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.

Its people took pride in playing faster and looser with taboo than other Inuit dared. Elsewhere in the Arctic land-foods and sea-foods were kept apart as strenuously as meat and milk in a kosher kitchen: Tikigaq kebabed them together on set occasions for extra symbolic leverage, in accordance with the town’s confident assessment of itself. Inupiaq, the term both for the regional language and the ethnic branch who spoke it, came from Inuk, ‘person’ (Inuit already meant ‘the people’) and piaq, meaning ‘true’ or ‘genuine’. The Tikigaqmiut would have you know that they were the real people. The uncompromising demands their ecological niche placed on them had led them to develop a mixed coqms of knowledge, historical and practical, religious and technical. What it was necessary to know shaded over into what was worth knowing. This same sense of measurement by a single, sufficient standard was shared across the Arctic: far away in Greenland, it lay behind the remark by an Inuit that only one explorer in his memory – the black American, Matthew Henson – ‘could speak our language without using his tongue like a baby’. Tom Lowenstein calls the Tikigaqmiut ‘nationalistic’. Despite the absence in Tikigaq of every structure and institution that compose a nation in the European sense, it seems the right word for historic Tikigaq’s intense approving awareness of itself.

Lowenstein arrived in Tikigaq (a.k.a. Point Hope) in the Seventies. Though intrusion from the West came later to the settlement than to almost any other point along the circumpolar band of Inuit cultures, collapse was assured from the 1850s when American ships began to work the lucrative waters of the Strait, destroying, along with the whale-stocks, the health of the intricate Tikigaq whale-hunt. The population slumped, and a vicious local strongman named Atannauraq used shamanism and a monopoly trading position to impose a reign of terror. After Atannauraq’s murder, a Christian medical mission brought some stability to Tikigaq life, but at the cost of separating the modern Christianised Tikigaqmiut from the imaginative world of their forbears. Shamanism now seemed devilish; the whole complex structure of its rituals aroused a sense of shame which lay across their past like a psychological barrier.

The Tikigaq Lowenstein saw was an under-populated village of wooden houses, with a school and an incinerator. But, remarkably, he was in time to act as auditor to Asatchaq, a peremptory, formidable old man who had systematically memorised all he could of Tikigaq’s traditional learning. He wanted his talk to be recorded, hoping rather sadly that some powerful outside agency could arrange for the lost pattern of things to return; an outside auditor would also be free of the fear he inspired among his own people. Tikigaqmiut twenty and thirty and forty years younger than Asatchaq (b. 1891) felt mingled awe and alarm: the modern Inuit youth of Alaska, often monoglot English-speakers, had a sense of the pre-contact past as a legendary golden age, but were all the less connected to the specifics of the culture. Against this Lowenstein could offer an outsider’s attentiveness. He also had an outsider’s humility in the face of a history that wasn’t his own. ‘I got on well with Asatchaq – indeed, we grew to love each other – partly because it was in my interest that he should maintain his pre-eminence, and whether it involved recording his memories or emptying his wastepot, I did what he told me.’

The old man’s stories, delivered after much mental preparation in a sombre conversational monotone, reveal a people fascinated by blubber, shit and toes.Whale-fat, Tikigaq’s fuel and food source, is an understandable obsession. At the beginning of the world the first grandmother made Raven Man from blubber-lamp sediment. Unctuous or crispy, raw or cooked, eaten or ignited, blubber stuck to Tikigaq ever after: a primal material. Excrement’s special place is anthropologically familiar – the body’s outflow, food’s final form – though Tikigaq’s rules for dealing with it are definitely angled away from the usual ones. Hunters took a ritual bath in urine once a year, and Anaq (‘Shit’) was a given name that struck no one as funny or insulting. A famous shaman passed a magical test by smearing a whalebone wedge with excrement before striking it. The comic tales of Kinnaq, mythic klutz and failed seducer, show woman after woman escaping from his kayak with the unanswerable cry of ‘I want to have a shit!’ This wasn’t offensive in itself. On the other hand, Raven Man forced himself on an uiluaqtaq (‘woman who won’t get married’) at the dawn of creation by slipping a defrosted turd into her sleeping bag, and threatening her with social exposure when she woke up sticky. This, in Tikigaq’s equivalent to Genesis. In the other of the two paired origin stories a sister raped by her brother presents him with her breasts chopped up small in a grue of blood and shit, a potful of ultimate reproach.

The role of toes is harder to fathom. The whalebone-wedge-smiting shaman drove off two ghosts by toe-menace. ‘What do your toes eat?’ ask the spirits, eyeing them nervously as they wiggle through the holes in Ukunniq’s boots. ‘People,’ he replies darkly; ‘they eat people.’ Perhaps the magic power of toes has Something to do with the ‘joint-spirits’, little supernumerary souls inhabiting human elbows and knees who might be expected to cluster in the delicate complexity of the metatarsal bones; but here no footnote wiggles helpfully.

Menace is commoner than solace in Asatchaq’s myths and histories. Tikigaq was a hunting economy, dependent on killing; Tikigaq’s culture accepted into its weave blood-feuds, gang rapes and invasions. You would have to be very blindly attached to a Rousseauesque vision of ‘Eskimo’ life to think of Tikigaq as a peaceable kingdom, serene amid the snows. Yet wonder is omnipresent in Asatchaq’s narrations. They span the whole of Tikigaq’s existence, from the ur-time ‘when people were animals and animals were people’ through to the events of his own life, and they are bewildering in their dense familiarity with the mysterious. You read them always conscious of the daily life absent from them. They are complete in themselves; and they suppose the coherence of the overflowing world they deal with in passing – suns and moons and marmots, caribou and shamanic flights, snow buntings and blood and toes.

The Things That Were Said of Them is an academic work of record. Lowenstein’s notes and commentaries tease out the stories ethnologically, and supplementary contributions from other informants (and previous anthropologists) are slotted into the structure. But two projects, not one, were launched by Lowenstein’s sessions with Asatchaq. Widely overlapping with the first book as far as its materials are concerned, Ancient Land, Sacred Whale has a quite different intention and impact. It is a dazzling work of mimesis; it aims to enact the coherence of Tikigaq by tracing a year in the pre-contact life of the settlement. Seen beside the meticulously governed translations of the first book, the high risks of the strategy are obvious. The practical ones, for a start. Even with a surgical selection of those myths and practices most directly concerned with the whale hunt, Lowenstein still has an enormous amount of material to marshal; to tamp into place in the reader’s mind so that, as autumn succeeds summer and the drumming begins in the qalgis, what you need to know lies ready exactly when you need to know it. The book is also a vision, an interpretation of the irrecoverable, which necessarily sacrifices anthropological caution.

The question of Lowenstein’s poetic aptness to the Tikigaq-ish task arises. Asatchaq’s opening narratives in The Things That Were Said of Them are set by Lowenstein in ‘lines which roughly follow units of meaning and rhythm’, in order to distinguish them from the subsequent ancestor-stories; he warns that though they ‘look like poetry, they are poems only in the sense that their originals belong to the world of shamanistic imagination.’ Much of Ancient Land is narrative poetry proper: does this make Lowenstein a shaman himself? The book alternates explanations in exact, economic prose with short-lined ‘storytelling’ by two fictive Tikigaq narrators and with longer-paced cantos of direct action.

It isn’t clear that Western poetics provide the appropriate ground on which to reconcile this necessary diversity of voices. In particular there looms the danger of a Modernist appropriation of a remote culture, of the kind which tells you far more about a literary programme than about the faraway object of scrutiny. Pound pounced on ideograms and Charles Olson seized Mayan glyphs as wished-for evidences of concrete, unalienated writing: language apparently conducted so that the sign itself for flint was rocky, and comb sprouted visual teeth. Both men can be counted as ancestral influences in Lowenstein’s own poetry.[*] There could be, so to speak, a contest of ancestors in Ancient Land: between Modernist sages urging Lowenstein to choose Tikigaq for a distant mirror, and the shamanic ghosts for whom Tikigaq cannot be selected as a mere potential subject, because it is/was the world. In fact the local imperatives have won hands down. Knowingly intermediate in the sensibility he brings to bear on Tikigaq, Lowenstein conducts his language with what seems a pervasive deference to Tikigaq’s own rules.

The past Lowenstein restores is no dreamtime, no pristine origin. Historic Tikigaqmiut already thought of themselves as latecomers, occupying a subordinate place in a temporal scheme of great particularity. Playing always against the chaotic, circumstantial happenings of the moment there stood the archaic example of Tikigaq’s first people. The whale-hunter now strove to reproduce, imperfectly, the way that Raven Man had harpooned the first whale, which became the Tikigaq peninsula. Memory would preserve the names of present people in uqaluktuaq (ancestor stories, ‘the things that were said of them’) for a customary five generations before oblivion intervened; but the primordial stories would remain, would still be going on. And since those oldest ancestors had spoken and behaved exactly in the same tenor as current Tikigaqmiut – slipping turds into sleeping bags without a whit of divine reserve – communion with them was continuous.

Tikigaq ritual utterance was extremely practical. It had a directness of function which puts to shame more rhetorical or stylistic directness. When the umialiks, the skin-boat captains, wanted to ensure a catch next spring, they assembled in the qalgis on the ‘day of calling’.

They called Suluk, and he answered:
‘I want to kill a whale! Right now!’
They called
Kunuyaq and he said:
‘I want to kill a whale! Right now!’

The elaborate ritual of the hunt had its basis in the universal symbolic relevance of Tikigaq’s surroundings and every material aspect of the hunt, and of quotidian Tikigaq life, required alignment. Lowenstein is metaphorically abstemious; his lines are poised, denotative, built on careful nouns. What may seem to be metaphors –

Their words are soot.
They tattoo the cosmos

– turn out to figure accepted connections between things. Metaphor is hardly necessary, because the busy parts of Tikigaq’s world already have a far closer relation to each other than mere similarity. An identity is being revealed, not a comparison asserted. The soot that is scattered by Raven Man’s argument with Peregrine is the same as the darkness in the bag of aboriginal night that he stole earlier in the story; it recalls the soot (burnt blubber soot, of course) which the raped sun-sister smeared on the face of her rapist moon-brother; it is visible every day in historic Tikigaq in the form of face tattoos on Tikigaq women, made by rubbing soot into cuts. Thanks to this webwork of affiliations – into which, Lowenstein explains, every newborn Tikigaqmiut was inducted, even down to membership in one of two symbolic football teams – Lowenstein can deploy the terse, imagistic conjunctions of his own poetic without cultural rupture or opportunism.

From a Eucharist to a World Cup single, ritual depends on repeated action. At the same time, a living and rooted ritual can accommodate a degree of error and imperfect performance. Consensual ritual – unlike, say, a coronation service in Westminster Abbey – is implicitly fault-tolerant. It must be if it is to do its work as valuable praxis, reconciling ideal theory and inconvenient reality through a more-or-less set form. Lowenstein heard Asatchaq falter unworriedly when telling stories in 1975: forget a name, insert an irrelevant joke, suddenly demand his supper. None of this detracted from the authority of the telling. In Ancient Land Lowenstein remembers to have his fictive speakers forget as often – a principle that helps ensure the dramatic success of the book’s climax, the long-prepared whale hunt. This sample year’s hunt incorporates an ordinary friction between plan and circumstances. The skin-boat’s crew keep their cosmos coherent from moment to moment, as inexperience strands them in an ice-locked pond; as a youngster who may only be an idle phoney claims shamanic exemption from the work; as a murder in another boat complicates the proper division of the kill. Despite and because of this, the grandeur of the hunt is complete and unforced. Sweat and metaphysics go together. To the hunters, what they do touches the whole structure of the world: Moby Dick, annually. To the reader, the hunt confirms Lowen-stein’s extraordinary achievement in focusing and re-composing the mysteries of his source material.

The kill achieved, everyone rejoices. Even the whale is pleased once its severed head has been dropped ceremoniously into the deep.

The whale’s soul escapes.
It returns to its country ...
It will find a new parka.

So ought we to be happy. Tom Lowenstein has harpooned Tikigaq from the edge of the feasible, using a composite weapon. Its sharp head is Inuit; the other braced pieces, which remain in his hand, he brought with him from afar. Two inflated floats named Ezra and Charles buoy up the catch on the water, turning slightly to show precepts etched in soot. He sends a runner to his publisher. She is happy. Soon the text will be distributed generously to book-shops. She is very happy. She has not stood on Bloomsbury’s rooftop in vain, holding up her qattaq garnished with typewriter ribbons and royalty statements, crying ‘Ui! Ui! I want to publish a good book! About the Inuit! Right now!’

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