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Archive for the ‘My Eskimo Family’ Category

To start reading from the beginning, go to May 11, 2008.

Donny and M.O. were home for spring break. Spring Break in Golovin, Alaska meant ongoing frigid temperatures, ice and snow cover. The Iditarod was about to begin in Anchorage. The first mushers would be passing through Golovin in a couple of weeks and I was looking forward to witnessing the unfolding drama played out by incredibly adventuresome men and women. Sled dog travel was a real part of my heritage and I wanted to see it, but I would have to wait on the sidelines else at the finish line in Nome with everyone else.

Even though the temps hovered around zero, Donny and M.O. were fooling once again with the yellow hang glider. They had come up with the ingenious idea of tying one end of a rope to a snow machine and the other to the glider. When one thinks of hang gliding, one normally pictures sandy beaches hugging a cliff where men and women in warm weather gear run and jump off  the cliffs, the gliders soaring in warm thermals. My cousins, on the other hand, wore squirrel lined parkys (parkas) with wolverine ruff, seal skin mukluks, wolf mittens, snow pants and fur caps. Instead of jumping from a cliff, my cousins intended to run as fast as possible while bundled in fur and slick bottom mukluks several yards behind a full throttled snow machine. Those guys are crazy, I thought to myself.

Meanwhile a pilot  had dropped off a passenger and was visiting with Martin and Maggie. He had brought some fresh King Crab legs. My mouth was drooling. One of the reasons I wanted to stay in Golovin, was for the food: the subsistence living. The food was fresh and wild, impregnated with the outdoors, the cold and wildness. I had eaten fresh reindeer, muktuk (whale blubber), seal, salmon, moose, ptarmigan, grayling . . . The best meal I ever had was a shore lunch of just caught grayling in the Alaskan outback. One Sunday Martin flew Maggie, Sister and I into the interior to a small river where schools of grayling could be seen in the water as we flew over. But now my welcome had been outlived and Martin, for the second and last time, was about to ask me to leave. This time he asked me by withholding. He wasn’t about to share the crab legs.

Words were exchanged once he saw the look on my face that responded to his edict that I wasn’t going to partake. I don’t remember what was said, who said what, or how it started. I remember being pissed, pacing in the living room not knowing where to go. I started to leave the house but Martin said, “If you leave, don’t come back.” They had finally had enough of me. I went to my room dazed and numb. Then I remembered the pilot and ran out to the plane where he was making last-minute checks. He was going back to Nome without passengers. I told him I didn’t have any money but needed to get to Nome. He told me, “Any friend of Martin’s is a friend of mine. He’s done me plenty of favors. But you have to hurry, we don’t have much daylight.” I wasn’t about to correct him that I was no longer a friend of Martin’s. It was early afternoon and the sun didn’t stay long in the winter months in Alaska. I had to act fast if I was to “get out of Dodge”.

I raced to my room and packed up my few belongings and threw the soft items down the stairs, slammed shut my pink suitcase (which fortunately acted as my dresser), grabbed my box of paints and hauled them out to the plane. I called another aunt in Nome to get permission to temporarily land there before leaving Alaska altogether for Chicago. Another Aunt and Uncle to the rescue.

I remember so much about my days in Golovin, but that last day is sketchy. I don’t remember saying goodbye to Maggie, but she was always tender towards me and I suspect she helped me carry a thing or two to the plane and said a proper goodbye with an Eskimo kiss (no, not rubbing noses but a sniff on the cheek). I bordered the plane with extreme relief that I had a pilot willing to whisk me away. As we taxied down the runway and took off over the frozen snow-covered bay, I saw my cousin Donny high in the air dangling from a yellow hang glider. A rope from the glider led to the back of a black snow machine racing across the snow and ice. “They did it!” I exclaimed out load. They had finally conquered the challenge of flying a glider in the Alaskan bush. Which brings me to the beginning of my story: “I once saw a bear fly. No kidding. Actually it was a mix of wolverine, wolf, squirrel, seal and reindeer. But from a distance it really did look like a bear.”

The End

copyright Tamara Ann Burgh, all rights reserved

Prologue: I ended up staying in Nome for some four years where I immediately landed a job in the elementary school as a teacher’s assistant with the Indian Education Arts and Culture Program. My boss, Richard Bermeister, would run the Iditarod (and later his son). I designed and illustrated the 1980 cache (seen here) for the mushers to carry and stamp at each checkpoint. I switched from the Arts program to the Bilingual department where I designed and illustrated teaching materials. Many years later I would become friends with Iditarod and sled dog champions Joe and Sherry Runyan when we all lived in the small New Mexico ranch town of Magdalena.

Below are pictures I took of friends from the Bilingual department who took me out on the ice to fish for King Crab. I had a delicious meal that night.

Crabbing through the ice

Alvina and her boys. Sled loaded for the trip on the ice for crabs

Sled loaded for the trip on the ice for crabs

Crabbing on the ice

Yayuk, Alvina (from the Bilingual department) and Alvina's boys

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To start reading from the beginning, go to May 11, 2008.

Once again, M.O., who rarely had much to say or do with me, surprised me by inviting me to accompany him on a charter to White Mountain. For the first time, as I write this, I wonder if he was asked to speak to me about leaving Golovin. I can’t know but thinking about the possibility and likely hood that I had outlived my welcome makes me a little sick inside and ashamed.

Life in the Alaskan bush can be a dangerous life. I was an adult who demanded a level of freedom. I was also sensitive to criticism. Freedom and sensitivity unknowingly put my aunt and uncle in a place of uneasy responsibility. Arctic dwellers who knew much better than I their environment still fell through the ice, froze to death, crashed airplanes, got sick without medical help, fell overboard . . . If something happened to me, and the chances were high, how were my keepers to justify and explain to my parents? Another Uncle, Floyd, Maggie’s and my father’s brother, had had a heart-attack that winter. He was at his doorstep when he collapsed from the attack. Sister and I were the only ones in the house that night and were concerned about answering the pounding on the door. We were unsure if the person was drunk and possibly had a gun. But it was the wife of Floyd needing to use the village phone to call for emergency help. In the village help cannot arrive in less than an hour — on a good night.  If M.O. were on a mission to suggest it time for me to leave, his message was aborted by a fox running across the ice while we flew above it.

There is something about a lone animal running 100 — 200 feet below that irresistably beckons the pilot to nose dive to taunt the lone fox, wolf, reindeer, or moose. Upon my initial arrival in Golovin, I had the inept pleasure of meeting everyone for the first time with regurgitated tuna fish sandwich down the front of my tee-shirt. I had managed without incident the entire trip from Joliet, Illinois, across 1/2 of Canada and all of Alaska when just a mile or two outside of Golovin, Donny, unable to resist, suddenly dove with a sharp bank after a fox. He found the sudden roller coaster shift wasn’t worth it when he had to travel the rest of the way home with his nose out the window.

M.O.’s unfettered need to dive bomb possibly the same fox provoked the same response from my content filled stomach. Fortunately I managed to get it all in the bag rather that down my shirt. What do you do with a full barf bag while flying above the frozen arctic in a single engine Cessna? M.O. put the plane down on the ice after determining it’s safe smooth, rut-less landing. Without stopping the engine, he ordered me to open the door, drop the bag on the ice and we were off again on our way to White Mountain. We made the rest of the trip with very little discussion.

So I was to remain in Golovin but not much longer.

fox on the beach

A fox visits our summer campsite several months earlier

Fox on the beach

(to be continued) copyright Tamara Ann Burgh, all rights reserved

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To start reading from the beginning, go to May 11, 2008.

M.O. and Donny were home for a couple of weeks from school. M.O. from Duluth and Donny from Fairbanks. It may have been spring break but frigid temperatures and a thick layer of ice and snow covered any evidence of spring on the Seward Peninsula.

M.O. who rarely had much to say or do with me surprised me by inviting me to accompany him on a charter to White Mountain. I had been to White Mountain twice before. My snowmobile trip with Jimmy had been aborted but I had gone with M.O. and Sister to dig bits of charred bone remains from Koke’s July crash. Another time months previous, in the summer, Donny had taken me with him on a charter flight to White Mountain on the Niukluk and the Fish Rivers.* On that trip, somewhere over Golovin Bay, a spiral of smoke rose from the plane’s cabin floor beneath Donny’s feet. A thin red open-ended wire was burning. Donny quickly began stomping on it until he vanquished the small smoldering flame.

Somehow, as a child, I developed the ability to shut down when confronted with threatening situations.† That little bit of wire could have easily developed into a life threatening situation. My “ability” to shut down when threatened and knowing it would do no good for my pilot, Donny, to have me panic caused me to simply ask when the smoke dissipated, “Was that wire important?” He replied simply, “Naw.” I don’t know if he was lying but, as a pilot, he knew it would do no good to frighten his passenger.

Some weeks later, summer’s end, I was standing outside the store when Maggie burst out of the house. We had a clear unobstructed view of Donny landing his plane the other side of the village. He had just returned from a trip to Nome with a load of gas and oil in 50 gallon drums. Maggie was waving a towel and yelling at Donny in the plane. There was no way he can hear you I thought. I figured he had a phone call and thought it strange for her to be so adamant about his taking it. Normally the inconvenience of one phone in the store servicing the entire village caused everyone to be nonchalant or very patient about receiving or making phone calls. (This is pre-cell phone era.) But then I saw what she had seen in the house moments earlier. In the house she could see him arrive but, from the house he had to still be in the air banking in preparation for landing several minutes from actually touching down. Now Donny had landed and was taxiing to a quicker than normal stop and we all saw what the problem was. Flames were spurting from the fuselage. By the time I had processed it all Donny had jumped out of the plane then, to Maggie’s and my horror, he jumped back into the cabin and began flinging the 50 gallon drums of fuel out and onto the runway.

I wonder now if that thin red wire was the culprit.

(to be continued) copyright Tamara Ann Burgh, all rights reserved

*My ancestry is of the Fish River tribe: White Mountain is a city in Nome Census Area, Alaska, United States. At the 2000 census the population was 203. The city is an Iġaluiђmuit (Fish River tribe) Iñupiat village, with historical influences from and relationships with Kawerak and Yupiaq Eskimos. 86.2% of the population is Alaska Native or part Native. Subsistence activities are prevalent. White Mountain is the only village on the Seward Peninsula located inland, not on the ocean. Wickipedia

†My elderly mother does this when I’m angry and adamantly trying to resolve an issue. It drives me absolutely insane.

White Mountain Alaska

White Mountain Picture taken from http://www.google.com/

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To start reading from the beginning, go to May 11, 2008.

Sundays were a day of rest and relaxation. One of my last Sundays in Golovin, Martin had planned an outing. We were going snow machining. (They called them snow machines over snow mobiles). We bundled in our warmest clothing. Maggie prepared a thermos of coffee and I grabbed my camera.

Martin determined the passenger/driver match-ups. He drove one machine, Maggie and Sister shared another and I was on my own. I was apprehensive about the day. Right away I sensed something amiss and felt like the odd man out. I was surprised Martin gave me charge over a machine as he knew I had never driven one before.

I had been living with the family more than eight months with no plans on my part to leave. I was hovering between an adventure and the place I needed to be as a college graduate (with honors) and independent adult. Martin had asked me to stay the winter but I suddenly crossed an ambiguous time line where I was beginning to sense my limited services (helping Maggie in the store) were no longer needed or wanted. I had become a hanger-oner. It is embarrassing to think and write about now and I can’t say what I was thinking — or not thinking — feeling or not feeling — knowing or not knowing what I wanted for my life.

The four of us on three machines took off across the flat frozen bay toward land. Martin was about to ask me, for the first time, to leave without having to ask me to leave. He led us across flat snow and ice straight to what seemed to me to be a nearly vertical incline. “Oh, shit,” I thought. I quickly realized this wasn’t a leisure scenic Sunday drive anymore. We weren’t going to the Ice Cream Palace where my dad used to take me and my four siblings for a rare innocuous friendly Sunday treat of square scoops of sherbet in cones.

I thought it strange that I wasn’t afraid. I can’t know but it seemed Maggie, with Sister as her passenger, were not expecting to challenge an obstacle course that calm snowy Sunday, but they plowed up the cliff behind Martin. I can’t know, but I sensed they knew that if they didn’t make it, my inevitable not making it would negate Martin’s ulterior purpose. That is to say, asking me to leave without asking me to leave.

Eventually the three of them waited successfully at the top of the cliff looking down on me. All four of us knew I would not make it. I decided I would fail without apology or embarrassment I made it half way up before I stalled out. It took a fearless hand on the throttle to start up and another bite of courage to gun it even more to make the final push to the top and over onto horizontal ground. I let go of the throttle and felled the machine sideways into deep soft powder which kept me and the machine from sliding back down the hill. I grasped the camera in its case around my neck and traipsed up the hill while Sister, under Martin’s order, trekked down to rescue my machine and valiantly ride it over the top of the cliff.

To show my deliberate nonchalance about my failure, I took pictures of Sister zooming past me.

For the next hour or so, we had a pleasant ride through willows, past ptarmigan and over frozen streams until we stopped for coffee. I feared Martin would lead us home down the cliff, which would be an ever greater challenge for me. I was prepared to tell him up front I could and would not try it. We fortunately skirted around the cliff and were back home before the late afternoon sunset.

A few more weeks passed before Martin, in his own way, would ask me again to leave. I would finally take him up on it.

(to be continued) copyright Tamara Ann Burgh, all rights reserved

Uncle Martin

Uncle Martin taking a break from the snow machine

sister on snowmachine

Sister rescuing my machine

laundry day

Laundry day -- somehow the clothes dry on the line, though they are frozen in place

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To start reading from the beginning, go to May 11, 2008.

From what little I know, Alaska, during the nineteen century first missionary days was divided between the Catholics and Protestants. The Protestants specifically Covenant. During my Golovin days I was still a Born Again believer who did not know much about Catholic vs. Protestant, Protestant vs. Protestant . . . I didn’t know church history or theology nor much about the Bible. Some years later I determined I would be a missionary and attended events and schools like The U.S. Center for World Missions (Pasadena, CA), Champaign Urbana spring missions conference (1979) and the Billy Graham Center graduate studies school (Wheaton, IL) where I studied mission history, church history, hermeneutics, theology, the Old Testament, New Testament and more. But back in Golovin and all my studies later, I had never heard of Covenant Protestantism. I imagined Covenant worshipers cloaked in black capes and hoods;
figures in a dark stone room carrying candles and chanting. Of course, it was nothing like that.

Golovin villagers had, at some point, been proselytized by Covenant-ers over Catholics either by first come first served/converted, by lottery or geographic allotment. Maggie was raised covenant by a devout mother (who was really her step-grandmother). In Golovin Maggie was the primary keeper of the church. She opened the church door Sunday morning and during winter started the wood stove an hour before service in order for the building to be at least above freezing for the congregation of no more than a six or eight, maybe a dozen on some Sundays.

Maggie attended every Sunday and for those of us in her home, all were expected to attend and participate (except Martin who never went). We were, at times, asked to give a sermon when Old Man Siegfried was unavailable (see July 25, 2008). Maggie chose the hymns to be sung and would start them ac-capella. There was never an accompanying musical instrument. She would then announce the speaker. Around Christmas I had been asked by her to give the sermon. At first I balked but then became somewhat enthusiastic as I have a penchant for pedantic-ism. The results, however, did not match my unrealistic expectation of an enthusiastic response.

During my 13 some years as a born-again Christian and faithful church-goer, I always felt something of the odd-man out. I was among a culture of people who had all primarily been raised in the church. Looking back I see the church as more a culture than a monotheistic faith system. I was culturally a square peg in a round hole. I would ask questions in Sunday school like: during a serious lesson was on the Biblical principle that believers should obey their leaders, I innocently asked, “So, America was founded on dis-obediency and un-Christian behavior?” My Sunday School teacher scowled and ignored me from then on. Seems merely logical to me, but most often my skewed perception of things went unappreciated. It would take many years for my “artistic” nature to find a mature voice and appreciative audience.

But the Holiday sermon I gave in Golovin landed on confused ears. My sermon appropriately enough was about Jesus’ mother, Mary. I identified with her because she was also in a socially awkward place. She must have been the village weirdo having claimed to be impregnated by God and to still be a virgin! “What the hell?” “Are you kidding me?” “Who does she think she is!?”  I spoke (minus the expletives) of how lonely she must have been. How she must have had to dig deep within to manage a degree of self-respect and faith.

I could not tell if my congregation of eight was with me or dumbfounded or bored. I believed one man, Pungak, was mesmerized with my train of thought as he had one unblinking eye beamed in on me. Then I realized it was his fake eye. His good eye was sound asleep. Jimmy watched and listened with rapt attention. Afterwords I asked what he thought but it was clear he had no idea what I was talking about. Maggie, walking home wanted to know why I chose such a strange subject. I wasn’t asked nor did I offer to give another sermon. I wasn’t surprised.

note: I am no longer a Born-Again-er, nor do I believe in the literal Bible. The Virgin Mary is, to me, an archetypal mythological reference to the birth of oneself; belief in oneself and giving birth to one’s authenticity. Choosing to live an authentic life may be a perilous decision risking possible rejection by one’s family or community.

(to be continued) copyright Tamara Ann Burgh, all rights reserved

Aboriginal kids
During my missionary days, I volunteered for six months (1980) as an illustrator/graphic artist with the Summer Institute of Linguistics, Wycliffe Bible Translators (SIL), in Darwin Australia. Here children color in a coloring book I created of an aboriginal text Bible story.

A good book on the de-conversion of an SIL translator to the Piraha Amazon people is DON’T SLEEP, THERE ARE SNAKES by Daniel Everett. Fascinating.

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To start reading from the beginning, go to May 11, 2008.

Jimmy was back at the store pacing around with his over-sized parky and toothless grin. He was in his early twenties andwhether to decay or a fight he was missing his two front teeth. The missing teeth or the last several weeks of incarceration had no affect
on his positive personality. He was telling me about a movie playing in White Mountain that night at the community center.

Last summer someone had ordered in a movie for the village of Golovin. Several villagers crammed into school chairs and benches in the school house to watch THE WAY WE WERE with Robert Redford (one of my favorites) and Barbara Streisand. I had kids sitting on my lap, hugging me, placing their cheek to mine. The following day Donny and I were leaving on our trip “outside” (Minnesota and Chicago). That movie night I contracted impetigo on my face from one of the kids. I spent the trip outside treating the highly contagious unsightly virus.

Jimmy invited me to join him and others to travel that night by snow machine 18 miles across the lagoon to White Mountain. The majority of my days in Golovin consisted of work, cleaning up after dinner and spending time alone in my room. A trip with a group of people, including Unsky and Gooksy, was appealing — not logical — but a way to break the monotony.

The trip would be in the dark: the sun half heartedly rose around 9:00 am and hovered above the horizon before leaving again late afternoon. The temperature would be around 0 degrees that night. I trusted the so-called group I’d be with as I figured a trip to White Mountain on
snow machine in the dark was like my high school friends and I driving from Ottawa, IL to Streator for a movie. No big deal if it’s familiar territory. If you’d been there all your life.

Three snow machines pulled up outside the house shortly after dinner. Maggie and Martin watched me leave without a word but, in hindsight, the must have
been concerned — more than concerned. I couldn’t tell who the figures were under helmet and bundled in snowsuits. They were mounted on black new sleek machines. Jimmy’s machine had to be twenty years old. Perhaps the prototype for the first machine to run on snow. One could see its dull yellow squared off body in the moonlight. The single headlight had a dull glow that Jimmy said wouldn’t stay on, but “That’s okay, we’ll follow the others.”

We were no sooner out of Golovin and on the ice when the others took off like a rocket. We puttered along convincing myself we would never get to White Mountain before the movie ended. I should have asked what movie we were perilously traveling so far to see. I doubt that Jimmy knew. Whenever we hit a bump the light went out. Another bump the light came back on until we either ran out of bumps or the light just stopped working. I finally told Jimmy we need to go back. I was surprised when persistent Jimmy complied.

Fortunately we had a full moon and clear skies. Unfortunately Jimmy had no idea which way was “back”. On the ice and snow a degree to the left or right of one’s destination could easily leave one still in the middle of nowhere. Suddenly, in the far distance, the other two machines were racing on a joy ride. They seemed to have no intention of going to the movie — nor making sure we were okay.

Jimmy pointed right indicating the direction we should go. Some time ago, M.O. had taken me on a machine out on the ice North of Golovin for the sole purpose of showing me, if I were ever lost, how to get home by the stars. Donny and Koke were more my friends than M.O. so it was unusual for him to show concern. Maybe he was under Martin’s orders. It was even more unusual to me to think I’d ever be out so far from Golovin by myself on the ice at night. And there
I was, north of Golovin with a lifetime villager and Eskimo who, to me should know how to get home. I should have known better than to trust Jimmy for anything.

As per M.O.’s instructions I found the twinkling star on Orion’s belt and told Jimmy we need to go that way. He again complied like a little boy and we were home within the hour. I quietly entered the house and up to my room where I removed my reindeer mukluks (mukluks courtesy of Maggie), down mittens, down parky with wolf ruff (ruff courtesy of Maggie), down cap, snow pants, long underwear and crawled into bed where I stared at the moon just outside my bedroom
window.

After I left Golovin and was living in Nome, I saw Jimmy a time or two. I later learned he was traveling one night on a snow machine, ran out of gas and froze to death.

(to be continued) copyright Tamara Ann Burgh, all rights reserved

Jimmy in Nome

Jimmy in Nome

winter buildings

The Old House and Shed in winter

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To start reading from the beginning, go to May 11, 2008.

Jimmy was back and Captain K (Kiyukuk), the reindeer herder, was
scheduled to leave. For days the Captain sat on the living room
varnished plywood floor scraping reindeer leggings. Leggings are,
naturally, fur skinned from the legs of reindeer. Kiyukuk placed the
14″-ish X 8″-ish piece of hide fur side down on the floor. With the hide
between his outstretched legs he thumped and stroked his handmade
scraper — rounded steel blade and bone handle — against the raw side
of the leggings removing dried membrane and tissue. Maggie was happy to
finally have her stash of leggings clean, white , soft and supple for
making mukluks. I was the happy recipient of a pair reindeer mukluks
with seal hide sole and land otter trim.

Kiyukuk was an expert at scraping reindeer hide. He worked for hours
happy to have work to do in a warm living area keeping an eye on the
comings and goings. He didn’t say much but would occasionally converse
with Maggie in Eskimo. He spoke English but when I said a word or two,
he pretended not to hear me.

Maggie and Martin brought him to the house nearly starved to death
with pneumonia. Maggie had taken good care of him and after a few weeks
of recuperation in Golovin, he was to be taken to live with his sister
in the midst of civilization (Anchorage?). Most of his adult life he had
lived alone surviving in the arctic wilderness. I wondered how he would
survive his last years in the city. It didn’t seem right or fair to me.
But it was inevitable. My suburban mind believed if we worked hard
through to retirement and old age, we would be and should be awarded
approaching death with dignity and peace. It didn’t appear to be a
dignified end for Captain K. I imagined him feeling displaced and caged.
I can’t know, but I am now aware, having watched my elderly parents and
others, that if I live to be an old woman, those last years may offer
the biggest of life’s challenges.

(to be continued) copyright Tamara Ann Burgh, all rights
reserved

Dancing Eskimo Boys

Learning to dance, Nome Elementary School

The Iditarod recently finished in Nome. My first experience with Iditarod, I took this picture of the last sled to
arrive in Nome some seven days after the winner. A ptarmigan is attached
to the stick.

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