When Lily Tuzroyluke was researching Inupiaq history for what would become her debut novel, she learned the magnitude of loss Alaska Natives suffered from diseases introduced in the 19th century by newly arrived Americans and Europeans, which resulted in widespread deaths that completely decimated some communities, including her home village of Point Hope.
“The sheer numbers of deaths from epidemics really shocked me,” Tuzroyluke said in a recent interview. “I think more needs to be said about the effects of the various epidemics. There is a permanent lasting effect on the Native communities up to modern days of these illnesses that we didn’t have any ways to fight.”
One of those epidemics, smallpox, provides the context for Tuzroyluke’s novel “Sivulliq: Ancestor,” which has been attracting considerable attention in Alaskan literary circles since its publication earlier this year. Set in Alaska’s northwestern Arctic in 1893, the story follows an Inupiaq woman named Kayaliruk on a desperate trek across land and sea to rescue her young daughter Samaruna from the captain of a whaling ship who has kidnapped the child to take as his own.
As the story progresses, Kayaliruk travels through a world coming unraveled. Diseases have killed countless people throughout the region, the United States is providing little to nothing in the way of aid, and an influx of whaling ships is destroying those inhabitants’ primary source of food, adding starvation to their woes.
“I’m very lucky that there’s been a lot of research about Point Hope,” said Tuzroyluke, who strove to make her story as historically accurate as she could. She added that historic accounts of the region gave her insight into the minds of residents. “What I’m most interested in in these writings is they quote Inupiaq people.”
Point Hope is the place Tuzroyluke calls home, even if she was born and raised in Anchorage and presently resides there. Her father was Inupiaq, born in the village, while her mother is Tlingit and Nisga’a. This heritage drove her academic pursuits when she attended the University of Alaska. “My first love was tribal government, and that was essentially my goal in going to school and getting a degree in justice,” she said.
Tuzroyluke said her novel first began taking form in her mind 20 years ago, and its development tracked with her professional life. She was hired immediately out of college as wellness coordinator for the Skagway Traditional Council, and she initially set her story in the Southeast. This changed two years later, when she was named executive director for her tribe in Point Hope. When she made the diagonal move across the state, she took her story outline with her and found the setting she needed to bring it to life.
“I had the opportunity to speak with elders, tribal leaders, hunters, whalers, whaling captains, whaling captains’ wives,” she said of that period. “It was just an incredible opportunity to hear so many stories.”
Those stories, either directly or indirectly, found their way into the eventual novel. But first she had to move once more, returning to Anchorage after seven years in the Arctic when her son was diagnosed with autism, and she wanted him to be able to access services unavailable in Point Hope.
“It was a really hard move for me personally,” she said about leaving a job and community she loved. But once in Anchorage, it was her son who provided the ultimate inspiration for her to realize her own dream. “I really credit my son in giving me the courage to become a full-time writer,” Tuzroyluke said. “There’s so much that we’ve accomplished together, both me and him. He’s always showing me what he’s capable of.”
Tuzroyluke said she had always known the book would be a historical novel centered on an Indigenous woman, and her time in the Arctic helped her forge the primary character. “I truly honestly believe that Kayaliruk as a character, with the wealth of knowledge that she has, that she’s representative of the people of Point Hope,” she said.
[Book review: A historical thriller with a depth of perspective, ‘Sivulliq’ is an impressive debut novel]
While readers will be expecting an Inupiaq lead in “Sivulliq,” the other primary character might come as a surprise, though he shouldn’t. Ibai is one of the crewmen onboard the whaling ship that Kayaliruk is determined to reach in order to save her daughter. The high proportion of Black men who worked on whaling vessels off Alaska’s coast in the 19th century is a little-known historical fact that Tuzroyluke stumbled on in her research. “The more I learned, the more I realized how good a fit it is into the story,” she said.
The book is written from the alternating viewpoints of Kayaliruk and Ibai, and Ibai’s detachment from both Inupiaq and white culture allows him as a character to offer a perspective not immediately tied to either side in the conflict over Samaruna’s fate. Additionally, one chapter is written in the voice of the Rev. John Beach Driggs, an Episcopal missionary and doctor. Driggs is an actual historical figure who arrived in Point Hope in 1890 and remained. He won the trust of residents by emphasizing education and medical care, and by advocating for them as they faced possible starvation due to the sudden decline in whales owing to overharvesting by indifferent ship captains.
“I wanted them all to be in the first person,” Tuzroyluke said of the three characters whose voices narrate the book. “Viewing this story from someone who’s oppressed, viewing it from someone who’s exploited or impoverished, they see the world much differently than someone who is born into wealth.”
The research for the book wasn’t just historical. Tuzroyluke also had to accurately portray the land that Kayaliruk travels across. “I wanted a map of the Arctic Slope, all the way to Herschel Island,” she said. She wanted a hard copy, and looked all over Anchorage without luck. Then one afternoon, while driving home from an Alaska Federation of Natives convention, she swung by the recycling center, where, while unloading discarded paper, she noticed that there were maps inside the bin. They were the ones she was looking for. Despite wearing a dress shirt with a Tlingit vest and jewelry, she knew what she had to do. “There I was, midday, jumping into the recycling bins, to find my maps,” she recalled. “And I found them!”
Tuzroyluke cited the bestselling novel “The Road” as an influence on her book. “I love Cormac McCarthy for his verbs,” she laughed. Sandra Cisneros, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Indigenous novelist N. Scott Momada are other inspirations. She received personal mentoring from North Carolina novelist Bill Henderson. “This was in 2007. Zoom wasn’t available then. We did our meetings over the phone. He was always encouraging me to read, read, read.”
Above all else, however, “Sivulliq: Ancestor” is inspired by the endurance of the people of Point Hope, whose history she hopes her book helps shine a light on. “I am proud of being Tikigaqmiut, a person of Point Hope,” she said. “I am so proud of my people. I have no fear that our traditions will be lost, because our young people are invested and committed to whaling, and to continuing those traditions.”
[Book review: 2 new collections by Alaska Native poets enhance our understandings of place, cultures, and a legacy of harm]