. On some occasions, Maniilaq (see previous chapter, sec. XXI) identifies uivaqsaat as an unknown people who will ‘come round the bend in the river’. ‘…Believe it or not,’ he said, ‘you shall receive visitors who travel swiftly along the surface of the water in a new way.’ These new people would ‘come from the east…They would come from the ocean rounding points and bends.’

These remarks are as arresting as Maniilaq’s predictions of technological innovation. Here, in his remarks about new people, Maniilaq appears to express intuition of geographical units and continental space beyond the home territory.

Contained in the prediction is another insight. This is Maniilaq’s assertion that there was a geographical reality beyond the Inupiat’s local knowledge. In the light of such testimony, one is prompted to see even some of Maniilaq’s prophecies as expressions of an historical sensibility rather than spontaneous intuition. Sixth sense hunches about future transformations may certainly have come into it. But if these hunches do reflect what a Kobuk man was saying in the 1870s and 80s, they perhaps also had historical origin.

How might Maniilaq have come to the apprehension that white people would travel down the Kobuk River in high-powered vehicles? The absence of hard dates for Maniilaq’s biography renders explanation difficult. But there is a relatively secure chronology for the Euro-Americans. No white men reached the Kobuk valley until the summer of 1883 when, for about two weeks, George Stoney explored the Kobuk, returning the next year in a small river steamer. Travelling two hundred miles in this, Stoney further penetrated the upper Kobuk by canoe, returning in 1885 with another steamer. Similarly, J.C. Cantwell of the Corwin coast guard team, reached the upper Kobuk on a steam launch in 1884 and 1885. But by this point Maniilaq had probably left for the north  both to propagate modernism which reached Tikigaq and Barrow in the eighties and also in retreat from persecution by shamans and other traditionalists. And if the first steam launches were there for everyone on the Kobuk to see, there would have been no reason for Maniilaq to prophesy on the basis of what had already happened. It remains possible that at some point Maniilaq generalised from these historical events and used them to predict developments that his descendents would, in due course, see come true.

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This was one expression of the end of north Alaskan shamanism. In parallel with his fight with traditional shamanism, Maniilaq is said to have prophesied the arrival of Euro-Americans and the technologies they’d bring with them. He also preached uivaqsaaq, the syncretic cult that helped lay the foundations of Christianity. When, in 1890, the missionary Driggs arrived in Tikigaq, uivaqsaaq had spread to most of the northern communities and Driggs assumed it to be the Native religion. Born in 1891, Asatchaq grew up in this milieu of change. His Tikigaq family continued to practise many of the old ways, but they too were swept along by the introduction of Euro-American ideas, foods, artefacts and technologies.

XXIV

At Pauyungiin’s Whaling Camp

In these Tikigaq mouths, the language is not a semi-extinct material being. It is simply the medium with which people express themselves.

WHAT WERE THESE middle-aged men talking about with such vigour in a language which is moribund? And who am I to record what I couldn’t understand? Do I recall this as celebrant or mourner? They talk casually in their ancient tongue. I think of the creature described by Solzhenitsyn dug up in a Soviet concentration camp, whose extinct meat was consumed by starving scientists. In these Tikigaq mouths, the language is not a semi-extinct material being. It is simply the medium with which people express themselves. And would they not be astonished, perhaps embarrassed or angry, should someone burst into their company to catch, as though in a chalice, precious language remnants? Inupiaq, to them is living currency, quotidian and ordinary. Just as they sit on land-fast ice in confidence that it’s durable, so they inhabit this moment in which history has come from behind and drives unknowably ahead, while they know it will isolate them into the sphere of previous generations.

XXV

I THINK OF William Blake: ‘The fool sees not the same tree that the wise man sees.’ But the children are not fools, they are simply different and have been hurried into the future.

The young people of Tulugaq’s generation might turn their heads and look behind them in regret. But they are powerless to go back. Nor can they make the effort to refuse what modern America can offer. Like climate change that will soon be upon them, the power of transformation is unstoppable. The local language and rituals associated with it lived together and their dereliction was contained in wider issues. Language loss, as Krauss has written, remains a global phenomenon.

XXVI

ALL WE KNOW is that language – with habitat, environment and the technologies that evolved in a synchrony of control and the project of predation – converged in the most minute descriptive evaluation. How, in what way and when in history, the lexicon and its connecting grammar evolved to provide an interpretation of multiply contingent phenomena is the pressing mystery. It is, in other words, a component of Inupiaq language and a part of its spontaneous and expressive self-presentation.

But we think about this scarcely at all, no more than we might question a piece of wood that we picked up with the intention of carving it. Reduced and washed smooth by the water, was it root, branch or tree trunk? And from which distant river was this detritus cast ashore here? Never mind, it has been transformed from what it had been and we may carelessly discard it. No one will notice if it serves no purpose.

XXVII

Imagined: An Umialik’s Contemplation

HAS THE TRAIL been broken? And has the transition from landfast ice to ice pack been examined, negotiated and the information relayed to the women in the village? Which part of the right-hand sled runner is off centre? The asymmetry could, if possible, be addressed with a compatible mending material or secured with the addition of ice dressing to secure a peg or two that might transfer from upper holdings. This sugar snow will get quickly wetter whether or not we move further out on this present shelf towards open water. Depending on the height of cloud cover, there will be time-of-year thaw setting in now. Which will make for a slower launch trajectory when we decide to push off. That is, once the ice edge gets unstable and we feel the current under us.

Thinning surfaces condition both direction and velocity. You, Tigluk, put your hand on the third rib from the steersman’s starboard. It must be stabilized and mended. The umiaq blanket is nonetheless holding and the women have sewn it properly. It’s both flexible and taut. Every one of these stitches is coherent and their relationship conduces to flotation. The women have butchered, flensed, conditioned, dried, stretched, cut, arranged together, oiled, sewn these ugruk skins I took last spring and it’s the buoyancy of their carriage that we hunt on.

The umiaq has after all a recognizable anatomy. The ribs, joints, gunwale, the harpooner’s and the steersman’s seats, keel, bow deck and overall the impression we carry that it is a species, sui generis, that we animate with our presence, having created a collaboration of driftwood gathered high on the south beach which had its origin on land but which came to land again by sea and which we launch under seal skin. Old stories have compared this craft to birds and other tales compare it to a fish and even to a sea mammal. It is integrated and complex and we propel it towards the whale’s path as though it too in hollowness, like us who fill it, needs feeding. And so our wives performed certain libations and sang over the boat just as the men sanctified the harpoon and the harpoon float, while both these things sang back in their own mystical language that the shamans taught them.

All things come in the particularity of language. When we say what we see, our mouths express things in concretion as the words materially fulfill themselves. Our words have the lexical weight of articulated pieces: harpoon pole, shaft, point, ropes and toggle. And so we give words to ice conditions as wind and water measure out coincident trajectories and transformations.

Spring follows winter. Hard light hatches. We study the sun’s progress from the eastern hills out to the ice horizon. It’s light and still cold. Migrating species pass our ice camp. Spotted seal and ugruk, whale, beluga, old squaw duck and guillemot, eider duck species and several gull types, cranes and jaegers – their names, origins and messages, how to use their wings and feathers, beaks and feet as amulets and insulation. Which migrants fly inland to the cliffs and marshes. We see three kinds of hawk and plovers, turnstones, sandpipers and whimbrels. Puffins, godwits, kittiwakes and phalaropes. Geese, terns, sandpipers and dunlins. So the species multiply and come to us, past us.

XXVIII

THEY WERE TRANSITIONAL hunters — recalling as they did their grandparents’s administration from whose complicated regime even their parents had started to separate. The present pursuit represented, to a surface view, traditional practice. And this was part reality. These were today’s subsistence hunters working to feed their families and supply the community with meat for next winter. They operated a skinboat which in many respects was identical to the pre-contact form. Pauyungin inherited his umiaq and it may have retained some or all of its driftwood framework. Boat frames used by other crews were constructed in traditional style using imported timber crafted in the village or by friends in the Kotzebue region into laths, planks and stanchions. The harpoon pole was a length of freshly imported pine. The shaft and point consisted of metal forged in a mid-western foundry. The rope and float were recent imports. And the harpooner also carried a ‘shoulder gun’ (supputipiaq), a blunderbuss-like weapon, a horrifying blunt thing which shot an explosive shell to deal a coup de grace into a wounded animal. The shoulder gun was a hangover from a late nineteenth century commercial hunting weapon. Nor was the umiaq fitted with amulets. No seat on Pauyungin’s benches carried an underside whale carving. A cheerful, sometimes sanguinary subsistence ethic prevailed among the crew members and this replaced ritualized obedience to the skinboat owner, ceremonial house affiliation and to ceremonial custom.

A neighbouring crew managed by one of Pauyungin’s contemporaries sent a representative to Asatchaq who was sitting out the whale hunt in his solitary cabin and requested a charm song from the old man in return for payment. Asatchaq acquiesced but insisted on transmitting his magical contribution with his own saliva through which the corporeal reality of the song could be digested. The runner backed away from the prospect of this ingestion. And while some people, local Christians, atheists and agnostics among them, still wanted to believe in the efficacy of a shamanistic magic which had generally been discredited, the runner’s refusal typified community reaction to magico-religious practice that the majority found irrational and anachronistic.

XXIX

Intermediacy

ONE OR TWO people were openly critical of my work. And in a later section I will outline Q’s attempt to kill me and thereby put an end to the distraction my work represented to him. On a less drastic level, Elizabeth’s attack emerged from a manic impulsion and she later submerged her regret in a series of friendly gestures.

It took me a long time, however, to understand that there was no way to measure degrees of cultural affiliation. All I could determine was that all of us existed in mildly different spheres of intermediacy that prompts us to look back in nostalgia.

XXX

Teenagers at Pool Table

ON THE FIRST evening of my 1976 winter visit, a couple of teenagers conducted me to one of their games rooms: a largish, ex-Jabbertown storehouse owned by a woman in her sixties which she ran as a coffee shop, the cabin centre dominated by a pool table. It was in those first couple of hours that I noticed how kids created quasi-Inupiaq polysynthetic sentences out of English words slurred together quickly into self-contained sentences. These were Tulugaq’s contemporaries and I noticed later that he operated the same linguistic facility. Thus as Junior asked his cousin as we headed from the Mission building where I’d left my bags: ‘Kaffi-shap-open?’ eliding the question into a single word sentence. It was there in the coffee shop that I saw for the first time how these kids in blue jeans, wool hats and piratical head gear had absorbed the rhythms of their elders’ speech and the co-ordinated movements of hunters. Later I evoked what I’d felt of their lives in this fragment of poetry:

I’d watched young men at pool in Rock’s Coffee Shop,
…………self-confidently rolling with their sea-ice cake-walk
round the table: denims and bandanas,
…………outdoor-booted, quietly competitive,
but less to win than figure a trajectory,
…………the likelihood of one uncertainty against another,
the slice, clack and negotiated tangent
…………to the stream of movement,
a pure line tracked in spontaneity,
…………shooting from the mind
across the intervention, space subverted,
…………intersected by a maze of transitory angles.

They were casually so clever.
…………As though to comprehend the longitude
of points at a distance were inherent
…………in the eye-hand balance:
any swivel or contortion regulated
…………by a small, quick adjustment,
so the bones were in alignment,
…………ribs and pelvis sprung
in an elastic parallel,
…………bodies drawn like compass needles
………………………………………………………..to their polar absolute.

In puffs of chalk dust, the clipped violence
…………of breaks, shots, slams and ricochets,
glances off cue-ball streaking down into the pocket,
…………was hunt and dance-play,
dry, hygienic study,
…………geometric diagram,
of relations they had known since childhood –
…………along telescopic sights and rifle barrels –
with animals across snowy mountain-sides,
…………wild fowl shearing down wind in the twilight,
seals popping up in difficult currents,
…………all things in the grain of habitat and movement,
and whose sudden appearances, so often awkward,
…………demanded an instant counter intersection.

And in contemplation later of how the form and the culture of Pauyungin’s whaling outfit took its form from the future of the last pre-contact generation, I wrote this note of how these might have been in 1850:

Skinboat, paddles, harpoons, harpoon floats made of local materials. Crews of men only, all from the umialik’s ceremonial house. The eight boat men are monolingual Inupiaq speakers. They wear new caribou clothes and carry personal amulets. The umialik carries special whaling amulets. He and his personal shaman have songs to power boat, harpoon and float. The umialik performed numerous whaling rituals in the ceremonial house the previous autumn and visited supporting spirits during the spring. The umialik wife has performed spring rituals with her husband and during the previous winter negotiated with the moon spirit for good fortune in the whale hunt. She bestows power on the boat as the men take it to the open water and draws luck to her husband by mimetic identification with captured whales, initially on the sea ice and for the rest of the hunt as she waits passively in her iglu.

It is an extraordinary phenomenon: the existence of a large body of magico-religious data, an accompanying repertoire of stories and a lexicon precisely expressing the minutiae. All off loaded. A theatrical warehouse of texts, illusions, superstitions, cosmological beliefs.

As though they had emerged from an immeasurably long theatrical performance. Shaking their heads in mixed skepticism and admiration, they emerged into the contact period of the 1880s like a modern theatre audience at the end of a Shakespearean tragedy.

1880 to 1910

THESE WERE THE decades of change. Sweeping north into a reduced community demoralized by disease, the disappearance of the caribou herd and the decimation of the bowhead, Euro-American goods, language and religion decisively took hold. Each of these imports, in their new Arctic environment, would themselves transform. But while what they represented often imprecisely resembled forms they took in the lower forty-eight, they became part of the environmental and cultural uncertainty which they had come north to stabilize.

To some extent, this stabilization was successful. The mixed culture of late twentieth century Tikigaq testified to this. But what was new transformed in equal measure to what it replaced. Shamanism started disappearing and the Inupiaq language declined. The Christians and English speakers of 1976 were the inheritors of this process of replacement. Pauyungin’s perceptions only partially coincided with those of his forebears. Nor in equal measure could Tulugaq see and comprehend what his fifty-year-old father at the same moment comprehended.


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.

NOTE.

  1. Defined as ‘souls of dead people who returned to earth in their original human form rather than in the form of a new baby to whom their name had been given, as would have been the case traditionally’ by Ernest S. Burch, Jr. ‘The Inupiat and the Christianization of Arctic Alaska’, Études/Inuit/Studies, 1994, 18 (1-2), pp. 81-108. (pdf.)

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