An Alaskan Story
June 16, 2019
Photo by Jonathan Wheeler on Unsplash
While living in Nome, Alaska, I often heard, “There are no old and dumb Eskimos. The dumb ones just don’t make it to old age.”
In a brutally cold and windy landscape, populated by large carnivorous animals, and where a misstep on shifting sea-ice can prove fatal, awareness is crucial. So those who survive to old age are alert and smart, with sharp memories and great stories.
My job in the lab in the small Eskimo hospital in Nome gave me an opportunity to hear their memories told through their stories.
I found that most of the elder Inupiat and Yupik patients were only too happy to break the boredom of confinement in a hospital by talking to me. They seemed especially appreciative of my curiosity about their lives and accumulated wisdom when I came armed with plenty of coffee.
Frank Poodogoolik, an Inupiat somewhat north of eighty, arrived one afternoon with a swollen, red right knee, and spent the next four days on an antibiotic drip. Thin and wiry, Frank’s leathery face was always brightened with a wide grin. He spoke broken English, and used his hands to make a point when necessary.
One evening, as a cold moonlight poured through the hospital room window, I handed Frank a cup of black coffee and asked if he had ever seen a polar bear. Frank took a sip of his brew before answering.
“Many times,” he said.
With some encouragement, I got Frank to open up about his encounters with the “traveler bear.”
“Them bears and me, we hunted the same animals. One time, I was after a spotted seal and I knew where the seal’s air hole was. You got to watch the air hole and stop when the seal’s head pops up.
“But then I saw a white bear had beat me to it. He was hiding behind a mound of snow. The seal came to the surface of the water for a gulp of air, and the bear did nothing. But when the seal went back down, the bear pushed the ball of snow closer to the hole. He did this three times before he was close enough to grab the seal before it could dive.”
“So he used the mound of snow as a moving cover,” I said. Frank just nodded.
“You know,” he said. “Them traveler bears are all left-handed. I’ve watched plenty, and they always use their left hand first.”
Photo by Menglong Bao on Unsplash
A couple days later, when I again brought the coffee to Frank, he told me another polar bear story.
“I was maybe sixteen when I took my spear and went out to hunt something. My father had the only rifle and he wouldn’t let me take it out yet. So I took my spear.
“There were some tracks out on the tundra that I never saw before. It was like a slide with digging marks next to it.”
I had a tough time picturing this, and he grinned at my confusion.
“I told my father about these tracks and he laughed. About two years later, my father was with me, hunting. We were following some bear tracks when we saw something strange. It was a big traveler bear, sitting on the snow and sliding on his butt. The dig marks were where he pushed off with his front paws as he went along. Those were the same kind of tracks I had seen two years before. That bear was just sledding in the snow.”
What a bargain, I thought. These great stories for the price of a few cups of coffee and an attentive ear.
Disclaimer: In Canada, Greenland, and the US, the term “Eskimo” is no longer used, replaced by the term “Alaskan Native,” or Inuit. But in Alaska itself, the term Eskimo is used by the native Inupiat and Yupik alike.