The following is an excerpt from Tom Kizzia’s “The Wake of the Unseen Object: Travels through Alaska’s Native Landscapes.” The book was originally published in 1991 by Henry Holt and has been reprinted in a new edition by the University of Alaska Press, on the anniversary of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. It’s used here with permission.
This excerpt, based on reporting for the Anchorage Daily News in 1985, is set in northwest Alaska.
The gravel road flew over a ridge into an open, clean landscape full of the bright blue water of Port Clarence. Here was the finest harbor on the Seward Peninsula, and until the boom at Nome it was the region’s principal trading center. The small town of Teller was at the base of a long sand spit thrust into the bay. Distant low mountains lifted like ashen waves from the soggy green of thawed tundra.
That night, I asked Joe Garnie, the well-known dog racer and the town’s mayor, who the Eskimos were who settled in Teller.
“There’s people from all over,” Joe said. “People from Wales, Diomede, King Island, Mary’s Igloo. A little bit of everything. A lot of them have more loyalty to the place they came from than here. My grandparents came from upriver. They were Kauweramiut. People of Kauwerak. People were called by the place they came from—you say the name of the place and add ‘miut’ on the end. Brevig Mission people are Sinramiut. My grandparents lived at Mary’s Igloo, on the Kuzitrin River. We’re supposed to be good dog drivers, us Kuzitrin boys.”
He leaned over and shoved another log in the stove.
“I’m the first generation born here on the coast. We’re caribou Eskimos. Inland Eskimos. We’re getting to be coastal people now—some of us are even starting to hunt walrus. There’s those who want to move back, though.”
“Back to Mary’s Igloo. They got land up on the Kuzitrin from the land claims act. Some of them old guys especially can’t wait to get out of Teller. They’re ready to move back and start a new village. They just can’t agree where to put it.”
Joe went into a storage trailer and dug through a box until he found a book. He handed me “People of Kauwerak,” by William Oquilluk. The author, Joe said, was the son of Mary — the woman with the igloo.
According to William Oquilluk, there were actually three great disasters that befell Joe’s ancestors.
The first disaster was an earthquake, in a time of earthly paradise, followed by a three-day eclipse of the sun. The landscape froze. A few families survived by learning to make tools and to cooperate with one another. The ordeal awakened a spiritual consciousness. “They thought there might be someone who was punishing them,” Oquilluk wrote, “and there might be someone or something that might help them if they believed in it.”
The second disaster was the great deluge. A few families believed a dream prophecy and built themselves a great raft. They alone survived. When the waters dropped, these Eskimos began to scatter across the North.
The third disaster occurred after the people of Kauwerak came to the Kuzitrin River. One year summer didn’t arrive. Everyone except seven survivors starved. The descendants of these seven built Kauwerak village and became the dominant Eskimos on the Seward Peninsula.
In the nineteenth century, the people of Kauwerak started to disperse. Several explanations have been suggested: a shift in the migration routes of caribou herds, or southward migration of Eskimos from Kotzebue Sound, either to escape smallpox in the north or to move closer to Russian trading posts. Few of the Kauwerak people were left by 1900 when gold miners pushed into the Imuruk Basin. The miners’ riverboats ran out of navigable water at a small settlement on the Kuzitrin known as Aukvaunlook, about a day’s travel by dog team inland from Port Clarence. William’s mother lived there in a home made of sod and driftwood hauled from the coast.
“Many’s the poor fellow under obligation to this Eskimo woman for food and shelter during those severe winter storms,” noted the Nome News at the time. “She has become one of the best and certainly the most favored member of her race among the whites.” The miners marked the village on their maps as Mary’s Igloo.
William Oquilluk was born in 1896 and learned the stories of the old disasters in the men’s qalgi at Mary’s Igloo. Oquilluk worked with the village reindeer herds that had filled the niche on the tundra of the vanished wild caribou, and later found work at gold and tin mines on the peninsula, on river barges as a pilot, and on the docks at Nome. He began to record the old stories.
“The real bad times did not come until the miners came to look for gold,” Oquilluk wrote. “Not too many years after that, the Fourth Disaster came.”
A mail deliverer from Nome brought the flu to some reindeer herders, who carried it back to Mary’s Igloo. Oquilluk’s parents died, as did all his older relatives.
“The third day after the flu came there was no smoke coming out of any chimney in the village. . . . At Mary’s Igloo, there were only seventy-five to a hundred people left. They were mostly children. While the flu was going on, people would be fine in the morning. In the evening, they would be dead. Five families in that village did not get the flu. All others did. Most of them died. The story was the same at other villages when there was someone left alive to tell about it.”
Some children moved upriver to a Jesuit orphanage at Pilgrim Hot Springs. The remaining families were drawn downstream to a new village site—”New Igloo”—where there was a trading post and school. With the disappearance of the reindeer herds in the 1930s and the subsequent closing of the trading post, the last Eskimos moved out from the Kuzitrin Basin to the coast. The dispersion of the people of Kauwerak was complete.
“The Fifth Disaster is maybe now,” Oquilluk wrote at the end of his book, published when he was in his seventies. “There are not many old people left. The rules and stories of our ancestors are being forgotten. The people do not know who their relations are. Many children lost their parents and grandparents in the flu and other sickness. They went to the mission orphanages and sometimes Outside. They did not learn about their forefathers.”
Oquilluk died in January 1972, only a few months after passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act by Congress opened a new chapter in the history of the Bering Strait Eskimos. Thanks in part to the stories preserved by William Oquilluk, Mary’s Igloo was one of 220 villages recognized by federal law as having ancestral rights to land. The final disaster had been averted for the moment.
Older people in Teller still remembered which drainages each village was supposed to hunt in, and encouraged young people to go out and maintain the claims. Kauwerak elders kept a wary eye in particular on the coastal Eskimos from Brevig Mission, a small village across Port Clarence, who came and went from the spit by boat and had lately started netting whitefish and picking berries in Mary’s Igloo territory.
“Them old guys around here are a crack-up,” Joe Garnie said. “They think they should declare war or something.”
As I walked past the village youth center, I looked in and saw half a dozen teenagers spending the sunny afternoon drinking Cokes and playing video games. It seemed a snapshot of the unfolding Fifth Disaster of the people of Kauwerak.
At the landing, one of the elders I’d met earlier was helping load a second skiff. Philip Kugzruk waved me over and introduced his son, a young man in a light jacket and torn bluejeans. Philip Jr. was about to head up to the Kuzitrin country.
We sat on the gravel and talked about the effort to return to Mary’s Igloo. The young Kugzruk was thoughtful and modest, but it was apparent he’d grown tired of all the nostalgic dickering. “If I’m going to be here, I want to be doing something. I’m not going to sit around and say I’m caught, the future’s bleak.”
Philip Jr. had lived in Wales and Teller when he was small, but he’d grown up in Nome and gone away to college in Fairbanks and Seattle. When the claims act came along and he could choose which village corporation to enroll in, he chose Nome. Later he became interested in his Inupiat roots and decided to move back onto the land for a time. He came to Teller in his mid-twenties with the idea of moving up to the Kuzitrin, but he’d been afraid the Mary’s Igloo people would view him as an outsider and send him away. Instead, the older people whose permission he sought considered his interest cause for celebration.
The decision to move up the river without subsistence and carpentry skills hadn’t been easy. But it was the only way he could get started. “I can’t wait around to have everything handed to me on a platter,” he said. His father smiled proudly.
Philip Jr. now caught most of his food. He commuted to Teller by skiff in summer for supplies and mail, and in winter he traveled by dog team. It was hard work. “Even if you don’t want to go out and check your net after checking it a million times, you’ve got to do it.”
He was thinking of going back to college next year, but now he felt he had a home he could return to.
“Every time I go up, there’s a strange feeling I get,” he said. “Just thinking about past gatherings, histories, wars, shamans. Especially when you have a dog team running up the Kuzitrin River in that evening light. Just to think you’re there in the space age and that your great-great-grandparents walked right where you are going.”