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.

On the subject of his Eskimo identity, Iglaq is intense and eloquent. He knows enough Inupiaq (the language spoken here for more than a millennium) to understand his elders, but can only speak to them in English. His children are monolingual English speakers. ‘Do I sound like a frustrated Eskimo?’ he asks me with a shout of laughter. I suggest that his own disinheritance is an acute version of a condition we share in America and Europe, and which has been imported to countless minority cultures in the Americas. ‘That’s some consolation,’ murmurs Iglaq, without irony. ‘Our old people today aren’t the real old people,’ remarks Aviq, putting boiled seal meat on the table.

It has been painful to see Kunak. The self-confident hunter, Vietnam vet and union electrician often years back stays home now, at his mother’s expense, nagged by mythological dreams. Kunak has three linked fixations. These are that the new town overlies the site of the ancient, pre-Eskimo shaman culture whose ivory masks and ceremonial gear he’s studied from photographs; that if he could get to China, he could pass – as he did in Vietnam – as a native and get behind the wall to discover the origin of Eskimo peoples; the elusive dreams he’s had since the village moved: ‘I’m in an old iglu and a man comes in. And that man’s got some bird spins on the mask-nose when he breathes. I can’t remember what all else there was in that dream that I’m dreaming since we moved up here, but I know I always have that dream since we moved here.’ ‘Kunak’s obsession with the disappearance, fifteen centuries ago, of the pre-Eskimo Ipiutak people and the subsequent rise of his own ancestors’ culture perhaps expresses his displacement from the latter. He’s made a series of visionary drawings that evoke these layers; the figures in them reflect the stress in his own drawn, frozen features.

I visit Qiligniq and his wife Agniin. They gaze at me with astonishment when, after five years away, I materialise without warning. Q. is 85 and in a wheelchair; Agniin is still self-possessed and almost girlish in pigtails and her old print dress. Q. grips my chin with astonishing force and flaps his palm, Jewishly, on the air, growling, barely audible: ‘You young man! Never change!’ Then repeatedly, with joking self-pity: ‘Old man now ... Old man now.’ We sit watching a TV programme about wine-making in the Lambrusco region.

There have been two horrifying murders since I’ve been away. I sit talking to Alice and Charlie, the devout Christian parents of one victim. ‘I knew something was coming two days before,’ Alice says, ‘and I prayed to God, just like I am talking to you. I felt so heavy and tired, I just told Him: “Take all this. I give it up to You.” ’ As the anger and grief seemed to intensify, Alice felt her heart move towards her daughter’s killer, now serving a life-sentence. ‘Right away we went to his parents and we prayed together.’ ‘What does it mean, to forgive him as you do?’ I asked her. I’d last known her daughter’s killer as a merry but physically almost too powerful 17-year old. I still see him in the twilight of my cabin 12 years back, with one enormous hand innocently twirling Kung-fu chaco-sticks round the light bulb and a pile of crackers in the other. ‘God can do anything and God took my hate just like He took my daughter,’ replied Alice.

Grey windy day, white caps off the south shore. An open sleeping-bag wallows on Atanana’s clothes-line. The gravel underfoot is dark from the rain. The chimney clatters. I struggle over to the clinic to have my chest listened to by the health aide. Ten years ago, before she trained as paramedic, she sat despondently at home with a $45 bottle of bootleg whisky. As she reaches into the cabinet for antibiotics, I notice her wedding ring: a dark chunk of fossil ivory inlaid with a spot of jet. She hands me the bottle and I hesitate to take it. ‘You eat these,’ she scolds authoritatively, ‘otherwise they’re gonna carry you out of here with pneumonia.’

From the floor of the city council meeting, Aanauraq says: ‘They’ve spent millions of dollars on new housing and offices – can’t they even build a playground? All I see is kids pakaking’ – rummaging, meddling – ‘with lumber and stones and setting fire to things.’ For the three months of their school vacation, the children roam a primal, amorphous landscape without boundaries, supervision or the pleasure of games. They scramble home at 3 a.m. scavenging for soda-pop and cereal. At two this morning Aviq burned her hand on a match-book her five-year-old boy ignited. The next morning we discover that two thousand gallons of the family’s stove oil have been drained onto the gravel. This is random, not malicious damage, a mega version of pakaking. The guilty party is the seven-year-old adopted (grand)son of Iglaq’s own adoptive mother. Since Iglaq may neither complain to the child’s parents nor punish him – local people almost never intervene beyond the sphere of their immediate family – he quietly assimilates his loss and the subject is dropped.

Aamnigauraq: ‘You live in England? They taken away your culture too?’

Miliq is showing me a remarkable stone mask that his son picked up on the bed of the river about five years ago. It is a grotesque carving, more reminiscent of Dubuffet or Rouault than any local style of the past two millennia. I am studying it with respectful scepticism when Miliq’s son-in-law walks in from his day’s work. ‘You see this before, Walter?’ I ask him. ‘Hands of God first try at man,’ he murmurs, pouring himself coffee.

Tikigaq’s creation story: the Raven Man harpoons a sea beast whose death transforms it to the land we inhabit.

On a sunny day in July 1977, the great white dish at last went into operation and lit up the fifty TV sets that awaited its signal. All that night we followed Charlie’s Angels and Hawaii Five-O in perfect satellite-transmitted resolution. The movie featured – perhaps the spirits of dead shamans were responsible – was Scarecrow. ‘Look how we’ve changed already!’ muttered Mammangina, as her husband, just in from the south shore with walrus blood on his parka, gave up trying to reach his ten-year-old son with a sentence which yesterday would have brought him a prompt glass of water. ‘This is going to balls-up social life,’ said an older man in another household.

‘You go over there,’ says the old man gently. ‘No I go over here,’ replies four-year-old Moses, skidding disobediently round the table. ‘They don’t have ears. Even when you shout at them, these kids can’t listen.’

‘Once there was a boy who disobeyed his grandmother. A old man appeared through the floor of the iglu and the boy against his will was dragged towards him and taken to a dark place underground where there was nothing to eat.’ Children in the past had little choice: they were magnetised into the social pattern and the pattern cohered for the millennium of its existence, modulating itself flexibly to surrounding conditions. The pattern in the kaleidoscope never stops shifting now, and the bits fall around as though constantly shaken by a giant American baby.

Amniq, a self-taught mathematician, sits all day peacefully weaving baleen baskets and carving walrus or mastodon ivory. Five years ago, without my knowing it, he’d tried calling me in Seattle to ask how he could patent a method of adding, based on elevens, which he’d invented. When he’d shown the system to his 90-year-old father, from whom he’s inherited his mandarin serentiy, the old man said ‘You got that from your aana’ – his grandmother, a shaman.

Miliq spent twenty years working as a carpenter in Fairbanks and Anchorage and has recently come home to the village. Before moving south, Miliq used to see a good deal of Masiin, the community’s last shaman, who died in the mid-Fifties. Among the stories he told me, this one is famous among his contemporaries:

‘It was in 1953, winter time. My wife invited Masiin to supper. And after we’d eaten, the old man told stories. Then he called me by name and told us he’d been travelling 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 battery radio – I listened at my coffee break. The news announcer said Stalin was dead.’ Masiin died five years later without ever having learned a word of English.

There’s a lemming story I’d heard many times, but never recorded. ‘That Sunganganga is what we always used to tell when we were children,’ said Tigluk when I asked him to repeat it.

    a little lemming
    igalaam sinaani
 around the iglu skylight
      starts circling
       goes round
    kataktuq igalaamin
  falls from the skylight
       starts crying
         (its cry)
Tulimaata navipalukkikka!’
I think I’ve broken my ribs!

Trickster tales pop up and vanish like the creatures that briefly animate them. With typical Inupiaq doubleness, the tale spins its nonsense round the hub of a symbol: the great life-providing Sun and Moon spirits, whose home was this same village, also circumambulated the iglu skylight, but unlike the lemming, the deities ascended.

An hour after leaving Tigluk, I stand watching Aviq play Scrabble with her cousin, and Tigluk reappears with the cheque I’ve given him. The cheque requires correction and I write another. Tigluk, tall, aged 70, stoops over the table, gaping. ‘You never see Scrabble?’ asks Aviq. ‘I’ve seen it in Barrow,’ he replies in Inupiaq. Then, nudging me with his wrist, he repeats the lemming story, requiring me to follow him against the percussion of gunfire from a TV movie. ‘I never hear that before,’ says Aviq, poised above a triple-letter square with a j. ‘How come you never heard it?’ asks Martha, countering with ‘zero’, ‘that’s a famous story.’ ‘I know that one,’ squeaks Travis, aged five, who will never speak Eskimo, ‘they tell me in school.’ Arrii, exclaims his mother. ‘You beat me to it.’

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences