Last summer I returned to the Eskimo village in Alaska where, off and on, I have been recording traditional stories and oral histories since 1973. Here, on a remote peninsula jutting thirty miles into the sea, a whale-hunting community with a vast repertoire of ceremonial and lore has subsisted since the seventh century. Commercial whalers plying the Alaskan coast in the mid-19th century were the first outsiders to disturb this high Arctic society. Since the oil-boom of the mid-Seventies there have been explosive changes. In the summer of 1975, the village moved two miles east to avoid flooding. To accommodate both the fragile little houses of that period and future development, the beach-ridges and tundra of the ‘new town site’ were bulldozed to create a flat, undifferentiated plane of gravel. This site also had an ancient history. It partially covered the burial ground of a pre-Eskimo society which vanished around 500 AD. The ‘old town’, with its 18th and 19th-century earth-iglu mounds and whale bone monuments, was abandoned to the owls and foxes.
The tiny village I first knew fifteen years ago has been transformed into a small American town. Sixty new prefabricated tract houses, a vast school, clinic, fire-station, town hall and other institutional buildings are connected by a grid of crumbling metal roads; the rest is a grey desert of gravel, slow and unpleasant underfoot in the perpetual wind. For the old people and children who don’t ride three-wheeled Hondas or drive pick-ups, a bus roams the village. On the bus one afternoon an old woman looking through the window screamed joyfully: ‘Look there’s some grass!’
‘We were happy down there. We were free.’ She nods in the direction of the old town. Agnaugaq is not just talking of the old site, but of a time when survival was still dependent on luck and risk. ‘Now if we want to eat and keep our houses, we gotta work.’ Work involves form-filling, social-security numbers, union dues and anxious relationships with tax officials in the ‘lower 48’ and the native bureaucracy three hundred miles north. ‘The mayor always promises jobs, but then he loses his.’ In the past people didn’t have to substantiate their identity on forms or prove their eligibility for subsistence: they lived simply by intelligence and effort; life was shorter but it was autonomous.
‘You need some trade to be an Eskimo these days,’ said Iglaq, 35, a heavy-machine operator, ex-village mayor, seal and polar-bear hunter. Unlike most people in the village who struggle to keep up payments to the local borough for their new tract homes, Iglaq built his own. All summer he’s worked building a road to the freshwater ponds south-east of the village. His salary plus overtime will pay for massive stove-oil bills, boots, clothes, gas for the skiddoo and hunting gear. When the sea freezes in November Iglaq will go seal hunting. ‘We’ve lost so much culture, I can only be an Eskimo by hunting. I can’t go to old people and ask them questions like you do: my culture won’t allow it.’ Iglaq’s is the first generation to feel, or at least express, the anger of its alienation. In the space between his grandparents’ culture and the contemporary in-flow from America, Iglaq turns his mind to the animals. At least the animals don’t change.