Three Alaska Native Leaders

Ekeuhnick: Ancient Leader of the Inupiat

Ekeuhnick is a legendary leader of prehistoric times who taught the Inupiaq people how to live in the cold north of what is known today as Alaska. His name means "burns like something that was burning and went out," a synonym for a glowing coal. The leader's life is detailed in The People of Kauwerak, a 1972 book published with an oral account by an elder William Oquilluk of Point Hope and the oral history of his people as he had learned it from his grandparents.

When Ekeuhnick was born, the climate was warmer in Northwest Alaska. As a boy, he always helped older men and women. He grew strong and muscular, always a peaceful and friendly person that everyone liked.

As a young man, Ekeuhnick learned from the prophet Aungayoukuksuk that the climate would soon change and become very cold. The old wise man appeared to him at a clear mountain spring, where Ekeuhnick liked to come to watch the animals.

"I have chosen you to be a leader to your people who are living in many places," the wise man told him. "You must carry all you learn and repeat it to the people."

First, the prophet told him, the ground would shake, the mountain would erupt and all living creatures in the area would die. Next, the country would move away from the sun, and it would get colder and colder. The wise man told Ekeuhnick his people would need to find a new place to live far away, and learn to struggle and work together to survive. Aungayoukuksuk gave Ekeuhnick the Power of Imagination and Wisdom to help him lead his people.

When Ekeuhnick told his people what the prophet had said, they moved a short distance away to be safe from the eruption. The people were willing to believe Ekeuhnick because they had watched him since he was a small child they felt that he knew and understood things that they did not.

As the cold settled in, everything began to freeze and die. The plants, animals and people froze. But the families with Ekeuhnick went into a cave and built a fire to stay warm. People worked hard to keep the fire going and were afraid that if it went out they would not be able to start it again. The leader looked for a solution. He found a stone that could throw sparks, and discovered that twisting one end of a dry stick fast on the flat side of another would cause it to burn.

People did not wear clothes in those days and became very cold outside the cave. Ekeuhnick skinned some dead animals and put their fur on his feet and body. He thought about how to make the skins fit a human body, and used a very sharp piece of bone and some sinew to sew the skins together. He showed the others and they made clothes, too.

In the same way, the young leader observed everything around him to see how it could meet the needs of his people and used his imagination to help them create the first net for fishing, the first boat for crossing rivers, and the first houses for shelter.

The young man enjoyed his work; he didn't complain and tried to obey the directions given him by the wise man. "He saw that for the first time each man was necessary for the living of the whole people," Oquilluk relates. "The changed land meant everyone had to help each other in order to survive."

 

As the land continued to change, Ekeuhnick knew he must find a place for his people to live where they could find more to eat. For a year, he and another man, Seelameu traveled afar, observing and experimenting as they went, learning about the land, sharing ideas about how resources might be used. They figured out how to dry fish and created tools such as snares and spears for hunting.


When they finally found the right place, they returned to their people, carrying all of their new knowledge back with them, and led the people to the new land and a new way of living. This was the beginning of the Inupiat way of life as the ancestors described it.

Based on the story of Ekeuhnick as told by William Oquilluk in People of Kauwerak, Alaska Methodist University, 1973.

Read an excerpt about Ekeuhnick from "People of Kauwerak." http://www.alaskool.org/native_ed/historicdocs/people_of_kauwerak/kauwerak.html