Read my toes

Francis Spufford

  • The Things That Were Said of Them: Shaman Stories and Oral Histories of the Tikigaq People told by Asatchaq, translated by Tukummiq and Tom Lowenstein
    California, 225 pp, £18.95, February 1993, ISBN 0 520 06569 7
  • Ancient Land, Sacred Whale: The Inuit Hunt and its Rituals by Tom Lowenstein
    Bloomsbury, 189 pp, £20.00, April 1993, ISBN 0 7475 1341 4

Seventeenth-century books of Arctic travels contained occasional reports of a kingdom in the far north of the Americas called Estoty: just out of reach over the icy horizon with its wealth, its monarch, its city of copper-roofed houses. Eventually the chimera-collecting eye of Vladimir Nabokov fell on Estoty. The horribly spry cast of Ada live in a Russo-American arcadia of the same name – a suitable metamorphosis of one kind of impossibility into another, perhaps. But the invention of Estoty also testifies to an aspect of European disappointment with the New World.

Alongside the rapacious ambition to discover lost cities of gold, there ran a perpetual, self-defeating desire for encounters with a special sort of other, impossibly defined and therefore never met. These strangers had to be sufficiently like Europeans (in terms of monarchy, street-plans, polite society) to command respect; tough enough to withstand the meeting, as the Incas and the Mexicans had not been; yet at the same time so completely different in their ordering of human experience that the European sense of wonder would be aroused by something as simple as the way they lifted a cup.

This was a paradoxical appetite for similar difference, different sameness; and with its a priori stipulations, this appetite for marvels did not make travellers especially good at noticing the real wonders to hand, at least until a couple of generations after they had vanished. Ufology probably inherits this sense of the insufficient wonderfulness of things as they are, though unexpected shreds of it linger even now in the Euro-American response to the world TV delivers. A touch of El Dorado clings to the discovery that modern Iranian diplomats, alone in all the globe, wear a completely different kind of formal shirt. And if so basic a thing as a shirt is different, then perhaps the streets of Teheran might be copper-roofed, and ... no.

There was no Estoty. There was, however, Tikigaq, a twenty-mile spit of gravel dunes extending into the Bering Strait from the north-west coast of Alaska. Continuously inhabited for two thousand years, it served as the ritual metropolis for the westernmost Inuit. Little was visible above ground except a forest of whale-ivory stakes and tripods, rising, amid a clicking rubble of human and animal bones, from a cluster of hummocks. On a clear winter night at the right vantage point you could see the lit skylights beneath which perhaps eight hundred people were living. (The same number again were distributed around the Tikigaq hinterland, and thought of themselves as Tikigaqmiut, ‘Tikigaq people’.) Complicated entrance tunnels lined with whale ribs joined the earth iglus of families related by blood or clan or ritual affiliation. Each part of the subterranean architecture had symbolic implications, from the passageway to the round entry-hole, to the skylight, to the inevitable oil-lamp, and besides the ordinary dwellings there were six qalgi, larger ritual lodges lined with benching where the men kept sacred puppets, masks and pictures.

Tikigaq was the centre of the world, an exceptional zone that was not quite sea, not quite land. When the sun reappeared in spring its disc was propped against Imnat cliffs fifty miles to the south. But Tikigaq knowledge extended much farther through trade contacts and the memories of hunters. Tobacco reached Tikigaq in the 18th century, not from the lands to the south, but from European Russia, via the Cossacks and the Siberian tribes ‘over there’, ‘on the far side’ of the Strait. Tikigaqmiut could draw accurate freehand maps of the opposing coast. Tikigaq shamans sometimes flew over there to engage in aerial dogfights with their Siberian counterparts. (In 1953, Tikigaq’s very last shaman claimed that he had assassinated Stalin while hovering over the Kremlin.) Like most other material aspects of the surroundings – a cold desert to outsiders, an overflowing plenitude to those who lived there – the Siberian shore was allotted a symbolic Significance. ‘Over there’ counterbalanced ‘over here’ just as land and sea, male and female, sun and moon – a series of tensed, productive couplings. So thickly inscribed with secondary meanings was the Tikigaq world that daily life amounted to an almost continuous ritual performance. ‘Do you realise you are fingering the levers that control eternity?’ asks Auden’s The Orators. Tikigaq did.

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[*] An essay on these issues by Martin Thom, ‘The Poet as Ethnographer’, appears in Poets on Writing, edited by Denise Riley (Macmillan, 1992).