Skip to content

After the Snowbird, Comes the Whale Pt 7, Sec 1.

The 2018 Fortnightly Serial.



Part Seven


The House of Time .

NO BELLS RANG, no trumpets blazed for Asatchaq’s return. Like many western people, I’d lived by chimes, pips and announcements ever since we’d listened to the WW2 news that structured time that otherwise, apart from war news, was childishly indefinite. Now, as I floated, part in the old man’s time, part in indecision, things seemed little different. I was waiting for a climax. What this might be lay far beyond imagination.

Early experience in the middle 1940s was followed in the next decades by school-mediated myth that washed through text books, sending the mind round Triton’s winding horns and other indistinct reflections.

Early experience in the middle 1940s was followed in the next decades by school-mediated myth that washed through text books, sending the mind round Triton’s winding horns and other indistinct reflections. Hence perhaps my sense of Asatchaq emerging like a Triton and his horn intact still, sea ice damaged, but still bravely flourished. His return to the village was normalising, soon got-used-to. Not ‘Six feet under,’ as one man commented.

I’d been walking round in aimless fashion and re-met him by chance. He was crawling towards his cabin and pushing a cooker. Someone had laid the stove atop a piece of cardboard and Asatchaq was shoving this towards his cabin.

He was physically depleted but still had expectations, fantasies perhaps, of family life. Mrs Charlotte, though he didn’t know this, had died some months back. But Asatchaq still planned a re-start. With this in view he’d ordered the cooker from his bed in Kotzebue, laying out the money I had paid him and his checks from the state government. A social worker helped him do the business.

With help, we got the cooker though the cabin’s threshold. But the stove stayed unconnected. The generator never could have coped with it. A huge white elephant.


THE SPECTACLE OF Asatchaq on all fours in the snow was terrible. He’d been grunting with the strain and spent the day exhausted. But glad as he was to retrieve his cabin, he took challenges for granted. Just as a young man he’d walked out to hunt polar bear, he pursued his business, stoically accepting what experience presented.

The sight of the old man in a baseball cap and muskrat parka pushing that cooker on its cardboard wrapping was a horror.

I was appalled. But whatever had to be done, he took it on. The sight of the old man in a baseball cap and muskrat parka pushing that cooker on its cardboard wrapping was a horror. Was this, I wondered, put on for an audience? I didn’t think so, but remembered Malvolio rushing off in fury. Silence followed. Or was this Lear, too, storm-bound outwardly? Inwardly determined. Or Prospero dictating with his staff towards an end that would conclude politically without further intervention?

None of this, to Asatchaq, was tragic. It was just what happened. ‘Well, th’ event…’ as someone in Lear vaguely comments. As though Asatchaq had torn ahead, pursuing the impossible, more like than Lear, the tortoise in his race against the hare, shoving an icon of the super-modern, oblivious of New Town Site where the new generator might power his cooker.

I wondered what had changed. The old man’s illness, his exit and re-entry were small events in a history of which I had the briefest understanding. I’d only recently arrived. And in my hunger for a clearer understanding, I must be content with partial comprehension.

This was mortifying subordination. I thought of journalists sent out to trouble spots who found themselves suddenly at the centre of an explosion. Something unaccountable had happened. A space was blown open. Unearthly silence. A child’s cry. Dogs. Some passing carrion. The character of one thing changed to another.

I’d been arrogant in my assumptions. Things out of my control were happening. They would happen anyway. There was Asatchaq. And, in counterpoint, the village. The factor of their separation was the one thing that I understood by simply watching. But while modern people looked ahead, Asatchaq — despite the cooker — gazed backward.


TWO IMAGES CONTINUED to transfix me. First, was the wound hole that he told me lay in the grasses we’d identify once the snow had melted. I could feel the wound’s presence, as though its putative existence summarised the village history: the wounds Tikigaq had taken, each pre-empted by the primal harpooning: that life-promoting promise of stability, identity, discrete society that the myth suggested. The wound was both a curse and blessing. Nor was Tikigaq alone. Every place on earth was struck thus, somehow. People likewise. The wound of Amfortas: and Wagner’s holy yokel, crying out: ‘Die Wunde!’


THE SECOND IMAGE was more remote. It arrived like newsreel frames from 1900. Asatchaq aged nine or ten was tonsured, bandy legged, dressed in skins and monolingual.1 Adults still pursued the autumn rituals in the two surviving qalgit. Children were excluded, and Asatchaq with all the others climbed their families’ qalgi roofs and lay on their bellies watching the rituals through the skylight.

Below were the umialiks and the shamans, transformed to sacred beings, whom Asatchaq knew otherwise as ordinary people. Packed together in the qalgi (the largest building in the village, ca. 20×20), naked from the waist up, alternately turbulent and silent. All this was both awe-inspiring and enchanting.

Watched by children through the skylight there were gift exchanges — meat, equipment, ivory and baleen — shaman séances, acrobatics, hallucinating transformations, human to animal, animal to human, men whose mouths grew tusks and flippers. The children watched the younger qalgi men competing: games of strength, skill and endurance. The kids eavesdropped storytellings: words and silence. Watched masked dancers who depicted whales and spirits.

There were drummings and dancing, sea mammal bladders, effigies and puppets hung from the ceiling. Umiaq and kayak models mobilised on sinew. They saw the effigies, the quluguguqs, while men they knew transformed to figments that their ancestors had carved for them, learned qalgi songs and memorized the dances. All this seen through membrane. Packed in the qalgi was a concentration of the culture’s skills and energies. Everything that mattered. This square of window, an intestine’s membrane. All this I saw as though it was a newsreel, reflected from the old man’s childhood vision.


What Asatchaq saw in 1900.

THEN EACH TOOK a feather and dipped it in lamp soot and drew a scene from whaling on the qalgi rafters. Then they assembled sacred objects and hung them from the ceiling. There were images of polar bears and whales and caribou that the young men carved and hung up for the sitting. There were also the qalgi’s collective effigies. Some were mobiles worked with thongs. One showed hunting scenes with whales and ravens. Another showed day, the night, the stars. At the end of four days, the carvings were burned and the bigger effigies were stored.

Every October when the sea ice formed this happened. Once the qalgis had been cleaned and dried, the men went in and took their places. We children weren’t invited. But allowed to watch. So we rushed onto the roof and lay down in the snow with our faces on the skylight. We looked down through it.

There were benches round three sides of the house and the older umialiks sat in the middle with their shamans. All the umialiks who’d caught whales hung bladders from the ceiling. All this for the spring whale hunt.

We looked through the skylight and we saw the sitting. Several days they sat and did nothing. The young men hung up images of whales, seals, caribou and walrus. These were the puguqs; then they burned them. There were also dead bodies, people killed by sickness, scattered round the village.  


 BUT ASATCHAQ WAS here and I could touch him. It was March ’76. The blizzards arrived later – more or less when Daisy’s disappearance happened.

I sensed, however, Asatchaq was living elsewhere. Perhaps I was projecting what the jammed projector jammed in my construction of him showed me. It seemed, however, he was back there, aged nine, gazing through the skylight. Everything in concentration. There, down below, alive, the rightness, nothing improvised, done correctly as it should be.


FOLLOWING THE ORIGIN myths, Asatchaq launched more recent history. The myths – there would be more – provided structure. The myths came from ‘back then’ and enclosed existence. But after his return, Asatchaq introduced new characters who mimed the archetypes, derivatives of myth: the tricksters, strong men, mystics, conjurers, heroes, fakes and isolates, shamans of last century and more recent, their hair-raising gestes, their quarrels, athletic power, prowess, chutzpah.

It was if the orderly turbulence he’d watched through the skylight was a version of more recent histories that filled the old man’s New Year recitations. The great All he had absorbed in childhood, defying the constraints of order.

And woven in among these chronicles was a preoccupation with authenticity: stories in which young adepts, who knew one thing only, real experience as they understood it, unmasked pretenders whose dependence was on precedent. There were three of these stories of young men who proved, as the wound hole proved the Raven Man’s harpooning, that there was indeed a truth in the tradition.

There were men who had abused this. Such stories of authentification were perhaps an expression of a sceptical tradition that ran parallel to the sacred. But shamanism could be refined, it could made to succeed both for the sake of a specific purpose and also for its own sake. The value of shamanism itself could be valued as could the possibility of authentic self-advancement.

Shamanism was a social institution that society had developed and on whose truths it depended. But the practice must be conducted with sincerity and without subterfuge.

The shamanistic system might be exploited by magicians who discredited the system’s authenticity. Shamanism was after all a social institution that society had developed and on whose truths it depended. But the practice must be conducted with sincerity and without subterfuge. The clarity of childhood vision is a familiar theme to Europeans. It existed in Tikigaq as when the child Tigguasina unmasks an opportunist who pretends to be a spirit. Another legendary shaman child was Aningatchaq who visited the Itiviyaaq, a spirit family, when shamans only claimed to have done so. Such was the authentication, the renewal process.

Great shamans, as these boys became, could nonetheless be difficult individualists who manipulated both other people and their own ambition in order to make their lives work within the existence of a society that needed them. Personal ambition mattered. Strife was necessary to social self-confidence. Stories such as Tigguasina’s and Aningatchaq’s did reveal the existence of institutional flaws and weaknesses. But the child stories and the events that they described enacted a process of renewal which was achieved through opposition. Perhaps for authentic shamanism to be established there had also to be corruption. This paradox provided a narrative raison d’etre.

Asatchaq’s zeal in narrating these renewal stories perhaps reflected both the enthusiasm of earlier society for straight-forward truth. And also Asatchaq’s repudiation of the inauthentic as transmitted by his uncle Samaruna.


Christmas 1975.

I WAS WITH HIM during two of the Christmas celebration evenings. Part Christian, part pre-Christian, there were gift exchanges and competitive games. Leaning on his Zimmer frame, Asatchaq sat in a rage. I described these events in a letter to my linguist guru:

Dear Larry, Here is a brief account of one evening of the Christmas week events. There was dancing and singing, accompanied by games modified from the old ceremonial house. The uuma 2dances were the best thing in that there was a sense of ceremony and spontaneous participation because both clan houses were exchanging gifts with namesakes. The presence of adults dancing together, the men’s muscular verticality and the gracefulness of female movement generating order. People exchanged goods ranging from household artefacts and children’s toys to whole sides of caribou and promises of whale meat.

Some of the evening events have been compromised by children running and shouting in and out among candy wrappers, cigarette smoke and drink tins. Some boys once got close to Asatchaq who sat in a trance fixated both on past images and in denial of the show around him. Suddenly the old man shouted:

“Get out! … Children!”

This was the first time I’d seen Asatchaq with children and it was easy to see why he was angry. Two hundred people wandering round for three or four hours, smoke, pop cans, candy wrappers, rushing kids, little central activity and no separation of the two qalgi groups who might otherwise have focused on competing, singing to each other, answering each other’s dances. In a far corner a group of young men had organized a jumping game. This was pangaligaa, a long jump, feet pressed together like a snowshoe hare. I watched this for a while through moving screens of rush and confusion and thought, both of the animal fables I’d heard eighteen months ago, and in my ethnocentric way, of these lines from Donne

‘Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone.
All just supply, and all relation…3

The next night, I was squatting on the floor next to Asatchaq watching another game of pangaligaa when he turned to me and said,

“These children. No good. Game no good. Not doing it right. Not like old day. It’s no good.”


The letter continues:

The Chivalric Episode

I SHOULD BE telling you about the qalgi games. But I’m upset by disorder. Instead allow me a moment of satire.

It’s a chivalric episode. Yes, Sir Galehaut, school Principal, has introduced the forms, idioms and figures of dueling and honour to the knights and their squires of the junior High School population. To be brief, he introduces, with full panoply of rule book, terms, equipment and accoutrement, the art of fencing. Ultimate, new qalgi stuff.

Into the disorder of Xmas evening, thus abruptly steps this nouveau Douglas Fairbanks Jnr., reborn, and in ringing tenor requests silence.

Both fratries – ungasiksikaaq and qaagmaqtuuq – are represented. All sit to attention on the floor, as the director of combat, in drawled, self-confident authority, announces another ‘Tikigaq First’, and pacing the floor, which has been cleared of babies, outlines the technicalities of combat, scoring, varieties of weapon: the foil and sabre and the epee are enumerated and displayed, the month–old fencing squad history, the promise of a girls’ brigade in the New Year, and then with a flourish of his great grey leather gauntlet, ushers forth the fencers, who had been huddled in the storm shed. Out they roll, as though negotiating rotten ice, costumed in chivalric tabards, each with head-band with symbolic combat colour tying back their tresses.

There is Sir John T. Jnr., with his sabre, Iggiagiitchuq. His father cut a passage with it when he faced down bands of mountebanks at Icy Cape 1950. Following him, the doughty Sir R, brandishing his foil Aanguaq, a weapon of invincible sorcery with which his grandfather had rid the village of bad tuungaqs in the last century. Next entered Annaurri, with his epee, Natqiksruutilu Naninnaglu, having vanquished hell with discipline among the angatkut of East Cape, to the glory of St Thomas Qugvik, and a trio of skirmishing Grenadiers and Foot Guards whom my fancy does not stretch to decorate.

Meanwhile, Sir Galehaut is jawing to his audience, which astonished, anent settling of scores, fields of honour, windmill tilting and I don’t know what-not. He may have quoted Horace even.

Fencing is then demonstrated, with much judicious head wagging from Sieur G, crisp ‘On Guards!’, ‘Pret!’ ‘Advances!’, feints, lunges and raddoppios from the settlers of scores, foil correction by the fencing guru’s maklaks, and lastly a redoublement. The spectacle is greeted in dazed silence, with an arraa (‘too much) frozen to each lip pair, followed by a hesitant applause, at which the squires exited, returning to the qalgi, shyly.



The Old Qalgi Rites.

Dereliction and Destruction.

Follow old tracks.
Shadowy, it seems hardly there.
I don’t know whose child it is.
It seems like the ancestral form.
—Tao Te Ching, The Book of The Way


IT IS HARD to assess what Asatchaq remembered. I imagined what he had observed in childhood through that square of membrane. As an adult, Asatchaq continued, albeit no longer in the qalgi environment, to perform many of the ceremonials he learned. Nor is it easy not to idealise lost forms. I wasn’t there and most of what I learned is secondhand. My prejudice lies in the notion that the autumn ceremonials represented a great seasonally re-enacted art form. There is little to replace it.

The qalgi ceremonials concentrated the essence of Tikigaq’s thought and skills. These, to the American observer, were barbaric. But nothing in Christianity corresponded to the logic and the fervour of the old ceremonials.

Tradition depends on memory. And as the twentieth century installed its own set of prejudices, the self-disbelief that arrived with Christianity quickly obliterated what had been of value. The qalgi ceremonials concentrated the essence of Tikigaq’s thought and skills. These, to the American observer, were barbaric. But nothing in Christianity corresponded to the logic and the fervour of the old ceremonials. And disbelief in ritual efficacy, skepticism as to its coherence, even the beauty of its accomplishment, was lost on the non-participant. No-one afterall had the language to proclaim qalgi validity. An art requires no validation from inside. The language barrier added further distance.

That which is useful will anyway fall to the impact of the more powerful. And just as English, the language of power, would sweep away minority languages, so the powers of state and religion, could never tolerate the impenetrable, internally generated and inexplicable language of the qalgi, its dances, singing, stories, games, silences, meat exchanges and manipulation of effigies. One against another, the ceremonial houses competed until they fell both to environmental damage and to American modernity. Each house generated its own unity, and in turn this gave birth to the solidarity that would at once bond with the world of the non-human and at the same time empower the construction of next spring’s whale hunting crews.

Humans and animals thus became separated, categorically in opposition. Both, nonetheless, needed to survive. The rituals otherwise were doomed. To survive they must be repeated. The question of depletion applied largely to the human. Long before contact, many lost their lives to subsistence exigencies. Life was brief. The environment hazardous. But so long as they kept singing, the animals would hear, and there were, so long as society could sustain itself, plenty of them.

This was an art which had both its internal rationale and was utilitarian. Communal and with purpose. And it could do nothing to oppose the pragmatism of the American ethic, which proved afterall that hunting was determined by strategy and logistics, not magic. Utilitarian, therefore, but in the context of the modern era, useless. The missionary Driggs did squeeze his enormous bulk through the entrance hole of a qalgi, probably around October 1900, but tolerant as he was, Driggs was more interested in hygiene than in the capability of society to sustain its art. Qalgi life therefore suffered a quiet demise. What Asatchaq had seen in 1900 would develop into what he watched at the 1975 Christmas celebration. The children he scolded were not the initiates of 1900. Both groups lived at a remove from what Asatchaq experienced as truth. But the earlier separation led eventually to a comprehensive alienation. This would be the old man’s source of pain. But he would nurture this privately and it could not be understood.


The Chivalric Episode, continued.

PERHAPS UNFAIRLY I have satirized the intervention of fencing. This, afterall, was an attempt to do something, to offer the new, to fill a void, to motivate and engage the teenage community. In this sense it was worthy. It was also insulting, borrowed from Sir G’s taste of hobby. It was an arbitrary stop-gap. But the insult derived from the same replacement initiative adopted in the late nineteenth century by the missionary Jackson from the theory practised first in Bengal by Rev. Alexander Duff. This was the idea, scarcely exercised by the not very religious Driggs, focused on ‘pulling down’ non-European cultures before building up a new Christian, English-language-based culture.

Qalgi values were waning. And perhaps there wasn’t much difference between the imposition of the American school curriculum and the arcane specialities of honour fencing. If replacement had partially been achieved already, perhaps it was only a bit madder to introduce the settling of scores and fields of honour to impressionable Tikigaq fourteen year olds and to monolingual Tikigaq elders at school expense during the Christmas celebrations. Further, replacement also suggested that an American Can-Do expressed superiority. ‘Look,’ it suggested, ‘we’re in possession of something that works. We’ll offer you a demo.’ The audience response was collective bewilderment: ‘This may work, but it’s completely irrelevant and we’ve already been converted to Christianity and this is just one more thing we don’t understand.’


EIGHT WEEKS LATER, the same teenage foilsmen attended the weekly Native dance class, paid for by the new Inupiaq University in Barrow. The students dropped their epees and were initiated into dance moves that were in their joints already. This, perhaps, was another kind of replacement. But it made better sense. Dancing was a cultural and historical fit. It represented both continuity and a future.


I MENTIONED TRICKSTERS, strong men, mystics, conjurers, heroes, fakes and isolates. And it’s shocking not to have not been more shocked. Perhaps in the most outrageous of Asatchaq’s narrative company was Qaunnailaq. And here we enter another major theme. I have mentioned Asatchaq’s insistence on authenticity and the old man’s recitation of child shaman stories. In this he followed a tradition exploring renewal. The phenomenon of Qaunnailaq is different.

I never understood this story. But on one level, it exemplifies the spirit of the indomitable. Qaunnailaq’s history is of a man who fights, murders, steals a woman. Qaunnailaq also indulges in joking relationships that go too far. A man who travels away, to Utqiagvik, 350 miles north, to brazen out the consequences of his over-reaching. Here in the far north, he escapes revenge through a series of athletic gestures, and returns to Tikigaq having survived virtually every threat there is to human existence.

There is nothing in the story to make the audience admire Qaunnailaq. At least nothing but what is stubborn and resolute. The determination to fight an opposition that may have existed largely as a result of the hero’s infractions. And surely this in itself was a sign of the memorable. Asatchaq doesn’t invite our approval of Qaunnailaq. The storyteller demands only that the rascal be remembered. He was larger than life. And like the man who became the Moon Spirit, he broke taboo in a gesture of individuality.


WHAT I LATER came to realize was that I was an ideal, more or less arbitrary conduit. I represented what had gone wrong. A westerner, and therefore one who had already been been corrupted. Perhaps I suited the old man’s purpose because I understood, in the Romantic idiom, my mistake, or rather the mistakes of my predecessors. But it was too late. The damage had been done. The mutilation was palpably there. Or rather it had been ingested and internalized. It was also in me. But much of it, significantly, was in Asatchaq and his generation. I was post hoc already, taking a holiday from home territory. Asatchaq had been doing it all his life. The gradual process of assimilation, of having one thing (the Tikigaq tradition) and also the modernising superstructure. No one was to blame. The mistake was to attribute blame and to say, if only by implication, ‘These ruthless post-industrial Americans have compromised Native life and trampled on traditions that mean nothing to them and which they don’t intend to try understanding. No time. No interest. Let the past flow back to its origins. Forget it.’

Was it my role to tell Asatchaq and his generation that they had indulged in a cultural perversion? That to turn their backs on history would have made them better people?

Truth, if it existed, was impossible to identify, and one would have carefully to discern it in the gradual movement of a hundred years of a continuing present tense. Why, afterall, should a Tikigaq craftsman in 1905 look away from the sight of a chisel? Or a woman view with derision the possibility of bread making or the advantages of a sewing machine? These, among many imports, introduced life enhancing innovations. Asatchaq learned rudimentary English. His whale hunting prowess was augmented by a talent for calculation using Arabic numerals. None of these phenomena, none of these skills, existed before contact. Was it my role to tell Asatchaq and his generation that they had indulged in a cultural perversion? That to turn their backs on history would have made them better people? It was likewise in the case of my own father, whose phantom materialized in my cabin during the winter and who scolded me for deviating from cultural patterns he valued.

And yet there had been a Fall. A Fall in the sense that the Utopia Asatchaq presented to me and which I imagined him to have witnessed in concentration through the skylight, had occurred. Tikigaq had invented the great ceremonial house rituals which amounted to a great art. No more wonderful sequence of aboriginal patterns could be imagined. That daring and inventive sequence of songs, dances, effigy constructions and shaman exploits was irreplaceable. The American Way was crude and pragmatic. It had no pretensions to subtlety. Even the Episcopalian doctrine, in the boiled down form in which it could be communicated, was threadbare and consisted largely as an imposition of national power.


WHAT WAS THE meaning of these months of recitation? I hope I’m not wrong in my guess that the stories gave the old man pleasure. Could it have been that simple? Pleasure, afterall, is complex, involving a feeling of rightness, the happiness of identifying with the appropriate, even an illusory sense of permanence, whereas the sensation of pleasure is actually fleeting. Yes: Asatchaq was putting something in place and I offered him the confidence that his effort was worthwhile and would last. His pleasure was, moreoever, allied to mine. He was filling a need: a demand from the past, from his parents, his uncle Samaruna and a generation of elders, to bring their world back and substantiate a reality that otherwise would be lost and that he would lose touch with. He grew up also in the environment of uivaqsaaq: that turning of a corner, a contemporary version of the Ghost Dance, that would bring the past back and ensure a future.

I too was devoted to the past. I believed its validity, perhaps even its superiority. I liked the fact that past time had been immobilised. The past may not have been some way off, but it could no longer move and was therefore prey to observation, perhaps even to use. With a little effort it might be evoked and put on display. This contributed to the investigator’s satisfaction and it lent distinction. The past represented a badge of authority based on knowledge. Knowledge that had been acquired with difficulty. This was not, perhaps, precisely Asatchaq’s experience. For him it was a question of alternatives. There was the alienating experience of immersion I shared with him at the Christmas party. And there was the reality of qalgi rightness. The stories explained that. The stories were part of the visionary wholeness I imagined him to have viewed through the ceremonial house skylight. The character of, say, Qaunnailaq, was secondary. It didn’t matter whether he was a great athlete, a rascal, a shaman, one of the survivors, a fortunate man in possession of the pretty widow of a man he had murdered. Time justified his resurrection. Asatchaq’s satisfaction lay in having disinterred that character. He might have done this without me. But I took credit in having made his happiness possible. Therein lay my own pleasure and it existed in reciprocation.

In just such a place we met. Asatchaq touched that recreation of an authenticity. I facilitated this by proxy. It was not unlike the experience of reading. I mean that identification with what remains ultimately a symbolic approximate. Even the act of writing predicated an assumption of the imaginative. Reality, in the imagination, could never be set down in characters, the typed pages of a wished is-ness. The latter would always be separate from the touch of now. It would be absurd to blurt out its existence without hesitance and consideration. That latter word, I learned, has its etymology in the influence of stars (sidera). Hold, in contemplation, what you see at stellar distance and you may inscribe a star-lit pattern. But it will remain a reflection. This was not Trudi smacking a home run or even the memory of her achievement. What mattered was what she’d achieved in that moment. Such was the enchanted auditorium. And I was happy to be a spectator. Perhaps there existed another reality within that experience? One of the imagination.


ALMOST NOTHING CAN be comprehensibly explained. Perhaps that’s why we settle so easily, so lazily, for the absurd. It is a poverty-stricken façade, phenomena crumbling with speed, one thing into another. Little hangs together and less even than that makes sense.

I reproduced the Hebrew word stamm with which Leah had responded to the miscellaneous, haphazard confusion and overlap in Fairbanks secular life. The self-perpetuating and adventitious hedonism of mid-1970 urban America. All phenomena are random, stamm. They happen, just like that, stamm, rising and falling in an arbitrary sequence, without an antecedent sequential basis.

‘It is the cause…’ Othello suggested. There must be a pattern. This was the hero’s agony. A generative motive to the inevitable consequence. Isn’t this perhaps at the root of some need for religion? Why else should that love-stoned hippie lerve me as he claimed to? I was just the nearest object, not an individual.

Events occur. They’re endlessly replaced. Seek for some pattern and you’re left with the pattern. Not the phenomenon you’ld measure. Still, this must be a vision the mind turns away from. Mind refuses the absurd, the arbitrary, the stamm. There has to be life. And perhaps it’s art that conceals the abyss. A screen round terror.


BUT WHO COULD subscribe to that reductive negativity? If it’s there, its presence must be acknowledged. Still, one may also refuse to hang over that particular skylight in order to look down on nothing.

Inupiaq people understood these issues but they didn’t think they were important. Laughter was one medicine. Another was the animal fable and the string game. Asatchaq knew both and these were a sufficient prop against that vision of the arbitrary to which Leah had introduced me in Fairbanks.

The animal fable is in fact a response to such a vision of the absurd. The fable is simple. Animals confront each other and come into conflict. Smallness has its value and deceit is permitted. But incorporating the arbitrary, the fable affirms the continuity of life energies. Most of the fables are ridiculous in their exposition of the inevitable. This is the atmosphere of these animal stories and I explored them in Part 1. What remains to be said? Perhaps merely that such fables represent a version of truth: the necessity of survival. And indeed all Asatchaq’s stories represented this determination to transcend opposition. That which is not good enough, indeed the abuse of powers, will be taken over and perhaps killed. For one party to survive, the marginal must be submerged. Most of the stories explore this ethic.


LEAST PITYING OF such indecencies are Inupiaq idiot tales. These quipping, derisive satires focus on the incompetent and dismiss the life prospects of a purblind and self-gratifying egotism. The idiot stories are in the same genre as animal fables. And they also have a relationship with other Native American tales. The Trickster of the Winnebago, for example, is afterall a figure who both deceives other people and who invites equivalent punishment. This latter is the reward both of folly and the presumption of competence.

Trickster thinks mainly of food and sex. He (the male anti-hero) lives in a state of want. But his deprivation is of his own doing. Two old women whom Kinnaq, the Inupiaq idiot, has rejected, curse his usuk when fatuously he’s dangled it into their iglu. Kinnaq pushes off in his kayak and tries stuffing his usuk into his boot, then dragging it in the water behind his kayak. Children run to meet him when he comes to a river camp, and when they imagine that he’s caught something, they start chopping it up and eating it. All this flows naturally from Kinnaq’s character and it represents a contrary to the hunter/husband ideal. The ideal man generates children of his own and comes home with proper food.

In another story Kinnaq thinks he sees a girl dancing and singing to him. He rushes after her and she turns out to have been a Short Eared Owl. The owl flies off and Kinnaq is left with nothing. Here, in his failure, Kinnaq again behaves with incompetence. Solitude and misprision are both punished. People are expected to live within society and not to wander round, mistaking one thing for another, hoping to gratify themselves. People are also expected to understand the hard nature of reality. Kinnaq is a victim of his own egotistical projection, and he is punished for misunderstanding the difference between people and animals. Nor does he comprehend the social nature of sexuality.


BUT AS IN many expressions of truth, there is ambiguity in this rigid exposition. Poor Kinnaq is not so different from everybody else recorded in stories. Kinnaq is ridiculous, but then life remains difficult and everybody makes mistakes. Kinnaq’s blunders, for which he will be punished, leave him empty-handed but what happens also look perilously like a shamanistic experience of a complex oneness, which is perhaps unified only once paradoxes have been brought together. I described in Part 1 the experience of the shaman boy Ukungniq who wandered off and found himself mistaking another kind of bird (a ptarmigan) for a young woman. This was part of the boy’s progressive accumulation of the power that enabled him eventually to conquer and establish a family with the ‘woman who won’t marry.’

The fact remains that Ukungniq was deceived by a ptarmigan woman and her disappearance left him alone. Reality is deceptive and the world of pragmatism is interpenetrated by that of imagination. This two-ness of life’s possibilities was one theme of the qalgi rituals that Asatchaq witnessed. People could turn into animals and then revert. This happened because the boundaries between one sphere and another were indefinite. Anything could happen. Kinnaq lived at the extreme end of these possibilities. But he was not alone in the experience. And he couldn’t be a shaman because he was unable to combine his susceptibility with the pragmatic knowledge of qalgi people and the determination of the proto-shamanic Ukungniq.


NOTE: In The Fortnightly’s online template, illustrations are thumbnails with captions or onward text links embedded. To enlarge an illustration, click on it. To read a caption, hover over the illustration. To play an embedded video in a larger size, click twice.

BUT THEN MANY of Asatchaq’s story heroes were ambiguous. Reverting to the figure of Qaunnailaq, I have omitted an important feature. This brawling individualist, few of whose actions could be applauded by taboo-observant Tikigaq people, was understood to have been only semi-human. The separating fact was that Qaunnailaq’s body enclosed that of an animal spirit. The story opens with this statement: ‘Before he was human he went round looking for a mother… who could give birth to him.’ There were known to be two such Tikigaq marmot children and their other marmot siblings were born elsewhere. Qaunnailaq’s supernatural origin having been established, the hero progresses first to the status of shaman and then to secular Tikigaq humanity. As mentioned earlier, he travels, fights, breaks partner rules, indulges in athletic feats and exposes himself to revenge. Perhaps because he is actually a marmot (not a major power source) the story does two things: First, it represents Qaunnailaq as a figure of the indomitable. Second, it lends the story a tinge of the supernatural which a Tikigaq audience would accept as an aspect of reality. These two characteristics, which to a western audience perhaps represent a contradiction, existed in parallel. Just as traditional religion and Christianity lived side by side, so Qaunnailaq’s humanity represented one absolute while co-existing with a non-rational counter absolute: that is, Qaunnailaq’s supernatural origin and the survival of his non-humanity. Thus the man’s character was presented. And perhaps this was something that could be experienced rather than explained.


Sallagin: The Physical and Metaphysical

The story of Sallagin operates on a similar level. But this quite recent ancestor chronicle is interesting because it expresses so much about old Tikigaq that is at once materially physical and supernaturally concrete – that, at least, must have been the reality to old believers.

Surface reality and the supernatural depth implied by the physical presence of that historical reality co-exist, which is mysterious to later people. In that it contains both elements, the physical and metaphysical, the story is representive of the simultaneous pragmatic and imaginative that marked Tikigaq, and perhaps much ancient thought. This, today has become remote, threatening, wonderful and perhaps it explains the divided nature of Tikigaq people’s response to a past world of magic. A minority, on the one hand, regret that now absent region of the irrational. But people who are more securely identified with the modern or with what appears to be Christian pragmatism, are happy to let it go. ‘What could you possibly want with those old stories?’ asked one shocked sixty-five-year-old. She was outraged that I should thus depart from a modern world that had swept away the archaic. ‘None of that stuff makes sense any more,’ she told me. ‘And,’ whats more, she said, ‘you can’t put it in English.’

Perhaps one thing she suggested was that only the old language could cope with it. Would it, however, make better sense in Inupiaq than in translation?

‘We’ve grown up a lot,’ she continued, ‘since we buried our grandparents. We understand that these things can’t happen. I don’t know if they happened back then. They don’t happen now.’ This was akin to Umigluk’s comment about Asatchaq’s great uncle, when Umigluk told me that the old shaman only thought he’d gone to the moon: that both Asatchaq the older and younger believed in the truth of old stories, but today it was impossible to collude with a harder American reality.

Imagination, is at the centre of Tikigaq’s narrative tradition. And whether or not one believes in their coexistence, the two cohere.

This was not an argument I could take part in. Imagination, is, however, at the centre of Tikigaq’s narrative tradition. And whether or not one believes in their coexistence, the two cohere. To present these worlds, to acknowledge their existence, must suffice. But a metaphorical dimension has, nonetheless, been lost. The poetry of a manifold coexistence: things, specifics, spirits, good and evil forces, a sense of multiple belonging, the attribution of meaning to phenomena which subsequently became – like the seal that I watched Elizabeth butchering dead, limited things with a subsistence utility. Things that existed only within the edges of their seen concretion. That loss of the unseen and of its complexity is an impoverishment. A world that had been alive with both meaning and potentiality became stripped down and, from a condition of sometimes uncertain movement, semi-immobilised: ‘reified’, in 1960s parlance. People, their environment of things, causality, indeed the whole universe, could now, in the post-contact era, be explained in the language of reason. Animism and shamanistic illusion operated in a continually regenerated a world of possible meaning. Whether or not there existed a truth in all that complexity, the attribution of truth was sufficient for its experience as that, and in terms of complexity. If uncertainty, or potentiality was an ingredient, there was room for imaginative improvisation. The shape of that world was therefore largely provisional and its asymmetry quintessential.

Sallagin’s story communicates to a modern audience the representation of a world that is unreal: weird in both the older meaning of being spiritually pregnant and in the later, colloqual sense: eccentric and impossible to fit into the conventions of order. At its basis nonetheless existed a life of continuing subsistence. The two worlds lived together.

These are the contents of this important and representative story:

There is rivalry at the whale hunt. Sallagin has the upper hand because he is shaman. But Sallagin’s rival constructs a small umiaq with humanoid images that come alive. These images take Sallagin’s son, tie him to a whale float and let a whale sound under water with him. The boy is cast onto flat ice and is identified by an old woman — her age and social isolation suggesting to the audience a magical person with contemplative, shamanistic powers.

The story contains a multitude of images. There is a cast of anonymous people. A crowd. But the place names are recognizable. And while subsistence, on the one hand, continues with people needing to hunt and eat, the pursuit of game animals involves both pragmatic know-how and mystical involution. The traditional milieu is filled with ordinary and recognisable artefacts: qayaqs, bows and arrows, iglus, harpoons. There are allusions to trading partnerships and transitional trade goods such as tobacco. This world of the limited and ordinary is nonetheless infused with magical potentiality and the uncertainties that reside within that sphere. Amuletic animals such as the red throated loon accompany moments of life and death: conditions that are in themselves interchangeable and subject to magical intervention. We recognise Tikigaq’s beaches. But events occur there which might go into reverse while leaving the beach itself the one we have, in the ordinary sense, travelled. It remains impossible to experience one without the other.


EVERY SOUND IN the cabin is magnified into significance. And because they are being produced here and in the presence of a story, I lend them meaning. It’s like being enclosed within the outlines of a sonnet. Just as the sonnet offers a space within which subjectivity and arguments are enclosed within formalities the author has chosen, so the cabin provides secure, symmetrical walls. I am secure within that space. The mind fills with meaning. To read fourteen lines is an excursion into knowledge. I am left with the impression of having been elsewhere. A brief, passive excursion. Reassuringly undemanding. Happily limited.

Just as I enjoy such episodes of removal, so I feel reassuringly enclosed within the space of this cabin. It is, after all, a place where nothing much happens. All the anxieties of an outside life, whether or not they have led to this point, drop away. The fetching and carrying of oil and water the experience of hunger, closing and wearing clothes: none of these matter. Perhaps listening is just a moment. But it’s one that transcends. It obliterates innumerable mortifying obstacles. A calm has descended. This may not always be pleasant. But there is, for a moment, a partial cessation. What Goethe jokingly (?!) called Lebensfratzen, roughly translated for me into ‘Goblin-like creatures that attach themselves to your trousers when you want to come downstairs and make a dignified entrance; and you can’t easily brush them off.’

Yes. I want the story to continue at least until I’m restless. I get bored quickly. Perhaps this is a fault that marks my generation. Or isn’t it a personal fault? Impatience for a conclusion, like the rhyming couplet with which Shakespeare releases you from obedience to a difficult thought. The constraints, nonetheless, had been healing. I return to those limits. It is, afterall, the writer or the storyteller who does the work. Nothing else matters during the period of domination. It was a question of minutes, that sublime superiority.

With Asatchaq it has also become a process of subordination. He is a man approaching the end of life. The quality of that life matters. But only outside the space and the time in which he approaches a story. The experience continues to resemble the consolation of the sonnet. It is simply itself, reassuringly limited.

The cabin is ramshackle but is still a weather-tight assemblage. It’s like Siuer G’s Okey-dokey U.S. competence. The cabin does its work. The pine and plywood shutter is in good, working order. The walls lean slightly in the north wind while forcing the wind stream round its contour, en route to Tukummiq at peninsula centre and to my place on the south side.

The wind is dominant, it never ceases. It moves in a long stream, battering on occasion, insistent, as though hurled across sea ice from Cape Lisburne and further. These sudden blows are extra, as though what’s long, the apparently endless, weren’t sufficient. Were the wind not there, this wouldn’t be the place it is. Like the sea ice which moves, the air is a part of this environment.

I used the word endless. I would like to say eternal. But I know that’s wrong. Most big things are made of small components.

I used the word endless. I would like to say eternal. But I know that’s wrong. Most big things are made of small components. But to our limited view, the endless is so old that eternity is easily invoked. The north wind seems ageless. Likewise Asatchaq’s speech. His voice enacts achaic patterns. With the wind as its environment, the past comes into being. How did this ancient grammar consolidate? What are these archaic words, redundant now and unrelated to the present? Asatchaq speaks them as a matter of course. The bilingual Tukummiq asks old words’ meaning. Nor does he resent her post-shamanistic comprehension. He understands well that there remain things out of reach. Such matter recedes further. Why, then, say them? They are frozen. Mean nothing to people with no use for them now. Nor would it make sense for me to learn them. No more sense than holding an old artefact. I think of old skulls the missionary forgot to move. He left them lying on the burial ground surface. Their toothless silence. They have survived re-burial. Those jaws once spoke a terminology out of date now.

The darkness seems solid. Beyond the window there is nothing. Impenetrable weather. For the time being I’m protected.

It’s warm in the cabin. Time doesn’t matter. Someone who’s migrated to the new town site has left a dog team. You can hear the dogs bark in their despairing hunger. Someone is visiting his meat cache. He keeps meat in a delapidated iglu. It’s dark down there and cold enough. A snow machine approaches. There goes its vibration. Dogs and machinery. The wind forces them together.

There are also internal, domestic noises. The chimney ventilator and the carburetor. The oil burns efficiently. The old man shifts on the plastic commode seal. I take off a sweater. The fibres creak. Tukummiq breathes out. The old man talks to her. She responds with long ‘Ii’-s. All the little sounds converge. But they don’t interrupt the storyteller. The three of us form an artificial qalgi. Three separate kinds of solitude. Asatchaq is at the centre. A man re-enacting old belief forms. It makes us happy for three different reasons. I write him a cheque. He glances at the digits. I tramp out in the snow and darkness. Asatchaq turns into his alcove where he sleeps on a mattress.

Tom Lowenstein was born near London in 1941 and educated at Cambridge. He has worked since the mid-1960s as a teacher. Between 1973 and 1989 he recorded materials deriving from intermittent residence in an Inupiaq (north Alaskan Eskimo) village. Previous publications include three books of poetry: Filibustering in Samsara (The Many Press), Ancestors and Species: New and Selected Ethnographic Poetry (Shearsman Books), and Conversation with Murasaki (Shearsman Books). His three studies of Point Hope are The Things that Were Said of Them (University of California Press 1990), Ancient Land: Sacred Whale (Bloomsbury, Farrar Strauss and Harvill, 1993-2001) and Ultimate Americans: Point Hope, Alaska 1826-1909 (University of Alaska Press, 2009).


  1. Asatchaq already spoke a word or two of English learned in Driggs’s school room. The epidemics of his childhood climaxed then died out round 1910. In 1895 the population stood at 144; fourteen children died that year; one sixth of the village annually dying. In 1899 came chickenpox and mumps. In 1900, influenza, smallpox, measles. Driggs in 1906 took a census, writing ‘The population was the smallest ever at 121’. (Driggs, Letter May 25, 1906.) Asatchaq, throughout his childhood, watched this but escaped infection. By 1900 only two ceremonial houses of the original six survived: deserted as the village population fell or else destroyed through north side erosion.
  2. Uuma means ‘spouse of namesake’. Uuma relationships are close, affectionate and perpetuated through gift giving and dance.
  3. Donne, An Anatomy of the World.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *