Whale Bones and Crosses, the Cemetery at Point Hope

Whale Bones & Crosses, Point Hope, Alaska

Perhaps its most iconic landmark, the cemetery at Point Hope, Alaska, is enclosed in Bowhead Whale ribs positioned as one would a picket fence. The above image was made at 2:25 PM, November 7. At that time of year, there are slightly less than six hours between sunrise and sunset. By early December, the sun sinks completely below the horizon and will not show itself again for 32 days.

In 1890, three years after a commercial whaling base called Jabbertown had been established near the village, the first Christian missionary arrived in Point Hope. A doctor by profession, it is reported that John Driggs performed “heroic” medical work, but his attempts at converting the village’s inhabitants to his religious beliefs were unsuccessful. In fact, the Episcopal Church that sponsored him reported that Driggs had become “eccentric and absent” in his duties to proselytize. Nonetheless, by 1910 Christianity had become predominant throughout Arctic Alaska. By this point the new religion had been spread from village to village by converts among the Inupiat themselves.*

*See: The Inupiat and the christianization of Arctic Alaska, Ernest S. Burch, Jr., Etudes/Inuit/Studies,1994

5 thoughts on “Whale Bones and Crosses, the Cemetery at Point Hope

  1. “Eccentric and absent” sounds intriguing, what a pity he didn’t leave a diary. How did you two cope with darkness for 32 days? Must take some getting used to. PS i read this morning that Japan is introducing a departure tax of 1000yen from 2019. Good timing.😉

    • Your comment prompted me to see if Driggs left behind any writing from his time in Point Hope. Short Sketches from Oldest America, a collection of short stories Driggs wrote about that life, is available from a number of sources in both book and free online forms. Although I haven’t read it, Tom Lowenstein’s Ultimate Americans: Point Hope, Alaska, 1826-1909 is reported to provide a detailed history of the transformation and challenges Tikigaq (Point Hope) people went through starting with their first encounter with Anglo-Americans.
      Apparently Japan’s departure tax is to help defray increased infrastructure costs as they prepare to host the 2020 Summer Olympics.

      • Thanks for the historical pointers, I’ll pursue. My Japanese article implied it’s because of the growing tourist hordes invading Kyoto in particular. Probably a bit of both. Definitely good to avoid in 2020!

  2. It is so sad when missionaries convert the indigenous people of the land to Christianity. The native populations then start the downward slide towards losing language and culture. It happened here in Australia, too. A lot of our Aborigines are now trying to research and revive their lost languages and culture. I hope that the native Inuit people are able to use their language and traditional customs.

    • It’s a complex tangle of forces that causes the demise of an historic culture. Coerced adoption of religion is one of those forces, to be sure. In the case of Point Hope Inupiat, children were forced to attend schools in the Anglo-American tradition where they were forbidden from speaking their native language. At least as powerful as these forces is undoubtedly commerce; the dominant economic force often sets cultural norms, and this can happen even when no attempt is made at coercion.
      These days the Point Hope Inupiaq dialect is taught in the school, but only as a pull-out language and without much effect in terms of actually restoring the native language beyond a bit of noun naming. However, traditional art forms such as drumming, dancing, carving and the hand-crafting of umiaq (seal skin whaling boats) are vibrant.

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