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The Eskimo Girl and the Englishman
By Edna Wilder
University of Alaska PressCopyright © 2007 University of Alaska Press
All right reserved.
In this land of peace with nature Nedercook had knowledge only of the natives of Alaska between the villages of Cape Nome and Fish River. There were no mechanical sounds, only the sounds of her people, dogs, wild birds and animals, storms, wind, and rain. Possibly once or twice a year in summer, there was thunder. The songs of her people and those of the wild birds were the only musical sounds she heard. Knowing no other life, she was happy with hers. Looking out across the Bering Sea she would wonder if on the other side of this big salty lake other people were living too.
As she grew older she would look toward Rocky Point and imagine the day to come when she would be old enough that her father would take her to the top of the tallest part of the mountain, called Iknutak. Others who had been there said that near the top was a circle of very old driftwood, like a circle that would form if that was the only piece of land above water. In places above this circle there were the remains of very old shelters. The wood, it was said, looked very old. Nedercook was curious, and she wanted to see this. Caribou roamed the mountain during this period, and in the spring the bowhead whales would pass near Rocky Point. She remembered times when the water in Golovin Bay looked as if it were solid with the heads of passing walrus, but they too became scarce and had all but disappeared by the time Nedercook became a woman.
On a sunny but chilly day when Nedercook was in her early teens, she gathered together her bow, arrows, ulu (Eskimo knife), and pack sack, which was made from a seal hide and had one strap that passed over the shoulder. Then she went walking out across the tundra as she had learned to do in childhood, always in search of anything edible. She spotted a large flock of ptarmigan. Now their feathers were white in preparation for the coming winter snow. All stood white against the dark tundra. Staying downwind from them she decided to creep close enough for a shot with her bow and arrow, careful not to make any quick moves but still staying on the lookout for danger. Her eye caught a movement to her right, and she saw what appeared to be a person. Her body became tense. She had never seen anyone who looked like what was coming toward her—even the way it walked seemed different to her.
What shall I do? wondered Nedercook, as she lay huddled in the grass. The strangely dressed person kept coming in a line that would bring him to her. She was sure that he had not seen her yet, but in a little while he would. Fear got the better of her when the hairs on the back of her neck seemed to stand up. Clutching her bow and arrow tightly, she came to her feet running, scaring the ptarmigan to flight. With the movement the stranger saw her. He stopped. She heard him yell strange sounds that were foreign to her ears. They sounded like "Stop ... Hey ... stop!" These strange noises made no sense to her—if anything, they made her legs go faster as she ran like she never had before. Rushing into the inne she found her father working on some damaged hunting equipment.
"Stranger coming," she gasped, then could not speak until she had some water. Her father, Inerluk, got up and after more questions and answers told Nedercook and her mother to stay there as he went outdoors. Soon voices were heard, as Inerluk and the stranger started to come down the steps to the inne. Nedercook was so frightened by now that she crawled under her bedding and hid. The stranger made many sounds that Nedercook did not understand. The word "San Francisco" was repeated a few times, and if she had been brave enough to look out, she would have seen the stranger place his hand on his chest and say, "I am from San Francisco." None of it made any sense to anyone. Inerluk tried to communicate with him, but it was no use. Nedercook's mother, Kiachook, thought he might be hungry and offered him a bowl of food. He gratefully took it, smiled at the faces around him, and began to eat. He was very hungry.
When the man finished eating, Inerluk told the villagers to take him to the Big Dance Hall, a large underground dwelling used for visitors, where unmarried men slept, and live coals were always kept glowing and ready for anyone who needed a fire. (There was a side room used as a sauna, and small storage rooms were dug into the dirt wall of the passageway.)
Hearing the man repeat "San Francisco" so often, the villagers, for lack of a better name, decided to call him "Sammy-sis-co." He had light brown hair and was dressed in strange clothes that were not made of skin. Later, when it became apparent that he could not survive outdoors in his strange worn-out clothes, the elders decided that an outfit of clothes like they wore should be made and given to him, because although they could not converse with him, he always tried to help and did his share of the work. He was not a good hunter but he was learning to throw the spear and shoot the arrow.
Life in the village soon returned to normal. One day when Nedercook's brothers were away and her parents were not at home, she completed the grass rug that she had been working on, then came out of the inne to see snow falling. It was the beginning of winter and it looked like a real storm was brewing. Nedercook was always active and today she was feeling stronger than her years. She decided to carry in some of the foodstuff that was usually stored indoors for the winter. Hoping to surprise her parents, she made several trips. She was too busy to notice that the snow from her mukluk soles was slowly forming a thin sheet of ice on the top steps. I can carry that, she thought as she looked at the heavy seal poke, which was filed with partially dried seal meat and oil. It was heavy and awkward, but she was determined to get it onto her shoulder. She walked with a staggering movement under the weight until she reached the top step. Moving to lower herself to the next step, she felt herself slipping and the heavy seal poke started to tip. In an effort to correct it, she fell tumbling down the steps. The heavy seal poke came crashing down upon her and rolled to the side. Nedercook was frightened as she lay there because she had never felt like that before. When she tried, she could not get up. She cried out in pain and called for help, but there was no one there. Her mother was in the village helping a woman who had hurt herself, both brothers were away hunting, and her father was fishing some distance up the coast. She lay helpless on the floor as the world outside became darker.
Her father was the first to find her. He saw the seal poke and knew that she was badly hurt. He quickly climbed the steps and called for someone to bring the Miracle Man right away. With his sensitive fingers the Miracle Man moved his hands over her back.
"Broken," he said as he raised his eyes to her father. By then Kiachook had returned, and with her help the Miracle Man took some of the pieces of flatter wood that her father had made in hopes of a new sled and placed some along her back and some in front. Then all were bound in place with thin rawhide.
"This must stay on for a long time," he said, "maybe three or four moons, maybe longer. We can only wait and see."
"And if not?" Nedercook asked weakly.
"If you take the wood off too soon you will always look like a cripple ... bent and stooped," he replied. As uncomfortable as it was, Nedercook thought, I'll live with the wood until I am well. As the darker days of winter approached, her family did all they could for her because she could not even turn over without their help. Even with the soft fur between her body and the hard wood pressing on her, each day seemed like an eternity. She thought over and over again, If I had not wanted to test my strength so much, I could be outdoors walking, running, hunting.
She did not see much of Sammy-sis-co, but he came to see her several times. He tried to teach her some of his words. He never stayed long. She could sense that he felt sorry for her. From other women, she heard accounts of his life in the village and also of a song that one of the women had composed. Her sister learned the song and taught it to her. Although she could not sing very well while lying strapped up like she was, she learned the words and was able to sing the song later, remembering it for life.
With the coming of spring Sammy-sis-co made it known that he intended to leave. He would go west along the coast. For his trip Inerluk gave him some dried salmon, meat, and a fur robe. Nedercook's sister Paniagon told of his leaving on foot early one morning. As the villagers watched he turned and waved before going over the ridge and out of sight. He was never seen again.
While Nedercook was recovering from her fall her brother Oolark got married. How she had wanted to go to the Big Dance Hall to see the elders speak of this marriage!
After winter, when food became plentiful, Minnie's people had a big celebration lasting for days until the food was gone. Village people provided food for everyone, including visitors. Presents were exchanged and dancing was popular. They called it the Big Festival. When it was time for the Big Festival she wanted so much to be able to attend. She asked the Miracle Man if her brothers could carry her. His answer was a firm "No," but then he added more kindly, "If you want to get well, you stay."
That winter seemed like it would never end for Nedercook. Just when she thought it would not, she noticed that the skylight was letting in more light that stayed longer each day.
As the daylight increased, Nedercook eagerly watched from her bed as each day brought more light to the skylight opening. How she longed for the wood to be removed from her body. Her family spoke encouraging words, even after the visits of the Miracle Man, and the wood remained on her body. One day the Miracle Man came and carefully moved his fingers around her back.
"We take wood off today, but you must be very careful, no fast moves and no walking today," he cautioned.
With the thought of going out and roaming the hills again, Nedercook's heart was filled with joy. When the last piece of wood was removed from her body she planned to jump up and go outside ... but she was too weak, because the many days of inactivity had taken their toll. She burst into tears. Kiachook, who was ever near, took her hands and explained the cause of her weakness. Slowly she would have to build back her strength, and after much trial and effort she would walk and run again. But not now ... For now, her mother said, it was enough that the hard wood was gone from her body.
Early the next morning a woman came to Inerluk's home. She believed that draining away the old blood from one's body would speed up the recovery. She brought with her a pointed tool, and with it she stabbed Nedercook several times around her knees and a few times in the back. This was painful and the loss of blood made Nedercook even weaker. The scars around her knees were visible until her death. The days of spring brought more and more light, and with it Nedercook's strength grew. Every day she could move a little more. Slowly she made it across the floor and back to her bed, until one day she finally reached the bottom of the steps where she had fallen. Kiachook went up and opened the heavy skins, and there was the beautiful blue sky.
One afternoon she made it to the top of the steps. As she sat on a skin outside the entranceway, gazing out over the village and across the Bering Sea, her heart was so full of joy that tears filled her eyes. From that day on she improved more rapidly. Soon she could go up the steps and even walk a little. One day she made it to the little knoll above the inne. Pale and thin in her parka-clad body, she sat and absorbed the sun, felt the caressing breeze of spring, and her heart was thankful. She stayed until her mother came and said, "Let's go eat."
By fall she was walking quite well but she was cautious as she descended the steps. By the next summer she could run again—not as fast as before—but she could run. Now she could take up her bow and arrow. Her brothers had made a new one, bigger and more suitable for her age.
Occasionally visiting natives would come to the village and tell of people who came from Siberia who brought a little tea and tobacco for trade. It was always very costly, they said, because it came from white people who lived very far away. One day a small boat with two traders came and stopped at the village. When Nedercook saw them coming she was so afraid that she hid under her bedding. They spoke very badly pronounced Eskimo and some English. When they saw the beautiful grass rug that Nedercook had finished just before she fell and broke her back, they wanted it. Her rug was traded for some plug tobacco and a few loose dry leaves. The traders left to barter with the village people, and Nedercook joined her parents and she also took a small chew from the plug tobacco.
Chapter TwoOolark's Last Hunt
Just before the blueberry season Oolark's wife gave birth to a baby boy, which brought much joy to the Inerluk family. Rocky Point Eskimos treated their babies very well.
As fall approached, life around the village was busy with preparations for the winter. It was the women's responsibility during the year to gather small pieces of wood that needed no cutting for the indoor cook fires, enough to last through the long winter days. This year Nedercook took over the job from her mother, but whenever Kiachook happened to be on the beach she would carry a few pieces of the small wood home. While Nedercook was wandering the beaches, as she often did after a storm, she found a large bow in good shape. She took it back home and gave it to her brother Oolark.
The cold days of winter arrived, bringing winds from the north, freezing the ground, lakes, streams, and the water on the Bering Sea. Occasionally, on calm sunny days, a seal would surface on the sea-ice to have a last sleep and rest before the dark days of winter. These seals were not as relaxed as those that lay on top of the ice during the warm days of spring.
One day such a seal appeared on the ice in front of the village. It showed up dark against a new covering of snow that had fallen during the night.
Oolark, who had spotted the seal, decided he would try to get it. After he reached the sea ice he traveled quite fast because the seal was hidden by a small pressure ridge which he had noted before he left the village. This would be a treat if he could get it. Since the ice had frozen over, the only fresh meat was an occasional ptarmigan. He hurried on, hoping the seal would still be there. The new snow made the slick spots slippery. In his excitement to get the seal he did not pay much attention to this. Stepping in the soft snow seemed a quiet way to go. When he crossed over the pressure ridge he tried to keep his eye on the seal while moving forward quickly so he could stop before it raised its head.
All the villagers were watching, wondering if Oolark would be lucky. Suddenly, while he was rushing forward they saw him disappearing down, an involuntary movement raising his right arm as he sank. To the onlookers it seemed to convey a final farewell.
Villagers hurried out to where he was last seen. His tracks ended by an open hole full of water, but they could not see him. Quick thinkers had brought with them the hook that was used to drag for seal or beluga whale when occasionally a dead one would sink before it could be retrieved.
Inerluk and others stationed themselves around the hole and tried for hours to catch something with the hook. Before dark the Miracle Man came down and, seeing how tired and grieved Inerluk was, he asked to take Inerluk's hook. Nedercook did not remember how long it was—perhaps an hour or more—before the Miracle Man's hook caught something, and he carefully pulled. He had hooked onto Oolark's mukluk. Quickly, many hands reached for him and he was pulled from the water. He was carried to Inerluk's home. His damp clothing was removed and replaced by dry ones, but it was of no use. His hands and feet had already become stiff and hard. He was dead.
Excerpted from The Eskimo Girl and the Englishman by Edna Wilder Copyright © 2007 by University of Alaska Press. Excerpted by permission of University of Alaska Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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