By Nasuġraq Rainey Hopson; Roaring Book Press, 2023; 256 pages; $18.99.
No mythological theme holds more power than the Hero’s Journey. Across cultures, the motif follows a similar pattern. It’s found in legends often predating the written word. The hero leaves their familiar confines and travels to unknown places. There they endure a series of tests and, usually with supernatural assistance, emerge transformed. Afterward, they return to their homeland with a redemptive message that will help guide the society they left behind to a more prosperous and peaceful place.
Though ancient, the concept was popularized in modern times by the late literature professor and scholar of myths, Joseph Campbell. Be it the trials of Odysseus, the travels of Rama, or the temptations of Christ, Campbell told us, myths of the Hero’s Journey are foundational to how societies perceive themselves. And, as he observed, Hero’s Journeys appear time and again in every region of the planet. Including the Arctic.
Iñupiaq author and illustrator Nasuġraq Rainey Hopson, born in what is now Utqiaġvik and raised in Point Hope, reached adulthood before she learned of the Hero’s Journey said to have led to the origin of the practice of Messenger Feasts. It’s a story she lovingly re-creates through crisp prose and evocative colored pencil drawings in her debut young adult novel “Eagle Drums.” It’s the origin story of these gatherings, similar to potlatches, which “bring the Iñupiaq people together in peace and celebration, to unite us as one,” she writes.
Initially, we learn from the story itself, the Iñupiaq were anything but unified. As the tale opens, Piŋa, the hero, is hunting for his family. We quickly learn that his two elder brothers vanished and presumably died through unknown means during their own hunting excursions. We also learn that the family lives and wanders the lands alone, in fear of other families who, similarly, fear them.
It’s on a second hunting trip in the mountains that the myth commences. Here Piŋa encounters an enormous golden eagle named Savik, who is capable of transforming himself into a man. Savik taunts Piŋa with stories of his missing brothers, whose killings the man/eagle describes.
“Is there something you wish of me,” Piŋa asks, upon learning of his siblings’ fates.
“You will come with me now,” Savik replies. “Or you can die like your brothers.”
Faced with such options, Piŋa chooses to accompany Savik, and his heroic journey begins.
Piŋa is brought to Savik’s home, which he shares with his two sisters and their maternal parent, the old and coldly wise Mother Eagle, who becomes Piŋa’s primary mentor. It is here that he remains for over a year, slowly learning skills that she insists he must know, and that her offspring somewhat begrudgingly guide him along in gaining.
For Piŋa, the only wish is to see his family again, and the only hope of doing so lies in his remaining with the eagle family, who are far from accommodating. Initially, they aren’t friendly. He is treated indifferently, and offered rancid meat for sustenance. He has to beg for fresh meat and plants. Only his desire to one day leave keeps him from making a surely fatal escape attempt.
The eagle family slowly introduces Piŋa to the skills they insist he needs to acquire. He is taught rhythmic pounding, timed to his heartbeat, and singing to accompany it. He is instructed in the art of drum making. Eventually strangers arrive who show him how to dance. Friendships remain elusive, however.
Held prisoner, he knows not when, or even if, he will be released. Months slide by as he determinedly works at mastering what he has been taught. Food remains a constant concern, meanwhile, and with time, he is allowed to leave the compound under supervision and participate in his own subsistence.
Midway through the book Piŋa recalls an earlier instance when he encountered a family of strangers while out with his family. The unexpected meeting had been somewhat hostile and fearful, and while it ended peacefully, his father told him, “We can never know strangers that well. We don’t know what kind of people they are. We don’t know at what point they will not be friends and what would make them turn on us. It is best to avoid the vulnerability in the long run.”
Vulnerable is what Piŋa is, held captive to a clan of magical shapeshifters whose intentions remain unknown to him. Strangers who had, after all, killed his two brothers. Yet he remains at their mercy and does as he’s told, with the occasional protest.
Finally, he is told to build a qalgi, a sod house. First, he must perfect a tiny model, and then apply the skills to a large house where many can gather.
And then he is sent home, instructed to build a large qalgi, and to invite people from near and far to a large gathering where his parents will supply food and gifts for all. He is to go out as a messenger, to find people and tell them to come. People living in fear, who in the end will come to trust others as a result of the feast.
This is the origin of Messenger Feasts, which “fulfilled a need that no one knew they had,” Hopson writes. Messenger Feasts survived repression after Americans arrived, and the tradition has proven itself adaptable to modern technological advances.
It matters not that the story of Piŋa is a myth. What matters is what it tells us of this tradition, Hopson explains in her afterword, writing that through the feasts, “we are listening to our ancestors calling us through the distance of years.”
This is the power of mythology. The story is true not literally, but in the truth that it conveys. As Hopson writes, despite the painful experience of having had their lands colonized, the Iñupiaq remain bound to each other as a people, knowing, through practices like the Messenger Feast, that “Those connections still hold true.”
With “Eagle Drums,” Hopson strengthens those connections and extends them to all her readers.