Walking home past the melted lagoon, I realize that this is the first day I’ve thought to myself that I might come back and visit Barrow. It’s beginning to grow on me. Things are beginning to settle, and I can see the shape of the place with my mind’s eye. And I’m beginning to feel the rhythm of the place in my blood. This village I initially looked at with an embarrassing amount of distaste and judgment, I’m now beginning to see as a fully lived place.
We walk into work this morning, and are greeted by the biggest smile I’ve seen in a long while from Dakota, sitting at the lab table. His eyes squint up just like mine do when I smile, and he glows. Still trying to act nonchalant like a cool guy, of course. But he is caught, and we call him out.
“You’re so happy to see us!” Jess exclaims. “What did you do last night, Dakota?”
Everything he says this morning is for our entertainment. Glancing back at us after most comments for our reaction. But the best reactions he gets out of us are when he’s not even trying, just being his inquisitive and tinkering-with-shit self.
We begin the morning talking about alcohol and drugs, as that is apparently how most people spend their time off work.
“It’s all bootlegged. $100 for a $10 bottle of whiskey underground out here.”
“Why don’t they just open up a liquor store?”
“It’s cheaper just to sneak it on the planes.”
“Do people drink a lot out here?”
“Most adults drink pretty much every night.”
“How do you feel about the alcohol here?”
“I hate it.”
There is a pregnant pause, and then he goes on to explain that the culture out here is now very tied to these substances. And that it’s the direction young people inevitably seem to turn to as well.
“They should make a skate park or something out here for your guys…” Jess offers.
“The climate wouldn’t allow for it.” Dakota states, with knowledge that we don’t possess of the land and surrounding area.
He then goes on to tell us that Alaska is the number one state for domestic violence, the most cases per area in the United States. There’s another pregnant pause, and I want to so badly to make him smile again.
He does, a few minutes later. And the smile doesn’t leave his face for the rest of the day.
Dakota’s got four brothers, and he can’t count how many sisters he has. His mom just retired a few years ago, but is a renowned sewer in Barrow- people come to her for everything, including the beautiful traditional parkas.
Every time we ask Dakota a question, he shuts the music off completely so he can hear us and respond in full.
I tell Dakota about the program we’re doing, I think he’d really enjoy it. Later, he tells me that if he does end up doing the program, he’s going to email me pictures all the time of all the places he goes. I said that I would love that.
Michael is still being aloof in the corner, wearing a shirt that says, “No RAGRETS.” We’ve won him over by the end of the day, though. He’s singing along to the music, and telling us about how he goes with his choir group to sing traditional Inupiaq songs at the senior center- where we are heading for lunch today.
A little bit later, two other native Barrow high schoolers walk in- Amber and Stephen. They are quiet as well, but have the warmest presences. Amber tells us that she has just been accepted to a boarding school for her senior year of highschool, all the way down in Sitka, which is near Juneau.
“That’s the gayest school, Amber,” Dakota teases her.
“It’s a diverse school,” she says.
“It’s a smart school,” Michael confirms.
We’re pouring out bags of bones in front of us again today, and continuing the search for ancient walrus bones. We have a little more experience after working all day yesterday with the bones, but have nothing compared to Stephen’s knowledge. We would pick up a bone we weren’t sure about, and show it to him. And he’d casually let us know what it was: caribou, whale, fox, bird.
“You grew up hunting, didn’t you?
“I’ve always hunted.”
“I can tell, you know every bone in these boxes.”
Michael and Stephen are interested in pursuing archaeology. Amber and Dakota are here for a summer job to get some money. They make $15 an hour.
We’re collecting these walrus bones because it’s going to give us a good indication of the walrus’ diet throughout the centuries, and thus the fish and other aquatic life population at different times through the generations. The overall goal is to learn more about how to manage the present fish population in the sea.
“What I need is a good elephant skeleton,” Anne says in reference to a potential mammoth bone sitting on the table. She tells us about mammoths, the official state fossil of Alaska
Dakota jokes, “It’s like you’re giving a speech at the head of the table and we’re about to eat.” We all laugh, and look down at the trays of bones sitting in front of us.
Anne walks out of the room, and leaves us to our fossils.
“She comes back, and we’ve eating all the bones,” Tony imagines.
“We’ve made walrus stock for dinner.”
“Drink tea er’yday,” Jess raps as we match up fossils.
The 17 year olds fall in love with her, as they should.
“Yeeah… that is an old walrus tusk,” Stephen muses magically.
“I love how soft spoken they are,” Jess turns and comments to me.
It’s true, they really have a way of talking. Jess, Tony and I all agree that we could listen to them speak all day. It’s impossible to explain how they talk, because I’ve never really heard anyone talk like this before. It definitely has its Canadian influences, as they use their soft o’s and a’s. “Don’tcha knoooww?”
But then there are spaces in the sentences, a flow and a rhythm to the words that feels grounded and one with the Earth and the natural world around us.
Their words fill the room with intrigue, and calm as they bounce words off one another, and to us.
“We talk louder than them,” Jess tells me later as we are heading to lunch. “I’ve noticed that whenever you or I say something to one another, they perk up to attention to hear what we’re saying.”
While we from the lower 48 are trained to tune out white noise, and anything that is not being directed exactly to us, they come from a much quieter culture, where anything said in the room is taken in and respected by all ears.
Tony, Jess and I are all quiet people. But it was like we were shouting compared to the Inupiat high schoolers today. Relax the voice box, relax the mind. The way you talks affects the way you think, I’m sure. I wonder if there is a connection between Western extrovertism, a pinched voice and high stress? If your body is communicating in a more relaxed way, I’d assume your mind follows.
We talk to them about Inupiaq, the native language here. And they tell us that they know words, but are not fluent like their parents’ generation. The language is fading away. It is taught at the highschool by a “white woman,” they say with not just a little distaste. Then, correcting themselves, they say, actually, I think she’s actually Mexican or something.
Still, she’s not Inupiat.
Though these 17 year olds are not fluent in Inupiaq, they use words in their everyday conversation, especially while looking at the animal bones. They unconsciously refer to the animals by their Inupiaq names. And we learn a few. Caribou is “tutu”.
We also learn some funny words as well, as is usually the next step in learning a new language.
We already know the word for penis, which is usuk. We know this because there was a giant, two foot long bone in the middle of the table yesterday. Which we learned from Dakota and Michael, and then Anne the archaeologist to be a walrus penis bone.
They also taught us the word “anuq” today, which we were told means “hello.” Out of guilt a bit later, the boys tell us that it actually means “shit.” Had we not learned this information, that joke would have made for a hilarious and offensive cultural experience later at lunch at the senior center.
Milooks means boobs. Uchook is vagina. In case any of you readers were wondering. For future reference, you know?
Kingur is supposed to mean nose, but after the “anuq” trick, I’m not sure I’d use that word without further research.
“Our generation only knows the basics, now,” Amber was telling us.
“And uchook is definitely one of the basics,” Tony added.
The kids all have Inupiat names. Jess learns them, and writes them down with their phone numbers.
“I don’t understand why they don’t tell us their real names when we meet,” Jess tells me later. Always a big proponent for staying true to yourself, and telling societal pressures to fuck off, Jess is really diving into the Inupiat culture and language. And how and why it’s not being preserved. And being an all around cultural knowledge gatherer with me.
“So there’s pottery in these bags as well. And then there are clinkers. Make sure you look out for the clinkers,” Anne tell us. She mentioned this yesterday, but as we are definitely not professional Arctic archaeologists, we have no idea what this means. Dakota asks today, and she sits down with him to explain. Her and Dakota have the most interesting dynamics going on– he gives her shit, and she returns him with shit. It’s a very uneasy tension for the rest of us, but the two of them don’t really even seem to notice it. Before we met the high schoolers yesterday, Anne told us “one of them is a hard worker, and the other one is here to “learn work ethic.”
Regardless of work ethic, she’s got a soft spot for Dakota. And he’s got a soft spot for archaeology, even though he says that “the worst part of archaeology is looking at bones”.
Anne explains that clinkers are parts of the ancient floors of the Inupiat people. They would pat the sand down on the floor of their huts, coat the ground in seal oil, and then burn the ground so that it became a hard, solid mass. And these are the black pieces of material we find mixed in with the bones and dirt.
“What are you guys getting out of this?” Dakota, Stephen, Michael and Amber all ask us when they learn that we are only making the equivalent of $2 a day, while they are making $16 an hour as seniors in highschool.
We don’t know how to answer this.
“Yeah, to meet people like you guys. Travel places like this that we would never get to do otherwise.”
We break for lunch, and catch our ride to the senior center where we eat every Tuesday. Walking in, there is an elderly woman at the front of the room, leading a traditional prayer song in Inupiaq. The whole room of elders begin singing along, and it is beautiful. And it is one of those moments when I realize where I am. And how little I truly understand about the world. And how there is always the present to discover infinities in.
While we stand and wait for all of the elders to filter into the dining hall, Jess and I strike up a conversation with a little old man. He can’t hear us, and pulls out a notebook and a pen from his pocket. We communicate via the written word until dinner is served. He tells us about his travels around the world, “when he was young, like us”. He tells us about his life as a carpenter in Barrow, where he has spent his whole life. Jess asks him how to say, “It’s a beautiful day,” and he replies, “Ah-di-ga-see-la”. It has two meanings: beautiful day, and beautiful weather.
Jess and I agree that up here in this harsh climate, the two are even more synonymous than where we’re from.
Later, as we are leaving, he comes over and pats me on the back to say goodbye.
People are lovely.
I’ve loaned Jess my book on indigenous cultures, and she’s almost finished with it. She told me at lunch how she was reading about native hunter gatherer culture, and how when someone tried to introduce the idea of gardening to a hunter gatherer society, they didn’t understand it. Didn’t feel like they needed it. We talked about how that is sort of how it feels here.
I end up having lunch with a native Barrow man named George, and a married couple from the Kingdom of Tonga in the Pacific Ocean. Lunch consists of beets, carrots, gravy and stuffing. I tell George I’m from Kansas, and he tells me that his sister married a man from Kansas. Small world, sometimes. The couple from Tonga are wearing flowers in their hair. They moved to Hawaii and became US citizens in their 20s, and lived there most of their life until their daughter moved up to Barrow. They have been here for five years, and you can tell that they do not exactly love the climate. The flowers in their hair deny the frigid surroundings though, and life is exactly what you create it to be.
After lunch, I head over to Jess’s table and join her. She’s talking to Lucia, formerly Lucy, but someone “stole her name” a few years back. She told us about growing up in Barrow fifty or so years ago, and how she watched all of her brothers and sisters come home from boarding schools outside of Barrow. They would come back and tell her that they got hit for using their native Inupiaq language, and she was so scared to go. But she did end up going to boarding school. And now she has perfect English. Her generation was the generation that began to lose the language, due in large part to these boarding schools. This beautiful language that feels like a lullaby in contrast to the harsh environment outside.
She hears we’re planting tundra plants out back, and she tells us about the “muscle” plant– a flowering plant that has a big, edible root system underneath the tundra.
She is absolutely lovely, and tells us about tragedy and beauty, and we are all captivated as she slowly eats her carrots and gravy.
Coming back from lunch, I am overstimulated in the best way. I just want to sit down and write it all out, so that I can be completely present for the rest of the afternoon. But that is not going to be the case, so I’ve just got to make do with continuing to scribble furiously in my composition notebook for the rest of the afternoon.
Tony and I talk in the car about ease of information, and what it means now that “everybody can be a photographer/reporter/writer.” He tells me to check out a book, “The Information” by James Gleick. It changed his life, no big deal. I realize I want to study art, anthropology and journalism, how these disciplines have gone from more of an entitled endeavor, to one more accessible the masses as technology availability increases and we become a more connected world. And what is the difference between information, and art? The validity of information, and what we choose to give credence to as a person, as a culture. What’s the difference between a “professional” anthropological ethnography vs. my attempt to express through writing my experiences with the different lives I live with others? Are we all reporters? All artists? All people. Is it better to have to sift through lots of easy information, or should art/reporting/information be more disciplined and fact checked? And who’s doing this fact checking, anyway? Bias is everywhere. And I’ve recently been introduced to the idea Gonzo journalism, which is fucking blowing my mind. I don’t know why I’ve never looked into it before. I’ve definitely heard about it before, but it never clicked in the way it could apply to my life until now. Using your body as a paintbrush to create the things you want to write about later. You’re a piece to the puzzle, never an unbiased outside observer. Personal reflection and experience, and the letting in of others’ experiences as your paths cross theirs.
Back in the lab, Anne pleads for a change in music, referring to the enraged scientist complaining of yesterday’s “horrors” heard through the walls. “Let’s try to find a playlist that won’t get poor old Josh all excited…”
All the kids are adding us on facebook, and starting to stalk our profiles online.
“It says you live in Barrow!” Dakota points at me.
“I do live in Barrow right now,” I say.
We invite them over for tea. If I were going to hang out with any 17 year olds in the world, I’m happy it’s these guys.
Once Amber learns about the lack of money coming into our lives this year, she lets me know about the July 4th games, which go on for three days in the beginning of July. There is a marathon around the city, and you win cash money for prizes. Only about 15 women do it, and I’m thinking about it. Three laps around the city.
I’m writing away in my notebook, and Jess tells everyone about my special relationship with President Obama. “She’s got to record all this shit for him,” she explains.
“Obama is scared of Alaska,” Dakota states, matter of factly.
“We’re going to bring him up here,” I state, just as matter of factly.
They tell us about how Alaska is leading the movement to prohibit gun control restrictions. Everyone in Barrow hunts with rifles, and hunting is their way of life. They are scared shitless about losing their guns. But they think that Obama is much more scared of them.
We learn that Stephen is part of the whaling crew, the Levitt family, that is hosting one of the three Nalukatuk festivals this week. He is so humble, he didn’t even tell us this until I specifically asked him if he’d ever been whaling. Everyone here is so humble, you really have to ask to learn about them. They have treasures to tell, but you’ve got to lean forward, ask the right questions, and listen.
The kids begin to talk about local Barrow mythology, and about the little people that come inside and steal food. In Nome Alaska these little mythical creatures are green, but here they are black.
“I’ve seen them once.” Stephen tells us. “They ate all of our food, and left forks, knives and dishes all over our kitchen.” I didn’t catch the Inupiaq name for these people, but will look into it in the future.
The kids also told us about “Peter Tang.”
“Isn’t he that weird Japanese man that wanders the North Slope with a sled and lives in holes?” Anne asks from the back of the room
“Yeah. I’ve met him,” Stephen says. “He got kicked out of a village for trying to buy our land. And now he just wanders, back and forth across the tundra.”
I have a surprise call with campus after work, and as I’m about to walk out to take it Tony tells me he understands how I feel, even though he wasn’t here when it all went down.
I tell him I’m feeling better, I was probably overreacting a bit last week. He tells me he doesn’t particularly want to be around the sawdust either. And not feeling like you are being heard causes one to be more reactive. He tells me I’m okay to feel exactly as I’m feeling.
“Don’t leave, Annie.”
Before the phone call, I remind myself to be humble and listen. Use my words to explain what is necessary only.
And it works really well.
I feel really good after the phone call. Obviously not everything is perfect, but the communication barriers that I have been struggling with have been opened up for this hour. And it is wonderful to be heard, understood, and feel like someone is working to make the situation better. Makes me feel like I matter, like we all matter as people.
I walk home, and let it all go. Take a jog outside, and realize that I am falling in love with this place and the people here in Barrow.
The guy I met on the plane here, Karlin, my first experience with an Alaska native who happens to be a lawyer for the UIC in Anchorage, just emailed me that he’ll be making his way back to Barrow this week, and would I like to meet up?
Connections, man. Always go in for that business card. I thought he was way too important and educated for me, I thought he probably couldn’t wait to get off of that plane with me. But sometimes you mean a lot more to people than you realize.
Which is amazing to me.
Open our minds.
We all matter to each other in ways we can never imagine.
Let people show you.
We found out tonight that Syd distributed her rock collection around our apartment for us before she flew back to New Hampshire. There are rocks in our bread bag, mixed in with our chocolate chips, and laid neatly in our silverware drawer.
Jess is sitting on the chair next to me, and started laughing aloud. I look at her, and she shows me a picture. It’s a map of the world, with a big red flag marking Barrow, Alaska at the top of the globe.
And then we both started laughing.
Here we are.