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

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April 1976


 ‘AFTER THE SNOWBIRD,’ Agniin murmurs in the camp stove gas flare of the Mission house, ‘after that snowbird…comes the whale.’

I watched snow buntings fly in last month: tiny sparrow-like creatures that migrate from south Alaska, Missouri and Nevada. The buntings swoop in low and at speed. They twitter as they land, revisiting cracks in old meat caches and iglus where their ancestors, presumably for many generations, nested. Then they settle down or fuss. The males arrive first and build nests of grass, moss, fur and feathers. The snow is receding. The air’s clear and bright. But the buntings are like hardy snow flakes. They know what they want. They find their way here. And then, at summer’s end, they’re gone again. ‘They are all go into the world of light,’ as Vayghan wrote, ca. 1640. A spring and summer bird. It migrates to the south; avoids the winter.

‘Don’t hurt the avatiliguuraq’, warned the elders. The boys listened half ashamed of possibility, in awareness renewed of possible transgression. They learned hunting on the village outskirts: hunted squirrels, lapland longspurs, snipe with little spears and bows and arrows. But hunting the bunting was forbidden. It was simply that way. And children felt the rightness. Viewed from the distance, one apprehends that rightness, its symmetrical asymmetry. Protect one small and vulnerable species. Don’t let children hurt it. Give the largest, darkest being – whales – a space to join the village. Protect the avatiliguuraq and so move on towards the whale hunt.

Ava-tili- guuraq is a word whose vowels are spread out, reproducing light, quick movement:

Ava: two quick a sounds

-tili: the two short i’s. Like the a they enclose a single consonant.

-guuraq the long uu balances the previously divided a, followed by i-i.

uuraq is longest syllable, an ending that denotes the diminutive.

The word stem is avatili-. -uuraq means little. ‘Fleet and mobile,’ here perhaps. But the final a of –uuraq lies deep in the throat. This is because of the q: a uvular stop which drags the a down, creating a short variation on the first two a sounds.

‘Snow birds’, people started calling them in English. They’re clean, free spirits. Harbingers of spring arriving with the sun to nest in grass round iglu ruins, even the new houses.

The snow bunting attends the whale. It comes from the south as though drawing the whale with it like the child in the story who conducts the grandma’s power, bringing healing to the village.

‘They come from above,’ old people say, transposing spirit lore to Christianity. The snow bunting attends the whale. It comes from the south as though drawing the whale with it like the child in the story who conducts the grandma’s power, bringing healing to the village. The powerful old woman lets her junior represent her. The bunting does the same for what’s enormous.

Early this century, Christianised people called the buntings Jiisiiraq (little Jesus). Agniin told me in English:

‘My mother was sitting in front of her iglu when that bird landed right here.’ (Agniin, older now than her mother was then, touches her head). ‘It flew onto her head. My mother didn’t move. She sat by her iglu and did nothing.’


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THIS MEMORY PROVIDED entry to an ancient story. The convergence each spring of small, never-to-be-hunted inland migrants and the whale swimming north that knew nothing of these symmetries.

In this convergence of the great and the small, of land and air migrant, useless bird and the great sea mammal that sustains human life, there’s symmetry and disproportion, discrepancy, divergence, sameness, opposition. The old fictional percussion. Animals in stories. Wasn’t this the great unspoken story come alive? Like bear and lemming, peregrine and raven, owl and snow bird?

The avatiliguuraq birds are part of whaling lore. When buntings arrive, the people know the whales will follow. This parti-coloured bird, which must not be hunted, heralds black and white streaked whale: land bird and sea beast, migrating for their separate purpose, bracketing our action.


NOW WAS THE moment when the avatiliguuraq and black whale met and married. Or they simply converged in a symmetric, asymmetric northerly migration. The great and small that bracketed a human action.


I HEARD THIS avatiliguuraq story on my first day in the village. It’s told also in the Central Arctic:

A bunting sat on a tundra hummock and wept because her mate had been killed by a hunter. A snowy owl came up and sang:

Fool to mourn
that little husband
with his spears of grass!
I’ll marry you!

The bunting replied:

Marry an owl?
With those coarse feathers,
fat beak, thick legs,
bulging forehead,
no neck!

The owl stabbed at the bunting’s breast and when she cried he taunted her:

There’s women for you!
Sharp-tongued all right,
but one little poke
and she’ll start whimpering!

And so they flew in separate directions.

Journal, August 24 1973


‘THIS MAN WANTS you to tell stories, short ones for children,’ says my translator. He’s speaking in Inupiaq. The old man sits on the big double bed. His wife’s on the floor working with her ulu on a seal skin.

The room is bare: a plywood table, chairs, bucket and basins, kitchen gear. A bearded seaman: Jesus in sou’wester at a boat helm hangs over the pillows where the white-haired man in t-shirt, flannels, seal-skin boots, breathes painfully. A cross hangs from string on his caved-in chest. My translator, explains that I will pay them. My presence is assimilated, not acknowledged.

The tiny woman has her feet out. Seal-skin boot-soles under calf-length parka. She laughs as I unpack recorder. I’m tense and sweating. Qimmiuraq, Bob Tuckfield, christened thus by Tikigaq’s first missionary, adjusts his torso so his voice can rise more freely. His cross clicks on the fruit-can wrapper as he hawks into a fruit tin. He’s pale, slow, friendly but impersonal. Then comes a story. He speaks into the tape recorder. I’m not relevant. I’m in the margin. Stories flutter down to the recorder. The machine swallows words, but can’t digest them.

Qimmiuraq stops. The woman sets some fish and seal oil on the table. She laughs as I eat. But it’s peaceful to sit without having to chatter. Her laughter’s uncertain.



BY THE TIME I’d returned to Tikigaq some twelve months later, both Qimmiuraq and his wife were dead and for some reason I learned less about him than about his adoptive father.

When I met Qimmiuraq in 1973, he was almost ninety, the oldest person in the village. He hadn’t come from Tikigaq originally. An orphan from the Kobuk, he was picked up, at the age of nine, by a white whaler/trader. This was Joe Tuckfield (Yuuguraq, ‘little Joe’), a Welshman from Swansea who had travelled to the Western Arctic in the 1880s. On a separate trip north in 1888, he had discovered bowhead whales — made recently scarce in the southern Arctic ocean — ‘thick as bees’, as he said cheerfully, advancing their near extermination in the 1890s.

Tuckfield’s discovery prompted a rush which led to the final blast of commercial whaling until the baleen value fell at the turn of the century. About a year after his discovery, Joe Tuckfield set up as a shore-based whaler and married a shaman woman also from the southern river people. When the whales grew scarce and the bottom fell out of the baleen market, Joe and his wife moved to the Kuukpak river esturary, where they lived in a boat which another American trader had abandoned. Tuckfield died in the 1930s, and Qimmiuraq Bob grew up a Tikigaq person.

All this is preamble to a story about whaling that Qimmiuraq told. Qimmiuraq said:

This story is about the whales. It’s about how the whales behaved to had whale-boats long ago.

There was an umialik and his wife. They owned a whale boat.

Now before the whales reached Tikigaq, they would come together and talk. The whales said: ‘There are some whaleboat wives in that village who don’t share out meat among the people. We won’t go near their boats and be caught by people like that. But those who share our meat out equally, and give to the poor and the old people in the village: those are the ones we want to be caught by. But the people who don’t share, we’ll avoid.’

And that’s how the whale thinks. The whale favours women who share meat properly. That’s what the stories say.

And that’s why Tikigaq people are generous. I don’t know about today. But when that’s what happened when I was a whaler. My wife shared the meat out. The whales like such people…

Such is whale hunt courtesy, patterned on propriety and respectful relations between humans and whales. On the one hand expressing equivalence of people and their animals. On the other perhaps a subsistence religion.

One might say further that the importance of the whale lies in an opportunity for Tikigaq people to share with each other. But how elegantly the storyteller balanced bunting and whale without my knowing. And the symmetry goes further than equipoise of large black-and-white sea mammal versus small black and white avian. All stories demand being told in groups of two. Otherwise, the first will fall over. This has the symmetry of a sacred game and the good sense of an entertainer. So in this most insignificant transaction with a white man, the storyteller’s etiquette was absolute.


April 18 1976

YESTERDAY I SPENT an hour in the National Guard Armoury, a long, arched corrugated metal shed where the women were sewing seal-skins for an umiaq.

The boat-frame stood naked, a circle of men in the background as the women stitched the skins and oiled the gunwhales.

The process is butchering in reverse. Last spring, these women skinned the seals their husbands brought in and pegged out the hides to bleach in the sun above the south beach. Now they lay the same skins on the boat-frame, as though reconstructing a living being: a recreation of the bearded seal their men had taken.

Skin-sewing, besides child-rearing, is a woman’s most important project. It is birth in reverse.

The intensity of women’s work. Skin-sewing, besides child-rearing, is a woman’s most important project. It is birth in reverse. For sewing implies the construction of an interior warmth: the manipulation of skins for the human body to stay alive in. Hence the primal shamanness, the woman who won’t marry, is depicted sewing.

Sewing, like a birth, is magical: creates womb-space, empowering men to leave the iglu and to hunt animals needed for further warmth. The verb stem ani– means both ‘leave the iglu’ and ‘to be born’.

It is freezing in the Armoury. The women talk quietly and run their fingers over the tight water-proof seams. The men breathe contemplatively through half-open mouths in the cold cigarette haze. Then they move in to lash the sewn-together skin to the gunwhales. They tap the boat’s sides. It is supple and resonant. We grasp the dry ribs and haul the boat outside to a sled. The skins are parchment-yellow, translucent, with scattered blotches and hair-tufts. There are stories about singing, breathing, flying skinboats. Skinboats like sea birds that command the ocean.


April 20 1976

THE WHALE HUNT involves a transition from the long ordeal of winter: from hot rooms filled with tea-cups to a wind-swept plain, blue sky, blinding sea ice, birds migrating, wind cutting across sun and herds of white whales, the belugas, surging north through choppy water.

All this — plus a shift from houses towards ice camp — people say is a ‘change of view’ (aliqsigraq): movement from closed boundaries to an endlessness, horizons, sun, expansion, sudden and explosive thought and movement.

The village is transformed by the onset of this carnival. The wistful optimism of late winter – ‘Whaling pretty soon, maybe’ – the men whisper, transforms to machismo. Collective purpose gives our lives the shape of custom.

It’s greater than this. The grandeur of the whale exalts both individual and the village. From the heart of one immensity, the sea, the sacred is conjured, harpooned and dismembered to keep the people’s life-blood circulating, so they too re-affirm, through meat, their kindred to the whales that they’ve brought into the village.

Preparations start in March, though these are tentative. Skinboat owners muse on their equipment, visit sheds and cold-storage caches, check harpoons and meat they’ve stored to feed their crews with. Long-contemplated invitations to potential crew men are obliquely offered.

Then starts the gathering of camp-stuff. A blubber-and-wood-burning stove is cut from an oil-drum, chimney sections ordered. Skinboat owners need snow machines in working order, Coleman camp-stoves, gas, oil, Blazo, new sleds, axes, spades, picks, rope. Harpoons, grapples, flensing knives are whetted, shells and gunpowder are bought from the store or flown from Seattle. Caribou and bear skin blankets, sleeping bags and plywood tent floors are piled up in the storm shed, the wall-tent mended. There must be wooden tent-supports and canvas for a windbreak to be fitted onto poles and grapples.

Umialik women also have to calculate. What will they need for their husbands’ crews? Besides caribou, seal and last year’s whale meat, they buy flour, rice, crackers, tea and coffee, dried milk, sugar and tobacco. Some wealthier umialiks order butter, jam, canned fruit, bacon, pancake-mixture, Aunt Jemima’s syrup. In previous days the boat crews fasted: ate small amounts of frozen meat and sipped snow from skin containers that they carried underneath their parkas. Some days today, on the bigger camps, ranch-style breakfasts are cooked up by the women.

Hunt logistics are exhausting. The day we took the boat out. I ran beside the sled on which the skinboat, lashed with seal rope, stood. Suluk steered the snow machine between ice-rocks. There were six of us to keep the sled upright and protect the boat skins. Not even Suluk knew how far to go before we found a bay of open water.

As we ran, jumping, by turns, into the boat when we hit the flat. Seal hunters, Asatchaq’s contemporaries, travelled light. They carried rifles, harpoons, stone points, knives, a drag-line, wound-plugs. Skinboats were kept empty: harpoons, knives, floats, amulets, a little frozen meat and a skin to sleep on. Today’s equipment bulges mountainously above the gunwhales, held in place by ropes and canvas.

Whaling eats us. In order to consume, we are consumed. Once it’s started, nothing except whale matters…

Whaling eats us. In order to consume, we are consumed. Once it’s started, nothing except whale matters, nothing besides whale, its journey towards us. Its grand nature has a tangible existence. Whaling is an enterprise of co-ordinated ferocity. The mind extending to the whale, pursuing its adopted kin, cutting off the whale’s migration.

Masks, tools and weapons are now museum artefacts in Sitka. Thus we imagine through the masks the missionary Jackson bought, ways in which the whale and village in its whale mask moved towards each other.


ENTRY TO THE whale hunt is a collective enterprise. The whole community’s involved. The village empties, moves out to the sea ice. ‘Whaling pretty soon,’ had been the murmur. A transformative event. And yet there’s competition between whale boat owners and crews.

Like much in Tikigaq, the collectivity is ambiguous. Very little remains entirely unified. A two-ness, possibly a multiplicity, lies within convergence. The migration will happen and one of the whales will belong to her, the umialik wife. Traditionally the female partner in a skinboat-owning couple remains dominant. Her husband executes the hunt. But she remains the power.

Before the white man came, the woman sat at home, mimicking the whale’s obedience. The whales came into iglus before they sacrificed their bodies, surfaced through the body of the primal whale, the Tikigaq peninsula. It died in the water or the sea ice. Everybody understood this. But only once the animal had joined the women, breathed life into the iglu and unified itself with the mythological prototype. An uninterpretable convergence.

Just as every Tikigagmiu was either igniruaq- (birth associated) or qunguq- (death associated). All such people lived together. The principals of life and death were coexistent. Death implied birth. And birth incorporated death.


The sea encloses the community. People occupy the land. But they sink their dwellings in an earth that mythologically’s the sea beast.

LAND AND SEA in separation. Together they oppose each other. But as opposites, belong, embrace, complete a large part of the Land/Sea whole. The sea encloses the community. People occupy the land. But they sink their dwellings in an earth that mythologically’s the sea beast. Thus they live whole, but still stretched between opposites. They’re land/sea people. Paradoxically divided. Internally at peace with two-ness.

The land meets the sea and this marks Tikigaq. The way in which the land meets the sea’s ambiguous, not dangerous. That moment of transition, on the contrary’s, a joyful moment.

Indeed sometimes it’s difficult to know the difference. The edge of the beach, the Point’s hook – changing as the tide erodes and builds it – is frozen, sealed down, hard to distinguish from the inshore sea ice, the chaos of the inshore rubble. Transitional and scarcely noticed. ‘Am I on the land or sea?’ the hunter asks in crossing. Does it matter? Transformation of environment which scarcely matters.

And yet transition implicates a powerful switching. The challenges of land were tangled. Family life, the growth of children, the old getting older, people dying, the dominance of spirits, knowing who were shamans, living with them, singing, dancing, understanding clothes and tool deployment, laboring up hills, negotiating cliffs and beaches, skins, traps, driftwood, dogs and hunger, the individual in community. It was a labour being human. Responding always to environment. The ordeal of knowing, short life, death, life, eating, and not knowing.

Then suddenly the complexities of land life drop behind them. Things that had been brown, black, green, grey, things that moved, grew, froze and melted. Density. Material. Now, suddenly a new environment, no less a challenge. Sudden freedom on the sea ice. The complexities of land transformed. Every challenge that all humans face was reproduced here. Was this the message Tulugaq was crowing as he sauntered from the village through the rubble?


HERE FOLLOW PAGES from a sea ice journal that I kept the next year.

May 1977

Whale Hunt Journal

In 1977, there were about twelve crews spread along about ten miles of ice. Most of this journal describes life with a tiny crew consisting of Umik and Sarah (the male and female boat owners: umialiks). Also their friend, the midwife, Mamangina.

I was on my fourth field trip to the village and this was the third whale hunt at which I had been present. For much of the time during the six week season, little happens; this is reflected in the journal.

Sometimes, in the distance, a whale appears, at other times it surfaces and vanishes. People otherwise hunt wildfowl, seals and beluga whales, a white dolphin-like species. There is also storytelling, gossip, competition between crews. Mesmerized by constant daylight and fatigue, the mind drops its habits and enters states of being in which the hunt itself becomes a pretext.

May 12

Brilliant against low morning cloud, a single, sheer white ivory gull hovers and then glides towards us on short, stiff wings. The water’s black and choppy and when the gull flies close, we see papery, transparent shadows. I’m alone with Umik and Sarah. With no crew to help them, they’re pleased with my company – inept as they know me to be. Umik and Sarah are a quiet couple who live outside the social hurly-burly, but who still efficiently pursue subsistence business. Unblessed by wealth, noble in modesty, they might, in European folklore, be foresters or charcoal burners on whom for their inherent decency the gods or fairies bestow good fortune. Last year, for example, Umik caught a whale and the village gathered round him. Then, just as suddenly, he was socially alone again. Prompted by these thoughts, I told a sea gull story Asatchaq recorded last summer:

‘Here is a seagull with a song.’ But the song’s composed in mystical and secret language contrived by shamans or attributed to animals.

When, with the help of Tukummiq, I transcribed the gull’s song and asked her what it meant. She closed her eyes and gently shook her head. My note reads ‘This song is unintelligible.’ Still I wrote out the song in its four groups of clusters. It may be satirical:

Ikpangumai, ikpangumai
Tirruqtallingmai, tirruqtallingmai
Ikiqmannamumiyai, ikiqmannamumiyai
Iyaatchialauki, iyaatchialauki

The surrounding story is as follows. Unlike the other creatures who have met to play, the gull doesn’t have a game with which to entertain and challenge. When all the others start playing,

I won’t be good at doing anything!’ the gull complains.

So the gull ties a stone round its neck and flies across river. When it reaches the far side, it looks for a bigger stone to take back with it. That’s the gull’s game. It sings as it practises. Then finally it flies across river, falls in the water, starts to go under but then cries out:

‘There are kayaks approaching! And two skinboats!’

But the kayaks were his feet. And the skinboats his wings! So that was the end of him.

While the gull’s language was the preserve of shamans, the song was later made accessible when someone decided to create a dance to go with it. It’s entrancing to imagine songs like this being repeated by children, who themselves often, afterall, invented songs of strangeness and originality.

As I finish the story: ‘Don’t make us laugh too much,’ Sarah murmurs. ‘We want to catch a whale.’

‘When you learn that story?’ asks Umik in earnest.

‘Last year. In May. When you were out whaling.’

‘Maybe that was when I caught my whale,’ he muses. ‘That story could have been my lucky charm when I was harpooning. Maybe that sea gull can still help us now…’

But the story isn’t about success. The gull represents the archetypal anti-hunter. ‘That gull,’ someone teased me last year, ‘is you!’ And yes: if I have a game, it’s my incompetence. So far I haven’t discovered a local term for this – beyond kinnaq, ‘fool’. But the gull tale is one of several about kinnaq or ‘lazy fellows’ (iqiasuaq) figures who are incapable of looking after themselves. Did such incompetence derive from my work in Tikigaq, or did I bring it with me? I think of the kinnaq stories that Asatchaq told. He was tickled by their absurdity. I took them seriously.

Last night ivory gulls wheeled overhead again. I called them nauyaaluk and Sarah corrected me. But because she lived her first thirty years in a river village, she didn’t grow up knowing this high Arctic species and doesn’t have its specific name. She did tell me that nauyaaluk is the term for both glaucous gull and a generalized word for the larger gull family. Umik once caught an ivory gull in his owl trap at the Point and took it home with him. The gull’s leg was broken and Umik snapped it off and bandaged it with insulating tape. I asked him what he fed it. ‘It ate anything. I called him Jerry,’ he said in a matter of fact voice. ‘I like those white ones, small ones. The big ones I don’t like.’ Umik kept Jerry for two weeks and then released him.

Umik’s generation, born in the early 1940s, operates in two languages. What they know very precisely in Inupiaq emerges less articulately in local English, and linguistic vagueness – as in ‘big ones’ for glaucous gulls, which has a specific name – is what makes Inupiaq people occasionally appear simple to outsiders. The tragedy is that younger people inherit the non-precision of the village English dialect and not the super-precision of Inupiaq. Thus perceptive sharpness may come to be blanketed in a new language which, at its present stage of evolution, isn’t keen-edged and compendious enough to cope with the deeply interesting reality of environmental life.

Another double element in Umik’s make-up: on the one hand compassion for the ivory gull, on the other the ferocity of the hunter who must make a thorough job of killing. When a ‘big one’ (nauyaaluk) gets in his trap, he simply stamps on its head. This separation of species may come from an archaic system of classification in which considerations of both subsistence and aethetics play a part. Perceptions we observe thus cleanly diagrammed within the subsistence field are no doubt also visible within urbanised human behaviour. We feed cats minced rabbit that may have been tortured by chemists in pursuit of the deodorant stick.

As I think of Umik. and his owl traps on the Point, I remember a day on my first visit to the village. It was a foggy autumn afternoon in 1973, and as I wandered the bluff on the village outskirts, I saw a man on the beach who was walking back and forth in jerky, hurried concentration. His solitude appeared frantic; his movements disturbed. This may have been Umik moving between traps, whose delicate settings, he was anxious to leave sprung for the owls that were hunting squirrels and lemmings. And that solitary figure reminds me also of the shaman Aquppak who stood dazed at the Point one late summer in the middle nineteenth century, as a party of spirits arrived in an umiaq and kidnapped him. Aquppak only got home once he’d changed into a whale and his soul was released when a hunter had harpooned him.

Who was that figure silhouetted in the fog who seemed to act out, as though drawn by spirits, to this lonely culmination of the sand-spit, by some spiritual agreement or a shamanistic negotiation?

A steep pressure-ridge of sea ice rises behind our canvas wind-break. We sit in the lee on a sled draped with caribou and bear skins. The skinboat, as though growing from a separate spine of ice to our south, points across the ocean whose surface, in sharp watery chunks, produces an occasional dull glitter. The horizon is dark blue, separated from the paler sky by the saw-tooth of the distant pack ice. Above this, mounds of cloud echo the ridge behind us. Recalling that reluctant shaman, I think in half-sleep:

Far away on the ice, a skinboat crew of spirits witnesses our materiality and are waiting to abduct our leader.

Glaucus gulls fly across to scavenge a beluga carcass. They have grace and greed, are bigger than the ivory gull, which still glides alone like a disembodied spirit. The ivory casts no image on the water, but its shadow brushes the ice-rocks: a white shadow, eerie. Blindingly white, as though fused from ice-silk, the gull rises and evaporates. I’m dazzled by that sudden shadow.

The depths below the skinboat prow are green. The keel, just visible, has short blunt udders of ice that have been formed by the wash. These grow longer and drip with every backward motion of the swell. I’m entranced by the intensity of the projecting prow as it juts from the ice and threatens motionlessly to harpoon the water. More than just a vehicle, the umiaq is a weapon and an animated hunting partner. Eight seal skins lashed across the open lattice of a driftwood carcass lend the boat dynamic, animated character. This life was expressed in traditional times when the women ran ahead of the boat as it was being carried across the ice and magically empowered it by having it brush against their new garments which were still charged with animal soul life, thus transmitting both human and non-human energies to the new-clad umiaq. Even in these post-missionary, agnostic days, the skinboat radiates a life of its own, about which idea, these other thoughts occur:

First, its tensions: in that the skins are stretched so tightly across the driftwood frame that they are quite united with it, while the skeletal structure is itself morticed and lashed into its own self-integrated and cylindrical configuration: ribs fixed to keel firmly but with sufficient give to maintain a shape which is flexible enough to bend slightly to ice pressure.

Second: the combination of materials. Like a drum, the umiaq is constructed with new skin and old driftwood, both of which are harvested on the south side of the peninsula where seal skins are taken after the whaling season and where also wood has drifted from southern rivers. The boat is thus a product of migratory movement from the south and it will be used to pursue the whale which migrates along the same path. While driftwood and seal both come from the sea, the skins are stitched together with sinew from caribou tendon. This latter gives the boat a third element, in which materials from land and sea converge. Land dwellers who hunt on land and at sea must bring sea creatures to land also. The stitches also harmonise with the new caribou skin clothes people wear at whaling and the raw caribou meat which constitutes much of their diet during the hunt. Men, wearing seal skin boots, and their boats are thus mutually adjusted.

Thirdly, the prow. To see the boat perched at the ice-edge, the curve of its prow poised just above the water suggests movement and intentionality. While the prow expresses stillness, it gives the impression of wanting to take off: fly, swim, re-enter that buoyant element from which its skins emerged. Some men lay harpoons along the forward gunwales, and these bristle from the prow, thus creating a composite projectile, as though the mechanism of the harpoon will be set off when it touches a whale and thus help propel the skinboat with which it is in partnership. Further to this, the prow, carved last century and smooth with long handling, has both thrust and sensitivity. While the keel absorbs vibrations from the ice and water, the prow stands in the wind aware, awake, alert. The boat points the way. Its sharp beak leads. Some of these thoughts flow from one of Asatchaq’s stories about a boat which had drifted to Siberia. In search of the lost hunter, his brother took off in a new boat which has the magical the speed of a sea bird – a species of jaeger.

Back in the village lies my falling-to-pieces copy of Virgil with its images of ship’s prows which subsume the world of ancient people’s journeys:

Obvertunt pelago proras…et litora curvae praetexunt puppes…

they turn the prows seaward…and the round keels fringe the shores…

I think of the Inupiaq verb stem: ‘the sea travelers come ashore briefly’. What journeys across dangerous territory that term encapsulates! The hunter in his single mindedness. Men and boats, heroic self-interest coordinated with communality.

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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