Settling In

The Kaktovik village I came to know in 1958 bore little physical resemblance to that of five years earlier when a few small driftwood frame and sod buildings lined the isolated sandspit of Barter Island's lagoon. This scene changed dramatically in 1953 w hen the military began construction of a large airstrip on the sandspit. Forced to leave their homes, the Kaktovik residents eventually built an assortment of new houses ranging from one-room huts with a single plastic window or skylight to multi-room d wellings. Residences of close relatives were located close to one another, often next door - just as they had been decades and centuries before. Poorer houses were not unlike those found in poverty-burdened areas of the "lower 48." Assembled with lumber f rom packing crates, tar paper, and other products scrounged from military scrap piles, these structures quickly blunted any idealized vision a visitor might have had of an idyllic Arctic village.

On the other hand, those Iñupiat who worked for the DEW Line radar station or in local construction jobs were able to purchase durable materials with which to put up their new homes - including sawed lumber, grade A plywood, glass windows and thick insulation, much of it ordered from urban centers far to the south. Regardless of size, each building had an attached storage shed in which rifles, fish nets, dog harneses, boots, and other outdoor necessities were kept. Fuel oil to heat these homes was often donated by DEWLine personnel or summer construction workers. Otherwise, it had to be ordered from outside or purchased at the local Native store - a very expensive proposition. A self-reliant alternative was to rely on driftwood while continually ke eping an eye out for contaminated oil drums discarded by military.

A dramatic reminder of the recently expanding ties between the village and the outside world was a gravel roadway stretching across the tundra from the sandspit at the Island's easternmost edge to its highest knoll a mile or so away. At the apex of this small rise stood the large hemisperic dome and associated modular buildings of the Barter Island military radar site. Several times a week, following the arrival of a cargo plane, a truck, "snowcat," or similar vehicle hauled food, supplies and other nee ded equipment from the sandspit airstrip to the radar station. South of this road facing the distant Alaska mainland, quonset huts were used by private contractors to house temporary White workers engaged in summer construction projects. On the other sid e of the gravel road facing the Arctic Ocean was Kaktovik. Here, streets were nonexistant. Houses faced eachother at all possible angles, seemingly without plan. However, as I soon found out, this initial impression was deceptive.

A good place to begin learning about village life is to take a census. Such information provides the names of residents, who is related to whom, and where they live. For the Iñupiat, I was aware that kin ties were bilateral in nature - but that and the names of a few individuals was all I knew.

Following Harold Kaveolook's suggestion, I asked two young Iñupiat to help me put together a village map. On an earlier occasion they had dropped by my tent to check out the new visitor. After looking over my hunting rifles, books, and other suppli es from the "outside," they spotted a large box of candy. This brought other afternoon visits. One day, following our afternoon sweet-tooth ritual, I broached the subject of the village census. Would they be willing to help? Questioning me briefly about what I wanted to know and how long it would take, they eventually agreed.

The day we were to begin was typical for June - damp and cloudy. Outside my tent, snow and ice that had covered the village for the past nine months was steadily seeping water into minuscule ponds and ditches dotting the landscape. Not far away, eight s led dogs belonging to one of the Akootchook's seemed more vocal than usual in letting others know just how bored and uncomfortable they were, staked out in the melting snow with nothing to do. Disregarding the howling in the background, I placing a rough map of Kaktovik on a stool in front of the cot and we got down to work.

"Who lives in that small house over there by the ditch?" I asked, pointing to the map.

"Oh, the person who lives there is Philip."

"What is his Iñupiat Eskimo name?

"Tikluk."

"Does anyone else live there?"

"The person who lives there has a brother, Riley."

"And the house next to Tikluk. Who stays there?"

"That belongs to Ologak. She's their aunt."

And so it went.

Several afternoons later after attaching names and relationships to each house portrayed on the map, we stepped outside to face a surprisingly bright warm day, the glare of the sun reflecting against the rapidly disappearing snow. Noticing a number of new ly visible wires stretching along the ground from a small shed to two houses, I asked what they were for.

"Oh, they are for Riley and Philip's electric generator."

With my eyes, I followed the wires as they led from the Tikluk's house over to that of their aunt, Ologak. Looking elsewhere, similar patterns appeared in the retreating snow linking other houses together. Suddenly, the investigation we had been making in to Kaktovik's kinship affiliations came into clearer focus. The network of kin ties laborously listed in my notebook was now graphically illustrated before my eyes. Extended kin, clustered in houses close to one another, shared electricity from a common g enerator. Families without kin had their own separate units. All it took to recognize this arrangement was a village kinship chart, or a good set of eyes and melting snow!


During those first few weeks of field work, I extended my contacts into the the community, buying food at the native store, helped complete the village cleanup, visited people outside their homes, observed the almost endless evening game of volleyball - and on July 4th, watched with pleasure the kayak races, children's tug-of-war, and other recreational events taking place on that special holiday.

Still, while actively observing village life, I seemed unable to penetrate the reserve with which I was treated by local adults. The inhabitants were friendly in a distant sort of way, but any response on their part to my initial overtures was simply not forthcoming. Though residing in Kaktovik, I was clearly not a part of it.

Then, mid-morning on a Saturday I opened my tent flap to see Harold Kaveolook painting the local school house. Walking over, I offered my assistance. Handing me a brush, we began covering decaying plywood with a fresh coat of white paint. Having a multit ude of questions to ask, I nevertheless held off, concentrating on placing an even flow of paint between brush and wood. Eventually, Harold turned toward me and inquired:

"How's the study going?"

"Fine, I guess." Caught a little off guard by the question, I realized that the tone of my voice and qualifying phrase suggested otherwise.

"People have been asking about you; what you are doing and why."

"Oh."

"I tell them you are a teacher and that you want to learn about our history."

"Do they say anything else."

"No, not really. Maybe they are just curious."

"Well, I can understand that. I must be the only tanik around that isn't working at the site or in construction."

"In this area, it's easy to live off the land if you know how. People don't have to work if they don't want to. Where you come from you have to get a job in order to live. It's much better here."

Though intrigued by his limiting the term `work' to wage labor, I thought it best to keep the discussion on a broader level and therefore asked him to elaborate.

Putting down his brush and turning toward me, Harold spoke slowly and with obvious pride. "Here, you can always count on people helping you out. It's not like that down south. At least not in Fairbanks."

"Fairbanks? When did you live there"

"I was born in Barrow. Joined the army in 1941 and got out in 45. Spent most of my time at Ft. Richardson. Drove big trucks for awhile, worked as a clerk, and then did some guard duty. After the war, I went back to Barrow and took a job with Arctic Contra ctors. Then I was asked if I wanted to be a teacher aid at the local school and I agreed. I came here in 1951. When you get a long-term position, you can afford to take less pay. But if your job is short, you hold out for as much as you can get."

"Is it that way here too - people working permanently at the site getting less than those in short-term construction?"

"Herman Rexford and Isaac Akootckook were among the first local people to take construction jobs with the Air Force. At that time they learned to drive heavy equipment - bulldozers, spreaders, and the like. They became pretty skilled at it too. Today, th ey know more about big equipment than many taniks who come here."

"Do they get the same pay?"

"Not anymore."

"How come?"

"At first, Herman was a cat operator making over $1000 a month. Isaac went into carpentry. Joined the union too. Every carpenter got the same wage. But now, they only receive laborer's wages of $600 a month."

"Why is that?"

"They were told it's because Eskimos live here anyway while those from the south have to support their families back home."

"But workers are supposed to get paid for what they do, not where they live."

"Yes, that's true.

"What does the station chief say about it?"

"Maybe you will ask him," the slightly higher inflection of the last two words in Kaveolook's remark enabled me to interpret his statement as either question or conjecture. Selecting the latter, I remained silent.

After painting another hour or so, Harold invited me over to his house for some lunch - my first invitation to a Kaktovik home. Passing though the small outer shed into an equally small living room, he introduced me to Mae, his wife, and their two young girls. A woman in her early thirties, she was dressed in a fur-trimmed long cloth parka called an atigi, under which she had on a sweater and jeans. Following introductions, Mae brought in a pot of coffee, two metal cups and plates. Stacked high on the latter was a substantial helping of canned asparagus, fried chicken, and pork chops. Placing the plates on a small bench, she quickly retired to the kitchen to join her two children in their own meal. Catching me staring at the food, Harold commen ted without emotion:

"Not exactly an Eskimo meal, is it. With school and all, I haven't done much hunting. But that will change now that classes are over."

"What do most people eat?"

"Right now, boiled caribou mixed with rice and seal oil, crackers or bread, tea, and perhaps a dish of canned fruit. Or instead of fruit, maybe some fish from the ice cellar. Depends a lot on the time of year and whether one has a job. Last night Mae's b rother got a caribou only three miles away, so we should have fresh meat soon. Usually, caribou don't come this close to the village, so he was lucky. We even had a polar bear show up a half-mile from here last winter."

"And?"

"A villager got it. All told, Kaktovik people got six last year. Sold the pelts up at the site for twelve dollars a foot."

Finishing the meal, I thanked him for his invitation. In response, Harold smiled and gesturing toward the village, commented, "We always try to help each other here. That's the Eskimo way."


A little later, while sitting in my tent writing up field notes of the morning discussion, I remembered some advice passed on to me by Max Brewer, the senior official at the Arctic Research Laboratory:

"When you get to Kaktovik, remember one thing," he offered at my parting. "Eskimos express themselves differently than you or I. They aren't as direct about what they say. That means you have to listen carefully if you want to understand what they are te lling you. Otherwise, you'll miss a lot."

Looking down at my notes, I thought back to Harold's comments - the pride that comes with the knowledge of being able to live off the land; the freedom this seemed to provide in choosing how much attention to give to subsistence as opposed to wage work; the emphasis placed on helping one another in In˜upiat society; the anger felt by villagers over not being paid according to skill level; and the somewhat ambigious reference to the possibility of my speaking to the station chief about it.

Quite a bit to mull over in those few short remarks. Was there a real choice in seeking or rejecting wage work? What implications did such employment have on the social relations of local residents? What were the areas of convergence in Native and non-Na tive interests? Where did they conflict? What were the outcomes?

In addressing these questions, one point was abundantly clear: to understand the changes taking place in Kaktovik required knowledge of the Island's recent White arrivals as well as its Native inhabitants. Still, I was not ready to grab my notebook and he ad for the radar station on top of the small knoll a half mile away. It seemed more important to strengthen my ties with the local villagers before venturing into that other world.

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