Snowbow over the Chukchi, to speak to whales, invited to a feast, those who adopted me; unseen angels
The Chukchi Sea on a cold, blustery, day. Wainwright, Alaska. Olgoonik.
In this interview, Rossman and I focused on his past experiences hunting the bowhead whale and, after the International Whaling Commission issued its ban on Eskimo whaling, how he worked with his fellow whale hunters to form the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission and the travels they made to Washington, DC and London and how they ultimately succeeded in proving to the world that the bowhead population was strong and growing and that the whale hunters could capably manage their own hunt.
Rossman also spoke of the strong love he feels for the whales and his appreciation to them for feeding his community. In his days as an active hunter, Rossman would sometimes speak to the whales and he knew they understood him. Iñupiaq ways teach that a whale gives itself to a worthy crew. Rossman recalled one such whale that was giving itself to his crew far, far, far from where the Wainwright hunters had established camp. Rossman told the whale the distance was too far; the hunters could not safely tow the whale back from there; he needed the whale to swim closer to the place where they would land it. Then, towing the float Rossman had attached to it, the whale swam toward the landing site and finished giving itself in a better place.
Coal, on the beach. When Rossman was growing up, the people made good use of their own coal mine not far from the village. When they needed coal for heat, he would hitch up his dogs and go get a sled load. Coal is abundant in the Wainwright area. Wainwright is also becoming a major staging area for Dutch Royal Shell as they search for oil about 90 miles offshore.
Isabel, who greeted me when I stepped back into the village after a walk on the beach.
I was walking down the road toward North Slope Borough Public Works to do an interview when Roy David Ahmaogak pulled up beside me and invited me to come over in the evening for caribou soup. I did. He also gave me some seal oil on the side to dip the meat in. Afterwards, we had salmon berries - akpiks - a mighty fine meal, one not to be had in any restaurant.
Roy's wife Edna hunts, fishes, and gathers berries side-by-side with him. She is also a school teacher and is working on her Master's Degree in reading. Given all the change that has happened in Wainwright and is now accelerating, Edna strongly desires to help the youth of Wainwright to develop improved reading skills. She knows they will need these skills.
They would send me off with a good-sized plastic pail of caribou meat, bowhead uunaalik and a bag of frozen akpiks picked from the Wainwright tundra with some blueberries mixed in to take back to Wasilla.
Roy David and Edna keep their freezer and arctic entry well stocked with the foods they hunt, fish, and gather. One day, they noticed some of that food had disappeared. As is the case all across the Slope, every Iñupiat househouse in Wainwright keeps a VHF radio on. Roy got on his and said that if someone was hungry to just come and ask and the Ahmaogak's would share some food with them.
Yet, more food disappeared. Roy followed the tracks and figured out who was taking it - an individual with a family who had come on hard times. He and Edna filled a couple of boxes with the food of the land and sea and delivered it to the household.
As to the young lady with them...
She is their 12 year-old daughter Jenysa. She shows me a drawing she has made to enter in the art contest for Kivgiq 2013, to be held in February. Yes, I plan to be there.
Good luck, Jenysa!
Jensya also sings Gospel and she sews. Edna told me how, not so long ago, she was in bed when she heard her daughter busy sewing at 2:00 AM. This is the result.
The hand and coffee cup of Mary Ellen Ahmoagak, "Mair." Beginning when she was small, her father, Ben Ahmaogak Sr., took her hunting by dog sled with him. From then until he died, Mair constantly hunted with her father. Mair has harpooned bowheads, fired the shoulder gun and has successfully hunted all the major animals of the Arctic Slope. The story is told in her tattoo.
The symbol inside the bands is that of Iceberg 14, the whaling crew formed by her father, now co-captained by Mair and her nephew, Jason.
In 1995, I was most fortunate to have iceberg 14 take me in and then to be adopted as part of the family by Ben and Florence. Mair always greets me with these words, "Hello Brother!"
"Hello Sister!" I answer.
A few of the Ahmaogak's who took me in: Margaret, Maasak, Ben Jr., Jason, Mary Ellen and husband Bob.
No greater honor has ever come my way.
Some day I will tell the story.
These are the two houses and workshop built and lived in by Ben Ahmaogak and family. It was in the green house that I learned to drink coffee until 2:00 or 3:00 AM and then go right to sleep afterward - probably because of all the seal, caribou, oil, and whale we had consumed.
The house overlooks the Chukchi, which has come closer to it than it was when I stayed here - hence the erosion barriers.
For some reason, when I walked past, a gospel song, sung in English but in the voice of the Iñupiat, came into my head:
Precious memories, unseen angels, sent from somewhere to my soul, how they linger...
I am gone from Wainwright now, but in my mind the song still lingers...
The Chukchi Sea - and not an iceberg in sight. Wainwright, Alaska.