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After the Snowbird, Comes the Whale Pt 6, Sec 7.


The 2018 Fortnightly Serial.
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I’ve been on the sea ice for four days…

sleeping in snatches, while the mind associatively shuttles between memories of childhood holidays on chilly English beaches. There is also Buddhist emptiness to this boundaryless inactivity which opens like a colourless flower, while on that bitter English shingle, stiff wet towels chafe salt into the thighs, teeth chatter, wind flings grit into fish-paste sandwiches and we drink frugal draughts of diluted Kiora (gruesome, ersatz squash we took for granted). Time passes, changes and repeats in memory. Here on the ice, the emptiness is inhabited by scavenging sea birds, and the expectation of death to be followed by a rejoicing which is its contradiction.

LARGE WHITE CLOUDS whose darkened edges are like water-stains on sixteenth century paper. Along with birds and mammals, hunters and the hunted, clouds migrate towards non-being.

The ice creaks.
Sikum inua atuqtuq:
‘The ice spirit’s singing.’
What does the ice say?
Like me, it’s singing:

Aya-ya!
‘I’m cold.
All the way to the heart!’
Aya-ya!
Oi vey!

THE WEATHER HOWLS. In tents and back in village houses, the painful turbulence of men and women. There’s rugged, formidable joking. Big Mamannina says, ‘Ariggaa! Fred qiaruaq, (Great! Fred was crying!)’ The poor amiable, inept fellow managing the village store has been caught with his hand in the cash till.

Mamannina mocks my rudimentary Inupiaq and lisps my name, baby-fashion, parodying my perfectly good pronunciation: ‘Aniq-sua-yaaq uv-ang-a, I am Aniqsuayaaq.’ She tears up my muscles and returns them as jelly. The ability to joke is a species of power. The harsher the joking, the greater your unassailability. The young are taught indifference to ridicule. On another level, they must heed their shame, living like flayed rabbits until they stop making mistakes. Thus joking is action, a response to wrong action, and a sign of action. Non-Inupiaq-speaking Inupiaq children know the word for ‘scold’, and uses it in English sentences. ‘My mama sure suak (scolds) me!’

I must get used to suak-ing too. At last year’s hunt, I was scolded by women till my ears bled for not keeping the blubber stove hot. This year I am scolded for using too much fuel. If I could reconcile these two extremes, I might achieve insight. Or perhaps just one hot ear and one cold ear.

FOOTNOTE ON MAMANNINA. She is a tribal healer, still in training in Kotzebue with the celebrated Della Keats. Last year I sat on the floor of her house while she massaged my back. ‘You got all this meat round your shoulders twisted,’ she mumbled half-intelligibly.

‘Put your teeth in when you massage your ethnographer,’ I wanted to tell her.

Shamans in hunting cultures must both ingest and utilise their power, the tribe otherwise will die. The relationships between shamanism, yoga and Buddhism are clear.

The treatment was rough. Had Mamannina lived last century, her amulet animal would have been brown bear. I thought of the story of the shaman who married, in series, a polar bear, a brown bear and a whale. When they started to quarrel, the animal laid a skin of her species on the floor and fought her husband. The man was torn to pieces, died, rose to kill his wife and marry the next one, thus in dismemberment/rebirth ordeals, accumulating power. The wisdom we derive from this is perhaps lies in allowing ourselves to be taken apart and consumed: embracing totality with such thoroughness that we disintegrate in its embrace. Those who can reassemble themselves perhaps undergo the archaic experience and live with re-forged contact with the arcane forces. Power deriving from the ordeal is what Buddhists dismiss as siddhis (magical powers). The higher path is to contemplate the absolute without desire. The object being to see and not to appropriate, analyse, not wield. This is possible in post-neolithic societies. Shamans in hunting cultures must both ingest and utilise their power, the tribe otherwise will die. The relationships between shamanism, yoga and Buddhism are clear. Yoga at its lowest is shamanism: the development of supranormal faculties, cataleptic dreaming, out of body soul flight. Shamanism, at its best, can bring enlightenment: what a Bering Sea man described as mind and body illumination (qaumaniq): a lighting up from within the body: an up-rush of radiance flooding head and torso, just as endless summer fills the winter’s body.

(As I finished this impressive Note to Self, I heard Mammanina mutter: ‘Thank you, Jesus, for this doughnut…’)

NEWS ON THE RADIO of Jimmie Carter and Fritz Mondale. Whales, bears and seagulls also bring news of their campaigns with happy but no less moribund, freedom. What, afterall, can a shaman who marries into a polar bear family expect but be irritated by his wife, while she in turn will insist on fighting him to the death?

THERE ARE TWO things in the tin: golden doughnuts fried in seal-oil, and hard-tack (pilot crackers). I reach for a doughnut. Mamannina says, ‘You’re not supposed to eat that. Qaqqualat are for naluagmiut (crackers are for white men), doughnuts for Eskimos.’ Mamannina is joking, but she also means what she says. And if I were silly enough, as I was last year, to argue, we could have a devilish row, and I’d end up on the brown bear-skin, my flayed meat steaming. Inupiaq people identify with what they eat: each village allying itself with the animals it loves and eats. Thus, whale in Tikigaq; fish, muskrat, caribou, and black bear along the Kobuk River.

It goes further than this. Hunting the whale and then ingesting it and storing its meat underground on the Point, both Tikigaq land and its people become whales. In which connection Agviqsiina (‘whale-man’) said to me as we watched a brown bear moving across Cape Dyer last year:

When that bear sniffs me, he thinks “Ah, maktak! (whale-skin).”
When he sniffs you, that bear smells hamburger…’ (‘But kosher,’ I stopped myself from adding.)

Likewise my joking partner, who soon will want to kill me, Q said:

It’s a good thing you like my food. If you didn’t like it, you couldn’t be my friend.’

Both physical and social survival in the community are predicated on the meat-ceremony. The most basic human contact beyond language and sex lies in sharing food.

Both physical and social survival in the community are predicated on the meat-ceremony. The most basic human contact beyond language and sex lies in sharing food. In a hunting society where meat has a part in most activity, there can be no participation without happy commitment to this. My greed, which in my other life I would prefer to conceal, is a mark of courtesy here.

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But Mamannina is presumably aware of an irony in her remark about doughnuts. Certainly these treats are, on account of the sea mammal oil in which they sizzle, special to this locality. But the recipe is Euro-American, the first flour-based cooking having been introduced to the village by whaler-traders after 1880. Asatchaq has told several stories in which flour soup and pancakes feature. And the innovating shaman Atangauraq shattered whaling taboo in 1884 when he took women out to his whaling camp so that they could cook for his crew. And while carbohydrate-based foods helped replace the wild game resources that the white man had over-hunted, new foods eaten in combination with meat and oil also entered the old taboo system. Thus in a story just told me by Asatchaq: the ghost of a woman who had fried hotcakes with the wrong kind of fat at Cape Thompson in about 1900 appeared in a dream to Asatchaq’s father-in-law to explain the consequences of her dietary infraction. It should also be said, in defence of two opposing points of view that 1. pilot crackers entered the native diet during the same decades, but that 2. they seem not to have been incorporated into dietary regulations. There may thus after all be some justice in Mamannina’s comment.

THE LAMENT OF SARAH, a middle-aged skinboat owner, about the younger set and hard times in general. She says this at breakfast:

Those boys never come to camp now. They’re too lazy. The girls don’t come either. They start coming at the beginning of whaling, but then they get bored. The teenagers aren’t interested anymore. They want to go sleep in town. They don’t do anything. Coal is so expensive. We’re running out of siqpan (blubber) for the stove. Not much driftwood either…no driftwood on the north beach, and the trail along the south beach is terrible…’

More on this later. But there’s an historical synchrony to Sarah on the subject of driftwood and Mamannina’s observation about doughnuts. Carbohydrate entered the diet during same the difficult years when Euro-American whalers plundered the south beach for their ship’s furnaces. After they left in about 1910, the driftwood deposits grew again. But once native people started to build European-style houses and abandon seal-oil lamps in favour of wood-burning stoves in the 1920s, the beach was again denuded of driftwood. When imported stove oil became the heating staple of the mid-1960s, the driftwood piled up again and there’s plenty again on the south beach.

‘DON’T WAKE ME in the morning!’ said Umik only half-humorously last night before turning in. We all lay down on caribou skins and wrapped ourselves in old chicken-feather sleeping bags. We slept from 1 a.m.to 3.30. The stove went out at 2 a.m. and I woke cold, grabbed my parka which was white and stiff with frost already and had just managed to warm up when someone knocks on the tent-frame. ‘Whales out there! Two whales!’ ‘Let them go by,’ I secretly plead. But Umik gets up. Sarah gets up. I pretend to sleep until someone pokes my leg. ‘Whale. Get up!’ I hunt my socks. They’re very cold and wet. Umik is saying, ‘Where’s my hat? Where’s my gloves? Where’s my kamikluks (trousers)?’ jabbing his voice good humouredly but also in a sleep-fuddled and disoriented imperative. Sarah is already up and priming the Coleman to boil water.

I stumble outside. The ice hits my eyes painfully, but the wind’s dropped since yesterday. Danny and Gordon are there, and we stumble round the skinboat, unloading caribou skins and rifles. We wrench the boat round on its sled till the prow faces the water and start pushing along the trail through a gap in the pressure ridge and so towards the ice-edge.

There are four of us dragging the boat. It’s not far to the water, and although the trail’s rough, the sled-runners move easily. Down by the lead, great new fissures in the ice have opened. There are gulches, ultramarine, immeasurably deep, into which the whole crew, boat and all, might be swallowed at a single shudder of the ice-pack.

We fix our windbreak into ice-rocks that I piled up yesterday. The invisible crack by the windbreak still creaks noisily. We stand in the tremendous silence which is broken only by the movement of this deep internal fault. ‘It must need oiling,’ says Umik. He chops a narrow gap in the ice as though starting to excavate the entire sea.

The sea is empty. After an hour, we see one whale far to the north of us. Then one more. The wind is steady and cold. A few glaucous gulls. Streaks of strato-cumulous, white on blue sky, whiter above the horizon.

10 a.m. Eight whales cross the horizon. They blow drifting triangles of vapour that collapse as suddenly as they rise. One travels closer to us. It breaches and we see the white blaze on its tail. ‘Like water-proof boot’ (with its white seal-skin banding) one man murmurs.

‘his-flippers-
‘Holy-cow-I-see-’em…’

murmurs Umik, his voice undulating with the whale’s movement, the words ‘his flippers’ rising and falling like whale’s breath.

NOON. I SLEEP for an hour. Dream: I’m with an Inupiaq woman who’s angrily complaining about the way John Arlott, recently dead, has been treated by the MCC. ‘They shouldn’t have done it to that man. They shoulda kept him on that programme!’ (Test cricket commentary). Rising to close a window through which cold air is pouring, I explain to a white American woman that English summers are flavoured by Arlott’s radio commentaries. ‘His voice pours through the air like west country cider, mellow and seasoned but with the bite of shrewdness…’ My hand strays, by mistake of course, to the Inupiaq woman’s thigh, which is tight and brown under a floral mini-skirt. I apologise. This is certainly not cricket. In myth, such as the one with the polar bear wife, my wrist would have been severed by knives in the woman’s vagina.

SARAH CAME TO the village in the 1960s from Kiana, a river community to the south-east. Eskimo outsiders have a hard time here. ‘Times have changed since I first came,’ she laments. ‘They always used to dance when they caught a whale. Nowadays it’s only Bingo, only Bingo.’ This is not even half-true, but sufficiently to the point to preoccupy an observant, semi-marginal resident’s musing.

Sarah continues, ‘Mamannina is good, the way she comes down to camp with us. She’s a bit noisy sometimes.’ Sarah wrinkles her nose. But she’s tough. Not like me.’ Two women more different would be hard to find. Mamannina is the village bone-setter, masseuse and general healer, with that lacerating female Tikigaq scorn whirling from her like randomly aimed whips. Sarah, by contrast, is vulnerable and nervous. Like many Kobuk people, she is soft-spoken, with a contemplative passivity that masks her tough-mindedness.

I respond to Sarah’s remark with a sort of laughing assent. Laughter here is a concomitant of language and has a code of its own. There’s the laugh of the skinboat owner which proclaims modesty and self-deprecation. There’s the laughter of chagrin which acknowledges pain as an unavoidable component of existence. There is laughter that rasps cruelly from the throat like knife blades. Wild, often hysterical, laughter reels out of the chest in great ribbons of ectoplasm. (This in response to self-critical clowning, especially when there’s death in the story, the fool-narrator having narrowly escaped being drowned or eaten alive.) There’s also the empathic but self-protective laughter which says, ‘I understand what you’re saying, but factors too numerous and complicated to go into forbid me to take sides.’ I’m hoping that Sarah has interpreted my laugh as such.

THERE’S COMPETITION BETWEEN the younger men at whale-camp over how much sleep you can do without. ‘I haven’t slept for three days.’ ‘I haven’t slept four days.’ ‘Saglu! (lies). You slept two hours yesterday.’ The important thing is vigilance. This must always be in the spirit of challenge. We watch through one long skein of day, interspersed with timeless speculation, stories and the rhythm of migrations. The light suffuses memories of land and night, bleaching the negatives that lie packed in the unconscious.

Sea, light, daylight spirits. In myth-time: raven creator, light-streaked peregrine and toccatas of mythologically charged life force…

‘THOSE SCIENTISTS UP HERE counting the whales… They lie, their figures aren’t correct. They try counting the caribou too. How can they count every caribou in Alaska?’ This is Inupiaq pragmatism: information must be authenticated by the senses. By on-the-spot observation as measured against an accumulation of traditional knowledge.

I VISITED PAUYUNGINA’S camp about half a mile north of us today. The trail along the ice-rim is easy, but there are many rough patches where I fall into pot-holes.

Pauyungina’s is a big, prestigious, high-competence whale-crew and I’m nervous about my visit. I have left two undermotivated and inexperienced people back at Umik’s. At Pauyungina’s, there are eight men by the boat, with others in the tent and in the village who’ll come out as reinforcements. It isn’t just the size of the crew that gives it status. Pauyungina is a big man, a successful hunter who also prospers within the American economy as a heavy-machine operator and site foreman on North Slope development projects, which includes our own village move. Twice mayor, Pauyunina flies regularly to Barrow for Native Corporation meetings and his prestige gives him the pick of the village for his whaling crew, which therefore has a powerful balance of weathered older men and tough young hunters.

I approach from the south of Pauyungina’s camp through the frozen carcases of eight flayed belugas. Belugas yield a delicious white maktaaq (skin and blubber), but the meat is full of parasites and it’s left out for the foxes and gulls. These great corpses lie in their frozen blood like rusted submarines or burned out fusilages. One freshly caught beluga is still moist and gleaming. A slit is opened in the body and a greenish, transparent sack comes flopping out on a meat-hook. This was a pregnant female I realize with horror. The thin elastic tissue of the uterus is slashed with a knife, and the baby tumbles with a splash onto the ice: glistening, perfect, eyes blind behind their epicanthine folds. It has a delicate semitic nose, the whole creature curled like an ammonite or prawn, suspended between life and death and ineluctably exposed now. The cord, thick as a hose-pipe is cut and the blood gushes. The creature has a tiny penis. The skin is storm-cloud grey, delicate and silky. I’m aghast with terror.


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.

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