November Light: Old Tikigaq and Project Chariot – 160 Hiroshimas in the Arctic

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November 29, 12:46 p.m.: Framed below a seal skin umiak whaling boat, the sun edged itself above the southern horizon and lingered for just two hours and 24 minutes. On December 7, the sun will stay below the horizon and remain there for 28 days.

In 1958, under the direction of Edward Teller, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) devised a plan to detonate a series of nuclear devices 160 times the force of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. These bombs were to be exploded just 30 miles southwest of the Inupiat village of Point Hope, Alaska. Teller’s plan – if an action so dangerous and misguided can even be called such – was to blast out a harbor in this far north coastline. The United States government didn’t bother to tell the local residents of this scheme. Nor did they take into consideration that the land in question dId not belong to the United States government; it was and still is sovereign Inupiat territory.

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Whale bones mark a sod igloo buried in snow in the ghost town of Old Tikigaq, which was abandoned in the mid 1970’s. Although the sun is only in the sky briefly in November, it is a glorious time of year. This is the November light we have been waiting for.

A caribou hunting party stumbled across AEC engineers and para-military personnel encamped at the mouth of Ogoturuk Creek, near Cape Thompson. That’s when the questions and the lies began.

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Grass silhouetted against the southern sky just before dawn, the frozen sea stretching to the horizon near Point Hope, Alaska.

In the end, Teller’s heartless plan was stopped. The bombs were never detonated. The experiment to determine how much radiation local flora, fauna and humans could survive was never carried out.

This is a story of heroes. There was Howard Rock, the co-founder of the Tundra Times, a highly educated, literate Inupiat leader who wrote the first, insistent letters to the United States government demanding that this plan be immediately halted. There were the white scientists from the University of Fairbanks, Pruitt and Viereck, who raised their voices against the project, and in standing up for the Inupiat people and standing against the government were fired by University President, William Wood, who played a less noble role in this story. There were the millions of citizens in the United States and all over the world who were in the streets, protesting nuclear tests of this kind. And there are the people of Point Hope who stood up to the government then and who are still fighting to force the United States government to tell the whole story of Project Chariot.

Because this story is not over.

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Over time, as erosion steadily ate away the finger of land jutting into the Chukchi Sea, the old town had to be abandoned. This fall, the entire area was inundated with water when high winds and hurricane force gusts pushed sea water over the rock sea wall protecting the north side of the point.

Although Teller lost his bid to detonate the world’s most destructive arms, in what feels like a tit-for-tat payback, under his direction, in secret, another group of engineers and military personnel were dispatched to the Project Chariot site. This time, they spread radioactive waste on the ground and in the stream. And they buried something there. Something in large, sealed drums.

To this day, the United States government has refused to divulge what was buried.

Since that time, the incidence of cancer has been higher than the national norm among the people of Point Hope. Higher than it should be, even taking into consideration other factors. These are some of the best people we’ve ever had the honor to be associated with. Kind, generous, resourceful, resilient, tough. Their government owes them answers.

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Tell-tale tracks leave evidence that an Arctic fox was patrolling Old Tikigaq just before we hiked out. These whale bone jaws located near the airstrip a mile and a half from town welcome visitors to Point Hope. The area around Point Hope is one of the oldest continuously inhabited places in the Americas – maybe the oldest. While many Inupiat (Eskimo) cultures were nomadic, here the animals came to the people. The point of Point Hope formerly extended far to the west out into the Chukchi sea, bringing the land in close proximity to migratory paths of seals, whales, walruses, char, salmon and other fish. Two impressive capes, Thompson to the south, Lisburne to the north, are home to tens of thousands of sea birds. To the east, Point Hope is situated near the migratory route of thousands of caribou. The sea and the land are the garden that has sustained people here for thousands of years.

For more about Project Chariot, see the book The Firecracker Boys by Dan O’Neill. And although it is difficult to obtain a copy, there is an excellent, 73-minute documentary film titled Project Chariot, copyrighted 2013 NSBSD & Naninaaq Productions: UNCIVILIZED FILMS.

Inupiat (Eskimo) Yo-Yo with Polar Bear Fur

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Fashioned from polar bear fur and finished with intricate beading, this Inupiat yo-yo has transcended it’s traditional purpose to become art. Based on a bola design, in olden times tools like this were made of rocks tethered together with sinew and were used to catch birds. 

Beautifully crafted by Molly Oktollik, one of the elders here in the village of Point Hope, Alaska, this Inupiat “yo-yo” isn’t what most of us envision when we hear the word yo-yo. In former times, they were made of rocks held fast on sinew tethers and in the right hands were a formidable tool for catching birds. Ptarmigan, for one species, are often easy to get close to, and ducks and sea birds returning to their headland roosts typically fly in on a low trajectory.

These days yo-yos are crafted as pieces of art, or, when less elaborate, as toys. It takes a certain skill, but the two ends can be made to rotate in opposite directions – that is, with one end revolving around the center handle clockwise, and the other revolving counterclockwise. It’s a pretty cool trick if you can get it to work.

Nose Pressed to Glass

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Sea ice fascinates us. Our village can be seen in the upper left of this photo. At the time of the photo, north winds had blown much of the ice away from the land. The “sticky ice,” the ice which clings to the shore, can usually be relied on to be safe to walk on. Even this sticky ice is subject to the whim of Mother Nature’s strong winds and current. 

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Piles of ice form along pressure points of the frozen surface of the sea. There are many histories of boats navigating too late in the season and becoming stranded or crushed between these pressure points.

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Recently, wind from the south has closed this lead – the open water to the right. The view from our village today is solid ice as far as the eye can see. The villagers are readying their seal skin boats to go whaling. Soon the bowhead migration will begin. When the north wind blows open a lead, the whaling crews of Tikigaq will patrol the open water in hopes of catching animals that are in their Spring migrations. These whales make up a critical part of the subsistence catch in this Inupiat village.

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I’ve recently been reading the book The Firecracker Boys. This true story is about a crazy post WWII idea some engineers and scientists had for using a nuclear bomb to blast a harbor between the peak in the center of this photo and the ridge on the left. This is about 25 miles east of Point Hope. The proposed  H-bomb  was to be 163 times the strength of the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima. Scientists and engineers promised to sculpt the land based on human requirements. It was part marketing (using bombs for good) and part wild scientific experimentation. It’s a shocking and crazy true story!

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Nose pressed to glass, I peered out from the bush plane window as we lifted straight up, like a helicopter, in the 40 m.p.h. north wind. It seemed scary on the ground. With gusts well above 40 m.p.h., the plane arrived, landed on the airstrip and never turned into the usual parking area. I fought my way toward the plane, slipping along the airstrip as if being pushed down by a strong arm. Once in the plane, I felt calm and safe with skilled bush pilots at the controls.

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From the air, the village looks like a patchwork quilt as rooftops peak above a blanket of snow. If the snow and ice were sand, Point Hope could be any beachfront real estate in the world!

Tikigaq School 5th Graders Perform Point Hope Eskimo Dances

The rhythms are played on traditionally-crafted drums; the dances have been passed down from generation to generation. These fifth graders demonstrate that Inupiat traditions are alive and well in Point Hope, Alaska.

With the help of village elder Aaka Irma, my fifth graders and I learned an old Point Hope Eskimo dance that hadn’t been performed in some time. Under the guidance of our Inupiat language teacher, Aana Lane, the students also practiced popular traditional Point Hope dances. The students performed these dances for the Christmas presentation last month to an enthusiastic crowd.

The group of students I have this year is very connected to their culture and heritage, particularly when it comes to dancing. It’s amazing to see every student in the class become so completely engaged in a cultural tradition. During their performance in December, the students captivated the entire audience. The performance culminated with the students inviting one and all to join them on the gym floor in the closing Common Dance – a dance familiar to virtually everyone in our village.

Tikigaq Cemetery

Weathered jawbones of bowhead whales form a fence around the cemetery in Tikigaq, (Point Hope) Alaska).

After four consecutive weeks of daily rain – a precipitation rate almost unheard of in this semi-arid region of the Arctic – we’ve had several days of brilliant sunshine. The past three mornings, the gravel that makes up the ground here in Point Hope has been hard underfoot. Frost. The cloudberries are over, and the frost means it’s time to go pick cranberries. In the old days, the dead were not buried. “The land all around was our graveyard,” I was told by one of the people of the village. But when the missionaries came, they told the people of the village that the dead must be buried. And so this cemetery was created. 

Today while Barbra and I were eating lunch, we saw a snowy owl outside my classroom window. Last week a brown bear – a grizzly – passed by the edge of town. This might be a good weekend to get up early and walk up the beach in hopes of seeing a walrus.

The Bones of a Village

New enough to reveal steel and aluminum nails, old enough to be well-weathered by the Arctic climate, the bones of this seal-skin whaling boat were left behind when Point Hope (Tikigaq) relocated two-and-a-half miles inland in the 1970s. Point Hope is one of the longest continuously inhabited places in North America.

The Inupiaq name for Point Hope Village, Tikigaq (tick-ee-yahk) means index finger and described the way the gravel point once hooked into the Chukchi Sea. Time and tide long ago washed away the crook of the finger, leaving behind a triangular point near enough to deep water that the whales that first drew the Inupiat people here thousands of years ago still swim close to shore. The 2.3 mile hike from the current town out to the point gets a little tough once the road ends and the pea-to-chunk-size gravel begins, but it is well worth the effort. In addition to bowhead and other whales, which are frequently sighted, the collision of currents at the point holds large schools of finger-sized baitfish, which in turn draw flocks of Arctic terns, gulls, murres, puffins, jaegers, guillemots and ducks while various sandpipers patrol the shore. At times, the sea and sky are filled with hundreds–if not thousands–of birds. The small fish also attract roving schools of pink, silver and Chinook salmon and sea-run Dolly Varden which in turn are followed by spotted, common and bearded seals. Walruses show up from time to time as well.

The walk to the point passes through the Old Village, a ghost town of semi-subetranean homes made from sod, whale bone and driftwood as well as more modern, wood and metal houses. It’s fascinating to walk through the Old Village and contemplate what life would have been like up here before electricity, running water, guns and gasoline engines–when the only “grocery stores” were the great herds of caribou 25 or more miles to the east, bowhead whales swimming in the freezing Arctic Ocean, and the various fish, seals, berries and plants gathered in their seasons.

Parki

The Inupiat Eskimos in Shishmaref wear these beautiful coats. Up here, they call them “parkis.” At first glance, they look like brightly colored, thin, pullover-style coats, trimmed in fur. As I have gotten my hands on a few (I have literally petted several), and talked to people, a more interesting coat was revealed.

While it’s true that the outer layer is colorful and sometimes is made of very thin fabric, it is actually only an outer layer. Underneath is a very heavy layer made of animal skin. In many cases, it is spotted seal or caribou. The bottom of the skin is ruffed in a more ornate fur, like beaver. You can see my young model’s parki is ruffed in beaver. The cuffs and hood are also ruffed with fur designed to be attractive and also designed to keep the wind and cold away from the face and hands. I’ve spoken with a few people about different animal furs. It seems wolverine and polar bear are very warm and shield well from the wind and blowing snow. The creation of the parki is definitely women’s work. I understand that some women teach their daughters to pass the skill down and other women take classes that are offered in the community.

(I did get permission from my young friend’s guardian to post her picture. But because of the insanity of the world, that is as much as I will share about her.)