Rite of Passage

Social scientists are fond of pointing out that every society defines certain periods in life as times of transition in which socialization processes are greatly accelerated. Some are biological in nature like birth, puberty, or parenthood while others are linked to social changes such as marriage or retirement. But in either instance, the passage is clearly recognized and often marked by rituals of one sort or another; hence the term - rite of passage.

While this event is usually thought of as occurring within a given society, a similar pattern can be observed when outsiders undertake field research in societies other than their own. And as is true with other rites of passage, the event is often stressful. To reduce the likelihood of making a serious blunder, the prospective field worker is likely to learn as much as possible beforehand about the language and culture of the people concerned; seek permission to enter the area from them; and make practical arrangements for bringing or obtaining adequate food, clothing, and shelter necessary for the length of stay. If the research is located in an isolated region such as the Arctic, these logistic efforts can entail considerable complexity and expense.

Also essential is the need to establish good rapport with the people with whom one expects to stay. If they do not wish to have the newcomer in their midst, the person cannot even begin the research. More than a few field workers have been ignored, asked to leave, or even bodily ejected from communities where they hoped to conduct research. Therefore, one of the first tasks on arriving at a given locale is to explain why he or she is there. This can be difficult. From a local perspective, a visitor who appears to have influencial ties with outside government or private agencies; who continually asks questions and seems not to need to work; and yet has little knowledge of how to function in the society - at the very least, that person is going to invite concern. In isolated regions where physical dangers are more pronounced, local residents may also fear that they might have to assume responsibility for this uninvited individual.

Other factors must be taken into account as well.

For example, who does one seek out following one's arrival? In my case, while no one in Kaktovik knew I was coming, several people in Barrow had given me the names of key individuals to contact. One was the local teacher, Harold Kaveolook. Herman Rexford and Isaac Akootchook had also been recommended. Both, experienced workers as well as skilled subsistence hunters, they were employed at that time by a private company under contract to the Air Force.

Equally important are the kinds of relations one establishes with the region's residents - including an understanding of the importance of reciprocity. While researchers may be quite capable of explaining what they want to know, they are not always mindful of the what they can or should offer in return - a lesson I learned not long after my arrival in Kaktovik...........


After placing my tent and other gear by the hanger, I walked along the runway, eventually reaching a small knoll.To my right, a frame house with a partially completed second story marked the entrance to the village. In front, a parka-clad woman led her child along a wooden boardwalk. What caught my eye, however, was not the mother and child, but two spanking new red and white tricycles standing nearby - a clear sign of changing times in Kaktovik.

On my left stood the small school house to which the pilot had referred. After a brief pause, I opened the door and walked into a large rectangular room illuminated by four glass-paned windows. At a table surrounded by cases of powdered milk and vitamins on one side and stacks of textbooks on the other, sat a dark-haired man in his mid-thirties. Looking up as I entered, he nodded non-commitally but said nothing.

"Are you Harold Kaveolook?"

"Yes."

"The teacher at the school?" A foolish question I thought to myself since he was sitting in the middle of a classroom surrrounded by all the artifacts of his profession.

"Yes. Who are you?"

"My name is Norman. Norman Chance. Do you have time to talk?"

"Of course," Kaveolook responded, his hand waving me to a tiny metal chair to which an equally small desk was attached. "What do you want?"

Squeezing into the chair, I explained that I too was a teacher and that I wished to learn about the Iñupiat.

"Why is that?"

Behind his quiet reserve I detected a slight concern, but certainly not as much as I was feeling.

"Well actually, I'm an anthropologist."

"Oh."

"I teach anthropology at a university in the States." At this point I had no idea whether he knew anything about anthropology or what anthropologists do. I did know, however, that I was responding rather poorly to his briefly worded questions.

"Arigaah!" [Good!] To my relief, as Kaveolook spoke, he put both hands on his desk and leaned forward to emphasize his interest. At the same time his sharply chiseled Iñupiaq face broke out in a smile.

"So you're an anthropologist. Do you know that the explorer Stefansson once came along this coast back in the early 1900s."

"Really."

"While here, he asked a young boy if he wanted to join his expedition - but the boy's mother wouldn't let him go."

"What happened then?"

"Nothing. The person still lives here, on the other side of the village. But what about you? Why are you interested in Kaktovik?"

"I want to spend the summer here. Come to know the people. Learn what kind of an impact new jobs are having on the village."

"I see. What are you going to do with this information when you get it?"

"Several things. I want to go back and teach about life in the Arctic; and if I can, write an article or two."

"Are you going to stay up there?" Kaveolook asked, pointing his finger toward the military radar station located on a high point of land a hundred and fifty yards away.

"No. I brought a tent and food with me. Just came in on the plane. Hopefully, I can find a place somewhere in the village."

"It's possible. But you'll have to talk with some of the others about that. Maybe the village council. See what they think."

"Like Rexford or Akootchook?"

"Yes. They work near the station, but will be back later. Right now, we're in the middle of a spring clean-up. This evening people will come and finish raking up trash left over from the winter. Those taniks over there," pointing again to the radar site, "they really push us to clean up. Offer us their trucks, too. We fill them up and they drive the trash to the big dump at the end of the island."

Shortly thereafter, I thanked Harold Kaveolook for his assistance and said I would return in the evening to help with the cleanup. Walking back toward the airstrip and my cache of supplies, I noticed a small quonset hut that had been vacant for some time. Stowing tent, sleeping bag, and other gear in the hut , I prepared a small meal of canned food, took a brief rest, and then strolled around the perimeter of the village. Eventually returning to the school house, I felt prepared for whatever the evening might bring.

From my tanik perspective, the village did seem to need a good cleaning. Trash uncovered by the melting snow was everywhere - boards, boxes, and paper blown here and there; plastic containers of one sort or another lying on the ground; and numerous empty oil drums scattered over the tundra. Out on the sea ice, a row of 50 gallon drums filled with human excrement stood upright like pawns on a chessboard, waiting for the warmth of the sun's rays to flush them into the ocean depths. It was obvious why local DEWLine personnel were encouraging trash removal - for health reasons if no other.

Returning to the village, I found Harold Kaveolook and a dozen or so other Iñupiat raking trash and loading trucks; among them Rexford and Isaac Akookchook. Both appeared agreeable to my staying in Kaktovik. Together, the four of us selected a tent site half way between Kaveolook's one-room school and Akootchook's new two-story house. The location was ideal. Situated on the edge of a high bluff overlooking the ocean, it also provided a good view of the village. The look of pleasure on my face seemed to satisfy my three companions. Tomorrow, Harold said, I should let him know if I needed help putting up my tent.

After being introduced to several other villagers, I offered to help with the clean-up. An hour or so later, tired from the excitement of the day, I excused myself and headed back to the hanger for a much needed rest. Though sleep came quickly, I knew it would be several months before darkness descended on Alaska's North Slope.

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