A Place Called Kaktovik

Norman Chance

The following presentation describes a trip to the North Slope of Alaska in June of 1958. It also serves as a resource for the case study: "Who Are You? What do you Want?" found in the History and Culture section of Arctic Circle's Virtual Classroom.

To those residents of Kaktovik and Barrow who shared their life with me in the 1950s and early 60s - Harold and Mae Kavelook; the Akootckook's: Daniel, George, Isaac and Mary, Thomas and Myrtle; Archie Brower; Fred and Dorothy Gordon; Al Hopson; Vincent Nageak; Herman and Mildred Rexford; Mary Ann Rexford Warden; Pete Sovalik, Simon Tagarook among others - I offer my deep appreciation.They were, in a special sense, my teachers, and for that gift I will always be grateful.


Arrival

From the window of the small plane I looked down on the flat expanse of tundra 1000 feet below. Small streams and ice-filled lakes added brilliant contrast to the treeless landscape. The surrounding ground was covered with varieties of lichens, sedges, and mosses, giving the whole region a meadowlike appearance. Shifting my eyes slightly, I took in the curving shore line of the North Alaskan coast, and next to it a stretch of open water, followed by the white outline of the pack ice beyond.

Just ahead lay a three and one-half mile long thin strip of land which the British explorer Franklin had named Flaxman Island for John Flaxman, an English sculptor and artist.

Beside me, a grey-haired man with bronzed features raised his hand and pointed toward the same spit of land jutting out into the sea.

"Qikiqtaq. Nobody lives there now."

Qikiqtaq - the term the Iñupiat used for the island centuries before the arrival of Franklin. Near a small shoal at the center of the island, stood an abandoned house, hedged by a thick growth of tundra grass. Weathered walls still supported the entryway and small food cache above although the sod roof had long since disappeared. A short distance beyond sat a smaller structure, part of a building the geographer Leffingwell used as a campsite during his explorations for the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey in the early 1900s. And immediately beyond Qikiqtaq Island, on a small curved point of land, were visible several wooden grave markers bounded by a weather-worn picket fence.

"Did any Kaktovik people ever live here?" I asked the older Iñupiaq sitting beside me. He had spent many years in this part of North Alaska before returning to Barrow village, his original home. We were both heading for the coastal village of Kaktovik, located on Barter Island a little over 300 miles southeast of Point Barrow and 60 miles west of the Canadian border. He planned to visit his daughter and other relatives and I was about to begin a study of the community.

"A few. Panningona's daughter was born at Qikiqtaq. She married an Akootchook from Kaktovik. Several others lived here too, but they moved away maybe forty or thirty years ago. Now only one family is left between Barrow and Barter Island. They live on the Colville River delta. Not very crowded, is it?" He looked at me, a smile wreathing his lined face.

"Not any more." Lapsing into silence I thought about an associate of Leffingwell, Ejnar Mikkelson, who in 1909 wrote of Qikiqtaq: "On the extreme west end of Flaxman Island there were some houses in ruins, while some tombs showed the last inhabitants had died, caught, as we learned later, in a blizzard and froze to death."

Other abandoned camps and villages were scattered all along this part of the Arctic coast, the residents drawn to the area for hunting and fishing. Trading, too, has a long history here, hundreds of Iñupiat coming together in mid-summer before moving on to Barter Island, the easternmost of four major Iñupiat centers of exchange. More recently, in 1923, a White trader, Henry Chamberlain, used part of Leffingwell's house as a trading post, exchanging flour, sugar, tea, coffee, and ammunition for furs trapped by nearby Native residents. Now the area was completely vacant - except, of course, for the family on the Colville.

Flying on toward Kaktovik, I continued to observe numerous signs of earlier habitation. From the air, the coast line seemed almost like the rough edge of a long detailed map, which when deciphered by the Iñupiaq beside me, provided a valuable insight into the area's history.

With the loss of this older population, who would be left to pass on cultural knowledge to the young? Could sufficient data be gathered now that would provide a permanent record enabling future generations to benefit? Or would it be up to archeology - the ghost of history - to provide the final summary. Many questions without answers. Hopefully, the study I was about to undertake could be of at least some small assistance in this regard. But my major focus lay in contemporary change rather than cultural history.

Interrupting my trend of thought, the pilot of the small plane raised his hand and pointed out the window in the direction of a small village nestled against the Arctic shoreline.

"There's Kaktovik, just ahead."

Reaching a knob on the panel, he turned the radio transmitter to a new frequency. Keying the mike button, the pilot made a position report: "Barter Island radar. Cessna 391 over Arey Island. Request permission to land. Have two passengers for the village. "

Receiving approval, the pilot slowly pulled back on the throttle, and the plane began its long glide toward a gravel sand spit reaching out for several miles along the coast. At the near end of the spit on a high bluff were thirty or more houses of varying shapes and sizes. Some were rough one-room board dwellings with a single window to let in the light. Others formed long narrow lines. A few had been painted recently, but most were a dull shade of weathered grey. About 100 yards beyond the village on a high knoll, I recognized the H-shaped building and large plastic dome of the new military radar station.

Banking slightly, the plane turned into the wind and began its final approach.

As the wheels touched down on the gravel, a small rock slapped against the underside of the plane. Recognizing our startled looks, the bush pilot gave his two passengers a reassuring word.

"Here we are. I'll give you a hand with your gear. Then I've got to go up to the radar site for a bite and some gas before I start back. The radio operator says someone from the village needs a ride to the Barrow hospital."

Immediately after the plane breaked to a halt, the Iñupiat passanger nodded a quick goodbye to his two companions, slipped out the door, and with a canvas bag thrown across his shoulder, headed for a large three-room house that stood a hundred yar ds or so beyond the air strip. After helping me unload an assortment of bags, boxes, and books, the pilot too excused himself and began the long trek toward the distant radar site.

Did he know where the teacher Harold Kaveolook lived, I asked.

"No," he replied. "But you might try that partly painted building on the small knoll near the edge of the bluff overlooking the ocean. That's where he held classes before school closed for the summer." I thanked him for his suggestion, stacked my gear against the wall of the nearby empty hanger, and began walking toward the village.

Rite of Passage
Settling In
A Lesson Learned
Story Hour
Differing Perspectives
A Moment of Reflection
Postscript