Monday, October 29, 2007

Puuqtaluk Approaches

As far as I'm concerned, nothing could be more of an Arctic Anomaly than the marriage of an ancient Eskimo amusement with a comparatively contemporary European celebration. Most of us are familiar with the more benign elements of Halloween: painted faces, colorful costumes, and the fevered race for sugary treats. Although the climate of the Far North does present a challenge at times, the Inupiat (young and old) have embraced this holiday with incredible zeal and have even gone a step further by incorporating a traditional game into the festivities.

On Halloween night, after trick-or-treaters have safely stowed their treasures at home, everyone gathers at the community center. The competition that follows is based on an ancient Inuit game that is much older than the earliest memories of any elder. Costumed participants take turns dancing to music each hoping to elicit the most uproarious laughter from the audience. Only the silliest and most absurd dancers win a prize. Although the costumes can be slightly unnerving, the activity isn’t intended to frighten. The night is centered on one of the most cherished of Inupiat values…laughter.

The Inupiaq language dictionary defines Puuqtaluk, quite simply, as the celebration of Halloween. After considerable inquiries on the subject, I am faced with the dissatisfying conclusion that no one really knows how or when Puuqtaluk and Halloween initially tied the knot. But, in spite of its dubious origins, the union does appear to be a happy one.

Since Puuqtaluk is still a couple of days away, I'll share a few photos of Halloween past and follow up with photos of this year's competition later in the week. You'll find that the activities, as well as the smiles, are quite familiar and provide something of a bridge between past and present, old and new, and two cultures that have more in common than one might think.


Click on any photo for a larger image or to see more.

Painted faces can't hide the smiles of these not-so-frightening beauties. Of course, the face paint only stayed on about thirty minutes before they started complaining that it was "itchy" and washed it off. But, it was a lot of fun while it lasted.

Pumpkin carving is a favorite among the activities at school. Pumpkins are flown in a few days prior to Halloween. I wouldn't even venture a guess at what expense. But, as you can see, the boys pictured are having a blast cleaning the slimy "guts" out of their pumpkin. It's hard to nail down exactly how much a great experience is worth.
Pumpkins 1

Most classes save the seeds and bake them with lots of seasoning. It's become a tasty tradition that everyone looks forward to.
Pumpkins 2

Last year, the fifth and sixth grade class made pies with their pumpkins. They proudly shared the pies with the elders who visited at lunch time.
Pumpkin Pies-06

These kindergarten students excitedly display their entry in the pumpkin carving contest. I'm pretty sure their teacher controlled the knife while the students had a good time adding feathers to their creation.
More Sillies

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Something Fun

On my walk home from school yesterday, I noticed two girls on the pond in front of my house. The older girl was a student from my class and the younger was her first grade cousin (my little neighbor & favorite walking buddy). I was really surprised to see that the girls were each sporting a new pair of ice skates. I'd never seen anyone try to ice skate around here, although there is an ice skating rink in Barrow. I took a few pictures of them having fun on the ice. They giggled and squealed as they tried to help one another remain upright. Later, I caught the girls on video as they made their way to the gym for after-school recreation time. Kids seem to have the idea that the pond is some kind of short-cut to the school. I'm not sure that it really is shorter, but there are footprints all along the edge of the ice...a testament to their firmly-held belief.

Here are a few photos...just in case the little video doesn't function as it should. By the time the video was made and the last sunset photo was taken, an ice fog had moved in softening the sunlight into an incredible melding of colors.

Helping Hand 3

Like I said, the little one is my walking buddy. She's cute as a button and could, as they say, talk the hind leg off a mule!

Ice Skating Cousins

This was taken after the ice fog had moved in. Unfortunately, the low-light conditions weren't ideal for my little camera with no settings for such things.

Ice Fog and Sunset

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Just Beneath the Surface

Coal on frozen beach1

When I ventured down to the river a couple of weeks ago, I wasn't completely convinced that the ice was safe to tread upon. But I’d heard that there was lots of fishing going on and I was curious. So when my new friend, Ami, suggested checking it out, I grabbed my camera and my jacket without hesitation. Within minutes, I found myself navigating a precarious path across the crusted river, sugary snow making every step a vertical challenge!

Along the frozen beach, I noticed quite a few chunks (like the one in the photo), pitch black and brittle, obviously different from the surrounding rocks. For me, those ebony pieces are faint reminders that there is more to this tundra village than meets the eye. Back in the 1940’s and on into the 50’s, Atqasuk was the site of a thriving coal mine. Oddly enough, tiny Atqasuk was the supplier for larger villages such as Barrow. Today, other than a few dilapidated structures, there is no outward indication that the mine existed. Only crumbs of coal that make their way down to the river hint at what actually lies below.

Although the coal mine did populate the area for a while, Atqasuk is actually a permanent community for another reason…subsistence. The land was claimed in the 1970’s because it was a valued hunting and fishing camp. The Inupiat, a coastal people, traditionally spent most of their time on the Arctic Ocean hunting whales, seals, and walrus. However, they made seasonal trips inland for trapping, hunting caribou, and freshwater fishing. When the Federal Government pressured the Inupiat to choose the land that they would claim, this area was a cultural treasure they couldn't afford to lose.

It seems like an odd history for such a remote location and I thought about that as I made my way to the various groups huddled around small holes. Ice is an amazing thing. Only a week or so earlier there had been boats on the water. It's doubtful that the fishing nets even had time to dry before they froze. As I watched fish being pulled out, one after another, I marveled at the abundance of the river. Like the coal, it was another reminder not to be fooled by the appearance of things…to look closer and dig deeper and find the treasure that so often lies just beneath the surface.

Click on any photo for a larger image or to see more...

James is taking a break from fishing to warm up his hands and his stomach with some piping hot noodles. His wife, Johanna hand-carried the bowl of noodles all the way from their house! What devotion!

James B- Warming up

While James finished off his lunch, Johanna kept the fish coming in. By the time I took these photos they had already caught about thirty using fish tails and maktak (whale blubber) for bait.

About 5 inches thick

Some of these are white fish. Some are grayling. The white fish and grayling are both scaled fish. I think the white fish have a different shape to their heads, but thrown into a bag like this, I can't really tell them apart.

Fish in the bag

Once it's frozen, the river makes a great highway. And, I might add, it gets a lot of use. You can probably see that by the tire tracks in the snow.

River used as a highway2

Monday, October 15, 2007

About Darkness...

October sunset

I am asked quite often what it's like to live in a place where the definition for day and night can be so skewed. I guess the first thing we should do is set the record straight. There is no line of demarcation with six months of daylight on one side and six months of darkness on the other. Call it myth or misconception, it just doesn't happen that way. The transition from one extreme to the other is much more subtle as we gradually gain or lose sunlight in increments that are somewhat difficult to perceive.

You may have noticed the small black sticker on the sidebar of this blog indicating the time of sunrise and sunset in Atqasuk. Each day we're losing about ten minutes of sunlight. In a few more weeks we'll be saying good-bye to the sun for approximately 60 days. Well, technically, that's true. The sun will no longer rise above the horizon. However, that doesn't mean we won't have any discernible light at all. There will still be some ambient light, though that will eventually decrease as well, until finally the earth has traveled and tilted as far as it's going to. We'll reach our darkest point in late December. Then the process of slowly gaining light will begin.

Although it's only temporary, the darkness can be difficult to handle. For some, the loss of sunlight feels suffocating like a blanket covering the earth....thick and heavy and confining. The latest Buggy Side poll indicates that voters were evenly split. Exactly half thought they would prefer 24 hours of daylight over darkness while the other half expressed that they would feel uncomfortable with too much of either one. That's understandable and I think many Atqasuk residents would agree. Dealing with darkness can be tricky. Sometimes I'm not as aware of that as I should be.

There are some things that can only be experienced in the dark and I tend to be happy with the trade off. Winter is the only time (up here) that fireworks make any sense. Although the Northern Lights aren't confined to the darker months, excessive sunlight makes them impossible to see at other times of the year. And who would want to live in a land without stars? By summer's end, I'm ready, even anxious, for that time of year when some of the most spectacular mysteries of the universe are clearly visible from my bedroom window. Darkness does have a bright side.

Sometimes, I must admit, I don't even notice whether it's light or dark. Maybe it's adaptability or just being overextended. My days tend to revolve around the busyness of school and it's easy to function within the insulated cocoon of my classroom, unaffected by the sun (or lack of it) outside. But, sometimes, it really does feel, well...extreme. Wearing sunglasses at 3 am? How crazy is that? Breakfast, lunch, and dinner in the dark? How bizarre! Without the natural designation of what is day and what is night the order of things can get really turned around.

In Atqasuk, it is often said, that people have their days "upside-down." It sounds funny, but it's an easy thing to do. So much to do with time is artificial. Measuring and scheduling the moments is a purely human preoccupation. Without the aid of any calendar, the earth continues on its path, governed by its own rhythm, without much consideration for our conventions. Long ago, before any of us were here, the Inupiat understood that better. Like many Native people, they lived in closer union with the earth. Their lives were framed by the seasons. They worked with the earth's rhythm instead of around it. It might have been what we now consider a primitive exsistence, but it certainly made sense in the greater scheme of things. On these dark, frigid, mornings, as I wake to the tenacious yapping of the alarm clock beside my bed, I have to wonder if progress is really so progressive after all.


Believe it or not these boys are riding their bikes on the frozen pond in front of my house! You can see that the October sun is hanging low in the sky. A few more weeks and it won't emerge above the horizon again until the end of January.
On frozen pond

I happened upon this cutie at the post office one windy day. As you can see, she was very well prepared for the weather! We've been experiencing lots of wind for the past couple of weeks...anywhere between 20 and 40 mph.
Prepared for a windy day

Sunday, October 14, 2007

A Departure of Sorts

This posting isn't directly related to Atqasuk or the Arctic. It's more of an FYI statement or explanation for a link that I've added to my blog called PostSecret. I have been slightly torn about whether or not to leave it there. I stumbled across this blog a few days ago, checked it out, and was intrigued. I linked it thinking that some of you might find it interesting as well. Then I began to wonder if the content might be too offensive to share. It's built around (as far as I can tell) uncensored reader response. I guess what I'm saying is that it can be rough or, at the very least, extremely edgy. But, after reading more about the origins of the blog and subsequent publications, I've decided to keep the link and let you decide for yourselves. The posting changes on Sundays, so if you don't like what you see today, try it again next week. It might be better. I'm not vouching for the content. In fact, I find myself having a hard time with some of it, but it has made me think. And that, in my book, is reason enough for consideration.

The premise is that readers anonymously share their secrets either by hand-made postcard or recorded message. Some of the secrets are actually inspiring. Some are lighthearted and funny. Some are decidedly not. At first, I will admit, I was slightly startled by what I read and heard. Some entries were pointedly crude while others seemed a little sad and rather dark. But, as I researched further, I found that the very act of sharing their secret was often very liberating for some people. The anonymity created a safe place for them to open up (often for the first time) and share things they'd kept buried for years.

The author of the blog began compiling the secrets and has just published his fourth edition of PostSecret collections. He tours the country doing talks and displays some of the pieces as an art exhibit. The experiences he relates are often astounding. In short, I changed my mind. What I had judged as a mass of negativity seems to have become a cathartic activity which, for many, leads to real healing.

As we move toward the winter season, I have been thinking about the implications of it feels and the effect that it can have on people's emotions. Darkness can be like a shroud, concealing things that are truly frightening. So often we fear it or dread it or simply ignore it altogether. For me, it's helpful to remember that the sun will return. The earth will warm, the snow will melt, and everything that is asleep will awaken with freshness and new life. Some people, though, don't have that hope--yet.

In its own way, it seems, that PostSecret has given people an opportunity to face the darkness within themselves. It's given them a venue for shouting at the terrible things that lurk in the shadows and pointed them toward the warming rays of freedom. What a noble thing for a simple blog to have accomplished, even if by accident. Some of you may already be familiar with PostSecret. It's been around for several years. Again, I'm not endorsing...just explaining why I've linked least for now. Check it out for yourself and see what you think.

Here are a few samples taken from the website. The descriptions and author statement found there are helpful in understanding what the phenomenon is all about.

PostSecret Book1







Tuesday, October 9, 2007

What's In A Name?

One only has to view the birth announcements in the Arctic Sounder (see related links) to discover that naming a child is taken pretty seriously around here. On the North Slope, children are often endowed with multiple names, as many as four or five. It is common practice to name a new baby after a dear or departed relative (or three). In that way, the memory of the loved one is honored throughout the lifetime of the namesake. Children will, without provocation, enthusiastically recite the long list of relatives for whom they were named which, I must admit, can be a fairly impressive feat.

Not long after I moved to Atqasuk, people began to ask me what my Eskimo name would be. My Eskimo name? The question caught me slightly by surprise. I hadn't considered the possibility of choosing a Native name, but after thinking about it, I kind of liked the idea. From that point on, I began paying closer attention to the proper names and common words that were spoken each day within my hearing. I'd repeat one every now and then, trying it on for size. Like shoes, an ill-fitting word can be a little painful to break in.

Inupiaq is an interesting language, but there's nothing easy about it. There are only three vowels (a, u, and i). That seems simple enough. Unfortunately, there are several unusual consonants whose pronunciations wreak havoc with my awkward, mostly English-speaking tongue. They bounce around in my mouth like a size 7 foot in a size 13 shoe! There are four variations of the letter "l" as well as two types of "g" (remember, the one with the dot?). There are three types of "n" and one of those, get this, has a tail! On top of all that, each of the vowels can be doubled (as in, uunaalik) making for some unexpected syllables, to say the least. After a good bit of trying on, my interest in finding a name that I could actually pronounce began to wane.

Then something unexpected happened. The elders of the village have a standing invitation to eat lunch with the students in our school. One day, an elder that I knew fairly well mentioned to me that my name, Kimberlee, reminded him of the Inupiaq word, kimaliuraq. He explained that a kimaliuraq was a little knife, an ulu, smaller than regular ulus. It was designed to fit a woman's hand more comfortably and to be more precise, an important trait for working with skins. From that day on, without hesitation, that was the name he called me...Kimaliuraq.

I don't think the elder had considered the implications of the name he'd given me. I'm sure the sound of my English name simply connected with his native tongue, creating a natural association. But, regardless of how it came about, I have grown to appreciate that association. To be connected with a tool that is sharp and strong, useful and versatile, fitting just right in the palm of a skillful hand. There's just something inspiring about that. I think it's a name that I'd like to live up to. After all my shopping and trying on, my Eskimo name just sort of landed in my lap. Thankfully, though, I couldn't have asked for a more excellent fit.

The small ulu at the top is the kimaliuraq (about 2 1/2 x 4 inches). The one on the bottom is the average size for an ulu (about 5 x 7 inches). These ulus were all made by Natives of the North Slope. The Ulu Factory in Anchorage commercially manufactures a wide variety of ulus that can be ordered/shipped (see related links).

The handle of this kimaliuraq is made of caribou antler.

Meet Mr. Nayukok, another elder in the village. He made the kimaliuraq as well as the larger ulu in these photos. Here you see him holding a decorative ulu (not for use) crafted from whale baleen. The handle is walrus ivory. Notice his mukluks (boots). They are hand-made predominantly of seal skin. They are really very impressive in person.
Elder Nayukok

Another one of Mr. Nayukok's ulus. This one has a walrus ivory handle as well.
Walrus Ivory Handle

This ulu was made by my friend Gail's brother, Leonard Felder, who lives in Barrow. I like the way he mounts the handles on a post. This handle is made from whale bone. He puts a thick layer of sealant on the bone which is good because whale bone smells a lot like cod liver oil...very fishy.
Whale Bone Handle2

Thursday, October 4, 2007

And the Winner Is...

Only a few brave souls dared to cast their vote in the traditional Eskimo foods poll., to be exact. Now the poll is closed. The opportunity has passed. No more clicks will be accepted. I can almost hear an audible sigh of disappointment out there in cyberspace. Okay, I'm kidding about the audible sigh thing.

I must admit, though, in all seriousness, I was somewhat surprised by the outcome of the poll. I truly expected that frozen maktak would be the hands-down favorite. And I was really surprised that anyone ventured a vote for mikigaq. Come on, fermented whale meat? I didn't think that would even receive a nod. Apparently, there is a small, underground faction out there in support of fermentation. Hmm.

It's obvious that I am rather out-of-touch with public sentiment regarding culinary preferences because the overwhelming winner turned out to be...uunaalik! Boiled whale blubber beat out the frozen variety and even eked past the fermented meat/blubber combination. I guess that shouldn't be so surprising. Clearly, the fact that uunaalik is actually cooked appealed to more voters. In fact, students polled in my classroom designated uunaalik as their unanimous favorite as well. And they've actually eaten it!

When I asked one vocal student why she liked uunaalik the best, she replied rather matter-of-factly, "Because. It's the bomb."


Uunaalik is the bomb.

I really don't think I knew that.

Unfortunately, I don't have photos of uunaalik. So, I'll share some photos of maktak...the frozen stuff that nobody voted for. These were taken during a community feast a few years ago.

Box of Maktak

Some of you may already be familiar with the knife that is being used to cut the maktak. In Inupiat culture it is called an ulu. I'll probably share a little more about ulus in a later post. I have a special connection with this little utensil that I'd like to explain.

Cutting Maktak with Ulu

In my mind, this event qualifies as an arctic anomaly. It's a maktak-eating contest! Every year, in the spring, our school hosts an Inupiat celebration. This contest is one of the most popular events of the day. These are parents competing for the honor of being the supreme maktak eater. As you can see, there weren't enough ulus to go around.

Maktak eating contest3

These contestants are high school students. Yes, they cut the maktak for themselves. Although all Inupiat children are accustomed to using ulus on a daily basis, the younger students compete by eating pre-cut slices. It's safer and it ensures that the contest can be completed within the confines of a regular school day (the little ones are slow at cutting).

Maktak eating contest2

Monday, October 1, 2007

What A Difference A Day Makes!

Well, maybe not just one day....three or four days, at least. All those beautiful autumn colors have been silently replaced by a thin veil of fluffy white nutagaq (freshly fallen snow). There should be a dot over the "g" in nutagaq, but if there's a way to do that on this program...I don't know about it yet. So, for those fluent Inupiaq speakers/readers who noticed the naked "g," please forgive the omission!

The first real snow of the year tends to make everyone frisky. There is a freshness about the way nature wipes the slate clean that is tangible and exciting. Thoughts of snow fights and sledding and building snow tunnels quicken the pulse and add a glint to even the elders' eyes. Snow machines that have been lying dormant throughout the summer months are gassed up, oiled up, and fired up. We don't yet have enough snow for the snow machines (snow mobiles) to be in full force, but it won't be much longer. For now, Hondas (any brand of four-wheeler) are the vehicle of choice. But soon, wind and colder temperatures will send the Hondas into winter storage...usually a nice blanket of snow that keeps getting thicker and thicker and thicker.

This isn't really winter yet. This is that difficult-to-define time of year when autumn and winter seem content to lace their fingers and walk together for a while. As the earth shifts and the sun slips out of sight, winter will have the upper hand soon enough.

(Click on photo for larger image or to see more.)

Autumn's cranberries, left behind, are kept in a natural freezer! Parka squirrels and caribou will continue to nibble them for a while, but the rest will become a part of the tundra, possibly seeding the ground for next year.
Frozen Berries3

A cool way to arrive at school, huh?
Arriving at school

If you look closely and turn your head just right you can see my dog Rudy walking down by the Meade River. You can see that ice is already beginning to form along the edge of the river. Believe it or not, in a few weeks the ice will be thick enough for ice fishing!

Rudy by the River

This is the pond in front of my house. I took this photo a few days ago when there was still some open water. It's pretty much frozen over now. I'm told that it's only about ten or twelve feet deep. So, during the winter it freezes solid...all the way to the bottom! The ice buckles and cracks and makes some really frightening noises. It's a great place to walk my dogs because it's relatively flat and easy to walk on once it's covered with packed snow. At this point, it's frozen, but I don't really trust it. My dogs walked on it yesterday, but I kept waiting for one of them to get a surprisingly cold bath!

Pond in Front1

This photo was taken a day or two after the one above. The bumpy, uneven mounds of ice that you see on the surface of the pond is the ridge line that formed as the wind blew water up and over the already frozen ice and then that water froze as well. In a few weeks the ridge will be covered over with snow and almost impossible to see. I have been walking my dogs on this pond for a few years and have tripped over that buried ice ridge more than a few times. This is the first time that I actually got to see if form. I'd like to think that I'll remember it's there this year. I guess we'll see.