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.
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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!
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.
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.
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.
Welcome to the Arctic! This space is dedicated to observations and experiences related to daily life in the Inupiat Eskimo village of Atqasuk. Questions and comments are invited. Thanks for visiting! Quyanaqpaq!
nuna:tundra, the land atikluk:snow shirt, parka cover
Interested in Inuit culture? Check out these films...
The Fast Runner is an excellent representation of ancient Inuit culture. The R-rating is for nudity, violence, and some language. Subtitles are utilized throughout. I do not recommend this film for children, but it's an extremely accurate portrayal of the culture. It was introduced to me by an Inupiat woman who raved about it. And I agree!
For a preview, click here.
The Snow Walker is another excellent representation of Inuit culture circa 1940's. This film is rated PG, I'm guessing for language. No subtitles that I remember. It starts a little slow, but gets much better. It will leave you with a deeper understanding and appreciation for the survival skills of this culture.
For a preview, click here.
Great For Kids!
Whale Snow by Debby Dahl Edwardson is a warm and culturally sensitive story centered on the Inupiat subsistence tradition of whaling. It is available in both English and Inupiaq translation. The illustrations, by Annie Patterson are exquisite and add to the quiet softness that the story inspires.
To order this title on Amazon.com, click here.
The Alaska Geographic series is an excellent informational resource. The edition entitled North Slope Now deals exclusively with this area and even features relatives of my students. Although it was published in 1989, it is still current enough to provide a general understanding of culture, lifestyle, and issues faced by this northern-most region.
To order this title from Alaska Geographic, click here.
More about Kaktovik Disaster of 2005 (from Dec post, "The Edge")