Ink and Light: The Bones of Tikigaq and a Tribute to Tatanka Yotanka, Sitting Bull

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Whale Bones and Ruins: Old Tikigaq Village, Point Hope, Alaska

Tikigaq’s sod, driftwood and whalebone igloos (homes) were occupied until the mid-1970’s when the village was abandoned due to erosion from the sea. By this time, some of the houses were wired for electricity. Sigluaks, freezers dug deep in the permafrost at Tikigaq, are still used by the people of nearby Point Hope to store the whale meat they’ve harvested.

If a man loses anything
and goes back and looks carefully for it
he will find it…
Tȟatȟáŋka Íyotȟake (Sitting Bull) – Pine Ridge Reservation Speech, 1883

Tatanka Yotanka (1831-1890) was a Lakota Sioux holy man who earned his place in history through his fierce resistance to white encroachment on Lakota lands. A vision he had seemed to foretell the victory a combined force of Sioux and Cheyenne would have over United States troops led by General Custer at The Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876. In 1880, Tatanka Yotanka was assassinated by Indian Agency Police at Fort Yates on the Standing Rock Agency (reservation) who feared that he would lead an uprising. His remains are buried near his birthplace in Mobridge, South Dakota. A monument marks the site.

Point Hope, Alaska: Traditional Inupiat Dancing and Drumming

The dancers in this short video are 6th grade students at Tikigaq School in Point Hope, Alaska, an Inupiat village 200 miles above the Arctic Circle. They are performing traditional songs and dances, passed down through the generations, sung in their native language.

The annual school Christmas program in Point Hope is a little different than in most communities. Yes, there are seasonally popular songs and carols, but many of them are sung in Inupiaq, the language of the Tikigaqmuit, the Inupiat Eskimo people of this small whaling community on the edge of the Chukchi Sea. There is also lots of drumming, singing and dancing performed according to traditions that extend back in time beyond memory. The drums – which resonate much more loudly than one might suspect them capable of at first glance – are made from material such as the membrane of sea mammal organs stretched over wooden frames. The beautiful mukluks (boots) many of the participants wear are hand sewn from seal, caribou, beaver and other natural materials.

The dances celebrate the past and the present. Aaka Irma (Irma Hunnicutt), who volunteered her time to come to our school and teach the students these dances, has an honored place as an elder in this village. Although the students speak mainly English in their day-to-day lives, these celebrations give them the opportunity to honor their language and heritage. This is a place where traditions are still passed down generation to generation; where some of the clothing and much of the food is still provided by the surrounding land and sea; where traditions are alive and vibrant and honored.

On this occasion, the students and Aaka Irma invited their classroom teacher to dance with them.

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.

Arctic Spring

Hand stitched ugruk (bearded seal) skins cover the wooden ribs of this traditionally-crafted boat as it sits atop a rack in Point Hope, Alaska. With spring officially here (the Vernal Equinox was March 20), whaling season has begun. Whaling crews have been going out to break trail these past few days. This is rough going across the frozen, buckled landscape of the Arctic Ocean. 

Each Arctic day is lengthening by eight minutes, and the sun is shining with perceptible warmth as months of negative double digit cold gradually give way to highs approaching an even zero degrees Fahrenheit. Although the seas continue to be locked up tight, that is how it should be this time of year. Once the trail is broken, the village’s two whaling crews will set up their camps far out on the ice near open water, where, with boats stitched together from the skins of bearded seals at the ready, men dressed in warm, white parkas will wait and watch.

A small skiff seems to await the Chukchi Sea’s thaw.

Last year, three whales gave themselves to the village. That is the way people here say it. Animals are not “killed.” They give themselves, and for a whale to give itself, the hunters’ skill, preparation and worthiness must all come together. Point Hope is one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in the Americas. Perhaps the oldest. Here, the unique interplay of sea and river, hills and tundra bring salmon, char, seabirds, caribou, whales and even berries to the inhabitants. Compared to many other villages, the people of Tikigaq (Crooked Finger – so named for a narrow thrust of land at the tip of the peninsula that long since eroded away) have seldom had to go far for food.

The whales are bowheads, a right whale. These baleen whales may weigh 30 tons or more. Occasionally ivory, slate and jade harpoon heads of old are discovered buried deep in a whale’s blubber, indicating that they have a lifespan of at least 150 years. Although commercial whaling in the 1800’s pushed populations to near extinction, they have gradually recovered and numbers in the Chukchi Sea continue to grow by about 3% each year to over 10,000 currently.

Inuit artist Kenojuak Ashevak’s painting (above) depicts the circle of Arctic seasons. Her painting shows open water for less than half of the year.

When we leave the village in mid-May to spend our summer further south in Alaska, much of the tundra and the Chukchi Sea will still be locked in ice. When we return in mid-August, the tundra will be carpeted in shades of green, some of it already giving way to Autumn’s gold. In high summer, flowers bloom in profusion, but by August, most will be done. Berries – cloudberries, cranberries and crowberries near the village, joined by blueberries further out – will follow. Waves will tumble on the shore as though the ice never existed, and salmon and char will be swimming in the clear-green water.

84 Below

The afternoon winter sun, low on the horizon, backlights an ice-frosted double-paned window on the south side of Tikigaq School.

A few lights from the school and the town peel back the pre-dawn blackness as we begin our short morning walk to school. Steam oozes from nearby buildings–not just from furnace vents, but from every crack and seam, and every molecule of water freezes or vaporizes almost instantly. Brutally cold gusts of wind lift sheets of snow from the ground, at times creating blizzard-like conditions. Our faces begin hurting mere steps from our house. The cold gets in our lungs and makes us cough. Frostbite will nip any exposed skin within five minutes in these conditions.

This is a new cold, a cold we haven’t experienced before. Later in the day, Barbra and I take a cup of near-boiling water outside and slowly pour it out. Most of it turns to steam, vaporizing before it ever hits the ground.

We check NOAA on the computer: 84 below with the windchill.

Sod and Whalebone Home, Tikigaq

This semi-subteranian sod, driftwood and whalebone home was the last such structure to be inhabited in the old village of Tikigaq on Point Hope. It was abandoned in 1975, and by that time was hooked up to electricity. Prior to electricity, these homes were illuminated and heated with seal oil lamps and are reported to have been quite warm. Near the homes, people dug cellars which served as year-round deep freezers.

Caribou, seal, walrus and whale bones are scattered across the grassy tundra, and where people once lived now ground squirrels make their homes. Much of the land that was once inhabited has long since been washed away as generations of winter storms have eroded the peninsula. There have been times when polar bears have used structures in the old village as temporary winter dens. Snowy and short-eared owls, which hunt by day, along with marsh harriers keep the squirrels and voles in check.

Old Tikigaq–The Last Shaman

 

The last of the shamans of Point Hope, a man by the name of Masiin, lived in this house in the now-abandoned village of Tikigaq.

The history of shamans in Inupiat culture is a complex one. At the turn of the century, a man identified in texts as both a shaman and a chief, Atanjauraq, grew wealthy trading with the whale hunters of several nations who had settled near Point Hope in a polyglot village called Jabbertown. The ruins of this village are still discernible, albeit barely, as raised mounds a mile or so east of present day Point Hope. Atanjauraq’s increasing wealth was accompanied by a taste for alcohol. As he grasped for ever more power, he created enemies and ended up murdered by his own people while sleeping off a drunk.

Shaman Masiin, the last shaman of Tikigaq, died of natural causes in 1958. In his book The Things That Were Said of Them: Shaman Stories and Oral Histories of the Tikigaq People, Tom Lowenstein reports this story told by an individual named Asatchag.

“It was 1953, wintertime. My wife invited Masiin to supper. And after we had eaten, the old man told several stories. Then he called me by name and told us he’d been traveling last night. He’d been to Russia. And when he’d flown round for a while, he saw the Russian boss. ‘That’s a bad man,’ said Masiin, ‘so I killed him.’ Next day, at three o’clock–we had a battery radio–I listened at my coffee break. The news announcer said Stalin was dead.”

To add mystery to the above story, it is reported that Masiin did not listen to American radio, and knew no English.