2000s Archive

At The Top of the World

continued (page 2 of 3)

The day after meeting Harcharek, I join her in her office at the ultramodern Inupiat Heritage Center, where she is at work translating the Inupiaq language into English legalese. She is dressed in a sleeveless blouse and white shorts; outside, the temperature hovers around freezing, and I wonder aloud if she isn’t rushing the season a bit. She just laughs—“It’s summer!”

On a large whiteboard next to the table of dictionaries is scrawled “Piyuumisaagni—sexual harassment.”

“It happens everywhere,” she smiles.

Harcharek is a handsome woman; her natural beauty and her ready smile belie a toughness born of the harsh and unforgiving environment here in the far north, where temperatures drop to 70 below in the winter and barely scratch 60 above for a few days in the summer. During the 84 days of midnight sun, children play through most of the night, and she jokes that she tells her kids to get back home before dark—sometime in August. During the winter months, the sun is merely a memory, and the only natural light is from the moon or the northern lights.

The key to survival in this part of the world is sharing the catch and the fruit of the harvest and the hunt. Eskimos have long held the belief, with religious conviction, that a· gviq, the bowhead whale, individually offers itself to each community in the spring and in the fall so that they can survive another winter. In fact, without the whale, most Eskimos would starve, for up until recently few ate white-man’s food at all; their bodies—accustomed to walrus and whale blubber—simply would not function properly if forced to rely solely on the nourishment from relatively lean red meat or chicken from “the Outside.” For the older generation in particular, eating such foods was something like a lifelong vegetarian being forced to eat a steak. “If my uncle doesn’t eat walrus or whale, then he feels like he’s starving,” Harcharek tells me.

“We’ve got to have blubber—we’ve got to have oil in this environment; without vegetables in our diet, the oil is necessary.”

There is no controversy here—Eskimos from Siberia to Greenland have subsisted on whale for thousands of years. In 1977 the International Whaling Commission set a quota (often not met because of ice conditions), and this subsistence hunt is universally accepted by environmentalists, conservationists, and governments worldwide.

Harcharek, co-captain of a whaling crew, says that when they are successful, they “share it with everyone. Nothing is wasted, not even the bones or the baleen; every part of the whale is consumed or used.” Indeed, there is no word in the Eskimo language for “waste.”

“It is not a concept we know,” she says. “We catch what we eat for the year. We don’t catch more than we can use. The best part is being able to feed everyone; you’re sharing your gift, the delicacy of delicacies.”

The act of sharing is no better represented than during the Nalukataq celebration. A com­munal, alcohol-free party held on the beach at the edge of the pack ice, it is open to everyone, and there is no cost of admission. Vats of caribou, dried white fish, whale meat from the spring catch, and even Eskimo “ice cream” are passed among the people who sit patiently in a circle around tables laden with food. The proud members of the crew sit on the edge of the tables dangling their legs, their dark, weather-beaten faces watching the party as the women dish out their catch. The leftover food is distributed equally among the families according to the number of mouths to feed; it will be stored in the many ice cellars carved out deep in the permafrost, to be consumed into the winter.

I look on as the community digs into the long-anticipated treats. A group of heavyset Eskimo women dressed in colorful parkas of rickrack and fox and wolverine ruffs stand before a microphone and lustily belt out hymns in Inupiaq. One of the women, her large, brown face gleaming with happiness (mother of one of the crew, I’m told), wears a blue jacket stenciled with the words: “AND GOD CREATED GREAT WHALES; AND GOD SAW THAT IT WAS GOOD. GENESIS 1:21."

At the shoreline, children chase each other across wobbly ice floes, and older siblings run out and shout at them to get off. Suddenly, at some unspoken command, the crowd jumps to its feet and the word passes around: “Some kids fell in!” We, too, run down to see an 11-year-old standing waist-deep in the water amid floating chunks of ice, shivering, grinning sheepishly up at the crowd; his father takes long strides down the beach and hauls him away by his ear.

There is an announcement over the loudspeaker, and children squealing in excitement stampede toward the tables. From open boxes they pull not the candy bars I would have expected, but apples and oranges flown up from the Lower 48—an even rarer treat.

After midnight—which is when it’s about as dark as it will get; with the sun well above the horizon, equivalent to mid­afternoon southern time—the tables are removed and the crew members grab the edges of a large seal hide, the skin that was used to cover the wood frame of the successful whaling boat, and hurl into the air the victorious captain, members of his family, and anybody else brave enough to give it a try. (An ambulance is usually standing by.)

As I watch these unfettered celebrations, I resist the temptation to think that I am in a foreign land. These are Americans, and Inupiat have served in every war fought by the United States in the 20th century. Yet outside of Alaska and the Department of the Interior, few have any knowledge of these most indigenous people, the progenitors of Native Americans in the Lower 48.

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