Subsistence: Traditional Eskimo Life in the Latter Twentieth Century
Part of this study in the Kobuk River villages was devoted to recording oral histories and reminiscences from elderly Kuuvafmiut about their way of life as children and about their parents' stories of life still earlier. Most of these reminiscences depict life along the Kobuk River in the late 1800s and the early 1900s. Some of the early ways they describe continue today, while others have changed considerably. The following remembrances were taped in Iņupiat, transcribed, and then translated as closely as possible to the narrator's original words. These reminiscences give a sense for the way Kuuvafmiut people feel toward their land and cultural heritage, the events that have shaped their lives, the values they hold, and the times that have brought them happiness or disappointment.
Lucy Foster was born in Kivalina. She and her father lived in various places along the lower Kobuk River before finally settling in Noorvik, where she lived when she gave the following recollection.
My name is Lucy Foster Aqubluk. I was born in Kivalina, and I don't even know my mother. My father raised me. Whenever someone was nice to me, I called them "mama"; I even called my grandmother "mama." My father brought us to the Kobuk, and we started living here on the Kobuk. I didn't have a mother, but I had my father.
Back at Siksriktuuq we spent some years with Panikpiak's and Qufisik's family. I don't know how many years we lived there, but then we moved to Qabbubruaq near Kiana. My father started making a living for us, . . . he got us a mother first, and we started living at Qabbubruaq. That was where Ulubbaq and his family lived. The couple were just getting old, and Joe Carter was their baby. I always packed him and took care of him although he had a sister named Belle. But like a man, she [Belle] would take a shotgun, go out, and bring back a rabbit. After spending a year there, my father and I moved to Aksik to find a place to live with Nalikkatkatnum, my father's father. I schooled for half a year in Aksik.
After I went to school there for a year, Noorvik started having people. They said, "There are people from Deering who are going to move to Putu [original name for Noorvik]." When they said that, my father wanted to go to that place, Noorvik. I don't know how old I was when Noorvik was built maybe 12 years old. My father built a house when I was about 14 or when I turned 13. Then my father said, "These two people have only one child, and they are going to send him away for good." When they were going to send him, my father gave me away. Sometimes I asked my father, "Pop, why did you give me away?" He just always laughed at my stupidity.
I was an orphan, and when someone was nice to me, I called them sister and brother. I remember when Putruq and her family first came. Their father always told me his kids were my sisters and brothers. "They are your sisters and brothers," he always said to me. Then they started calling me sister, and Putruq also became my mother. There were lots in the family, and I added more to their family.
The missionary, Replogle, told the Deering people to move to Noorvik so they wouldn't have a shortage of food. But, some of the people moved back to Deering when they started to crave for seal oil. When they spent another year without seal oil, they moved back. How many of them came here? There were the Wells, the Newlins; I don't know the rest of the people. The Wells and Newlins are the only ones now in Noorvik. Then, there were only few people living, and they ate fish and their food. When there were no caribou, they ate ptarmigan and rabbit.
It was said that at that time people cooked their fish by skewering them with willows. After running the stick through the fish, they were put near the fire and constantly turned around to let them cook.
When they wanted boiled fish or meat, they got the rocks and put them into the fire till they were red hot. Then the rocks were put into a wooden pot that had water and cut-up fish or meat. They let the rock boll itthat was how they cooked. I don't know how many rocks they always put in. It had to be about three, probably, that were about this big [gesturing], or maybe they used about two rocks. And then they started eating the cooked meat [fish] that the rock had cooked.
Long ago when they had no matches, they used flintstone and got white cotton from the willows. This white cotton they put . . . in an old fireplace where there was charcoal or soot . . . and they smeared the cotton with this, then stretched the cotton out so that it would burn easy. They got two flintstones and hit the rocks in opposite directions, and when the fire sparked and it started burning, they put it where the fire would burn. They had to blow at it, and this was how they made fire.
One time my grandmother, Iyabak, and I followed the people that were going berry picking. With Ayaatchiatkut while they were still alive, we followed them for blackberry picking. There were people dipping qalupiat [whitefish] down there at a little river or creek. They made a ditch, and they shared the fish with Iyabak and I. They gave us part of the fish in the ditch near the area where we went berry picking. And then Akpabialuk, in the wintertime, would go and get some fish from there. He did not give me anything. He probably gave some to Iyabak because she might become his mate [laugh]. That was the way people went placesby storing and taking everything.
People went to get wild rhubarb, sourdock, and berries when they were ripe. By going barefoot or without boots into an undulating tundra, you found no pain even if you stepped on twigs that were going to turn to berries. But now when you go without shoes and when you are going to walk, it hurts.
When my father and I lived alone, he made a rope, stretched it, and put it on a pole. I guess he made it because he saw how lonely I was. For this type of bird, when they landed, you pulled the rope. The bird tried to go up, he did not know what happened. When it fell, you ran to it real fast and killed it. After getting a few, I would pluck them and cook them because I was a big girl then.
When the seal bones had worms or larvae on them, the baby birds always tried to eat the worms, and you could hit them with a stick. They are the type that goes way up and when they start coming down, they always make a soundthe snipe [kuukukiaq or putukiujuich].
Also, [there were] birds that were a little bigger and looked like a robin. They had quite a lot of meat on them, and we always went nest-hunting for them. When we found a nest, we put a snare out, made of hair. When we put out a snare, they always got strangled. And when a bird did not want to go into her nest, we sang for it and tried to persuade it to come to her nest. "Your nest, your children. Take the nest and take the children away." That was how we always sang for them, and they always came to their nests. That's how we sang for them down there [probably Kivalina].
Long ago down there [Kivalina?], people went seal hunting. One time our dogs, I don't know how many, could not pull when the wind was from the inside. My father put up something so we could sail. We always just rode, we always sailed. It always got really slippery, and the wind always blew us along. And those people, Panikpiaq's and Qufisiq's family, we always were together. And then his kids, like John Stalker, and I were like sisters and brothers. I didn't have a mother, so I always stayed with them. When my two grandmothers died, my father's mother and mother's mother, I stayed with people like that. But when these two Selawik people, Nauyaq and Taffaq, wanted to adopt me, my father did not say yes to them. I would have been a Selawik person now had my father given me away [then]. My girl friend Naabaayiuraq is down there [Kotzebue?]. She is like me, but she is smarter because she is usually alone. She didn't live by herself, but her husbands always died. She and I always played toys together. Qatuk usually didn't care for us, but she did not really hate or despise us . She always said, "Those two girl friends!" Me, I always pretended and packed a piece of rock as my baby, and my girl friend packed what I guess was wood (that was why she doesn't have any kids, too). Whenever I moved the rock upward, it would hit my back and make loud, hard noise and Qatuk always heard it. My friend always led us into everything even though I was scared because we might get scolded. It was scary, but we weren't afraid. She led us sourdock picking back there at the graveyard lake; at that time there were no graves back there. Her friend had taken her sourdock picking before. There were no houses then because it was too far away. We filled our calico parkas. We pressed them down and started packing them. When Qatuk woke up, she didn't scold us. She just started cooking the sourdocks.
One time when Deering people moved here [Noorvik], they brought along their reindeer. They brought their reindeer through that big river down there. And when Noorvik had that big beach down there in front of Noorvik, they always slaughtered them. Their little reindeer fawns were just cute. While they were killing them, we always watched them. And then through there, they would drive the reindeer back afterwards. They don't do that nowadays. I don't know where they take them now. Maybe they quit because their herds died off, or maybe they sell them to Nome again.
There were not many people at that time. One time Aktuq transported some of her things closer to her camp. She let me follow her because she was a big girl and I was a young girl. She took her stuff down there. I didn't know that was going to be our river. "It is very far," I thought to myself at the time. [That is where their camp is now and probably where her Native allotment is, too.] To the last part, farthest away, she took her belongings.
When we got back, they were playing football on the river. After they had played a while, a person from over there started hollering; it was Nalikkak who broke his leg. He broke his leg in the springtime. They always put a splinter of wood to the broken leg, almost like a cast, wrapped it and tied it, and it healed like that. Back there in that lake, they always played a lot of football. We used to play a lot of games a long time ago. When Aktuq and I got there, they said when a person's leg broke, it made a noise. I did not follow Aktuq again because it was too far. But, after I had started getting used to going over there, it was no longer far. When we went muskrat hunting, it seemed close. We always went muskrat hunting for food.
Long ago people did not have twine nets, but instead they made the ropes for nets from willow bark. And they also made seining nets. Right now, no one has any bark nets. In the wintertime, in the springtime, or when the bark was easily separated from the trunk, they always went to get the willow bark. And when winter came, they soaked the bark, stripped them, and then braided them. Some of the twines were always weak. It seems that willow barks have different strengths. The funny barks always break easily. This was what they made for catching fish with, willow skills or bark.
When there were no traps, people used wood. One stood up the poles and put meat on the inside, making it possible for the game animal to touch. When that wood was touched, it squeezed and trapped the animal. That was how they tried to catch animals in those days when there were no traps.
People boated and made boats out of skin, caribou skin. One time Ikkaayutkuk, those two Kotzebue people, had a kayak with fur on it. They put the skin part on the outside, and it was really good and warm. But when they used it all the time, the fur probably rotted and pulled off, especially at the place they sat because it was always wet from the bottom on the outside. They also used caribou skin to make houses when they had no other materials [cloth]. Needles were then made of bones. Their thimble was made out of sealskin, [which was also] used for making mukluk bottoms. This was before they had iron needles, and before they had any contact with the Whites. They made thimbles out of the sealskins that were thick. Their ulus were made of jade. Flint was hard, so they always used it to make knives and weapons, and also used it to start the fire.
Susie Barr was 70 years old and living in Kiana when she gave this account in 1975. As Kiana's only surviving resident of the abandoned Aksik settlement between Kiana and Noorvik, her recollection provides glimpses into the Aksik and Kiana ways of life as she experienced it.
I was born December 25, 1905. Since that time I started living and am still making my living. I am going to tell about my parents' way of life. When I became of that age, knowing what was happening, my parents were making a living. When spring came in the last part of April, the people always prepared to go to their muskrat camps. They used dogs, sleds, and brought along their boats close to the muskrat camps. When they had some food, they brought their Eskimo food and supplies closer to the muskrat camps also. They always prepared and gathered their belongings, and during those days, they had a lot of hardship. I never really understood and realized how much hardship my parents and the Eskimo people were going through. My brothers, Johnny and Duffy Smith, were the ones left when all the other brothers died. Now I am the only one left.
After we settled over there, we began fishing. My mother took her nets out. They were made of flour-bag cloth and the upper sides of gloves. When she made the nets by winding and weaving them, I used to help her after I was through with playing. I did not do everything well, but my mother was always working along with me.
After camping, living over there some place, they always returned to their winter camp called Village. Around June, people always returned to their homes on their lands. Around that time, the parents got the young men readythose young men who could keep up with the trip. Their fathers took them out hunting around the areas where the caribou were. Kobuk people went out hunting by walking. At times they took along the dogs with packs and went way up towards Noatak. After they had left, their wives always worked, gathering the fish and the berries. They gathered all they could for their winter use. Their caches were filled with dried fish. After they had fished for a length of time, the women went berry picking. The seal pokes were always filled with berries. Cranberries were hard to bust, so they were put into the flour sacks. The women picked all kinds of food like rhubarb and sourdock. So, while the men were out hunting, the women prepared and gathered the food that they would need for the winter.
In late September the men returned home in the rafts. They returned to their winter camps with half-dried meat that they packed. When the men returned home, it was called "homecoming." When the men got close to the village and the villagers could hear them, they would shoot into the air. On hearing the rifle shot, the villagers would know that the men were coming. The villagers would return the shot, and the men coming home would know that all in the village were all right. Another shot was returned by the men to tell the villagers that all who had gone out hunting were coming back safely. The home return was a joyous occasion for all. The men always returned home in the moonlight.
When I understood what was going on, that was the way my people lived. During those days, people used little of white man's things. They were very cheap then. At that time not many people worked, and they did not have the welfare checks either. That was why they worked hard during those days. They did not have the snow-travelers or Evinrude motorsonly dogs. When they saw a boat with an engine, they would get excited and say, "Everybody comea steam launch." [At this Point Susie thanked the Lord for the love he gave the Eskimo people.]
When fall came, people began fishing through the ice. They had a different method and equipment for catching the fish. They called the equipment [a] fish trap. That was how hard people worked in those days. They used the candles for light. Among those with the gasoline or kerosene lamps, their homes would be bright. And so candles were not used as much now that we have a machine that can brighten the darkness in the homes. We don't live the way our people used to live in those days.
After working hard fishing during the summer, when winter came, some men, and possibly a few women, would start making plans and traveled to the next village, Aksik. During those days people played football [aqsrautraq]. Men from Village would play against the men of Aksik and tried to win so that they could return to Village with the ball. Then, Aksik men would come to Village to try to win the ball back.
I had witnessed my parents and Mulluk preparing Jack Porter and my older brother, Johnny Smith, to play the ball game for Village. If, after playing against Aksik people, the Village people won and brought the ball back home, they always had a good time. After a while, the Aksik people would come to play Village to try to win the ball back. When we saw the Aksik people coming, we would holler. Lots of people would play in front of Village. The playing ball was set on the Squirrel River. From Village to the line, for the Village people, would be about a mile long. The line of the Aksik people would be about a mile down the river. I witnessed one Aksik man and three Village people going after the ball. They were fast runners and they worked hard at it. After playing all day, they gathered in the evening at a meeting place, at the Atoruks' home because they had a big house. They would gather together to have Eskimo dances. The singers would sit together along with my father Qupilbuq, his brother, Matulik, [and] Aaquaksrauraq. The Aksik people would come in dancing in the middle. They would be shouting also. I saw Mary Curtis's husband who considered himself an Aksik man. So, he would dance. I wish now we could watch [the] singers and dancers again. I grew up with this knowledge of my parents and their people. I am going to sing this song even though I make mistakes:
Beatrice Mouse was 74 years old when she talked to us. She is a resident of Noorvik. Her recollection describes aspects of subsistence living and illustrates some traditional Kuuvafmiut beliefs.
I am going to talk about long ago, and about things I learned while I was a child. I am going to talk about what I learned while I was growing up.
I remember that in the falltime people made winter houses by digging into the ground. My mother and brothers got sod blocks for the house and packed them home. A frame was made and then covered with sod to make a cozy, warm house. The window was up on the roof. Inside the house, a log was put by the bedding to prevent it from sliding. The level of the bed was usually higher than the floor, and people could sit on it. The entrance of the house faced the river. They put the flooring on and started to build a fire.
There was firewood of cut tree trunks [kipniqutat] which were split in half. When the house became dirty and smelly, the belongings were carried out of the house, then my grandmother would clean the house with hot water. I remember also that there was no "meal," that is, no soap. There were only grass ends brought upriver from the coast. My mother used these to scrub dishes when I first became aware of it.
We lived through the year and the winter without knowing the cold. In the big sod house, we slept against each other.
I cried when my mother went out to have her baby, the one before my youngest brother. The weather was then very cold, so they built a fire and put grass around the edge of the house. I was told that my mother had that baby with only a caribou skin as the mattress. In the old days, they built a big snow house for pregnant women. They had the house ready before the baby arrived. When we children played, grownups did not like us to go inside the snow house. The children could not go in because they did not want the snow house spoiled by the kids since it was made of snow.
After the baby came, my mother crawled in, taking along her clothes into the house that was well lighted for her. They put in there her honey bucket and other things she might need; the entrance was closed with ice. There was also an ice window on the roof. The seal-oil lamp that was put in the house made nice, big flames since there were no drafts inside. The house was warm from the seal-oil lamp as if there were a real fire. My father and grandfather said that my mother always did all right in the snow house. After four days, she would wash herself and then return home. She had water. That's how people had babies in the old days.
Young girls were not to eat bear meat when they were getting big and almost became a woman. It was the devil's law [tunnbaq originally "divining spirit" later adopted as the word for devil], and people believed it. The devil did not want the bear meat eaten by young girls. That's how we were brought up.
When we went downriver, we always tried to get oil from the seals and walruses. After we obtained a large quantity of it, we would go back upriver again to the end of the Kobuk.
Now there are houses way up the Kobuk. The houses nowadays are half the size of the houses we used to live in in the old days. Our houses were situated further in.
One time when we went upriver to seine, strangers came to our camp. My mother, who could not walk, and we children were at the camp. My father was collecting all the salmon together when suddenly I heard people.
I called to my mother: "Mother! Father! They are coming!"
"My pretty one, let them come. We will cross to the other side."
I immediately went down to the boat, and when they docked, I told my father, "Father! Strangers [Indians] are back there! They are making cracking sounds. They sound as if they are whispering. I heard them."
"Let the food stay there. Get something for your bedding. Pull with rope from the shoulder, and someone steer the boat. Let Mother crawl to the boat."
She crawled to the boat, and they put her in. We did not know the place we were going, but the place was there all right. We crossed to the place with a lot of willows, moored our boat, and made a shelter covered with leaves so that we would not be seen. We burned the tree fungus that was broken into pieces. I cannot remember how many tree fungus fires we made to smoke the place; there were a lot of no-see'ums [black flies] around there. My mother did not want the children to make any noise. A watch was kept outside. We saw our fire on the other side of the river tampered with. It burned brighter and bigger. I started listening because I was scared. My mother asked me to carry some water, and I heard people from the other side while I got the water.
The whole night, the Indians on the other side did not cross over because they did not have any boat. When we fled over to this side, we had already started to fish and had stored the fish in a big cache [ikibbaq]. We were fishing when the Indians came and frightened us. We spent the whole night on this side of the river. The Indians did not bother us.
After seeing the Indians' camp, my grandmother said, "Take me across there. I will go to see them." The Indians [afuyaich] do not fight with women. My mother wanted to go with her, but she was not physically strong, so she followed her in spirit.
"If the Indians are there, I will cover their mouths," she said. They took my grandmother to the beach area where she would be able to see the Indians. She would wave like this [gestures]. If they were gone, she would wave instead of shouting.
They said my grandmother did wave her arms. Afterwards, they got us, and we were told to take our bedding. The Indians took our food, then left. They left, following each other up the river.
There was always a lot of fish during the seining season. People seined a lot of them and put them into big boxes when they went downriver. This is where I will end this part of my life.
Do you want to hear the scary part of my life?
At one time in Kotzebue when I was getting a little bigger, we children were going to play when my mother stopped us, saying some people were going to perform a shamanistic ritual [afatkuaq]. Around there if those people passed us, they would kill us through their shamanistic act. We started for home fast because we were very frightened.
Then my mother spoke, "My ataata, let's push off in the boat. People are killing each other through evil means. They are already possessed [ikiliguqtaaniktut]. They don't know that they've already killed some people. I dreamed so. Let's leave!"
When dusk came, we left for the point of Tikibayugruaq to the other side of Apqugaabruk and camped when it became too dark to travel. There was a lot of fish around there, also a lot of ducks and berries. We were safe there. We set our nets, and in the morning I went to pick salmonberries which were ripe and red. I can't remember how many small buckets I filled while the adults were preparing to leave, carrying all our belongings to the boat. We went to the mouth of the Ugrivik and camped. One of us, my mother, got a bad cold. She started coughing and she should be in a warm place, but we had not thought about it.
My mother must have looked straight forward when we left, for she said, "There may be a bearded seal or some sea mammal [niqsaq]. It was on top of the ground." We went toward it and my younger brother, who had a shotgun, shot it. It was a bearded seal all right. We cut it up, and while we were cooking, Iraillak and his family arrived coughing. We left the place again.
"Back there, there was food for you. We got a young seal," we told them. We left because they were sick. We lost sight of them after they went ashore. [Here the researcher asked, "Why were you afraid of them?" "I don't remember being afraid," Beatrice answered.]
We camped again at the point or the end of Paalagik where we could set the nets and catch some fish for our meal. We did catch enough pike. The next day it rained hard, and the people we left behind did not follow. The following day the weather improved; the rain would stop once in a while, so we left again.
The wind was at our back when we went across to Kanaaq area and passed Abvibiuraq to where there were rocks. We camped there about a week. At that time, we did not know that my brother got a brown bear back there. Iraillak and his family barely made it; they ate the fat of the bear. My mother was barely alive then. At the end of our trip, we met another group of people whom we had not known before.
They told us, "Paniabruk's adopted child died at Tikibayuatchiaq. At Napaaqtusrugruatchiat, Aumatchiaq and Uqummibayauraq also passed away.",, That must be the work of the devil as my aaka dreamed. By the two lakes, Maayyuk also died. At the place called Kiksraq, inside of the Ugrivik on the side of the Aulliņgani in Tikibaabruk, Sajiaksraq [Maayyuk's husband] died. When Sajiaksraq died, Afuqaaq and them left him there. When they came out of the Ugrivik, when they went through the two bends, they left Qayaq. After going through another big bend, they left Qajhapak. Thirteen people altogether died there because of the devil [evil spirit]. Young people nowadays do not know about this, so they usually say, "I don't care."
The people who work for God [missionaries] got rid of these frightening things. However, we can see them still once in a while. Outside anyone can see, for example, the snakes that crawl on the ground. Long ago people saw a lot of animals with scales. When the missionaries came to Kotzebue, people wanted to pray, but they did not know how. Our missionary used to be the husband of Carrie Samms. People talked to each other that they would like to do away with shamanism because it was frightening. They became converts. When a person is converted, he is washed with the water brought down from up there [heaven]. When he is sick, he wants a mixture of this water to wash his sickness away. People believed and became converts. Robbie said Christianity is stronger than shamanism. He started jailing the people who practiced shamanism because he was afraid. Those who practiced shamanism tried to work with things that do not exist. They made a mistake, and people were frightened by it.
At another time when I was still a girl, my family went downriver to visit an old man and his wife at their summer camp. I cannot remember how many people were there. There were Kivvaaluuraq and his wife, Abnaqhauq and his wife, Pauline. Putyugialuk was married to the old couple's only daughter, and she died while they were out in the Arctic cold. Her mother cried and cried when the clothing belonging to her daughter was given back to her. Then, just when we were about to eat, she put a curse on her son-in-law. She was angry, so she put a curse on his berries with the intention of killing him. Although Putyugialuk knew it, he took a spoonful. He thought, "She wants me to eat the berries, so I'll eat them no matter what will happen to me."
My family was there when it happened. We were about to eat when all of a sudden we heard the noise. Putyugialuk was possessed! He started taking off his clothing and his teeth turned into frightening dog's teeth. He bared his fangs and jumped on top of the fire. Then he smashed the sleds, biting into them and throwing them around. We could not eat; we were so scared. He was flowing with red blood and he had no clothing on. Kivvaaluuraq, his father-in-law, bowed his head to avoid seeing the plight of Putyugialuk. He did not want that to happen. We were all very frightened but we could do nothing. Putyugialuk 's brother named Kutchuq was also there. He followed Putyugialuk, taking along his top parka or it could have been another piece of clothing. My mother took us to our boat and covered us. I cannot remember how many of us, brothers and sisters, were there then.
It was the devil's stupidity that went into Putyugialuk. They thought my aaka might get some of the curse, so they wanted us to take her home. In the boat, she started talking about the devil. "Talk to her calmly. Hopefully, she will go home. We will not live in peace with shamanism like this." I heard the old woman, Putyugialuk 's mother-in-law, talk. Back there it is said she is still singing and walking around. She was not afraid to put the curse on her son-in-law.
Nowadays most people have not seen shamanism. Me, I have seen so much of it in Kotzebue that I am scared of it. When I received Christ, I did not have even one friend. When they said I was a sinner, I wanted Him to come into my heart. When I gave myself, even when they threw me out of the church, something in my heart wanted to go to church. I became very brave, and when I went to the door, they would open it. All year long, whenever I gave any offering, they would return it. Another time, in fact a couple of times, they told me not to go to church, but I still went and they opened the door again. A person should not give in. The Comforter, the Holy Spirit, opens the door for him, lets him come in, and will lead him. A person by himself does not have the strength, only Jesus can help.
[At this point, Beatrice spoke generally about shamanism.] When a partner was sick, the other partner used to go to see the shaman with the gift of his belongings, hoping the shaman would be able to save his partner through his shamanistic power. If the sick person could not be saved, he would get his belongings back. [Question: "What did they do to the shaman then?"] Nothing. People only took back whatever was given as the payment. When someone was practicing shamanism, one was not supposed to use the curved knife [ulu], drink water, eat, or become frivolous. Anyone who did, even during the night, would die. That's why shamanism is dangerous. One should not even think of attending the shaman's ritual. When you think of shamanism, it is better to look at it in a different light. I am ashamed of it and was not going to talk about it. And that poor woman! Her husband used to give her to the shaman. The shaman used her even though she did not want it. But the husband who was sick wanted to live; he always got better after the shaman used his wife. It was frightening to be a woman or an ignorant person whom the shaman could kill. When a young girl was disobedient or bad, the shaman killed her. This information is for you to help you. Old people are not to be talked back at. Old men are not to be yelled at. Anyone who did that did not go very far; he always died. I know that as fact.
A lot of people in Kotzebue practiced shamanism. We used to go downriver to the coast to Kotzebue. People should not be egotistical because the shaman would want them through the devil. When a person was prejudiced, talked back to old people, he or she died. I don't know how many people were killed by the shamans in Kotzebue. The bodies of the dead were taken and left without any coffin at the place beside the lagoon where the ground was high. Sometimes the sealskin was used to wrap the body. Those who were poor used old blankets. I had seen a lot of unhappy people. At one time when a woman's husband died, no one gave her any help. The wife had to pull the body of her husband in a blanket to that high place by the lagoon. Had she used the sled, it would have to be left with the body. People were afraid of contamination. It was the same way even if the dead person was a young child. How sad it was when one had to "throw away" one's own child.
In church I always try to be truthful. I am also beginning to understand the preacher who says things from deep down in his heart. I should be singing the translated Church songs to my grandchildren, nephews, and nieces, but unfortunately, I cannot sing well any more.
People in the old days worried a lot. The person who had no container to drink with would go to another person's house, and the host or the hostess would let him drink by holding the container over his mouth so that the container would not be touched. When food or unaqsiq was given to someone whose relative had just passed away, the person who gave the food felt insecure afterwards because it was believed that relatives of the dead person were also contaminated. The relatives were even afraid of using their own clothing; they kept changing, throwing them away, and washing themselves with the snow every time they changed. Women did this also during menstruation. After one had washed, the contamination period was considered over. Although people had to make a living and did not care for what they had to go through, they had to do it.
Now when I saw a young girl trying to look pretty, going out in the evening without much clothing on, I was immediately reminded of the past. Long ago, the shaman would have wanted to kill the girl or the boy she went to meet. The afatkuq or the devil himself would have killed him or her.
When a young man wanted a girl and wanted to get married, he stayed with her and helped her parents work. If her parents liked him, they gave her to him. There was no formal marriage; they did not know about it.
We also did not know the English language. When I first saw white people, I kept looking at them. When I went to school, all year long my parents had to hold my hand. And I had a pencil like a rock! While we were playing outside, an Eskimo who understood some English taught me. He said if a white man said, "Come on," he was saying qabbaie. And if he said, "Sit down," he was saying aquvittin. But, when a white man said, "Come on," I heard something like "kam-mak," so I drew a picture of mukluk (Eskimo boots). And when he said, "Sit down," I slid down ["to slide" in Eskimo is sisuuhaaq]. I thought I understood a lot of English! And when I went back to the Kobuk where no one knew any English, I started to teach them English the way I understood it! Nowadays children are born into the period when English is spoken. In the old days people could hardly speak English, but we tried, and barely could understand each other. We pretended to dance, eat, carry the water, and did all kinds of things as if we understood each other in English.
When we went upriver and got a lot of fish this last winter, we had a lot of fresh fish [aiparuq] to eat. When the ground froze and there was no snow, we went berry picking. Sometimes we even stayed overnight. I am not sure how many sealskin pokes one filled up with berries. During winter the berries would be got by sleds. For caribou hunting during the summer, the men would go to the mountains. Sometimes during summer and fall, they had to go back and forth four times, backpacking the dried meat, skins, and the fat of the animals (marmot, sheep, caribou) they got during the summer. They went back and forth, finally loading them on the raft. We really had a hard time, always walking all summer. After we dried lots of meat and skins, we would be secure with our winter food supply. Some men were very good at hunting marmots. In winter when caribou came, the men would hunt the caribou.
When spring arrived, we started drying the meat. After the meat was half dried, we cooked it by boiling. People who had seal oil dipped the cooked meat in the seal oil. The dried meat was kept, wrapped in the fall caribou skin. We also cracked the end bones of the caribou and boiled them until the marrow and the fat settled on top. These were then put into the stomach container, and when we wanted something to mix with our food, we used this marrow and fat.
When fall came, we began to store the berries in the ground. It's like a freezer; the berries would not spoil or ferment fast. We always had berries in the ground cache covered with willow twigs to allow ventilation. The hot air would go out through the hole. We even had a dried fish storage place [sibluaq, a ground cache]. We dug a hole in the ground, put a pole in the center of the cache, and rested other poles around it. When it rained, the water did not leak through because we put the moss [ivruq] that we gathered from dry lakes on top. We always made food storage places like these before we had the freezer.
We ate meat or fish cooked over the fire [qauraq]. We ate meat and other things from the coast. A salmon cooked on a flat, thin rock near a fire cooked very fast. We could also make biscuits in the same way. We made biscuits after the flour came in.
Our cooking pot was made of birch bark with split willow on the rim and sewn with willow roots. Rocks were heated in the fire, and the tongs for picking the rocks [kigilbutaq] were made from two sticks. The rocks had to be red hot before they were put into the basket filled with water and meat. The water and the meat would boil. When the water turned cold, the cold rocks were taken out and red hot ones put in. When the fish, fish intestines, or the cooked meat was done, it was taken out. [Here the researcher asked: "Did they put the rocks in twice?"] Sometimes three times when the meat, fish, caribou, rabbit, or duck was cut into big pieces. We usually cut the fish in half when we wanted it to cook fast. When we cooked the meat, we put both the meat and the bones in.
When we first had the white man's cooking pot, we called it "bucket" [atausriqsuatuaq] because we did not have another word for it. Other white man's things like frying pan, kettle were at first called differently. After calling all kettles "teapot," we started calling it uunaqsiivik, meaning a container used for heating.
The people of Suluppaugaqtuuq never heard of boats. People from around here [lower Kobuk] used to go upriver to get strings of dried fish. When they cleaned the boat, they would turn the boat over and hit it to make the dirt drop off. When upper Kobuk people first heard that lower Kobuk people were arriving in that boat, they were frightened and ran back into their homes. "Sila qaaqtuq! Sila qaaqtuq!" they cried. Lower Kobuk visitors had to explain to them that it was just a boat. Upper Kobuk people only had small boats made of birch bark. They did not know that boats could be made with walrus skins. Me, I grew up at the time there [were] hardly any bark boat[s] left, but I remember having seen a few of them. One should not go into shallow water with the bark boat, for it would tear. Let me end here.
Jenny Jackson was born at Kobuk village in about 1893. She provides a detailed account of life on the upper Kobuk River around the turn of the century.
My name is Masruana and I am going to talk about my childhood days with my grandfather and about our lives during spring, summer, and winter. . . I was born at Suluppaugaqtuuq in upper Kobuk. Tom Baldwin told me the year I was born was 1893. He is one of the first white men.
After we lived through spring on the back part of our summer place at Utuayukpak, my grandfather always took us down to the inside of Mauneluk River to a creek called Avaarabaat after the ice went away. We stayed there about one month. My grandfather's name is Sapiqsuaq. He always put a duck snare across the creek or the slough out there. In his box was his duck trap. . . We always ate ducks that were snared from the top of the water. My grandfather always snared the loons also after springtime.
When a slough had not much water, my grandfather always put in a fish trap. We then started having the big whitefish and the pike that he trapped for our meals. The fat, big whitefish that really jumped was really a good kind of fish.
After the men went away to hunt the marmots [siksrikpak], my grandmother, grandmother's sister, and I were always left alone. My grandfather always went hunting. Sometimes he took his sons along to hunt the squirrels. We always spent our summer at Avaarabaat. After staying there for a while, when the ducks started molting and salmon were almost there, we would move upriver. We always moved out of Mauneluk River then. While going upriver, if we ran into molting ducks, we would catch them and we had ducks to eat. Even our dogs back there knew how to kill molted ducks. We ran, trying to catch them while my grandmother would canoe around. When she speared a duck, she always made a sound (like a dancing sound "oiui") to indicate she got a duck. We always hollered or made some noises. After the duck hunt, we usually camped and cooked the ducks. Then, we would continue on our trip upriver again.
We traveled past the original place of the Paa people, went around the bend, then went to Sabvaqsibiaq. There we stopped to spend our summer like other years. "The salmon will be late in coming," they said. Sabvaqsibiaq was the place where the Indians used to pass through in the summer and in the springtime. We stayed there with our kayaks and boats. The men would then search for the bark inside of the Sabvaqsibiaq. They tried to get new bark for the canoes and boats. The old bark was taken off and new bark put on while we were there. The boats were sewn with willow roots. Willow and tree roots were used as thread, and spruce gum was used for plugging up the seams. We did not have the corking material. We melted the pitch, using birchbark as a pot or container. We melted the pitch slowly in a campfire. We used the spruce pitch on the seams after putting on new bark. We always put a new bark cover on the kayak before the salmon fishing.
We ate fresh fish and ducks. We also ate rhubarb and sourdock which we mixed with our food. Sometimes we had no seal oil, but we had oil from the marmot, and also, the fish oil we made at Avaarabaat. That was the way we lived, and that was how I was raised with my grandparents. When we wanted friends, people followed us to Avaarabaat.
Just before the salmon came, we used to go to our original summer camp at Utuayukpak's broad river, back there on the side of Anaulibvik. When the ice broke up, it broke the ground cache and tore apart our summer camps, but we made them over and stayed there again. We covered our house and ground cache with tree barks, and it did not drip. Anyone who wanted to come to spend the summer came with us. At the end of a long stretch of river, there were my grandparents, and Kituq and his wife. My father's aunt, Qufuyuk, was Kituq's wife. Kituq was an Indian. He was adopted from the Indians when he lost his parents over there [Indian country]. To us he was our Indian. We knew him as far back as I can remember, back to the days in our original summer camp. But I did not learn how to speak Indian. My great uncle, Kituq, said that when he went to the Indian country, he spoke Indian. My grandfather, Sapiqsuaq, couldn't speak Indian at all, but he probably could understand a little.
After we fixed the boats, the fish came. We worked really hard to catch salmon. We caught so many that sometimes we didn't have the time to finish them all. Sometimes they caught sheefish, too. The men went to the headwaters of the river and then up into the mountains. They went up to hunt mountain sheep, and if they found caribou they would hunt them too, to get the skins for clothing [parkas]. They also hunted marmot for their bedding [blankets]. After the men left, the women that stayed behind worked on catching a lot of fish.
In the falltime, which is now known as September, the men who had gone up the mountains would come back to my grandfather's place, which was a bend away. They came back to camp with my grandparents, Kituq, and Qufuyuk; they came back because they uliqqa[when one is being annoyed by Indians or strangers who are thought to be Indians]. The Indians were not seen, but they could be heard, whistling, making noises in the bushes, and they stole anything they could without being caught. They tried to avenge the Eskimo-Indian wars. Another reason they were around was that they wanted to mine for gold.
We were brought up with having to uliqqa. We were always afraid. We couldn't play outside even when the day was long. Before the sun set, the adults always made us return to our summer houses. They didn't want us to shout or holler because they were afraid that would attract the Indians to come close to our house. And right as soon as it got dark, the Indians would kill them and the children that were noisy. Those who didn't watch out or be careful were always killed in those days. Long ago when they fought, people always said, "We are scared all the time." After waking up, people were scared and didn't want us children to be taken by the Indians. When we went berry picking, we took along old people so we could be protected from being hurt by the bears or being taken by those people [ItqixiqIndian]. The old people always followed.
We were raised to that type of life. We had the type of life in which people were always afraid or fighting. How scary! The adults didn't want us to die, and they also didn't want to die. Sometimes all the summer campers were killed. That's why the summer campers in that area went to Kituq's camp in the falltime. When we saw those Indians, my grandfather Kituq always went and talked to them. Kituq was Louie Commack's grandfather, his real [blood] grandfather. His mom was Kituq's daughter.
When fall arrived, we went up the river to the inside part. We always went there to get fresh fish for the winter. When the cold started coming, the sheefish were very good. We tried to get all kinds of fresh fish like whitefish (small sharp-nosed whitefish and big round-nosed whitefish). We also picked berries from there. It was really cold when we seined. In the falltime, we children didn't have time to play. When I was lazy, I didn't want to pull the seining rope. My grandmother would then tie the rope around my waist and make me pull the rope. That was why right now I can pull the seine. I used to tell my grandmother that she would not be able to make me pull the seine any more when I grew up.
We got fresh sheefish, which we didn't bring downriver with us, but we put it into boxes to prevent the bears from eating it. The men didn't like the women to be scared of the bear, so the men would go and get the fish. They even spent the nights where women left the fish. Sometimes the men even caught or killed some bears there. Even though we had seen bears before, the men didn't like us to be scared. When we were going upriver or downriver, we would see them back there on land. They just turned to look at you. They went around the back part of the camp. Although we were scared, they didn't bother us. The adults didn't want us to run away, or make any noise. When adults scolded us, we tried to obey them. The old people, our parents, our uncles, and people like Aqattuluuraq, were stern. They were even afraid themselves, but right now they aren't any more.
We always called the family Iqsiebaich. Kanuaq and some coastal people who were called Sakmalich, such as Ulubaabruk and his family, always ended their trip camping downriver from us on the Paa River. They camped at the Paa at that time when no one went upriver, and before the time people started going to Aqusriubvik. As far as can be remembered, there have always been people at the Paa River. People called them "the people of Paa." The mouth of Sabvaqsibiaq empties into the Paa River. The Paa people lived on the side of the Paa River. They lived about 15 miles away from where we camped. It was further away than 10 miles. When they came upriver, after they went downriver for seal oil, we could hear them. Naatabnaq, uncle of Anausuk [Beatrice Mouse], always came to us immediately. He also brought us seal oil. Everyone realized that the people who went to the coast went there to get seal oil. They took with them dried fish or other things and traded them for seal oil.
When the river froze up or when it was nearly frozen up, people came home. Those who went up the mountains to hunt always had a meeting at the beach of Uqaq. My grandfather and grandmother, those two Indians (they are referred to as Indians even though she is not, only her husband is), stayed there at the end of the Ikpik cliff, Saakijhutaana. Kituq gave those two places [Uqaq and Saakijhutaana] Indian names. Uqaq was the original summer camp of Kituq and his wife.
There at Uqaq, they dug into [the] packs that the men brought back from the mountains. After that, people would spend the winter there. They wanted to spend the winter where they would not be bothered by the Indians any more. The men then went to check their summer camps where their food was. They always went to check on them before it froze up. And while there was no ice in the river, we gathered fresh fish that would be eaten frozen. We all got ready for the coming winter. We ate a lot when the men who went up the mountains came home. When the river froze up, we cleaned our winter houses. Some made new winter houses. Then winter came, and we again spent our time there.
When the ice was sturdy enough, the men always started making mudshark [burbot] traps; they made them to catch mudsharks. We ate the mudshark with other foodtheir fresh livers are delicious. That was how we were raised, and that was our way of life before we were really affected by the white people. That was how the Eskimo people upriver, the ones I grew up with, lived. We also gathered berries, masru [Eskimo potato], and anything else that grew. The men also hunted for bears. When they went to the mountains, they always came home when the river froze up and before it snowed. They always walked by the side of the river. They always put the food away in the cache so that in the wintertime they would be sure to have food to eat. When they wanted the food, they would just go to get it from the cache. That was how we lived.
When winter came, we would catch fish by using fish traps. And then all winter long, we used the snare to catch ptarmigan, and rabbit if there were rabbits around. When the days got longer, suitable for going out, the men went to neighboring areas, past Allakaket to Naataq and then toward Anaktuvuk Pass. They always went hunting for caribou. When they had it, they would eat caribou. They went with the dog sleds, but they didn't take too many dogs. I went with them about three times on a hunting trip like this. One time was with my parents. They always went to this side of Anaktuvuk Pass and also to Barrow because there were no caribou around here at that time. But right now when the caribou start to [come around] here, people do not go any more. They used to go to hunt caribou at places far away.
[The interviewer asked: "Why did they stop having caribou?"] I don't know. The Uqajiq [the word, or a prophecy] said that long ago, and that was how it became. ["Who said that?"] It was said that God or Jesus said that in his Bible, and that was why it became like that. Long ago people had food, but still there were some who starved when there were no caribou. And when there were no ptarmigan and no rabbits, they used to starve. Also when they didn't get enough fish. That was why people worked hard at getting food.
The nets that were used to catch the fish were made of willow bark. We used the bark for salmon nets and other kinds of net. The seining nets were also made by braiding the sinew of caribou or seals. The people who went down the coast to trade got the sinew from the walrus. They tried to get the sinew for making their nets. We had no nylon nets before the white man brought theirs. We also made other nets from threads of cloth that came out. But we were raised with bark or sinew nets for fishing. The sinkers were tied with spruce roots. We also used sinew or skin to tie the sinkers, but they wore out easily. The spruce roots were hard to wear out. We used all these to tie sinkers when we made the net or the seining net.
In the wintertime, women would go to get willows with good bark. They packed them on their backs, carried them home, and then took the bark off and braided it in wintertime. That is what I remember of that type of net. There was then no place to buy things for nets. They had to make them from roots and from things that grow. Pitch was also used for corking. The people worked very hard. Beds were not there, but they had skins for beds, and for parkas; they had skins they had brought back from out there [to the north].
The men who went out there [to the north] brought back caribou or other things they traded with the people from Barrow and Anaktuvuk Pass. The original name for the Anaktuvuk people was Naqsraq. They always called a place with no mountain naqsraq. Those people lived in that area, but when the white people came, they named it Anaktuvuk. The place was named Naqsraq from time immemorial. There were mountain sheep, and people used to stay there. They started staying there, the people of Naqsraq's land. This was a mountain sheep country since time immemorial.
When spring came, we went to the fish camps. But, the people who went downriver to the coast to get seal oil wanted to catch walrus and seals. They would load their boats when the ice was gone. These were the Paa people: Iqsiebaich, my uncle and his family, and the family of Afarraaq. And me, I was raised with a family that didn't go to the coast. When I got bigger, I always wanted to go with Kanuaq and his family, but my grandmother did not like me to go, not even with my uncle Sabliaq and his family, even though they wanted to take me to Allakaket. So I always ended up staying. One time when the people that went to the coast left us, I started wanting to go with Subunuuquufuraq and his family. Even though they did not want me to go, I went. The year 1913 was my first trip downriver to Kotzebue. I was 12 or 13, or maybe I was 16 or 18 years old. I got married when I was 16. I went downriver with Subunuuquufuraq and family. The white man came way before that time, and 1913 was my first trip to the coast.
Kiana in 1909 or 1910 already had white people after they started mining in Klery Creek. We started going downriver, Subunuuquufuraq, his wife, and I. Uliqik and his son also went with Subunuuquufuraq. They were from Laugviik [Kobuk village]. They took their son, Qauliik, to the doctor; his hand had got infected and was swollen. We left them in Kiana and our group left. But a white man joined us. He went downriver. Pafalik and Umilbusuk showed us the way because none of us knew the river. He told us to go through the right side all the way, following the cliff. He told us to go downriver, and when it looked like we passed the cliff, we were to watch for a river. It was the mouth of [the] Ugrivik, and that was our river. Ahead of us were other people who were also going down to Kotzebue. There were Putyugialuk and his family, and Kanuaq and his family. ["Who was Kanuaq?"] Your grandfatherAnausuk's father. Cranes and ducks were flying at the mouth of the Ugrivik. We traveled down the Ugrivik a little distance and then stopped to camp. We started to feel sleepy at the mouth of the Ugrivik for we had been paddling for some time. There was then no law against hunting cranes or anything else.
On this side of the lake, in Allutunittuq, there was a tent. In it were Nasruk and others. Nasruk was the father of Abnauqjugaq. Everyone was warm and comfortable in his tent. Nasruk had a boat made of wood, and he and his wife had sheefish drying outside. ["Where were Nasruk and his wife from?"] They were from the Kobuk and were on their way down to Kotzebue. They told us there were eggs to be found around there, but we did not have time to look for them. We wanted to catch up with those who went ahead of us. Nasruk told us that we would catch up with them on the other side of Qalugaabruk where they were trapped by the still-frozen river ice. There was no opening, the old man said.
We left after we finished eating. The sun was rising. We found that the people who went ahead of us were trapped by the ice on this side of Qalugaabruk. They had pitched up a tent on the river bank and had pulled their boats up. If the ice had jammed them in, I don't know what would happen to them. Someone recognized the danger and therefore decided to camp.
We reached them and camped with them. We did not sleepsimply lay down for a while. Then we all waited for the ice to open up. The wind started blowing, and the ice began to move. It moved very fast and cracked halfway up Tikibayuk. With the river ice in that half-cracked condition, we left, and others left with us. We followed them and boated along the bank all the way down to Kotzebue. It was far. When you traveled all through the sloughs, it was far.
In Kotzebue we set up camps. There were hardly any people, but the stores were already there. Tom Peary was there too. Those who came to hunt seals went to where there were good catches. They went there, those people who came down from the Kobuk. As for us, Subunuuquufuraq let us stay there. He said in a "it didn't matter" attitude that he didn't have to try to hunt seals. That was my first trip down, and that was my first time seeing people from down there. Those who hunted seals at Qallivik had good catches. They also hunted beluga and other sea animals. But then, they wanted to go back to fish. They left the ocean, and I got in [with] Putyugialuk and his family. Subunuuquufuraq and wife went up the Kobuk River, too, but I left with Putyugialuk because I wanted to go with the people that went upriver first.
While in Kotzebue, they wanted me to work for the schoolteachers. I worked for them for a while, washing clothes. They wanted to take me outside [the lower forty-eight states]. I really wanted to go, but when I told Kanuaq and Sailauraabruk's family, Kanuaq did not want me to go. He was afraid that I wouldn't come back home. He was scared of my grandmother. He said if he said yes, but my grandmother said anything else, he would be scared of her. He knew she didn't like me to go anywhere. But I used to stay with them [at Kanuaq's ] since I was small.
We started back upriver again in order to fish in the upper Kobuk. They said, "It always freezes up fast," so we did not want to get caught downriver when it froze up. After the people danced all summer in Kotzebue, the river could freeze up on them. ["What did they do when it froze up on them?"] They went to the Aksik people. The river was easy to freeze. They always spent the winter in Aksik or any place else if the river froze up on them. But sometimes they went by dog sled and went back home up the Kobuk. ["Did they take their dogs when they went downriver?"] Yes. They always went up there. That's the way we lived. But when we went upriver that time, it didn't freeze up on us.
We worked hard, trying to fish. We worked hard. At that time, I was older, and my grandmother used to get sick. We went to the Qala people who put poles in the river and blocked it. They caught fresh fish to be used as frozen fish. Anausuk, people from Paa River, and us went to the Qala people's. That's how we lived when we started living in Laugviik, the present Kobuk village. We went upriver from Laugviik to fish for fresh sheefish, and we put them in boxes. The Indians must have worked hard, too, because like us, they didn't have store-bought food. We started having white man's food when Kotzebue had a store. In Kiana, the store came in around 1909 when Klery Creek opened for mining, and people had money. In 1910 and 1911, even in Isifnaq [Shungnak] people had money.
People started having an easy life when they ate store-bought food or white man's food. I grew up at the time people started to use flour. Because Kuukpak [Yukon River] and Barrow first had white men, people from Kavraqutaq and other places started to get and use flour. People started eating white man's food when white men came in looking for money. But, those of us who lived in the summer camps had nothing. My uncles from both sides of the family liked me. They used to give me a little flour.
I am talking about nothing, but I am talking about things I have not forgotten. I don't want to tell stories. I don't want to miss or skip any part.
Louie Commack was born in the upper Kobuk area and grew up around Ambler and the Hunt River. He has been an active hunter and trapper all his life. His recollections provide descriptions of traditional Kuuvafmiut hunting and fishing techniques.
I am going to talk about the way I was raised on the Kobuk. I was raised in Kobuk village, and also by the headwaters at the end of the Kobuk River. I've traveled as far as Allakaket. Long ago when I was small, my grandmother, Ullaaq, my father's mother, used to always talk about people starving. They had no food, that's how she always talked. In Qala they used to make a living for us. My grandmother, Ullaaq, always fished for us. When I was small, they used to fish, The fishing places were Kigvalluat, Tirravak, and Maniixaq.
Long ago when the weather was bad in the wintertime, and people didn't get any food, they always starved. When days got longer and it was stormy and hard to travel, they always starved. I also was raised at the place called Ivisaappaat [Ambler], and also on the Hunt River. The people before me hunted; they tried to get food so that they could eat. When game got scarce or hard to get, they always suffered on the Kobuk long ago. Even right now when the fish don't go upriver, or when they are slow in coming, the Kobuk peoplethe people of Kobuk, Shungnak, and Ambleralways get hungry.
But now the white people are going to take hold of the place we live. Us older people won't be able to live long on it, but the young people, our grandchildren, nieces and nephews, and our children are going to live off it right now. When things get hard, they are going to have to live off it. I want the land that I know to stay open. There at Maniixaq and Sulukpaugaq are fishing and berry-picking places. People lived off it; when there was no fish or when the berries didn't grow much, that's when they starved.
If the white men take hold of the land, we will really suffer. If our children have no place to hunt, they will suffer. Some of our children can hunt, and they know how to live. In this land they hunt in the spring and fall. From here they go to hunt or fish; they hunt caribou, bear, or anything else eatable.
Long ago, before the contact with the white people, the Kuuvak Ieupiat [Kuuvafmiut] depended on food they hunted and gathered. In wintertime, when days get longer and the weather is stormy and unbearable, traveling becomes difficult [and] there is a possibility of famine. Many Ieupiat are victims of a harsh environment when there is lack of food. During starvation periods, when food is hard to get or out of reach, many people are forced to areas they don't usually go to. There was a family who lived in the mountains near Anaktuvuk Pass; when their father passed away, they moved to the Kobuk area. They fled to safety, to where there was more abundance of game. Their dogs were dying off one by one from lack of food.
There are a lot of situations like these that have scared a lot of my people, but survival was greater. From these experiences of the elders, even though they themselves may have been spared, the stories have been passed on to them from their ancestors as to what happened and can happen when one is hungry. Even if a person literally throws himself away, men travel miles in search of caribou.
The following comments are by Nita Sheldon Towarak, who conducted and translated the interviews:
Even today people suffer when fish are late in coming and the berries do not grow much. That is why village people utilize everything. They don't throw anything away. For instance, caribou: They eat the meat fresh, frozen, or dried. The bones are used for various tools such as scrapers, fish scalers, and handles for ulus or anything else. The stomach is used for a container; the fur is used for clothing, mukluks, or bedding; the heart, liver, and intestines are eaten. Even the hooves are stored away and saved for later use. When food is scarce, the hoof is boiled till the outer black part comes off, and inside there is gelatin substance. Even today, the hooves are sometimes used when making beans. In this present day the villagers are just beginning to use only the choicest part of the caribou. They do not go to the extent of saving sinew for later eating for there is no fear of starvation.
Along with the introductions from the western world came canned food. Although this type of food may be essential, the older people do not feel like they have quite eaten until they have Eskimo food [niqipiaq]. Although today the people may not go to the extent of saving and eating the whole caribou, it is still one of the main foods of the Kuuvafmiut.
People who are not familiar with village life might get the impression that the Eskimos are killing all the animals and catching all the fish. Knowledge of the animals is very important. When hunting, the men look for only the fattest caribou. The skinny ones and the young are left alone. No one shoots a pregnant muskrat; only the head and rear end can be seen when a pregnant muskrat is swimming. A person has to know what weeks, even days, to go out duck-egg hunting. When seining, all fish are not taken; they throw the bruised and small fish back into the water.
Although the elders may not be able to speak English fluently or do not use modern dress, they have what is most important to them: the knowledge of their environment. Their laws might not be written, but they are given in another sense. The taboos that have been passed on work as well as the laws that are written in books for other societies. Their knowledge of weather is also vital to the people. One has to know the conditions of the weather before going out hunting or fishing; otherwise you may never be seen again.
I have learned a great deal from the elders I have talked to in Noorvik. They were sincere and willing to pass on information about the type of life they led and what their parents have told them. Many commented that the young people today are lazy and don't even bother to find out about their past history. I, too, would have neglected to learn and gather the information that soon may be dead. From listening to the people, we learn that life was hard, but they had their identity and sense of usefulness that we young people are losing our grips on. Although old people have traveled miles and labored hours for their food, the looks on their faces when talking about the past life proves how much life meant to them. They are hard workers, knowledgeable, sincere, strong, stern, patient, and wise.
This may not sum up all the qualities of all the long-ago Eskimos, and life may have been hard for them, but they have everything that we don't have. Yes, we have the stores to ease the starvation, movies to keep us from boredom, alcohol to take us away from our problems, running water to save us from many trips to the river, and schools to help us teach one another about the American heritage which sometimes does us no good in the village. But most of all, we still have those people to show us how to fish and hunt and to tell us about our culture if we are only willing to listen.