AKP Teacher's Institute 2009- A Personal Journal

4. Living on the Land & Lessons Learned

MONDAY TO SATURDAY, Days 5-11

The week of camping and last days back in the village were full and diverse. This section offers an outline of some experiences and what I learned from them. It is a synopsis written mostly within one month of the events and, as such, changes as I continue to recall and understand more.

The Sheep Hunt

On our first full day at camp most of the group went hunting for a Dall sheep that we had special permission to kill out of season. I let Al go in my place, since I hadn’t known we were leaving, he seemed more eager and some of us had to stay back with Martha to help make the donuts. I also figured, wrongly as it turned out, that we’d be doing lots more hunting in the future.

Many hours later the group returned with the remains of a large, older ram that had been shot by Ben. Because its skin was molting and therefore of no use, it was cut away and discarded. The sheep was then pushed off the mountain to a lower site, beheaded, gutted and cut into large pieces. When I saw hunks of the sheep being removed from the large garbage bags into which they'd been dumped, missing the hunt was less of a disappointment.

All that evening the Inupiat women and Kerri cut up the sheep using incredibly sharp ulus (women's knives), while the rest of us rinsed and roasted its meat, organs and marrow bones over the campfire. All parts were up for grabs, including the glands between the toes and toenails, and I enjoyed some of the more common ones, such as the liver, heart, tongue, and marrow. I think that eating animal organs as a child that were prepared by my maternal grandmother helped me to be an adventurous eater and appropriately polite that night.

The Iñupiat respect the animals on which their lives depend, despite their ability to now order food over the Internet and have it shipped in. However, they did toy with the ram's head and then drop it unceremoniously on the ground behind the kitchen tent. Maybe I'm a silly sentimentalist, but I felt bad and one night sat right next to the head, writing in my journal and feeling like I was keeping the ram's spirit company. No wonder Martha, who noticed me in that place,  later called me "eccentric."

Who's Making the Donuts?

You probably make Uqsruqquqtag or “Eskimo donuts” the same as most other donuts, from flour, water, sugar and salt. Except, above the Arctic Circle, a warm non-drafty place in which dough can rise is hard to find. That’s why the Inuit use body heat and place the dough in a pre-oiled bag between one’s back and the inside of a parka. You know its ready to cook when, after a few hours, the lump grows arms and hugs you. While Martha was carrying the dough, she also harvested berries and melted snow — multi-tasking on the tundra.

According to Stacey, an Aleut native from Bristol Bay in southwestern Alaska, the technique for forming donuts differs between Aleuts and Nunamiut. I couldn’t do either well. Traditionally cooked in seal or animal oil, but now in Crisco, we spent hours bending over forming and then frying hundreds of donuts. When the group returned from the hunt and finished off all the donuts within a day, the hard work was worth it. To my great delight, I found that slathering them with peanut butter produced a great tasting, almost healthy, vegetarian snack.

 

  • Berry Hunting

Every day I gathered berries that had somehow managed to  survive the harsh winter. These berries are sources of important vitamins and taste delicious. Once I learned to identify the leaves and growing habits, it was easy to find enough to make a simple “jam” by simmering the berries down with a bit of sugar and water (also good on donuts.)

I heard some of the elders talk about camping out for days in August when the berries are fresh and ripe for picking. Maybe AKP families have fun with the berry harvest like we do back in New England with our blueberries in spring and apples in autumn.

Drums and Dancing

There was only a bit of singing, dancing and drumming while at camp. The Nunamiut drum is a large disk with a wood frame, caribou bone handle and head now made of parachute silk instead of traditional skins. Its sound comes from striking the frame with a long, flat wooden stick. Payuk and Phillip, an AKP student who helped out, drummed only a few songs for us, but it was enough to demonstrate the powerful vibration and rhythm of Inupiat drumming and chants.

Some of us had fun doing an "Airplane Dance" led by Fannie and Alicia, after which Cindy and I tried the drum. When I began to chant and bang away (rather poorly), someone yelled, “Linda’s going Native.” I stopped immediately, concerned that I'd broken some taboo since I’m not Iñupiat nor male, and maybe only men play their drums. However, later that night Ada gave me a big hug and Lela thanked me for “working so hard,” so it seemed no offense had been taken — a big relief.

Wolves

Rachel spotted a wolf one day in front of our camp. I never saw it– just thrilled at the idea that wolves are still out there and part of our world. My attitude toward wolves didn't match those of the Nunamiut. For them, an overabundance of wolves has led to too few moose and other small mammals. They believe reducing the wolf population (but NOT by shooting them from planes) is a good thing, and view the sale and use of wolf skins as important sources of income and insulating material.

I still prefer wolves be left alone. However, I understand how, if they are “harvested” by Native peoples in traditional ways, it benefits the entire ecosystem. It also promotes continuity of hunting, hide arts and clothing design for future generations, important Native traditions. I also want to note that the front entry of the AKP school is graced with a glass case holding a stuffed wolf and i think it's the school mascot.

Bears

Although the Nunamiut display a healthy caution around bears, they seem to treat them primarily as peaceful cohabitants of the land. The small number of bear attacks of humans around AKP in 50+ years backs up their viewpoint. Apparently the lack of competition for food or space in the vast tundra and minimal garbage left around to "spoil" bears for human food, major problems in other regions, explain why these grizzlies tend to be less aggressive.

I also learned that brown, grizzly and Klondike bears are the same species that grow to different sizes because of their diets, the brown being worst-fed and Klondike, who gorge on rich salmon, the best fed. The Klondikes must be immense, because the grizzly that Ben and Rachel drove away from camp with the sound of their guns looked big as a tank.

My attitude towards polar bears, on the other hand, worsened ever since Kim described how one stalked and ate a man who lived next to her in Barrow. That left me really glad we were in the interior with Alaskan grizzlies, rather than on the coast with polar bears. I doubt I’ll ever view their cute images on holiday cards in quite the same way and understand why people in Barrow may prefer to jog indoors, even in good weather.

And Other Animals

In general, hunting and using all parts of a "kill" for survival became more real. I got to see traditional Inupiat parkas trimmed in wolverine and wolf and thick caribou hides used as sleeping mats and boots. I ate dried caribou and fresh sheep meat, sewed unwieldy strands of caribou sinew into caribou and wolf hides, and became intrigued by a puzzle presented by Ben, of how ram horns were traditionally turned into ladles by his people.

The Circle of Life with humans dependent on large mammals, who in turn rely on smaller ones like lemmings and ground squirrels, and plants like lichens, was hard to miss. It was also a rare treat to see wild animals— 2 foxes, 3 hares, and 4 sheep — just hanging out.

Winged Creatures

For birds, in addition to the fierce long-tail jaegers on Lookout Hill, I saw American golden plovers with distinctive “S” marks on their cheeks, teams of hovering and diving Arctic terns, a Lapland larkspur, a ptarmigan still in its winter white plumage and some rednecked phalaropes wading in a pool of just-melted snow. At Tree Lake, Ada and I spotted a pair of huge tundra swans that she remembered from past family camping trips and their nesting site, an island far out in the middle of the lake. I later learned that these are the birds who sing a haunting melody upon departure and death — the original "swan song."

For insects, there was a swarm of oversized mosquitoes that invaded our tent the last night and one moth or butterfly caught and released by Alicia. That we weren’t at camp long enough to witness the bird and bug population explosion just beginning on the tundra was both a good and bad thing.

Plants

Whether looking down at the small stuff or gazing out over the wide expanse, the topography of the tundra is amazing on many levels. Diversity and availability of plants, particularly lichen and willow, seem to be key reasons humans live in AKP and are able to survive. At week's end, I collected a variety of plant samples, pressed them into my journal and got names from Al, Kerri and reference texts.

However, as the elders pointed out, it’s less important to identify plants with scientific names than to appreciate their beauty and utility. The wildflowers, fruit and spore-bearing plants are surely beautiful to look at–no small benefit in any environment, but especially in a desert. Walking among bright showy blossoms, colorful berries and textured leaves that carpet the tundra, seemingly overnight, was a wondrous experience.

The plants also provide food and habitat for a variety of animals and insects on which people depend. Most important is the abundance of lichens, such as the easily overlooked and seemingly insignificant orange splotches all around on the rocks. Even though humans don’t eat these lichens, they rely heavily on the caribou herds that do.

There are also many species of willow that grow in the AKP region which, unlike on the coastal tundra, are sheltered enough from mountains to grow taller than a few inches. As we found out, these "trees" provide valuable firewood, walking sticks, edible salad-type green shoots and, when we'd packed away all the silverware, rather passable eating utensils. Traditionally, they were used as roof and wall supports for yurt-like tents or itchalik and for making baskets and snowshoes.

Wildflowers

Many wildflowers contribute to human survival in different ways. For example, Northern Labrador Tea makes a soothing, antioxidant hot beverage. The stem of the young wooly lousewort, when peeled, is sweet and healthful to eat. Humble mosses, of which there is a huge quantity and variety, are used as wicks for diapers, to get rid of bugs when held over a fire and “smudged,” as packing material for hunting and trapping gear to mask any human smells, and as a disinfecting hand wash. Who would have guessed?

Root Hunting

Rainey and Ben searched out a good place for edible roots called masuand we went there for a half-day field trip. The elders and Rainey taught us how to identify a particular dead looking stick under which one could dig to unearth a tasty root. Using sawed-off, shed caribou antlers we clawed away at the soil and rocks until we reached the prize, which varied greatly in thickness and length.

I found a hole that Rainey said a bear had partially dug and then abandoned. When she mentioned that these holes often retain a sweet bear smell, I bent down and sniffed, but couldn't detect any scent. I did, however, feel tied to the wild creature and awed that a bear had been digging at that exact spot just before I got there.

After a picnic lunch and fun game of "find the spoon," we returned to camp and cooked some masu. The roots were delicious boiled or roasted, and tasted like parsnips. Before leaving the village, I was offered some raw masu to take home, which I gladly accepted. They are now in a bag in my freezer, ready to show, cook and share.

Why a village at Anaktuvuk Pass (AKP)?

In our modern, built-up environment of highways, supermarkets and bottled water, it is easy to forget how access to navigable paths, edible food and fresh water traditionally determined where population centers were located. Flying over the seemingly uninhabitable Brooks Range was a good reminder and in time I was able to understand how even the remote village of AKP offers rare advantages to living almost anywhere else in that vast region. As I learned from camp and exhibits at the National Park Service station, AKP's key survival-enhancing factors are (1) the meeting of two large rivers on which people could travel, obtain drinking water and fish, (2) the spring and fall migrations of caribou, other animals, fish and birds, and (3) availability of plants supportive to people and their prey animals. That a school was built in AKP 50+ years ago also influenced Nunamiut families to move to AKP from outlying areas.

Gender Roles

The historical division of labor between those strong enough to hunt and those able to nurse infants, and roles evolving from that division, became a bit clearer to me at camp. It is not possible to underestimate how much I appreciated Ben’s courage and stamina to search for hunting sites, chase grizzlies away from camp and bring home the sheep. For the first time in my "feminist" lifetime, it became a bit clearer how females became submissive to males. In a world in which survival depends  on physical size and strength, males will probably rule.

However, I also came to realize how changes in technology mess with traditional gender concepts. Today the "weaker sex" can bring down large animals with guns rather than spears, drive Argos and work as hard and long as men. Throughout our week at camp, all the women of every age and background, and especially the elders, proved that reality. It seems skills and interests rather than gender increasingly determine who does what in AKP as much as in Salem, and that this change challenges all societies in our modern, mechanized world in different ways.

Art
One of the most important things I was told by the elders is that people living in an environment that leaves little time and energy for anything beyond basic survival rarely produce art. They explained that those with more life-sustaining natural resources, such as Athabascan Indians, the Tlingit from Southeast Alaska, Unangan from the Aleutian Islands and other Iñupiat from Alaska's north coast have created art for generations, while the Nunamiut have just recently begun making art with some masks and jewelry.

That is an idea of art production new to me and important when considering the disparity between any communities and even individuals everywhere throughout time. However, "art" has many definitions and I believe some of the clothing made by the Nunamiut women fall into that category. Their winter parkas, although no longer of caribou skins, are created of bright, intense colors, diversely textured fabrics and carefully selected and arranged furs for ruffs, cuffs and hems. These coats demonstrate refined sensibilities, artistic choices and high level of skill. That their tiny stitches, tight seams and superb construction are not just beautiful, but protect against -40 F temperatures does not lessen their aesthetic value. They are exciting works of art.

Mask Making
I was told that AKP-style masks came on the scene around 50 years ago when two village men made a few and wore them to a winter celebration. Today many of the elders produce masks that are being sold at the Simon Paneak Memorial Museum and shops in AKP, some Alaskan airports, art museums and cultural centers.

On one of our field trips not far from AKP's Tent City, Ada, Lela and Rachel offered us mask making instructions and materials. For a few hours under the warm sun we practiced the many difficult techniques. We painstakingly carved caribou hide off the wooden mask form on which it had dried without cutting into the wood. We sewed synthetic or real caribou sinew through the tough hide to attach cow hair eyebrows, wolf fur moustaches and fox fur hairstyles. Using a razor sharp ulu, we scraped caribou hair from the hide into a plastic bag trying, mostly without success, to keep the hair from blowing all around.

All was presented by the elders in an organized, thorough and encouraging manner, which made it one of the most valuable learning experiences of the week. So I could watch over the final trash burning, I opted not to make my own mask the following day. However, I did not come home empty handed. The last day in AKP I bought a wonderful mask made by Lela, who allowed me to charge the purchase on a credit card, and Ada gave me some caribou skin and sinew so I could demonstrate mask making techniques back home.

Although AKP masks may not seem difficult to create, I learned firsthand how much skill, stamina, imagination and time is required to make them. Some say they were inspired by masks made by coastal Inupiat over the centuries. If so, their creation not only supplements incomes and offers artistic expression but preserves a tradition across the generations— like Lela guiding Josie, her granddaughter, in the use of a thimble with sinew.

Fishing and the Wing Fan

Another field trip was to fish at Napaktualuit or Tree Lake, located just under the massive Napaktualuit Mountain and its double waterfall. Only Ben caught anything, a very shiny, grey/blue/green fish called a grayling, which tastes like trout. Since I had never done any casting and was eager to try, Jim helped me. However, too soon my hook got snagged on a floating ice island and broke off as I pulled to free the line. When Fannie threw me a disgusted look, I decided to give up fishing and walk around instead.

I soon came upon the remains of a ptarmigan (locally called an Arctic chicken) and pulled off one of its wings to bring home, I was amazed to see it was made up of many segments that opened and closed like a fan. When I showed it to Alicia, she told me some Iñupiaq dance costumes use fanned-out wings from large birds of prey. It was later explained if wing segments are pulled apart just after a bird’s death, they never fold back on themselves and are the ones used for costumes. My wing is now home waiting to become part of a future museum "fan tour."

The Artifact

Just after finding the wing, I spied a blue/green glassy rock that stuck out from the muted tones all around. Since I always collect rocks and hadn’t gotten one yet from AKP, I stuck it in my pocket. However, when I showed it to someone on our ride back to camp, she said it looked like it could be a knapped tool of some sort. I then asked Ada, who thought it looked like a hide scraper. 

When Kerri expressed concern about removing artifacts from Native or Federal lands, I showed the rock to Al and asked his advice. On his suggestion, I offered it to Ada to donate to the Simon Paneak Memorial Museum, where her daughter Vera is the curator. So he could check it out with some experts, Al took photos and measurements of the rock before giving it to Ada.

I don’t know where the rock will end up, but have gotten information that it is a bifacial tool, never finished being made into a knife or projectile point, is made of chert that weathered from a glassy-to-dull surface, and is anywhere between 100 to 12,000 years old.

I have mixed feelings about finding and taking the rock. I would never knowingly disturb archeological evidence or remove artifacts. Those actions thwart irreplaceable knowledge and the legal protections of the past. However, since I only thought I was taking a pretty souvenir, like I bring shells from trips, I don't feel too guilty. That I held something from people who lived a long time ago is also a thrill.

If Ada does give it to the museum, I hope it will be on display with the warning, "Do Not Disturb ANY Rocks in and around AKP."

AKP school children, other visitors and the church

Throughout the week, despite a long Argo ride over rather rough conditions, we had many visitors to our camp. Apparently sharing good and bad news personally and being outside in the natural world are important Nunamiut values. A highlight of these visits was the day 18 AKP school children came to visit. I had seen many of the kids back in the village riding their bikes while listening to iPods, playing basketball and jumping on trampolines, so it was fun to interact with them at camp. They seemed so happy to be with us, despite some drizzly weather, and it was great to watch them with their elders, principal and teachers.

I also got to meet Louis, the head of the AKP summer school, whom I would see again on Sunday morning at the charming Chapel In the Mountains Presbyterian Church. Celebrating its 50th anniversary in August 2009, AKP is understandably proud of this sacred space constructed of spruce logs cut and dragged from hundreds of miles away to the south where trees can grow.

As substitute minister, Louis delivered a very touching sermon about Jesus as the potter and then my experience with AKP came full circle. Like she had a week earlier on Lookout Hill, only this time accompanied by Ada, Lela and the small AKP congregation, Rachel led the singing of “The Sweet Bye and Bye” hymn in Iñupiaq. There is no way to adequately express my gratitude or its effect on my heart.