Monday, July 25, 2011

Take My Ulu, Please!

Not only is the third day of the feast the longest day, it is chock full of activity from sun up to sun up (remember, it's June above the Arctic Circle, there is no sun down).

We arrive on site at 8:30 a.m. and already the bustle is in full swing. Pots are boiling, ulus are being sharpened, the windbreaks are up and the crowd is beginning to gather. The cutting area is already surrounded by women beginning the task of cutting the various donations of meat, fish, and fowl into bite size pieces to be cooked and distributed to all who attend. It is quite a sight to behold.
I walk into the area with fellow camper LA (like the city). (We had paired up on the four wheeler during the now infamous Cape Thompson trip, so our dynamic duo was a given whenever we had to ride somewhere.)
We walked right up to the heart of the cutting action and set out to join in on the work. We were given latex gloves, our own ulus, and huge chunks of assorted parts to cut up.

Let me just say that I was somewhat amazed at the immediate acceptance of our presence. Think about we are a couple of tanik (white) women who walk up and just join in. Certainly, we asked for help in how to do what we were doing, but in the long run, there was a general understanding that we probably knew how to cut up parts. Here's the other thing: this was a huge undertaking. If someone wanted to help get the job done, woe to anyone who would not welcome that offering.

As I recall, I started out cutting up a whale heart valve, then progressed to the biggest tongue I'd ever encountered (also whale)! Then another heart valve came my way, but this time I really had to dissect it (wished I'd paid a little more attention in Biology class). Then, I finally got the big payoff as the meat from the ugruk our crew had caught was placed before me. I gently unlashed the string that held it folded together. This was the end of our story with our ugruk, and I had been able to be a part of it through this final chapter.

 As we progressed, someone would come by and pick up the pieces we had cut, put them in a huge bowl, and carry them off to the cauldrons.
Me and LA

Periodically, someone would come by and tell us the pieces we'd cut were too big, so we'd start cutting them smaller. Then a little while later someone else would come by and tell us the pieces were too small, so we'd start cutting them bigger. We had a lot of fun with that cycle all day long!

All around us, an amazing support system was in operation. Out by the pots, some of the men kept the wood pile stocked. As I mentioned, at the cutting board we had the runner who picked up the cut pieces. There was also: the garbage bag carrier to gather up discarded parts, the Angel who passed out hot coffee, the purveyor of soda pop, the shares distributor (we always had our Ziplocs at the ready), the hot  donut distributor (never before have donuts been THAT good) and always someone was bringing by yet more hunks of parts to cut up. Seriously, the mountain never seemed to diminish.
Unalik, YUM!

Periodically, food would be brought to us hot off the fire. When they brought by the unalik (boiled whale blubber and skin) it just hit the spot. Take a look at our pictures. It was not warm out. We were wearing long underwear, under our regular pants which were under our waterproof pants. That jacket I'm wearing is down and I've got a down sweater and fleece vest under it. At the point we chowed down on unalik, we'd already been cutting for a couple of hours. The hot morsel, full of nutrients was just the thing to keep us going for what turned out to be another three hours.
Hank's sister, Shirley
Nothing, however, came close to the cup of polar bear soup. Seriously...polar bear soup. You don't have that offered to you every day. It was heavenly, with potatoes, carrots, and polar bear meat. I had seconds.

I know I'm making it sound like all we did was eat, but these food breaks happened over a span of five hours.

Some of the women went the distance and kept cutting the entire time, others took shifts for as long as their knees and backs could stand it. LA and I persevered throughout the day. Frankly, when we looked around us and saw our  "sisters" in it for the long haul, we decided we weren't leaving until they did. All ulus were finally surrendered at 1:30 p.m. amid a sea of smiling faces and a sense of overwhelming accomplishment.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Moveable Feast

When we arrive on the second day of Quaraq, much work has been done to the site. Wind breaks have been erected for the comfort of the participants---and I might add, they were heartily welcomed. Even though it was a partly sunny day, the wind was blowing and it was rather nippy without the protection of the windbreaks.

This day is marked with blessings from several pastors, once again giving thanks for the bounty and "gift of the whale" bestowed upon the community. The village is a ghost town as the entire community has gathered for the festivities. All of the umailiks speak to the people gathered. Each has a message of humble thanks to God, to their crews, to the community for their support and the message conveying the tradition of sharing with the community. While they are speaking, the wind is gusting and they must project their voices to be heard by the crowd that has gathered. The raspiness in their voices are indicators of the non-stop work they have been involved in during the past week. Consider how exhausted these folks are. They have been preparing for days for the feast and most have gotten little if any sleep. The women have been cooking, the men have either been hunting or most recently constructing the windbreak structures.

There is much anticipation in the crowd, as there will be distribution of more of the whale harvest. Of note in my observations was the traditional dress worn by several members of the community. Fur parkas, maklaks, and atiqluks were in abundance.

On this day, each of the whaling crews distribute the meat from the tale of the whales they have caught. Before anyone arrived that morning, crew members had delivered the whale tails to the feast site. After the thanksgiving speeches were completed, they broke out their knives and began slicing the tails into individual portions. First of all, take a close look at those knives. They are extremely sharp. We actually found one just like this on the beach last summer. We asked our neighbor what the protocol was in such a find and he basically said, "finders keepers." The crew members work furiously, slicing the tails into individual portions. They must work quickly as the main event on this day is the distribution of the slices to the crowd. It doesn't surprise me how quickly they slices are cut, I noticed this furious workpace last fall when we noted that the three whales caught in Barrow had been totally butchered in the space of 4 hours.
Once there are ample slices to distribute, the umailiks and their wives call out to the crowd for either individuals or certain groups to come up and get a share. Individuals might be called as they are special friends, respected colleagues, relatives...whatever. Groups included pastors, families, folks who had never caught a whale, folks who had...pretty much anything they thought up. As we had been told by our guides, the protocol was to get your slice and take a bite as you walked back to your seat...showing your appreciation.

Finally, near the end of the distribution, apples and oranges and sodas were handed out by crew members. These were particularly enjoyed by the children among us!

Feast Your Eyes On This!

In Barrow, the event that marks the feast celebrating the catching of the spring whales is called Nalukataq--it means blanket toss. In Point Hope, the celebration is called Quaraq. It lasts for three days and has very distinctive events on each day.

On the first day, one notices that the boats of the umailiks who have caught whales have been brought onto land and placed in a single row with their crew flags flying and paddles tilted upward.

 The upward tilted paddles signify the crew has caught a whale. [In Point Hope, there are two clans. Only crews from one of the clans caught whales this spring. Had the other clan also caught whales, all of the activities about which I am relating would be repeated on the celebration grounds of the other clan.]

On the first day of celebration, we all arrive at the gathering place around the umiaqs. We sit on the ground to get out of the brisk wind that is blowing. The umailiks greet the people, thank them for all of their support, thank God, and seem to humbly accept the honor of having been chosen by the whales to receive this gift of bounty and sustenance. After the speeches are finished, the crews pass out mikigaq, which is fermented whale meat that has been marinating for days in pots. This is a good time to talk about preparations for this celebration.
The women on the crews that caught the whales have been hard at work for a good month in preparation for the event. Mikigaq has been cut and marinated. Other pieces of whale meat that will be handed out as Quoq have been cut and stored in the ice cellars.

Maktak has been cut and stored. Hunters have gone back out from the crews that caught the whales in search of other animals to add to the feast. Hunters from all over the village are out in the hope of catching additional food to add to the feast....and they have been successful.

In some houses, donut dough is being prepared, in other houses, Eskimo ice cream is being prepared. The two items are favorites of mine. First of all, the donuts are delicious, especially when you get them hot out of the fryer. Forget glazed, chocolate dipped, or sugar coated, these plain donuts will knock your socks off. Then there is the Eskimo ice cream. This is prepared with a mixture of lard and oil. Into this is mixed in whatever flavoring the cook desires. I had one "scoop" that had tuttu meat in it and another that had berries. I really like the berry one. It was really rich to my taste and I couldn't eat much, but really liked it. We were also treated to various fish spreads that were prepared for the feast, my favorite being the sheefish spread. Very mild, white fish that makes a great spread for the ever present pilot bread. Back to the activities at hand....

Our instructor mentored us on the proper way to receive our shares. 1. Always carry plenty of ziploc bags. 2. Always have your bag open to receive your share; don't make the giver wait on you. 3. Always make sure you don't miss any of the rounds of distribution. 4. Always say thankyou. Mikigaq is a delicacy truly prized by the Inupiaq. It had a bit of a sweet and sour taste...not bad, but I couldn't quite get used to the texture. Once all of the mikigaq was distributed, that day's activities were over. Time to go home and get ready for the following day.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Journey and the Destination

You know how when you are in some kind of life crisis and someone (in my case, it was usually my dad) will say to you, "it's not about the destination, it's about the journey." Well, this field trip we took was about both, in the physical and spiritual sense.

On the sunniest and warmest day of our camp, we went on a field trip to Cape Thompson. We'd heard about the interesting terrain at Cape Thompson and we could see it from anywhere in Point Hope. 

Stevie regaled us with stories about climbing "Suicide Hill" (on fourwheelers) for days prior to our trip. More on that later, but suffice it to say, it sounded like a great trip to me. We also heard a lot about many adventures gathering Murre eggs. Apparently, one has to climb the cliffs to get to the nests where the eggs are. Sometimes one winds up in rather precarious positions strapped to lines that are held by your "friends." There you are, balanced on the side of a cliff with jagged rocks and pounding icy surf below you. Sounds like about as much fun as bungie jumping. (Maybe you like bungie jumping, and if so, you should probably volunteer to dangle for the Murre eggs.) Since it was too early in the year for egg gathering, we didn't experience that adventure, but I wasn't too broken-hearted about it.

We had a caravan of 7 four wheelers. Kind of reminded me of a motorcycle gang going on a long
ride. We all got onto our respective rides and headed to town where we got gas. The cost of the gas went on one credit card, so we had to line up in a row, never replacing the pump in between each four wheeler fill up. Off we headed toward the Cape. The first part of our ride was dirt and gravel roads. It was still pretty early in the summer, so there was still a lot of ice on the beach. Normally, the ride follows the beach all the way, but we had to go inland a bit because the usual route was too snowy. Quite early on in the ride we encountered maniks. Traveling through this terrain was like skiing down a heavily moguled hill. It jarred every joint in the body and it was difficult to find the fall line (okay, it wasn't a hill, so it wasn't technically a fall line, but the premise was the same...finding the most direct route to the destination).
I followed Stevie closely so I wouldn't lose the line and wound up with some cool pictures of our "gang" as they caught up with us. We stopped often to "smell the roses" (as my friend Pausauraq would say). It was a long way out and took about 3 hours, but as we neared the Cape, the sun was warmer and the sky just kept getting bluer.

At one juncture of the trip, we came across a little creek that was kind of deep. Some of the guys scouted out a spot where we could all cross. Turned out, you had to get a running start, blast through the running water and get the four wheeler up a pretty steep bank. I sat on the other side of the crossing watching (with another camper on the back of the four wheeler) while we tried to figure out why we couldn't get our machine in neutral. From across the way, one of the guys yelled over to rock it a little...and that worked. Because of our delay, we were last to make the crossing. No one had made it up the steep bank without help from other folks in getting the machine over the last 6 or so inches of the embankment. Lucky me...all eyes were upon us, the last vehicle to try it (and don't forget, I am a novice rider).  Having a somewhat competitive nature (those who know me are rolling on the floor laughing at that understatement right now), I was plotting how I could clear the bank without assistance...just to show it could be done. I had my fellow camper on the back of my machine, so I did have a little grounding weight. I also had the advantage of less weight in the driver seat than anyone else. So I did what I normally do in these challenging types of situations, I gunned it and closed my eyes! Imagine my delight when I opened my eyes and we had made it to the top of the bank! After a 3 second celebratory cheer, we were off on the rest of our ride.

Imagine riding along an uninhabited stretch of beach with bits of ice floating in the water on a sunny warm day, when all of a sudden you turn to the left toward the mountains and there stands a the middle of nowhere! It's not just any old house, as we find out that Stevie's brother has been a co-builder of this dwelling. How cool is that? We get to explore inside. Clearly thought went into where to place the house and which way it should face in order to reap the benefits of the location. The loft and the carvings inside were truly unique. 

As a bit of a "six degrees of separation" kind of story, it turns out that I met Stevie's brother in Barrow in the spring. He is an artist and has many pieces in displays of honor in several Alaskan places. In Barrow, he designed and sculpted some of the big ice carvings during the Spring festival that I wrote about a few months ago. 

Stevie's Brother, Art
I had taken lots of pictures of those and then had the honor of actually meeting the artist...the beauty of living in a small town. So having seen his work in Barrow earlier, I had no trouble recognizing the style of the carvings we found in the house. We stayed for awhile but were all excited to make our way to "suicide hill."

"Suicide Hill" so named for its steepness and unforgiving terrain was the only way to get to our destination. I must relate, our guides and our instructor were a little bit nervous about some of us (okay, me) being able to negotiate the hill. 

I, on the other hand, did not think it would be any harder than some of the trips I had done when I owned a motorcycle when I was "30-something." One just had to make sure one didn't stall out during the climb!  

Once I got to the top, I could say that I thought it actually looked steeper than it felt during the climb. The view was spectacular. Just couldn't get over how far we could see, what we could see, where we had been. 

Of course, this stop provided ample opportunity for both Stevie and Hank to regale us with stories of their past adventures in the area as well as history from these parts. At one point Stevie told me about a time when he'd been out in this area in the winter time on a snow machine. The weather was uncooperative and it was snowing and blowing, creating whiteout conditions. Now consider that we now have some mountains to contend with, whereas in the village the terrain is just flat. Being younger and apparently not as wise as he now is, as Stevie tells it, he proceeded driving his snow machine when he should have stopped and waited out the storm. All of a sudden he found himself sailing off the edge of a cliff into the snow below. Fortunately, there was nothing but snow to fall on and he didn't get hurt. It did take him a couple of hours to dig out the snow machine after that fall. 

Again, fortune was with him as it didn't suffer any damage and he was eventually able to make his way home. It was a good learning opportunity for him and I'm sure his story has cautioned many a young rider during the winter.

Our trip was complete with picnic, hot dogs, and s'mores. Some of our campers took this opportunity to claim fame to stepping into the Arctic Ocean. You won't see my picture among them. Though I have walked on the Ocean and in the Ocean (with boots on), I don't find a particular draw to wading or swimming in water that I know will take my breath away. More power to those who do become members of the Polar Bear Club. I believe the criteria include dipping your head under water...I'm getting chills just thinking about it. 

The meal was relaxed and gave us all time to relax and enjoy our surroundings some more before we headed out. Then it was back to camp in Point Hope. What I found during the trip back, was that I apparently missed the memo that went around that the object of the trip back was to go as fast as you could all the way back. I mean, we were screaming! It was really fun, and even though I did have it set at full throttle, I had the smallest machine and consequently was last most of the way. At one point, I couldn't even see where anyone was...not even their dust. Nonetheless, my rider and I arrived at camp within minutes of the rest of the "gang."

Did Pele Get His Start Here?

Click on the map for a larger view.
The village of Point Hope is on a spit, which separates the Arctic Ocean and the Chuckchi Sea. It is the most westerly point reached by the continental shore line north of Kotzebue Sound.

The Iñupiaq call Point Hope, Tigara, a word for the index finger when extended, as that is what the land formation resembles. The old village site is near the point of that spit; the current site is closer to the "fat" part of the land. Just to the east of the village is Jabbertown.
Now, Jabbertown has an interesting history. As Stevie related to us, the commercial whalers had made their way up to Alaska, finding the waters yielded a much more abundant harvest in a fraction of the time it took them to fill their quota as they traveled out of San Francisco, Seattle and other ports. 
However, because they had to wait for the sea ice to melt in order to make their trip North, they missed much of the more fruitful hunting season. So, they decided to move whaling crews up North so they'd already be on site when the whales came through. The whaling crews consisted of a conglomeration of nationalities: Russian, Japanese, EuroAmerican, German, etc. Think about what the mixture of these various languages must have sounded like and you can figure out how the site got its name.

The Jabbertown inhabitants built their sod houses out of driftwood. The Tigaramiut (Point Hopers (miut means people) built their sod houses out of whale bone. As you may expect, you can still see some remnants of the whale bone houses, but the driftwood from the other houses is long gone.

Anthropologists have discovered that in this area, the sod houses had a number of rooms (sometimes 10 or 12) as opposed to the single "family" room in which cooking, eating, and sleeping occurred in the sod houses on the old village site. One could speculate that more people lived in each of these sod houses than in the sod houses in the old village, but I don't think we can prove that. Maybe more than one family at a time lived in these houses, maybe they were more like bunkhouses for whaling crews, rather than for families.

For recreation, the Jabbertown residents and the Point Hopers in the old village played soccer. You will have to try to imagine what this game was like. It was not a soccer field as we know it today. This soccer field was 7 (yes seven) miles long. We speculate that they played a game until someone scored. That was a long way to run, after all, and no way to score within the designated time period we have today. It makes sense that you just played until one of the teams scored. Must have been a heck of a game to watch from the sidelines. The spectators probably got as much exercise as the players (if there were spectators).

Cache Me If You Can

What do you do with all that seal meat? Even with a single share, I had an abundant load. However, Henry as captain of the boat had a lot more than one could it into a bag or two. He was contributing quite a bit of it to the community whale feast, but needed to store it in the meantime. This provided the perfect opportunity to visit and contribute to the siġḷuaq, or ice cellar. 

A note on the word, siġḷuaq. Phonetically, it's "si-ryuk
. It was a new word for me and I'd never seen it spelled. The field trip to the cellar left a big impression on me, and I remembered the word for it even two weeks later. I was able to get the correct spelling from an Iñupiaq colleague. When I'm trying to look up words, I use the online Iñupiaq Dictionary at The trick here is finding the correct English words to use to look up an Inupiaq word. When I typed in ice cellar, I got "piitchuq" (nothing). I needed to put in cold storage, or underground cache to get the correct word. There are different dialects as well, and some words are not the same in the dictionary as those in use in Barrow, but it sure helps to infuse my I
ñupiaq vocabulary.
In Barrow, I notice most siġḷuaq are right next door or quite near the person's home, but Henry's is here at the old village site, alongside many others in this area (Henry's house is in the new village site about 5 miles away). Don't forget,

Henry lived here at
the old village site as a little boy. The siglaq is his family's siglaq from that time. Once you've got one of these, I'm thinking you wouldn't just go out and craft another one if you move across town. Just think about it. This is basically a cave carved out of perma frost. Seriously, how long did that take to dig out? And hundreds of years ago, just what did they use to accomplish this, I mean besides the sweat and muscles, what tools did they have to dig with?

We each had a chance to go down and check it out, so we got to see how it's set up with different shelves for storing the whale meat and the seal meat. Storing the meat for a long period gives it a distinctive flavor. Meat that is stored in the ice cellar taking on this characteristic is called quaq.