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After the Snowbird, Comes the Whale Pt 7, Sec 2.

The 2018 Fortnightly Serial.




Natural noises.

IT WOULD BE easy to look back and construct an historical melodrama. There would be truth in such a scenario though I’d be embarrassed to render it a melodrama. The elements are simple. Old Tikigaq, before contact, like most pre-industrial societies, operated within an environment of silence. This is not hard to imagine. But complete silence would always be compromised by natural noises, and these, in the great spaces, must have been relatively few.

To know an animal’s voice was to identify its species. There were scores of species and people sometimes developed their own quiet, complicated language.

This isolation of noise made Tikigaq people sensitive to sound. In Part 1, I quoted Asatchaq’s imitation of the Lapland longspur, like the bunting, a summer migrant. Perhaps Asatchaq was reviving a childhood of mimicry. Tulugaq, aged eighteen in 1976, reproduced the croaking of a raven as he walked out to the sea ice.

Given that the raven was his namesake (tulugaq), perhaps closeness to that mysterious bird represented a rite. Something he’d grown up with. Still, all the animals were companion species in ways in which today’s people remain sporadically familiar. To know an animal’s voice was to identify its species. There were scores of species and people sometimes developed their own quiet, complicated language.

Silence was therefore punctuated by sounds that were as much a part of the environment as any other phenomenon.

Silence was therefore punctuated by sounds that were as much a part of the environment as any other phenomenon. Some shamans spoke and understood the songs of marine mammals, caribou, and the birds that were either permanently resident or seasonal. There was a terminology for non-human speech. Just as the Inupiaq language was Inupiaq+tun, so the suffix ­+tun was affixed to polar bear speech (nanutun) or gull and guillemot cries (nauyaaluktun; aqpaluuraqtun). To approach the cliffs in breeding season was to be smothered both in bird shit and a vast caul of sound vibration. Within that immersion, which was mostly guillemot language, there were the plaintive calls of the kittiwake, and paradoxically the stubborn silence of the puffin. Included in this symphonic variety were the golden eagle, peregrine and raven.

For children to move from such experiences to the combatative conversations in animal fables involved no great distance. We tend, in the West, to sentimentalise or render animal conversations comic. To Inupiat, the instinct of survival was as strong among the non-human as it was among people. To speak was to assert oneself. To be human was to be multi-lingual.

None of this might be apprehended in an environment of competitive noises. Silence was a necessity. Pre-contact Tikigaq was quiet.

Music was also important. Asatchaq, like many of his forebears, was a composer and it was as natural for him to sing, and indeed to tell stories, as it was to breathe. The tiny Asatchaq composed his first song when he was a child. Song erupted from him in the course of experience – in his case, falling in the summer mud and getting his parka dirty. He took his song home and was listened to and applauded. Old men constructed drums by stretching semi-dried whale’s liver membrane over driftwood loops. This was another way of celebrating a capture. The drum spoke from the internal depths, otherwise inaccessible, of the greatest species. Everything could speak. In a story told by Qimiuraq, human excrement could be overheard singing. If pre-contact Tikigaq was in one sense silent, it was also a place of voices and music.

The story of Aningatchaq conveys the ambiguous nature of that condition – partly, it has to do with attentive listening. As Asatchaq remarked during the course of his telling:

I too used to listen to them when I was a boy. I listened to the shamans who came back from Itivyaaq [the spirit iglu]. That was long ago I listened to them.’

One aspect of Aningatchaq’s story has to do with listening. The story is about awareness of place and time, about appropriate behaviour and carefully judging what both the shamans and the spirits have to tell out loud.

Qamma pigatiin!’ ‘You are wanted’, one of the spirits summoned the boy shaman. ‘People gathered at the iglu to hear what they’d say’. There is drumming and disappearance. The boy Aningatchaq listens. One of the three spirits, Siutitaq, has long ears for the purpose of overhearing taboo observance, and most particularly, its infraction through noise. The whole community must observe a ritual silence during the whale hunt. The use of blunt instruments such as hammers, was forbidden. Apart from drumming, singing and the smaller sounds of activity, the encounter of people with whales was conducted in a non-technological silence. Tying things together and scraping were permitted. But percussion must be kept for the aftermath of a harpooning. Then it could break out with a drumming on the great beast’s otherwise inaccessible liver membrane.


I HAVE ALSO been preoccupied with Nathaniel Hawthorne’s experience. In July 1844, Hawthorne sat down in Sleepy Hollow, a peaceful retreat from the problems and the complications of encroaching industrialization. An enthusiastic pastoralist, Hawthorne was, in the conduct of his rest, connecting attentively to natural sounds — to leaves, grass and breezes — when his peace was interrupted:

‘But, hark! There is the whistle of the locomotive – the long shriek, harsh, above all other harshness, for the space of a mile can not mollify it into harmony. It tells the story of busy men, citizens from the hot street who have come to spend a day in a country village, men of business, in short of all unquietness; and no wonder that it gives such a startling shriek, since it brings the noisy world into the midst of our slumbrous peace.’1

This moment, written up in a notebook, became famous. And in it, Hawthorne summarized the tensions that his neighbour Thoreau also identified with the relationship of nature and the machine. Mechanization, as Thoreau wrote, was oppressive:

We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us. Did you ever think what those sleepers are that underlie the railroad? Each one is a man…. The rails are laid on them, and they are covered with sand, and the cars run smoothly over them. They are sound sleepers, I assure you. And every few years a new lot is laid down and run over; so that, if some have the pleasure of riding on a rail, others have the misfortune to be ridden upon.’2

There are implications here for native societies like Tikigaq. Since the arrival of Euro-Americans, incomers had been torn between regarding the virgin continent on the one hand as an uncultivated wilderness and on the other as a bountiful garden. It was relatively easy for enthusiastic eighteenth-century pastoralists to gaze at the East Coast landscape and marvel at its beauty and richness. They also followed Montaigne and Rousseau in hallowing the character and lifeways of Indian people. As Robert Beverley wrote in 1705, Indians had not been

…debauch’ d nor corrupted with those Pomps and Vanities, which had depraved and inslaved the Rest of Mankind…. For, by their Pleasure alone, they supplied all their Necessities; namely, by Fishing, Fowling and Hunting; Skins being their only Cloathing…Living without Labour, and gathering the Fruits of the Earth when ripe…Neither fearing present Want, nor Solicitous for the Future, but daily finding sufficient afresh for their Subsistence.3

This beautiful but simplistic vision echoes Gonzalo in The Tempest, who himself follows Montaigne:

Riches, poverty,
And use of service, none; contract, succession,
Bourn, bound of land, tilth, vineyard, none…

Apart from James Cook, who made a dash up the Alaskan coast in 1778, no Europeans or Americans penetrated the western Arctic until the nineteenth century.4 And it would have been difficult even for most devoted primitivist to have written lyrically about either the people here or their environment. The Arctic coast was difficult and bleak. White men were reticent, though John Muir wrote movingly about beautiful flora at the summit of Cape Thompson. Edward Knapp in 1904, temporary missionary to the village, nonetheless wrote:

…a short distance to the southward [of the village] is the weird Eskimo graveyard two miles and more in length by about a third of a mile in width…Exposed to the weather the jawbones have bleached so that they resemble trunks of blasted trees, and the bodies have dissolved. Many of these ancient so-called graves have fallen into utter ruin and the bones and clothes that shrouded the dead lie scattered on the ground.

Knapp also sketches a picture of strange colouration: one of the old, metaphysically ambiguous bones of the Tikigaq, the dead with flowers and driftwood crosses rising among them:

It is a curious sight… There are human crania and other bones lying above the surface of the soil, but it is pleasant and hopeful to see growing up among them delicate wild flowers of the most beautiful forms and colors – the daisy, the yellow poppy, the forget-me-not, both blue emblems of the resurrection at the last day when these dry bones shall live. And more hopeful still it is to see the rude wooden cross that marks the more recent graves where rest the bodies of the Christian dead, sometimes buried under the ground, but as often placed above it…5

Knapp’s sensitivity to ambience — he detected ‘weirdness’, and an ‘atmosphere that hangs about the place’ — is dominated by a Christianised optimism. Spiritually, the future offered a superior dimension. It may have been spiritual but it brought noise with it also.


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ASATCHAQ’S VOICE WAS grainy, quiet, grave, undemonstrative. The stories were, by contrast, often theatrical. Many of his stories contained unlikely details. Asatchaq emphasized little, though he did laugh occasionally – telling Kinnaq idiot stories, for example. Generally, however, Asatchaq’s recitations were in the manner of how things were. What he said represented an uncritical and fluent version of truth as he saw it: the foundations of a societal reality which the old man believed in. This non-dramatising of the idiom was perhaps idiosyncratic. I met storytellers in other villages whose performances were more excited, dithyrambic, demonstrative. Not Asatchaq. It was as though he was simply letting through a tribal history which on the one hand was his own and on the other belonged to the place and to an entire people.

He was, in this respect, a conduit. The stories didn’t belong to him. They represented an impersonality not in his ownership. What happened in the past and what was repeated about myth time (taimmani) represented realities he had almost nothing to do with. These things were simply there and Asatchaq responded to them as he did to the climate and the ecology. Who else, he implied, would take responsibility for their issuance?

He once drew me a cartoon of himself, not much of a likeness, with a caption that read, ‘Jim tell true stories.’ This represented his ambition. ‘Don’t get tangled up,’ he warned me (I thought at first that he was referring in his difficult-to-interpret English to someone called Don Gallup), ‘and then take them to the Governor.’ It was the narratives’ authority he respected. Just as he hated the New Year’s party with children breaking the Tikigaq taboo about crossing the path of an elder, so he had no time for frivolities that were not sanctioned by traditions handed to him by his uncle Samaruna.

‘How did you learn these stories?’ I asked him.

‘Every night I went to Samaruna’s iglu. There he told me stories and I listened till I knew them. The words are Samaruna’s. I repeated them. He said I was all right then.’ The story medium took place in an environment of silence.

‘We didn’t then have books and tapes,’ he might also have said. He respected those props, realizing that they were necessary for us younger people. I didn’t respond by confessing the limits of the contemporary memory. Nor did I confess that I could never commit such an enormous burden to my brain. But it was true. Not only did I come from a generation incapacitated by the absence of memory, but the circumstances were different. Asatchaq had inherited the vast memory skill that modern people, in their hurry of diverse preoccupations, had lost touch with. Even his slightly younger contemporaries were in awe of his capacity. He was unique even in his own generation. I nonetheless took it for granted that he could reproduce so much with so little hesitation. Still, I expected this of him. It was almost as though he was of a different species with a superior performance practice. We were empty vessels that rang and echoed in response to a constant, circumambient series of interruptions. He was full and he allowed what was in his memory to issue quietly.


JUST AS THE two origin myths stood at the centre of other Tikigaq stories, so Asatchaq’s voice, its unhesitating progression from one thing to another, held me in suspense. I never suspected that he would hesitate or could make a mistake. The story, after all, represented a particular architecture and he would follow those contours.

Thus I sat through the old man’s recitations, comprehending little, but aware that something was being built.

Thus I sat through the old man’s recitations, comprehending little, but aware that something was being built. Asatchaq identified with the issue of authenticity and I colluded with this. After all, I owned little of the comparative.

There existed, therefore, these components: the old man with his insistence of authority, the monumentality of an ancient language that, for all its crags, flowed easily from him and third, the intensity, at least between December and March, of the outside darkness. This last was isolating in that it stopped the eye in a depth which forbade seeing beyond it, became a part of the recitation. The darkness was a story component, an aspect of the environment, relating to the unknowable past from which it emerged.

Just as the performance arose in an unhesitating flow, so darkness remained its context. I sat irrelevantly at the foot of this construction. The things just mentioned belonged together: a language of the archaic, the old man’s insistence on it and a darkness, which was past and present, because Asatchaq made them belong together, in an impenetrable combination.

It was during these recitations that I became aware of the occasional interruption. There were indoor sounds. The stove, the ventilator, a modern audience. But there was a sound beyond, as mentioned earlier, of a snow machine, a mechanical interpolation, post-industrial, busy, of the present. Someone from the New Town Site had travelled down to his sigluaq – a frozen storage cellar converted from a family iglu. It was (I didn’t know it then), a Hawthorne moment. The corruption of what was otherwise a natural, or at least a lived and inherited process.

Here, in that machine sound emerging from the distance, like a prick of light through opaque darkness, was mechanized America. The dream of Sleepy Hollow invaded rudely. Though with no new intrusion. The interruption, machine noise in silence, had started in the nineteenth century. America, long back, had driven to the wilderness; what seemed untouched, the subject of amalgamation: American and Native. There was no more objecting. Asatchaq himself had participated. He was, like the rest of us, a transitional person. Here it was though, diagrammed distinctly. The old world conjured in the architecture of a story, and today’s world, introduced a century back, was co-existent with it.


IT SEEMED LOGICAL and right that Asatchaq should thus bring the past back and place it in the present. The process felt no stranger than reading an old book. There was life in those stories, just as life jumps into our faces when we read old novels. Existence in the eighteenth century was, afterall, as real then as life appears to be now. Only their experience has been built in to ours, just as their past had been a component of their present.

I was however more preoccupied with the issue of Asatchaq’s own age. He wasn’t much older than I am now. But old people in those days, perhaps for lack of medical support, seemed older than our own more recent experience allows. Though this view may be synthetic, even sentimental.

I also respected the nineteenth-century factor. Anyone born back then automatically qualified for the status of venerable. To have known the nineteenth century made you an historical figure who emerged from the darkness of endless past time. That time was in itself dark. It was a tangible medium with its own texture and colouration.

And perhaps time itself back then was, in itself, older and even better. Time in the twentieth century had speeded up and had turned into disposable rubbish. The days passed. But they didn’t matter. They would be replaced with more of the same thing, and these newer, devalued twentieth century days had little consequence, with none of the weighty import of real time with its slow accumulations of wisdom and knowledge.

To have lived even for a short time in and before the nineteenth century bestowed an honorific status.

To have lived even for a short time in and before the nineteenth century bestowed an honorific status. We used to call these people ‘old timers’ and no doubt the phrase communicated meaning both about people themselves and the times in which they lived. All these thoughts are projections connoting insecurity and the apprehension of otherness. They nonetheless exist within us, whether or not they represent a reality.

Asatchaq’s age was not, however, an isolated phenomenon. It belonged, to the now, and it also had its place on the Tikigaq peninsula. Age had its context here in Tikigaq. As mentioned earlier, the entire place suggested age, time past, an illimitable history. Perhaps this is part of what the missionary Knapp identified as ‘weird’.

What follows is a contemplation of age, both in relation to Asatchaq himself and his place in that old place:


Beringia. Contemplation of Age

GAZING WEST TOWARDS Siberia is to experience a dizzying uncertainty about the extent of space, which, while large, is geographically finite.

But time, particularly in its prehistoric dimension, is more difficult to grasp. And to stand exposing one’s face to wind that blows from one continent to another is to feel not just present impact but also to experience the flavour of time itself, the taste of something almost too old to put a name to – as though the wind of this moment arrived from Pleistocene Beringia.

As the wind hits the face, one apprehends cautiously the feeling of a double temporality, as though we, too, had labored across the ice: and at the same time as arriving, one were also waiting for the present: the now and the archaic collapsed into a conundrum in which ancient and modern periods were mutually identified: today encapsulated within the archaic and the archaic, like an icy calyx, carrying seeds of the present.

I have mentioned the Pleistocene as though the Ice Age were our neighbour. And it is helpful to keep one foot rooted in an era that remains close enough to stop us from toppling into what is ultimately unknowable, though the latter has been studied by scientists who have, these past decades, analysed fossil pollen, ice cores and mastodon intestines in remote parts of Siberia and Alaska. And their scientific ‘Before the Present’ dates are inscribed in numbers impossible to grasp except in the unintimidated language of earth scientists and archaeologists such as Frederick Hadleigh West, who wrote:

The time period of concern is the latter portion of the last glacial episode. The fourth glacial was broadly marked by two major cold oscillations with glacial advances, separated by a rather deep interstadial. This interstadial, the “Eemian”, had its onset about 70,000 years ago and gave way to the final glaciation perhaps 30,000 years ago. That final episode is estimated to have begun its climax about 11,500 years ago. The end of the Pleistocene is by common consent set about 10,000 years ago – somewhat arbitrary, but a time around which a number of important Pleistocene-Holocene transition phenomena tend to cluster.6

Scientists have called the ‘Bering Land Bridge’ Beringia, whose ‘most striking feature [in the late Pleistocene] is the contrast between the very restricted, localized glaciation and the vast, uninterrupted expanse of unglaciated country extending across the entire east-west dimension of Beringia. The question that then arises is, what was the nature of this unglaciated environment?’ West continues:

At this point there is some controversy. There are conflicting interpretations of the Beringian environment. The argument turns primarily on the interpretation of two ubiquitous observations in the biotic record: the presence of high proportions of Artemsia (Arctic sage) in the pollen profiles and high numbers of ungulate fauna…Armed with new data on Alaskan fossil identifications and the ruminations of other scholars, R.D.Guthrie became the most vigorous supporter of the Artemsia steppe-tundra position, based upon his interpretation of an abundant, varied fossil fauna that demanded grasses to account for their presence. This interpretation culminating with a full exposition of what he came to call the mammoth steppe’.7

For while only six varieties of mammal migrated from America to Eurasia, twenty-two species migrated to the American side, nine of these during the late Pleistocene: mammoth, musk-ox, caribou, moose, grizzly bear, polar bear and saiga antelope. West writes further:

The question of fauna is, indeed, of fundamental importance. The ultimate concern here is human prehistory. It is a safe assumption that it was not the character of the vegetation that brought people into the most difficult environment the genus Homo ever came to colonise. But it needs to be emphasized that this is, after all, the period of the Upper Palaeolithic, one characterized across Eurasia by the application of highly evolved, highly efficient techniques for the hunting of this very fauna.’8

Scientists have agreed that the ‘earliest Americans must have entered the continent by way of Bering Strait’, and that following the rise of sea levels in the late Pleistocene, human arrival was simultaneous to migrations of mega-fauna such as the mastodon and mammoth: today’s maritime people having earlier been plains hunters of the windswept, bitterly cold Beringian landscape, enclosed as this was by slowly retreating glaciers.


TIKIGAQ, WHICH LAY squarely within Beringia, is saturated by signs of the archaic. Layered with archaeological strata and with human and animal relics, the peninsula is a materialization of time, its stratigraphy, which is formed of beach ridges each completed every eighty or a hundred years by means of the build up of gravel swept west from ground up rock-fall from the Cape Thompson cliffs, likewise bears witness to the passage of time, as does seasonal erosion of the north shore and the iglut previously excavated there and abandoned – often abandoned by families remembered in stories and whose relics may already have been scavenged.

With the Pleistocene still a palpable backdrop, later, but still old, Tikigaq narratives were records of both change and memory. And people lived within the complex medium of what could be classified either as myth (unipkaaq) and local history (uqaluktuaq): this was in addition to what they observed in local geography. One old man remarked to me that you could see matching land forms opposite each other on the Alaskan and Siberian sides suggesting that folk memory matches twentieth-century science in the comprehension that today’s two continents had originally been one. This may not have been everybody’s observation. Nor did people know about the submarine and subterranean lakes of oil identified in the late twentieth century. Knowledge that Ipiutak had lain beneath the familiar Tikigaq surface since ca. 900 CE was also a mid-twentieth century revelation. These discoveries, one commercial, the second historical, added superstructure to a modern people’s knowledge of the peninsula’s infrastructure.

In a sense, the Ipiutak excavation and the discovery of oil were materialisations that harmonized with Tikigaq people’s grasp of history. People already lived in a present that was interfused with a myth world that was too ancient and/or too vague to be dated. Indeed, the continuing present ‘reality’ of myth existed beyond horizons of imagination and these were as intangible as the speculations of earth scientists and archaeologists.

All humans live in geological and astronomical time, both of which render what we generally understand as history comparatively recent. But not all societies have lived with such an intense preoccupation with the past as did pre-contact Tikigaq. Here the super-abundance and omnipresence of what is historically undatable exists in harmony both with the present and with ancient stories. The stories and a sense of ‘that time’ (taimmani) are one and the same thing. The wind blowing from Cape Lisburne is the same wind that swept the Pleistocene. This is what one tastes in local stories.


The Woolly Mammoth (kiligvak)

IN 1801, CHARLES WILLSON PEALE excavated a mastodon from a bog in Newburgh, New York State. He painted a picture of this: it shows a multitude of people operating a vast apparatus. He stands at the edge of the crater holding a banner-like drawing of the jointed leg bones. He put the monster on show at his museum in Philosophical Hall, Philadelphia. Labelled ‘The Great Incognitum….’ ‘The ninth wonder of the world!!! Buried since Noah’s flood.’9

There are submerged mastodon relics all over Alaska and those round Tikigaq had intermittent presence. There was however no mastodon inua (resident spirit) perhaps because people thought this huge, shy and extinct beast had been a burrowing rodent that ran underground when it was disturbed.

 In 1940, Agviqsiina told Rainey the following about the kiligvak:

There was a man hunting at Aqalulik [ten miles north of Tikigaq] who saw a kiligvak running under the bank with another animal, one of the ‘wolves of the kiligvak’, after it. The kiligvak lives underground and the tusks are horns.

They are ‘backwards animals’. When you see a tusk sticking out and you say ‘go down’ it comes up. When you say ‘come up’ it goes down. When people are boiling meat and it cooks very slowly, they say ‘it is kiligvak meat.’ Because in the old days people ate this meat and it cooked faster on a wet wood fire. These are just stories. I know nothing more.

Little more has has been recorded. Inupiat assumed, as suggested by Agviqsiina, that this ancestral elephant which migrated through the corridor of unglaciated Pleistocene steppeland in pursuit of Artemisia, had been an inoffensive creature.

The upside-downness associated with the kiligvak nonetheless places it in mythological time, the environment of Tikigaq’s Raven Creator when ‘people walked on their hands’ because they didn’t know how to do things properly. What survived into the historical period were ivory and bone relics: molars, tusks and bits of skeleton. People otherwise walked upright.

The underground presence of mastodon or mammoth relics points in two directions. On the one hand it belongs to Tikigaq’s subsurface. On the other, it offers an image of the archaic and stands monumentally within the discussion of age.

And whereas the mastodon had migrated much earlier to the American side and had died out for lack of woody forage, early Alaskan grasslands had sustained the hairy mammoth until it too became extinct about ten thousand years ago — long before Tikigaq established a culture in about 800.10

Whereas it was clear that the whale was a prey animal, there is no evidence of a prehistoric mastodon or mammoth cult. Perhaps, had the mammoth survived longer, there might have been such a cult.

In an earlier book, I suggested that the Tikigaq iglu, which was partially constructed of whale bones, functioned as a whale symbol during the whale hunt.11The brown bear may also have had cultic status as it did in northern Japan.12The mammoth, in its physical magnitude, whose extinction pre-dated Tikigaq, appears not at all in local myth or symbolism. And perhaps the nearest thing to a mammoth centred religion was excavated at Berelekh (Sakha Republic, Yakutia) where mammoth relics, among those of other Pleistocene fauna, were discovered in what may have been a mammoth bone house. Here is a partial inventory of the Berelekh excavation:

Bone and ivory artifacts include mammoth tusk and bone tools, blanks, and by-products. Among these are 4 mammoth tusk knives, one spearpoint of mammoth tusk, and two scrapers…Certain mammoth rib fragments have been smoothed, the traces suggesting possible use as polishers… The stone assemblage includes 1 black chert core, 1 microblade core, 1 knife fragment, 1 knife or darthead… N.K. Vereshcchagin identified mammoth, woolly rhinocerous, bison, horse, reindeer, cave lion, wolf, glutton, and hare. The recovery of an entire hind leg of a mammoth, with flesh and wool [was possibly] separated from the carcass in ancient times. It is possible that the numerous mammoth bones at the Berelekh site are the remains of prehistoric dwellings, rather than an accidental accumulation.13

Disregarding self-promotion — he was also a serious portraitist and museum creator — Charles Willson Peale, along with Thomas Jefferson, was responding to American discoveries that lent dignifying status to the continent. America was old and this fact rendered it important. On the western, so far ‘unexplored’ regions, mammoth relics were also more recently excavated all over Alaska, notably at Big Delta and Cape Espenberg, while small mammoth populations survived into the nineteenth century on the St Paul and Wrangell Islands.

Siberian and Alaskan natives have used mammoth ivory since the seventeenth century and the Siberians had a mammoth mythology parallel to the Alaskan.

Siberian and Alaskan natives have used and traded mammoth ivory since the seventeenth century and the Siberians had a mammoth mythology parallel to the Alaskan. Relevant here is that in Tikigaq, kiligvak relics were evidence of life in deep time. The kiligvak’s living scale mattered little. But whether the mammoth had once held sacred value, was a contemporary of Beringian migrants or was hunted for its meat and skin, remains unknown. So far as later people understood, the mammoth, whatever its biological identity, had lived in the remote past and its remains came surfaced occasionally to confirm an archaic stratum of existence.


Asatchaq as monstre sacre

JUST AS THE young American Herbert Aldrich, in Arctic Alaska and Siberia, or, Eight months with the Arctic whalemen, his 1889 narrative of whale hunting learned (maybe wrongly) that the kiligvak may have been a sacred animal in maritime Siberia, so Tikigaq people regarded Asatchaq as a monstre sacre, psychologically dangerous but also, partly because he was quasi-sacred, someone to be avoided. This latter, perhaps because he was a relic of a period from which twentieth century people wanted freedom. The past imposes complex demands of response. The past is wonderful, but potentially suffocating.

Ownership of Tikigaq songs and stories was traditionally regarded as a mark of power. Songs and stories had lives of their own, they were charged with qila, spiritual energy, and the same qila was shared by men and women who were stalwart enough to incorporate and transmit what they had memorized or ingested. The word ingested is used non-metaphorically, it denotes physicality, although the physical also suggests the metaphorical transaction. To pass on a song, the singer would donate it with some of his or her saliva. The singer and the song were thus mutually identified. Some younger men approached Asatchaq during the 1976 whale hunt and asked if he would donate or sell them a whaling song. ‘Yes,’ the old man said. ‘But you’ll have to take it directly out of my mouth.’ So the song remained with him in his cabin.

To be a shaman in old Tikigaq you were either formally initiated or old age bestowed on you quasi-shamanistic authority. An old person was routinely regarded as having shamanistic power and was therefore irigii (frightening).

Asatchaq, who had not been formally initiated, was in possession of the latter. He was old and knowledgeable. Almost everyone found him irigii, and part of the fear he inspired derived from his association with archaic traditions. This was compounded by the old man’s intolerance and short temper.

Because I was an outsider, I was partially immune. But I was drawn, still, to the notion of the old man’s sacred character partly on account of his surname, Killigivuk. As mentioned, the missionary Driggs had created this surname as a means of linking the boy to his father, whose Inupiaq name was kiligvak, and in the process, partly by means of his own good but improvised nineteenth century spelling, established a culture of family surnames.

Naively, and without realizing that the kiligvak was believed to have been a rodent, I associated Asatchaq with the ancient quadruped and nicknamed him ‘the ancient mastodon’. This, given that the mastodon became extinct before the hairy mammoth and the latter was thought to have been something else, was twice wrong. But since the community regarded Asatchaq as a relic, it harmonized, in some degree, with the old man’s notion of himself as a survivor from an age he was determined to remember and perhaps to revive.


WHEREAS DRIGGS HAD been intent on introducing Tikigaq to aspects of modern America in the shape of church, education and medicine, I tried, without comparing myself to the doctor, to look in the opposite direction. I had no illusions about changing anything. But I was preoccupied with the ancient and wanted to look at everything backwards, as though to create a patchy, out of focus panorama, a semi-exposed period newsreel in which Asatchaq and his elders expressed a version of time that corresponded to my idea of what had been authentic, or nearly so, during the first years of cultural compromise.

And while I understood that these years had been a period of deprivation, I colluded with Asatchaq in the view that it had also been a time of optimism when traditional lifeways could still be preserved.

My inclination to mythologise even the living was triggered partly by a tendency that was inherent in Asatchaq’s veneration of his ancestors. Authority and cultural continuity were part of the same thing, and together they amounted to a good that drew to itself respect both for recent forebears and for generations from the deep past.

Loss of culture intensified the tendency of modern people towards a sometimes negative self-image, rendering respect to a lost ideal…

In 1976, this respect for the past still existed, inherited almost automatically by modern people, because it had been implicit in the old culture and could be adopted without abandoning the present. But loss of culture intensified the tendency of modern people towards a sometimes negative self-image, rendering respect to a lost ideal thereby firmer but more anxious. That which was lost was obscured by a complex, many-dimensioned darkness of which the paradoxical light of the present was an unavoidable medium.

Firmness and hardness had, in one way, a self-abasing influence. In another sense, it added validity to the present in that the past amounted to value that was ineradicable and contributed a belief in the legitimacy of the now: this was partly because the now had grown from greater origins. Two sources of validity thereby existed: on the one hand, the urgent and real demands of the present, on the other the justification of the present by means of historical precedent.

It is perhaps from these present time disappointments that the tendency to mythologize arises. To create a myth is to banish the inconclusiveness of open-ended existence. One function of myth being to assuage – with the reassurance that one belongs to some legitimizing continuity – the anxiety of being provisional, marginalized, an inhabitant of now time, far from the sphere of what has, all along, been complete.


THE ARRIVAL OF Euro-American America in the Inupiaq world was to bring a combination of industrializing commerce and Protestant Christianity. One thinks contact between America and its indigenous peoples as the interface between Anglo Saxons and non-European Natives. This, in Tikigaq by the 1920s, became largely the case: the white man was represented by just that demographic constituency because the newer incomers were teachers and government officials and were generally as Wasp as Episcopalian preachers, who, starting with Driggs, had all been middle class white men.

Before the 1920s, ‘whites’ had been a cosmopolitan lot, swept north by personal indigence, interest in adventure, American market forces and frontier ideology: but like the immigrant populations of the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, mixed. The marked concentration of central European and Scandinavian populations of Nebraska, Ohio and Minnesota were of course self-determining societies that needed little more than land in which to develop their economies. These were people with no desire to carry their ambition to the Arctic. And the prospectors who crowded into the Dakotas, the Yukon and the golden beaches of Nome, had been a ruffian society recognizable to missionaries because they represented the obverse of protestant elite character.

Most remarkably, however, in the thirty or forty years around the turn of the twentieth century, Tikigaq people saw Germans, Black men, Scandinavians, Irish, Welsh, Canadians and Hawaians coming and going. Certainly, these represented the new America and acquisitive frontier forces, but they were not as homogenously white as the preacher or the growing government class. And while these were generally lumped together in Inupiaq eyes as whites, they were a changing crew of many ethnicities and origin. But reverting to my original contention, such ethnicities then carried with them an ennobling character. These days, as I’d mentioned to Daisy, everyone is everyone: a mixture of ethnicities. Positive. But different.

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. Hawthorne, July 1844, writing of a pastoral moment in Sleepy Hollow, near Concord, Mass. The American Notebooks.
  2. Thoreau, Walden
  3. Quoted by Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden, 1964:77
  4. Cook missed Tikigaq, was stopped by sea ice at Icy Cape but successfully mapped the south-west in the Anchorage region.
  5. Knapp, Letter, July 1904.
  6. West 1996
  7. West 1996:3
  8. West 1996:5
  9. Thomas Jefferson referenced the existence of ‘mammoths’, which he believed still roamed northern regions of the continent, as evidence for a greater biodiversity in America [than that in Europe]. Peale’s display of these bones drew attention from Europe, as did his method of re-assembling large skeletal specimens in three dimensions. Peale’s American mastodon must be distinguished from the wolly mammoth.
  10. I have switched from ‘mastodon’ to ‘mammoth’ at this point. The American mastodon was the earlier species and may not have reached north Alaska. The relics in Tikigaq’s sub-surface were probably mammoth.
  11. Lowenstein, 1993.
  12. There is a mysterious locution that suggests that the brown bear (aglaq) had cultic value. In Tikigaq dialect, people were either aglagiituq (‘good brown bear’ or ‘not in taboo’) or aglagiitchuq (‘bad brown bear’ or ‘in a dangerous condition of taboo’).
  13. Berelekh, Allakhovsk Region, Yuri A. Mochanov and Svetlana A. Fedoseeva, in West, 1996:218-21

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