Mound Houses

Our coffee machine is being held together with duct tape right now.

The coffee still tastes great.

Just back from the coldest day I’ve experienced in a long while. I’m sure I’ve experienced similar windchill in Kansas, but it was particularly biting today. Especially when you’re staring at a frozen sea.

We had lunch at the college– bean burritos and guacamole. I am eating better than I have in a long, long while. The lunches that they provide for us for free cost $25 a person, though. All this food that has to be shipped to Barrow. It is so generous, the community is really helping us out.

I was talking to a guy today, and he told me that in two weeks, the first annual summer whale and fish sharing will take place. You just go to the center of town with a big trashbag, and bring it around like Halloween. And all the fisherman and whalers distribute their catches from the summer for free.

To everyone– even the vegetarian from Kansas.

After work today, Laura took us on a tour of Barrow.

It was an hour and a half of pure, archeological, radical and intriguing knowledge. This woman is full of information, and loves to share it. I love listening.

I volunteered to help with face painting at the local circus tonight at 6 pm, so I don’t have time to write out all of the information I learned today. But I will write a little bit now, and the rest later tonight after the circus.

It is such a good night to stay in and snuggle up with a notebook and a coffee. But I’m really excited to go volunteer and interact with more members of the community.

And I haven’t been to a circus since I was ten. I wonder what a circus at the top of the world looks like. And how do they get a circus to come up here?

Laura is an amazing introduction to a new area. She’s got us hooked up with all of the local events, and slowly integrating us with all of the local people. At the end of our tour of town– we stopped and got out by the beach.

And it was brutal.

Laura told us it’s not usually this cold in the summer here. We’d just have to take her word for it.

4:30 in the afternoon, and we’re out walking on the tundra. The tundra has a spongy feeling under your feet. The thick grass that grows on it is like horse hair. Super strong, looks unbreakable.

But the composition of the tundra itself is very fragile, and with  every step you take on it, you destroy it.

Nevertheless, there are clovers growing under the snow. And many other plants. There is green making its way. There is life.

“What I really want to do in my next life is figure this out. I mean, what the fuck? What are these plants doing?” Laura exclaimed in regard to the beauty of life beneath our feet in this harsh environment.

You technically need a permit to walk on the beach, so we just walked along the ridge. We were actually walking on something called house mounds. Which is exactly what the name implies– they are old houses of the native people.

Native Inupiat people traditionally built semi-subterranian sod houses.

The idea is intriguing, and different than what we think of when we think of Arctic native housing. The house is created by digging a hole– and then using whalebones for support and sod to create the roof above it. The roof is only about a foot off the ground, so the vast majority of the house is below ground.

So that’s what we got to walk on on the beach. These mounds, that used to be houses. We actually walked over and looked up close at the whalebones still sticking out of the ground for support.

The houses had a hole in the roof for smoke to come out from the fires. They also created a refrigerator like vortex with the tunnel doorway, so that they could store food there. And so that the heat stayed at the bottom base of the house.

People would do most of their work outside of the house, sitting atop it. Most archeological evidence of the people is found atop the mounds, not within them. They were used mainly just for sleeping.

Also, the idea of the lone nomadic eskimo is a myth. Or, “bullshit,” as Laura put it.

They were a very communal people, and from mid september to early june, huge villages were formed within mound housing communities.

The archeological story of the Arctic is about flooding. It’s still evidenced in all of the houses here in the town, including our own, which are built on stilts to make room for the inevitable melting ice and snow. Some people prop their houses up on ski sleds, others with large chunks of wood.


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