Over the next three years I made several return visits to Kaktovik. Near the conclusion of the last of these trips, Vincent Nageak and I took a walk along the village perimeter to a high embankment overlooking the Beaufort Sea. The location was a favorite lookout for Iñupiat women whose husbands were out seal hunting. But today we were alone. Cold and foggy, the day was typical for September. We both pulled our parka hoods up over our heads and sat down on a small knoll. It hardly seemed possible h ow quickly time had passed since our first meeting three years earlier. During that period, we had come to know each other quite well. I watched closely as Vincent took careful aim with his boot and kicked a small stone over the edge of the cliff toward the sea below.
"I am leaving soon," I remarked, stating the obvious. My bags and equipment had been packed for two days waiting for a break in the weather so a plane could come and pick me up. Perhaps today would mark my departure.
"Maybe you won't be back." The slightly higher inflection placed on the last word led me to wonder whether he was asking a question or making a statement of fact.
"I'll be back, but I don't know when."
"Many taniks come here. They stay for a little while, and then go home. We get a few letters and a Christmas card or two. Then we don't hear from them any more. Maybe you are just like the others."
I waited for the reassuring phrase.
"I jokes," he said laughingly and gave me a slight jolt with his shoulder. "But I might not be here when you get back."
"Things will be different I guess."
"They are different now."
I searched for the right words to ask the obvious question.
"Do you miss the old days, Vincent?"
As usual, he answered by telling a story.
Ten years ago, Apik and I went on a trip to hunt caribou. A day's ride from here a big storm came up. We knew it was going to be a bad one and I pointed my lead dog toward toward and old abandoned house nearby. Just then, Apik saw a caribou. We stopped an d he killed it, but then it was too late to get to the house. The snow came down so thick we couldn't see anything. We had to make a snowhouse in the bank. We had meat, a small stove and tea, that's all.While listening to Vincent, I glanced down at the beach and saw Isaac Akootchook and Mary, his wife, gather up their rifles and gear, put them in their boat, and push off toward the lagoon. Noticing us on the bank, Isaac waved a greeting and then turned back to adjust his outboard motor.
It was all right for a day or two, but the storm was so bad we could only get a little way toward home before the wind came up and we had to stop again. Pretty soon we run out of fuel. We jumped up and down and run around in our little house to keep warm. We think we never get back to our home. But we went on. Next day we made it. Apik, he never liked to hunt after that. He works in Barrow now. But I don't think that old way is so bad. Anyway, people around here, they don't hunt so much any more. The young ones, they hardly know how.
"That Akootchook, he always hunt when he can. His wife's a good shooter too. He's Iñupiat, a real Eskimo."
Though having several questions I wanted to ask, I seemed unable to phrase them clearly. I felt him slipping away, the distance between us growing each minute we sat there. He seemed to feel it too, for in keeping with traditional Iñupiat leave-taking, he stood up, smiled briefly, and headed for his sister's house without a word.
Looking out toward the sea, I thought back over what I had learned from the Iñupiat. On my return home, I would write about life in the North Slope villages that I had barely come to know. Could I adequately describe the changes then taking place in Kaktovik? Not really. Such a portrayal could hardly be undertaken by an outsider. Still, I would do the best I could for the world that Vincent Nageak, the Akootchook's, Harold Kaveolook, and others knew first hand was rapidly slipping away and would not appear again. Indeed, for those like Apik, it was already gone. And for their children, it might not even be known.
Further information about the Iñupiat of Arctic Alaska can be found in our section on History and Culture.