The 2018 Fortnightly Serial.
Excursion to Cape Thompson
I’VE WRITTEN A LOT about culture contact and the changes Asatchaq had seen in Tikigaq. But the word ‘contact’ doesn’t properly or adequately express the process. The word change is also misleading. Even during the traditional period change had been continual. And local culture had always been a slowly evolving phenomenon. Once the Caucasian American presence had been established, these changes in Inupiaq society were bigger and more rapid. In this connection, I have also described aspects of the American presence in the northwest Arctic. And perhaps the word ‘impact’, in addition to ‘contact’ should be introduced into the discussion of this complex but accelerated course.
The climax of the contact/impact process came in the late 1950s. This was the phenomenon of Project Plowshare or Chariot: a plan to detonate five nuclear bombs at the southern end of Cape Thompson. I have outlined this project in the text below and have woven it in to the narrative. At best unrealistic, the project was a dangerous plan which abandoned every humanitarian concern and whose abandonment, unfortunately, had little or no impact on the global nuclear issue.
IT’S LATE JUNE, and bankrolled by Mobil Oil to investigate the coastal birds, McDuff, an ornithologist, has flown into the village. McDuff’s an easy-going, bearded Fairbanks giant, with a cabin in the spruce woods, a dog-team, half a PhD, and a knowledge of Alaskan birds. Within hours of arrival, and free from qualms about paying the locals for what he wants, McDuff has organised a trip to Cape Thompson, and suddenly I’m off with him along the south beach on a rented Sno-Go.
There are two minor problems. First, there’s no snow, and so Ambrose, our guide, an Inupiaq visitor, has to drive the machine over rotting ice floes. The other problem is the snowmachine itself. A two-year-old discard from the ice and tundra, it’s reduced to a plate of innards, skiis awry, the rubber track tattered. The sled, on which McDuff and I take turns in choking exhaust fumes, is likewise on its final journey: and since the sled drops under water as the snow-go attempts leaps between joggling ice pans, it’s easier for both of us to run alongside, our backpacks strapped neatly under water.
When finally the machine gives out, we drag it to the beach and try bleeding the slush from its gills and carburetor. Of course it’s no good. Ambrose trudges back to Tikigaq, lugging a gas can — Farley or Sakra will presumably run out from the village to scavenge the carcass.
We’re twenty miles from Imnat and McDuff’s no longer in a rush. We walk. I ask him – as I do of myself – ‘What was the hurry?’
‘I can’t remember,’ he says cheerfully, ‘maybe something about money. The oil man: he pays good: but only for a week.’
He gestures to the cliffs. They’re still distant: dark blue with ice streaked. ‘It’s wonderful,’ he says, ‘to be out in shared territory. Among Eskimos and summer birds.’ He raises his glasses and rushes through the fringes of the tundra. ‘A knott,’ he comes back, scrawling in a spiral binder. ‘Alaska’s so wonderful!’
We walk in silence only broken by McDuff’s short, rushing exits. Each time he comes crashing from the tundra with his notebook flapping, it’s a whimbrel, phalarope, longspur, old squaw: the list soon extends to forty species.
We have very little food, but McDuff with his shot-gun bags a pair of ptarmigan and at midnight we camp, build a driftwood fire and eat, washing down the hot dry meat with brackish water.
When we lie down to rest, we lie on cold stone. I try to raise my mat on wood and grasses. But it’s hard to relax. My sleeping bag is damp and salty. But then it’s dream, not sleep I enter. A half-world of the present, birds, old Tikigaq stories.
A short-eared owl – nipailuktaq, ‘silent flier’ – floats over the lagoon. It chews lemmings in the dreamlight and coughs up a rubble of hair and vertebrae. I, too, want to hunt. But also to sleep, and urinate the salty water. I’m hungry and exhausted. Behind my ribcage springs the charred dismembered ptarmigan. The owl travels the low sunbeams. The rays lead down my colon.
‘Hungry?’ I ask it. The owl says nothing, so I raise my fingers, drawing it to me. When I shake a little, the owl’s claws dip, and the pain in my fingers is cold and exquisite.
‘No need to come further,’ I decide in the end, ‘I’m only a white man.’ The small owl in the pale light frowns.
‘You know my name’s meaning – nipailuktaq?’
‘Yes: “flies in silence”.’
‘Put that, when I leave you, in your story.’
‘We’re already in the story. The old stories still happen. Look: here’s Ukungniq.’
The young traveling shaman, lopes towards us in torn boots and dog-skins.
‘Not just Ukungniq. I’m Raven too, and Moon Boy,’ Ukungniq mumbles, saturated with his mixed, convergent myth identity.
‘How they roll into one!’ I want to exclaim. The owl pre-empts me:
‘They’re all lonely, those travellers. With no-one to talk to. Their loose bits of soul discharge at random. They drift round starving. Always singing. Then other souls, the ones in their places – like here in driftwood – sing back to him. When the boy feels better…’
‘Or worse,’ says Ukungniq.
‘He’s become a shaman.’
Ukungniq’s parka drops onto the beach stones. Its sexual, meaty odours are disgusting. Coughing badly he shuffles to the side. Not wanting his cold, I wrap his skin round my Air Force jacket.
‘Come on!’ McDuff struggles to his feet, ‘it’s too cold to stay here.’
‘I can’t,’ I explain, ‘I’m stuck. Tangled in Ur-time.’
‘You’re raving,’ McDuff barks, laughing away his irritation.
‘It’s the shaman who’s crazy. He ran away without his parka.’
We walk on for five miles to the edge of the cliffs. A stream called Isuk runs over the beach from a patch of willows. Here the low land ends and the cliffs rise abruptly. Camped by the stream, and sitting with their legs towards the sea are Umik and Sarah.
‘Hi Tom,’ says Umik. ‘You brought a white man.’
We settle our packs and sit down with them.
The growl of cliff-birds fills the wind. Lines of feeding guillemots speed out to forage.
‘This is McDuff.’
‘Howdy, Mister D.’
‘Howdy,’ says McDuff.
‘He’s come to count birds,’ I introduce him.
‘Lots of birds round here. You’ll need a lot of paper.’
McDuff explains. ‘Not the number of birds on the cliffs, but…’
‘Who pays you to count birds?’ asks Sarah.
‘A company. Oil men.’
‘Ah,’ says Umik.
‘Will they drill into the sea?’ asks Sarah sharply.
‘I hope not,’ McDuff says.
‘I can see it,’ Sarah goes on, ‘in my head-dream. I see oil. Black. Black oil. Spouting from the sea. I’ve seen pictures. Out of Texas. First the white man came and killed our whales. Then when the whales have gone, they’ll make the sea spout…’
‘Make sure whose side you’re on,’ says Umik. He and McDuff avoid looking at each other.
A silence follows. Then:
‘How many birds come to nest on these cliffs, you reckon?’
‘About quarter of a million,’ says McDuff.
‘Used to be more,’ says Umik bleakly.
‘Yes. Way back ,there were twice that many.’
‘Why?’ asks Umik. He stares at the sea. We follow his gaze to a line of guillemots disappearing on the south horizon.
‘I’ll tell you,’ says Umik. ‘The atom bomb. And atom bomb people.’
‘You mean from bomb tests in the 1950s? In Siberia? I guess that’s possible.’
‘Not that,’ says Umik getting warmer. ‘I mean Washington. America.’
‘Have you ever heard,’ I ask McDuff, ‘of Project Chariot?’
‘Can’t say I have,’ McDuff says quietly.
‘IT WAS NATIONAL news in 1960. But it centred right here. The big Alaskan scandal of the century.’
‘Tell me,’ McDuff says.
‘Perhaps you won’t believe us. But when you’re back to the Fairbanks library, you’ll find the archives…’ I tell him where to find it.
‘I guess he’ll believe us,’ Sarah says gravely.
‘You’ve heard of the AEC: Atomic Energy Commission,’ I start uncertainly. ‘But maybe you don’t know the name of Aggutauraq?’
‘Nope. Means nothing.’
‘Aggutauraq’s the name of a stream. The last valley in these cliffs. Just ten miles south of where we’re sitting.’
‘You mean,’ says McDuff, ‘the place with some huts at the end of the cliffs? I saw it from the plane here.’
‘That’s it,’ says Umik.
‘Well, back in 1957 a plan was devised for Aggutauraq. The AEC thought they’d build a harbour there.’
‘Sounds crazy,’ McDuff interrupts. ‘Who’d want a harbour when the sea is frozen – all but in summer?’
‘It was madder than that. They planned to excavate this harbour with…’
‘Atom bomb!’ says Sarah bluntly.
‘You’re kidding,’ McDuff whistles.
‘Not one bomb. Five. Four in a line. Then a big one at the end. A keyhole shaped harbour, the designers described it.’
‘Jesus Christ,’ McDuff says slowly. ‘The bastards.’
It’s the first harsh word I’ve heard him utter.
‘I mean…’ he stammered, ‘how…? what…? why…?’
‘Oh they didn’t care,’ says Umik, ‘what got in their way. About Eskimos who lived in villages. They wanted to bomb us. Their very own people. These cliffs, the animals, birds and fishes: atom-bombed by white men, scientists and politicians.
‘You asked me why the birds have cut their number. I answer: the birds knew. They heard those men talking. The birds decided:
“We’ll go and nest in other places. Then if they bomb Imnat, some of us will live. Then in a thousand years, maybe, we’ll come back to Imnat.” That’s what the birds thought.’
I WALKED HOME with McDuff and then he left. I wrote to him as follows
Tikigaq June 2 1976
By now you’ll be back in your cabin in the spruce woods with your axe, your microscope and huskies. I hope the Fairbanks spring continues fine. Here we have wonderful sunshine: about 50F with the wind from the south. As for me, I’ve retreated from our walk and write to you deep in the half-light of my cabin.
I’ve been thinking about bombs, birds and stories, and the conversation we had with Umik & Sarah. You understood, I think, the source of their suspicion. People here will always be wary of outsiders like ourselves. Rightly I think: though it’s often hard to take. Whatever our intentions, we white men are the heirs to earlier intruders. And whether we’re teachers, dentists, bird men or ethnographers, we can’t disengage from the historical process which brought the US up here.
I had pious hopes when I first arrived that I was to be some sort of old-ways-rehabilitation-saint, ‘working for and with the community’ etc. Some locals treated me at first within the terms of that cliche.
But this was temporary and born of a sort of wish-fulfilling poetry from the drift of newspeak about ‘giving culture back’ – an issue far too difficult to address, let alone resolve here. As for my own role in the process of reclamation, I realise that my work is largely clerical, and that at bottom I’m simply the old man’s amanuensis.
But even in this small capacity, I’m part of a continuum. That is: after the traders and missionaries have pacified the country and neutralised its inhabitants, then the ethnographers rush into the vaccuum and accumulate the fragments to put in museums. Whether the museum contains masks and pots or stories and kinship charts, the culture ‘reclaimed’ is thereby spray-varnished and given its place in the history of ideas and places. This process, in small part, assuages the majority’s guilt at having ruined what it now seeks to preserve.
Of course you, counting birds for Texaco, are as anxious to protect the eagle and the knott as I am to canonise – or fossilise? – my storyteller in a book of pages. Indeed, whereas what you seek to protect is alive, I collect verbal ammonites: organisms which no longer live in the community tissue. You are, still, as I remain, part of the imperial sweep. So long as Texaco can provide – in part through folks like you and me – a convincing statement of likely development impact to reassure the public that industry has taken nature and local culture into consideration, then they can come in – as Sarah visualised – and start drilling to hell through the Chukchi seabed.
In this connection, I was preoccupied in the early spring, with some verses from St John’s apocalypse. ‘Horror! Horror! Horror!’ The village was exploding with tension, and people were talking – quite reasonably in the circumstances – about the end of the present epoch. Christ’s dawn was revealed. Angels stood on the school-house roof. The future erupted in a brimstone of horned beasts, wormwood, thrones and war in heaven.
I got caught up on the periphery of these apocalyptic strata in various ways. Partly because certain frightening events in the winter suggested to people that something in Tikigaq was terminally wrong. Partly because the incidents in one of Asatchaq’s stories seemed to reflect these events: as though the stories represented a subterranean consciousness of things that were happening on the contemporary surface: and that archaic versions of the same energies, stored in ancient, frozen iglu roots, were bursting through the floors of modern houses.
Then just as the past seemed to rear up to address US – maybe even to reassure US that the disorder had all happened before, only with shamans and talking animals instead of 1976 teenagers – I had my own small visualisation, though this time it was the future and not the past that was revealing itself:
It was March, and I’d walked out one afternoon onto the south shore ice, and looked back at the village. Instead of the usual geometry of roofs and meat racks cresting pressure ridges, I saw, through an effect of northern light, the city of the future: Tikigaq inland, in white/blue ectoplasmic mirage substance: storey upon storey of prefabricated office and municipal housing (I’ll quote, if I may, from a poem I started)
arrayed in a cross-hatching of
——————crane necks and derricks,
the time-vandalised multiple elongation of dwellings
run in the air meta-city
————-on the latitude of the Standard Oil building
——unusable high-wind sun-balconies
transport damaged condominium accessories –
————————-It leapt, yes,
as does Las Vegas out of a basin
——————–in the Mohave desert at nightfall,
or Denver glazed suddenly
————–against the Rockies from an aircraft cabin,
and like those centres,
————————on exchange of metal.
Not precisely Armageddon. But – taking off from Sarah’s vision – an optical impression of what might become of this place in the not distant future.
But now from apocalpyse 1976, let me move back to Project Chariot in 1957 which is what I wanted to write to you about. I have quoted Revelation. Now turn your mind back to the prophet who intoned the following:
…they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.
Believe it or not, it was this celebrated verse from the book of Isaiah that Lewis Strauss had in mind in 1957 when the US Atomic Energy Commission, of which he was president, decided to explore ‘the peaceful application of nuclear explosives’. In a somewhat casual mutation of the Hebrew ideal — the ‘sword’ of US bombs in continuing manufacture would afterall be accompanied by, not converted into the ‘plow’ of atomic excavation — the AEC therefore called their 1957 programme ‘Project Plowshare’. And Project Chariot — a reference presumably to Elijah’s ascent in a chariot of fire — was to be one of the first experiments in the larger Plowshare programme.
As you know, the AEC did not, in the end, detonate atom bombs at Cape Thompson. This, however, was their original plan, and I happen to have brought with me from Fairbanks a box of photocopies about the project and have, since your departure, been re-reading some of the material.
So here I am floundering in bulletins and news clippings from the early 1960s one sunny midnight, when my teenage friend Sharva bursts in through the storm shed.
‘What you doing?’ he asks between munches of the sandwich I’ve constructed. I identify my cache of xeroxes and he says,
‘Oh yes: Dad once told me about that deal. When the atom people tried to blow up Aggutauraq.’1
Shakra’s father was one of the men who went to work at the Chariot site. While most of the village stood against the project, a small number of men went and worked on the site as labourers and carpenters.
‘What would you have done?’ I ask. Sharva kicks out with a high left boot and a crust of snow flies onto my table. Growling explosively he rakes his arms in a violent half-circle.
‘They wouldn’t come back with hydrogen bombs even!’ he laughs joyfully.
Hydrogen bombs. Not ‘just’ A-bombs. Was that the plan? To clarify my thoughts, McD. let me outline this history for you.
First to names. The documents and map read ‘Ogotaurak’. It’s easy to be snobbish about these details: but the accepted contemporary spelling, Aggutauraq, takes you closer to the place and its associations. The name means ‘little aggutaq’: a bag made from seal stomach, which name derives from the name of a hill-top north of Aggutauraq creek which is shaped like a seal stomach.
And to history. Plowshare came into being in 1957, and the first underground test, 2,000 feet into a mountain, happened that September at the Nevada Test Site. Since this 1.7 kiloton bomb yielded no atmospheric fall-out, the AEC decided to shoot for more. The primary impetus came from the University of California’s Livermore lab headed by Edward Teller, an exuberant genius who talked extensively during this period about what he described as ‘nuclear landscaping’.
‘We’ll make deserts bloom,’ he wrote. ‘We’ll landscape the earth’s surface to suit U.S…’ The project was launched in cold war time.
On the one hand there was public support for the development of nuclear weapons. On the other, there was national anxiety about testing. Besides the horror of August 1945 in Japan, there was, for example, the episode of the Lucky Dragon boat. Unbeknown to the American public, there had, since 1944, also been radiation leaks in the USA, some unintentional, other less so. The fallout issue was almost as hot as communism paranoia.
In an attempt to neutralise national revulsion against ‘death dust’, the AEC said it would: ‘highlight the peaceful uses of nuclear explosives and thereby create a climate of world opinion that was more favourable to weapons development and tests.’ Teller, who was Plowshare’s most vigorous propagandist, met public anxiety with a curious mixture of plain speech and vague promises.
‘I believe,’ he wrote in Popular Mechanics, March 1960, ‘that the dangers from fallout in the weapons-testing programme have been greatly exaggerated; nevertheless, this worry exists and so we are trying to develop ‘clean’ bombs…with no radioactive fallout and no local residual contamination.’ And in this respect, the value of the H-bomb (or ‘hell bomb’ as it was described by some) was that it produces no fallout. Only the A-bomb used to trigger the thermo-nuclear explosion throws up waste.’
Back in 1958, the AEC contracted with Longyear, a firm of consultants in Minneapolis, to study ‘mineral potential and proposed harbor locations’ in northwest Alaska. After nine weeks of work, but without having visited Alaska, Longyear suggested the very cliffs we walked to earlier this month. But at the south end, where Aggutauraq creek runs into the sea. There were shale-oil and coal deposits in the area, and a harbor there was, incredibly, judged economically viable.
Longyear’s proposal seemed to meet the four AEC criteria ‘for the selection of an appropriate site’:
- Location in the United States.
- Location that assures protection of people and wildlife.
- Conditions satisfying geologic and engineering requirements for experimental data.
- Possible long-term utilitarian value.
The first criterion was nicely symbolised or supported by Alaska’s entry to statehood in 1958. Criterion 2: well, Tikigaq, with a population of approximately 320 was 32 miles away, the smaller villages of Noatak and Kivalina were forty and fifty miles from Chariot. Criterion 3 could only be finally satisfied through research. The fourth criterion was easily fulfilled by the proposal to excavate a harbour. This was would be the ‘keyhole shaped crater’ I described to you: the harbour to be 300 foot deep, 1500 feet in diameter, with a 2000 foot channel leading to the sea. To this end, one 200,000 ton H-bomb and four 20,000 ton bombs would be exploded roughly as shown in a diagram provided by Teller for his article in Popular Mechanics.
These explosions would exceed the power of the Hiroshima A-bomb by a factor of fourteen. Fourteen Hiroshimas. To reassure the public, there is an artist’s impression of the Chariot explosion on the same page as the diagram. It shows two rugged American pilots dressed in flying suits and helmets. They sit at the controls of a futuristic aircraft cabin, gazing – a mere hundred yards from a comic-strip wilderness – with benign and heroic impassivity at five white plumes of nuclear smoke that rise like cotton-woolly Christmas trees. Undisturbed, a windless sea laps the moony cliff base. There would, after all, only be thirty million cubic yards of earth being blown sky-high.
Chariot’s purpose was conceived as both practical and experimental. On the practical side lay the possibilty of transporting mineral resources down the west coast, although just a few months later, geologists concluded that the only stuff worth extracting was a low grade coal. It was further demonstrated that a harbour, once explosively dug, would quickly silt up with mud and sand. Lastly, as any Tikigaq child could have told them, the sea is frozen between October and July, and thus shipping could only reach this area, at best, between July and September. These simple facts put the kybosh on the economic pretext, and the AEC laid them aside.
But the experimental rationale lost little of its urgency. The blast would, according an AEC bulletin, constitute a ‘harmless experiment in nuclear engineering (NE)’. This would open the way to future uses of NE for the excavation of canals, harbours, building sites and recreation areas in other parts of the country. There was an economic purpose behind this too. Nuclear explosions could dig in a fraction of the time and at a third, or even a tenth of the cost of chemical explosives. It was just a question of finding out how to do it in reasonable safety and with minimum fuss – and/or public interference.
None of this business in remote northwest Alaska was taking place in isolation from the international arena. As early as 1958, the AEC presented their Chariot proposal to the Second U.N. International Conference on the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy. To accompany their presentation they showed a movie which included a mock detonation placed in a model of Aggutauraq valley. But despite the success of the movie, the plan met with opposition from both eastern and western delegations. While Chariot was on the drawing board, the USA, the Soviets and Britain were negotiating a Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.
The Russians viewed Chariot as an American ploy to side-step this projected nuclear test ban. Indeed, by June 1959, they were accusing the US of planning a ‘camouflaged hydrogen bomb test’ only 175 miles from the Soviet frontier.
‘Whatever the US press says,’ claimed Sovetsky Flot, ‘it is clear to all that a test of death-dealing weapons is be carried out under the guise of building a seaport.’ And only when the US abandoned the (albeit underground) Chariot project in 1963, did the test ban treaty go through.
In the meantime, Chariot had to be sold to the Alaskan people. In July 1958, Teller toured Juneau, Anchorage and Fairbanks to drum up support in government, business and academic circles. Alaskan opinion was, as the lawyer Joseph Foote wrote, ‘sharply divided.’2
Many of those not in opposition to the blast simply wanted to excavate a dam or a harbour where it would be more accessible. ‘Government officials,’ continued Foote, ‘scientists and top level business men thought Teller’s scheme was ridiculous. Opening northwest Alaska to economic development was low on the list of things to get done. But Chambers of Commerce in areas sensitive to federal spending were enthusiastic.’
Teller’s Alaskan speeches sounded feverish and exaggerated. Alaska, he claimed, had been chosen because it had ‘the fewest people and the most reasonable people.’ NE, he said, could be controlled so precisely that they could ‘dig a harbour in the shape of a polar bear.’ Some of what he said was simply misleading. For example, while the idea of Chariot as an economically feasible project had been shelved by January 1959, Teller was assuring Alaskan business that while the project had to ‘stand on its own economic feet’, and two-thirds of the $5 million budget would be spent in Alaska.
The following summer, when Chariot was in danger of being abandoned through lack of support, Teller returned to Alaska, still claiming, despite contrary evidence, that a harbour at Aggutauraq would be usable. Joseph Foote writes: ‘Asked if other harbours could be blasted in Alaska, (Teller) says: ‘That’s like a little girl asking what do I want for Christmas. It’s up to you… If your mountain is not in the right place, just drop us a card.’ Most outrageously, in his commencement address at the University of Alaska that autumn, Teller cried: ‘Please God, that by making harbours here in Alaska, perhaps near coal deposits, by exporting this coal cheaper to Japan, the Japanese might become the first beneficiaries of atomic energy, of atomic explosions, as they have been the first victims.’
In January 1959, Chariot was in fact temporarily shelved. At the Second U.N. International Conference on the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy, western scientists ‘were sceptical of the US programme.’ The main objections were over fallout and over injecting a new controversy into the picture before a test ban had been negotiated. The next six months saw major barn-storming exercises through Alaska both from Teller’s laboratory and those AEC personnel who still supported the blast. By spring 1959, Alaskan opinion, spurred partly by a positive resolution from the Alaskan House of Representatives, had come down in favour of Chariot. Equally important, by promising large-scale contracts for pre-shot scientific research at Aggutauraq, the AEC successfully persuaded the top brass at the University of Alaska to put its weight behind the project.
June 1959: barge-loads of equipment started to arrive at Aggutauraq for the start of the pre-shot scientific survey. This was to be the first ever US Environmental Impact study. At this wonderful opportunity for scientists from Alaska and elsewhere to get into the field and be paid to produce data on one of the least explored areas on the continent, the small planes droned down onto the airstrip that had been laid at Aggutauraq – there would soon be three such landing places. Up went insulated quonset huts and cabins. And – despite reluctance from the AEC, and the fact that bulldozers and weasel tractors had, by the end of July, wrecked extensive areas of tundra cover – archaeological work at Aggutauraq also started.
Personnel: Senior Scientist, Frederick Hadleigh-West
Field Assistant Kenneth E. Howell
Field Assistant, Elmer Ipalook (Kivalina)
Labourer, Henry Nashookpuk (Tikigaq)
It must have been an extraordinary scene. I think of you, McD, alone with your binoculars, sitting with Umik and Sarah at the cliffs last week. But in the summer of 1959, a swarming scientific kibbutz camped here. First there was the US Geological Team which returned from its previous summer’s work to sink shafts through the tundra to explore the bed-rock. Then besides the teams from the AEC and the US Public Health Service there are groups from the Universities of Washington and Alaska to whom the AEC had granted research contracts. Offshore lay the UW’s research ship Brown Bear with marine biologists, fishery investigators and invertebrate zoologists. Then in camp, besides thirty-odd construction and maintenance staff, there were the ornithologists, (land and marine birds), botanists, geologists, geophysicists, caribou and small mammal scholars, students of the brown bear, marine mammal experts. Anyone with anything to do with anything from tundra cotton to the jaeger and peregrine falcon diet was there checking, tracking, trapping, mapping.
To give you a sense of the sheer diversity of life at the cliffs: in forty studies from data collected by a hundred scientists between the summer of 1959 and 1961, half the sixty known Alaskan mammals were recorded in the area; 120 inland bird species, and 1400 species in other groups, several score of these new to science. As you will agree, this would clearly be an ideal environment in which to detonate fourteen Hiroshimas. And if you can do this to non-human species, why not bring it closer to home? Indeed, as President of the University of Alaska, Ernest N. Patty, proclaimed: this dramatic method of excavation could one day be used even near cities. But first it had to be demonstrated ‘in the boondocks’.
In January 1960, the AEC’s Environmental Studies Committee met and reported that ‘the best time for firing is spring.’ This according to the AEC, via the New York Times, was when ‘most plants and small animals would be under snow cover, few birds would remain in the area, hunting activity on the land would be a minimum and radioactive debris would be flushed off the frozen landscape by the spring run-off of melting snow. Once this had happened ‘much of the debris would decay appreciably before entering biotic cycles through the sea after break-up’. Since no scientific studies in spring had yet been done, this wish-fulfilling appraisal came as a surprise to Alaskan residents. It hardly required a PhD in meteorology and earth sciences to work out that, to start off with, there is virtually no snow cover at Aggutauraq. The frozen tundra with its grass, sedge, lichen, moss and willows is wind-scoured all winter.
Four Alaskan scientists accordingly protested, and two of them resigned from their AEC contracts. They had been asked by an agency consisting of scientists to produce scientific data, and now their contributions had been aborted before they could produce anything scientific. The Alaskan Commissioner of Fish and Game likewise protested that the AEC’s decision ‘shows signs of pre-determination.’ He complained further that the environmental programme was slanted towards cataloguing biological life and measuring background radiation levels – which are mostly of interest in making post-shot comparisons. ‘The Home Chamber of Commerce might be satisfied,’ he concludes, ‘but the scientists of this Department are not.’
On 5 March 1960, the New York Times reported that ‘the AEC’s proposed nuclear explosion on Alaska’s Arctic coast is at least a year away. The original plan of blasting out a usable harbour near Cape Thompson has also been abandoned as unfeasible… Instead, a mile-long, key-hole shaped excavation in the tundra is contemplated.’ Thus in contemplation, a party of three from the AEC, headed by Rod L. Southwick, arrived in Juneau, en route to Tikigaq and other villages to talk to native community councils. It had been reported that they [village people] were ‘afraid of what the blast will do.’ But this was first and last time the AEC approached any locals.
Now imagine this scene. It’s March 14. A small plane, a Cessna 180, piloted by Tommy Richards a mixed race Inupiaq takes off from Kotzebue and flies east and then north on its hour’s trip to Tikigaq. On board the Cessna are Southwick and two colleagues: Russell Ball, in charge of Chariot’s general planning, and a scientist, Bob Rausch of the US Public Health Department.
Inland, then up coast they tack until they almost reach Cape Thompson. ‘Aggutauraq coming up to your right, gentlemen,’ shouts Richards over his shoulder. The men crick their necks against the windows. The Cessna banks, and to starboard they gaze down on the little valley. Ahead stand the cliffs. On each side of the valley there are ridges. Otherwise the valley is flat and brown and streaked with snow. The course of the creek is near invisible. What stand out are the air strip and wind sock, and the little colony of huts and shelters (a few ruins remain there).
‘That’s where my ancestor Samaruuraq caught two whales and two walruses, all in one day,’ says Richards, nodding down at Aggutauraq. ‘Walked there from Kivalina in the 1893 famine.’ But nobody hears him.
‘One helluva wasteland!’ mutters Ball, still fresh from Frisco.
‘Gee willikers!’ chimes Southwick. ‘But not,’ (recalling Introductory Studies 101: The Sublime) ‘without its elevated grandeur!’ Rausch, who knows the Arctic, keeps his council.
On they drone and touch down in Tikigaq. The men, kitted out in Fairbanks by the university in heavy weather gear, trudge into the village from the air strip. They glance at their watches. They’re anxious to get back to Fairbanks.
The Community Hall of St Thomas’s Episcopal Mission is a long low clapboard building. Like the church and the clinic, it’s painted dark green. Richards leads his trio through the storm shed. Seated already for over an hour, their boots stretched on the floor in front of them are one hundred Inupiat, mostly middle-aged or elderly. Besides the Inupiat are two white village residents: Keith Lawton the Episcopalian priest, and Don Charles Foote, brother of Joseph, a historian working in Tikigaq for a PhD at McGill on northwest Alaska. A brilliant young scholar, he and Berit, his artist wife, have lived in the village for a year already and recorded ethnographic data. The AEC have employed him to compose a human geographical study of the area. This he has done. He has, at the same time, mobilized opinion in the village to oppose the Chariot project.
At the end of the hall, three chairs are waiting behind a tressle. Square on the tressle stands a tape recorder. A box of reels and a back-up recorder are stacked under the table. Despite intense heat thrown out by a coal-burning stove, most of the Inupiat wear their parkas. The air is heavy with cigarette smoke.
The Tikigaq mayor, Umigluk David Frankson, aged fixty-six, opens the meeting. He speaks in Inupiaq and introduces the visiting party. Rod Southwick then begins his reply. And here, for your interest, are some extracts from an extraordinary transcript which you can read in the Foote Collection in the university library archives. As you will know, Foote was killed in a car accident in 1961:
Southwick: Thank you… It is our purpose to tell you what the status is of the project at Aggutauraq creek. The AEC early this month authorised the continuation of studies about the land, the sea, the fresh water, animals, fish and mammals. I want to emphasise that the Commission has not approved any explosion. The decision will be based solely on these studies that are going to show if such an experiment can be conducted safely. In the Bikini tests that were carried on above ground, the amount of radioactive material was many times greater than will be case here. The immediate area round the excavation will be dangerous for a short period of time after the explosion…if it is done. But the effects of this will not be very far-reaching in many number of miles and within a relatively short time, just a matter of several weeks or a few months at the most.
Ball: We now have available to show you a brief moving picture which describes several of the ways in which we think it will be possible to develop peaceful uses of these nuclear explosives. You will find that the movie talks about the creation of a harbour. This film was made at a time when thought was being given to the creation of a much larger harbour than is now considered. Because of this the explosive devices which the film mentions are much larger than the one we now propose to use.
The movie is screened and an explosion is shown in an area modeled to resemble Aggutauraq.
The audience cries out in horror: ‘Yeee! Aah!’
Southwick now invites questions, and the Rev. Lawton – a tough outdoorsman and an intellectual – quizzes Ball closely:
‘What type of rock has been found in core sample? What do the mudstone and shale you’ve found – as against limestone or granite – tell us as regards safety? What about shock waves? What would be the blast’s effect on tides? What percentage of the radiation would be expected to break surface?’
Ball: No difference this (speech continued in archive typescript]
Lawton: Is there still any thought that this will be a usable harbour?
Ball: As our studies progressed, it became clear that there is not, at the present time, an economic need for such a harbour. It is not exclusively viewed as a very worthwhile experiment to help us learn how to dig craters.
Dan Lisbourne (Tikigaq man and village council representative): Mr Ball, why was Cape Thompson chosen in the first place?
Ball: It met quite well a number of criteria. One of the types of excavation which is of rather obvious value is in the excavation of harbours. Ah, harbour and channels particularly seem attractive. Hence we wanted a coastal location. Second it was of course obvious that we find one remote from large centres of population for such an initial experiment. Cape Thompson was a location which seemed very well to fit with these criteria.
Lisbourne: The Barrow to Barter Island area [north coast of Alaska] is the most remote place I’ve seen. Couldn’t they choose such a place?
Ball: Ah, we didn’t want to get into an area where the winter would be too severe. After all, we’re a bunch of southerners up here. This climate is kind of hard on us, you know?
Anonymous voice: When this blast was considered was our livelihood and living considered?
Ball: Well, the Commission recognized that detonation of this sort, producing radioactive material as they always do, must always be conducted with the welfare of the citizens in mind. The Commission will proceed only on the basis that the studies conducted prove conclusively to the whole scientific world that it could be done without hazard to the Eskimo people in any way.
White man on short visit for guided polar bear hunting: Will radiation be checked during the experiment?
Ball: We will have men and instruments here and in several other villages, to give you information as to whether there is any fallout or none at all. We don’t want to leave you in ignorance.
Lawton: What precautions will be taken to prevent trout, which migrate past the key-hole-shaped harbour, from entering and then later being caught in Tikigaq nets?
Ball: Well, there will not be any need for precautions. We have not planned any.
Lawton: This was my question. Would there be any danger for fish going into that area?
Rausch: Marine biologists at the Eniwetok test [central Pacific]3 made very careful studies as soon as it was possible to go into the area. And, ah, I believe in one instance they suggested that the people should not eat the fish for two or three days after the test… And that was a shallow lagoon with radioactive material a thousand times greater than that which would be released here.
Lawton: If someone strayed into the area of the test, or some pocket of radioactivity due to a wind-shift, landed on a particular portion of Tikigaq, what kind of reparation would be possible for any damage that was done?
Ball: At this distance the amount of airborne radioactivity which could reach here could not possibly be enough to cause any injury to the people or the animals. Ah, around the hole there will be an area that will be sufficiently contaminated that it will be necessary for a period of time to restrict access. We will station people there, post signs or fences, whatever appears to be the most convenient way to do it. So that, er, there will not be an opportunity for people to wander into an area where it is not safe for them to be. After a period from a few weeks to a few months…it will be possible to remove all restrictions on access.
Lisbourne: In that period of time, even two or three weeks, it’ll cripple the hunting at Tikigaq.
Ball: No, you needn’t be restricted. All you need to do is avoid going across the immediate area to get where you want to go hunting. You may have to go around the backside of a hill instead of going along the shore…But your animals will not be… You don’t hunt the animals down near the beach. I presume you hunt them back in the hills.
Charlie Tuckfield: How can we avoid going around that area where we hunt all the time, that’s Aggutauraq Creek?
Lisbourne: That’s where our hunting ground is, Mr Ball.
Ball: Right, er?
Lisbourne: Right close, right around in the Aggutauraq Creek.
Southwick: Right on the shore?
Ball: Close to the shore?
Lisbourne: Yes. Right there.
Ball: How close? You don’t go hunting caribou on that location, do you? Do you shoot the animals right there at Aggutauraq Creek? Or do you mean to say you go by there to go to the animals?
Lisbourne: Ya: we shoot them there. There were nineteen dog teams there just this week.
Rausch: How late in the spring do you hunt there for caribou?
Lisbourne: Oh, as long as the trail is available to us, with snow.
Ball: Of course, an important part of our programme will be to learn the location of caribou before we decide to shoot. And so far as possible choose a time for the shot when the caribou are not in that immediate area. So we hope by this means to avoid any inconvenience to you by picking a time for the detonation when that’s not a good time to find the caribou.
Southwick: That’s one of the reasons Don Foote is here: to find out these things for us.
Lawton: Would there be any precautions taken to keep the caribou out of a contaminated area after the shot? Caribou might wander in and several weeks later be shot while contaminated.
Rausch: With all the activity that will be going on in the camp, in the immediate vicinity of the camp, I think that there won’t be any caribou in that vicinity close enough in where they are likely to become contaminated in any way. In other words, if they’re going to be back in the hills there, some distance, it’s not going to make any difference.
Ball: We might mention our experience with the herd of cattle in Nevada. Some of the cattle near a nuclear explosion had enough fallout on them to get some skin burns from the fallout. The herd there was brought in after the detonations to graze on the contaminated areas to provide evidence to the ranchers that it was safe, that the fallout, such as it was, would not provide any hazard to the animal or effect its safety in consuming the meat.
Tuckfield: Down in Nevada they don’t use dogs for hunting, huh?
Tuckfield: Suppose a guy went out hunting and got all his dogs killed and had to walk home?
Ball: (seriously) It would be a long walk, wouldn’t it? Well, ah, we will ensure that no one or his dogs are in the area where they could possibly receive any injury at the time of the shot… You will know long in advance the precise day and time of the shot. We will have airplanes flying, sweeping the area, so we will know, can assure ourselves that all the people are out of the way. So we’ll know for sure where all the caribou are at that time. And so on.
Lisbourne: I should think that we’ll be kept away from our hunting ground for a few days. I’m sure of that.
Ball: For a few days, this is possible.
Lisbourne: The people, all of us are, well, dependent on the food, the animals.
Ball: How many, how many days during the year, ah, do you hunt?
Laughter from the audience.
Lisbourne: We have to go out hunting all the time. We have no provisions like you have now out there. Just have to go out and get ‘em.
The discussion continues into the nature of the biological studies that the AEC plan.
Lisbourne: Wouldn’t it be feasible if the biologists were to stay up here whole year long and study what they should study. Like for instance Doc Johnson. He stayed here just four days. I don’t think you could learn much in just four days.
Rausch: I certainly agree with you, and the plan is to have full time people in this area during the coming winter. We didn’t plan as adequately the first year because we weren’t certain how things would go and so everyone concerned should able to use more judgment in the coming time.
Lawton: Who is the radiation biologist with the AEC?
Southwick: Dr Allen Seymour is a member of the Committee.
Lawton: And he wasn’t available for tours around the villages at all?
Ball: He was with us at the three-day meeting which the Commission held at Anchorage. But, ah, we didn’t at that time consider it important enough to bring him up here.
Southwick: We didn’t think it was necessary to pull him off the job he’s on right now. Are there any further questions? If not, I would like to, ah, thank you very much, Mr Mayor, the people who have come here, ah…
A woman’s voice interrupts in Inupiaq. Then a man’s. Then another woman’s.
Lisbourne: Ah…the woman here said all these people here, all of these people, most of them are just silent right now and they have great fear in this detonation. And the effects, and how the effects of it will be.
Lisbourne: No. Here!
Ball: What? I don’t, ah, quite under-, get what her question was.
Tommy Richards: The effect of the blast on the people.
Ball: On you, on your own Eskimo people?
Ball: Oh, well, ah, I believe we’ve covered that already. (Turning to pilot Richards about return flight). Ah, I think we’ll have…
Richards: I don’t think that’s true. You haven’t.
The audience begins to talk in Inupiaq. A man’s voice. A woman’s.
Richards: Are you gonna go through with this thing when you know that people here are afraid of the explosion?
Ball: Oh! As we have said, eh, the AEC is making very careful studies to make absolutely sure neither that you nor any of your people will receive any harm from this experiment. If we cannot assure that, we will not do it! Only when we can do it safely would we consider going ahead. Does that reassure you?
Voice in Inupiaq. Silence. The voice continues. End
My conversation with Sharva remains in memory. I will repeat it here. Sharva’d riffled through a box of papers that I had on Chariot.
‘What would you have done?’ I ask him. Sharva kicks out with a high left boot and crusts of snow fly onto my table. Growling explosively he rakes his arms in a violent half-circle.
‘They wouldn’t come back with hydrogen bombs even!’ he laughs joyfully.
And that, in outline, was Project Chariot. The bombs never happened. And the cliffs remained intact.
All best wishes to you, McDuff. And look forward to seeing you in Fairbanks.
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.
- The other major Plowshare project was to detonate some bombs in a salt dome near Carlsbad in New Mexico. They called this complementary Project Gnome, perhaps to rhyme with ‘dome’. Or maybe as a complement to the plowshare-and-chariot vision of the Jewish apocalypse, there was in the lower depths of the San Francisco AEC office an earth-mysteries specialist or an early devotee of Tolkien. But I think ‘gnome’ is good in that it represents a semi-domesticated version of the subterranean Teutonic Niebelungen: dwarfs who mined the bowels of Wagner’s imagination and led eventually to the death of gods.
- Background Materials on Project Chariot, an unpublished paper by Joseph Foote, 1961. Don Charles Foote Collection, in the Archives of the Elmer E. Rasmusen Library, University of Alaska, Fairbanks.
- Atmospheric tests were conducted on the Entwetok atoll between 1948 and 1962. The first hydrogen bomb test took place here in 1951. Residents who had been removed by the US military after WW2 began returning only in 1970. For the next decade, the US authorities worked to remove contaminated earth and other materials and declared the atoll safe in 1980.