Ultimate Americans: Point Hope, Alaska, 1826-1909

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The third volume in a series on Point Hope, Alaska, Ultimate Americans examines the first encounters between the native Tikigaq people and Anglo-Americans during the nineteenth century. Tom Lowenstein investigates the interactions between Native Alaskans, commercial whalemen, and missionaries in Point Hope, charting the destabilizing elements of alcohol and disease among Native populations, as well as cultural collisions and the eventual mutual assimilation of the groups. An in-depth historical chronicle, Ultimate Americans will be invaluable reading for historians, ethnographers, and anthropologists alike.

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Editorial Reviews

Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute
“An account of the founding of Port Hope, an Iñupiat settlement in northwestern Alaska, [Ultimate Americans] is the most authoritative account of this community and one of the richer ethnohistorical accounts of the relationships between settlers and Iñupiat. . . . The study focuses on the life-histories of two individuals: Ataŋauraq, a mercurial Iñupiat leader, and John B. Driggs, a ‘bohemian’ missionary. . . . In between these two biographies, Lowenstein provides the reader with excellent chapters giving details of economic relations, the earlier history of contact, and the health and spiritual life of the local population.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781602230279
  • Publisher: University of Alaska Press
  • Publication date: 10/15/2008
  • Pages: 368
  • Product dimensions: 7.00 (w) x 10.00 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Tom Lowenstein is the author of Ancestors and Species: New and Selected Ethnographic Poetry, Ancient Land, Sacred Whale, and The Things That Were Said of Them.

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Read an Excerpt


Point Hope, Alaska: 1826-1909
By Tom Lowenstein

University of Alaska Press

Copyright © 2008 University of Alaska Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-60223-027-9

Chapter One

Introduction: First Encounters

By the Cliffs Before Contact

August 5, 1826, was a mild day and some fifteen Iñupiaq people were camping on the beach about twenty-five miles from their main village in one of the most pleasant spots in their vast northwest arctic territory. Two or three iglus that had been excavated into a grassy bluff were screened from the beach by a cluster of caribou-skin tents that stood leaning away from the south wind. Nearby, a stream called Isuk rushed through a bank of last year's impacted snow and ran across the beach into the sea. Most of the families camping here would return to the village in the autumn to await the sea ice and the winter seal hunt, but a few older people would remain at Isuk, living quietly on the meat, fish, and berries they had put away that summer in storage pits sunk into the bluffs.

Surrounding the camp lay a mass of equipment: skin boats, kayaks, harpoons, fishnets, coils of sealskin rope, and a clutter of little tools for the making and mending of yet more equipment. Awaiting transformation into boots and parkas, bedding, and boat skins lay seal, caribou, and walrus skins. Sea mammal carcases-fresh, half butchered, some half putrid-lay among skeletal remains from past seasons' hunts. Higher on the bluff rose driftwood racks where the women had draped sliced meat to dry in the wind that had scarcely stopped blowing since the last Ice Age. Hunting, cutting, drying, and preserving were a daily labor. Bags made from hollowed-out seal stood by the tents filled with dried meat, eggs, birds steeped in seal oil or blueberries and meat chips preserved in caribou back fat. Tethered at a distance from this larder were the dogs that had dragged the skin boats along the inshore water from the village. And all this work and clutter was framed by heaps of gray, weathered tree trunks: spruce, birch, and cottonwood from the southern rivers which had drifted up coast and which the sea had been disgorging here for innumerable centuries.

On an August day like this, the work of hunting and accumulation was mixed with hours of enjoyment. The temperature hovered between forty and fifty degrees Fahrenheit. For Tikigaq people, who experienced winter temperatures of minus thirty (and far lower given windchill), this was warm. The children ran barefoot, the little ones naked. Adults shed one layer of their double caribou-skin parkas and trousers. "Silagiiksuq!" ("beautiful weather"), people would murmur. Such days of sunshine and a light south wind would soon be replaced by violent equinoctial storms and then freeze-up in November.

The peace at Isuk was by no means silent. At this spot by the stream, the beach was cut off by a long stretch of cliffs-the northwestern end of the Rocky mountain cordillera-where some fifteen kinds of seabirds nested in the summer. Half a million murres (a species of guillemot) laid their blue- and black-streaked eggs on the sandstone and limestone ledges among gulls, terns, kittiwakes, and fulmars. Puffins burst in and out of holes in the softer mudstone strata, while peregrine falcons, ravens, and golden eagles nested on the higher ledges. For the campers at Isuk, these species were a source of food and clothing. While some people swarmed up the cliffs and carefully descended with eggs stuffed into their parkas, others dangled their partners from the cliff top on ropes, or lay in the grass and scooped birds in pole nets.

Iñupiaq life was often balanced between fierce activity and contemplative periods of doing little. A visitor to Isuk might sit through hours or even days when nothing seemed to happen, and when nobody did much except scrutinize the sea and comment on the wind direction, or ramble to the cliff top, gaze inland towards the Kuukpak River, or try to make out on the western horizon the point where the main village, Tikigaq (Point Hope), lay at the tip of its peninsula. These interludes in summer daylight hours were interspersed with haphazard sleeps, making and mending, the bloody and oily business of meat preparation, and, not least, telling stories. The men had the most freedom. The women probably worked harder. They tended the dogs, sewed, butchered animals, cleaned skins, and dealt with the children. Sometimes visitors arrived from inland or by sea. Partly they came to drink from Isuk, whose water was particularly pure and delectable. After food, goods, and news had been exchanged, there were dances and games. People scrambled up the cliff for eggs or just waited in silence.

When activity came it was often sudden. The nets stretching from the beach would stand empty for days. When belugas arrived, the thick skin mesh would thrash violently with struggling white, dolphinlike whales. When the wind changed direction, the men might take off inland to hunt caribou, returning with backpacks of meat and skins, repeating their journey to fetch what they had left and to visit the traps they had left for foxes and marmots.

Things also happened for people simply to observe. Grizzlies ambled from the ridges where they'd been browsing for berries and excavating squirrel burrows to scavenge for dead seals or walrus. A gray whale, not worth chasing for its thin layer of blubber, would swim into view in the middle distance. Or an orca would swerve inshore to attack a seal. The women would laugh, throw stones, and shout, "When you have eaten, bring us a share!" What habitually came round the cliffs belonged to a world that was known and which could be interpreted. The animals were always welcome. But people from beyond the cliffs were often dangerous.

Isuk ("End") and the Nearer Rounding Place

The south beach runs uninterrupted from the Tikigaq Point to the cliffs, and Isuk, which means "End," was one of the last in a series of small beach settlements. The cliffs represented a multitude of sites, and twenty-five place-names between Isuk and the southern edge of the headland identify creeks, rookeries, slate and clay deposits, and trails inland. The whole promontory, which juts dramatically into the sea, was also known as the "Nearer Rounding Place." This was because Tikigaq boat travelers could, before arriving at this point, hug the relatively safe shoreline. On reaching the cliffs they had to take on board the dogs that been hauling the boat and navigate the deeper water round the headland.

The cliffs represented other points of transition. Beyond the headland lay southern neighbors with whom Tikgiaq traded and made war. Also, more remote in imaginative geography, were the "countries" where the souls of the animals went home to be reincarnated. When the animals returned, they had to travel past the headland until they were once more in Tikgiaq territory. Many species-birds, whales, seals, beluga, walrus-migrated to the cliffs and past them each spring. Further south, the storytellers said, was a region of mystery and rebirth. Just as the sun rose in January for the first time after its disappearance in midwinter on the southern horizon and grew daily until it appeared, from the distant perspective of the village, to be leaning against the cliffs, so the major sources of life "came round" the great barrier that screened the village from those distant southern regions.

The headland beyond Isuk also carried human implications. The cliffs had seen two disastrous battles in the early nineteenth century. In the first, a war party from Cape Prince of Wales had hidden in a cave halfway along the cliffs and ambushed a boatload of Tikigaq people, leaving no survivors. Then, also in about 1800, at the far end of the cliffs, almost an entire generation of Tikigaq warriors had been killed by people from the Noatak River. According to John Kelly, a commercial whaler of the late 1880s:

At that time the growing tribe of Noatoks began pressing southward and westward ... One summer, about the year 1800, a great land and boat fight took place between the Tigaras and the Noatoks just below Cape Seppings, in which the Tigaras were overthrown and compelled to withdraw from all that part of the country ... So badly crushed were the Tigaras that they lost half their population, which gradually led to the abandonment of all their outstanding villages, the people taking refuge at the capital place of Tigara. The sudden taking off of the leading men, the great whalemen and skillful hunters, left the tribe badly demoralised and comparatively helpless. (Kelly 1890:10)

The site of the battle was subsequently named Iñuktat, "many people killed." About a decade later came another misfortune, this time to the north of Tikigaq near Uivvaq (Cape Lisburne). Here, in 1838, a party of Russians led by A. F. Kasheverov stumbled on a horrifying bone yard: "In the ravines along Cape Lisburne ... we saw human bones strewn everywhere, and, besides, there were several graves in shallow holes ... In other graves there lay human bodies that had not yet decomposed and beneath each was a bow and arrows" (Vanstone 1977:64). Most of those camped at Isuk in that first week of August were in health and good spirits. But they were also survivors: a resilient people who were rebuilding the population.

Contact at Cape Thompson

While Native visitors from outside Tikigaq territory would have been instantly identifiable, the people at Isuk might have hesitated to classify HmS Blossom when this British navy sloop, commanded by Captain Frederick W. Beechey, stood off from the cliffs at about 11 o'clock on that August morning.

Beechey was on the final outward leg of a voyage that had taken him from the South Pacific up to the western Arctic. Like Tikigaq people, the British were also recovering from war: the successful but exhausting Napoleonic campaigns, which, in the aftermath of the Congress of Vienna (1814-15), had left the fleet with the leisure both to complete areas of mapping left unfinished by James Cook and to support British mercantile interests against Russian competition in the American Northwest. Beechey's assignment that summer was to support the second Franklin expedition. While Beechey had been moving through Polynesia before turning north to Alaska, his old friend Captain (later, Sir John) Franklin was traveling overland from the Mackenzie River with a view to emerging in Alaska, in an effort to prove the existence of a Northwest Passage, the longed-for shipping channel that would open a commercial lane from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Beechey's orders were to put up signals to show where he had buried provisions and, if possible, take Franklin's party back to London.

In harmony with the spirit of this politically almost neutral and scientifically progressive mission came instructions from the British Admiralty on conduct towards Pacific Islanders and Native Americans: "[Y]ou are to use every endeavour to preserve an amicable intercourse with the Natives, and to caution your ship's company to avoid giving offence or engaging in disputes with them; and you are to show them every act of kindness in your power" (Gough 1973:28). Trade should be conducted fairly, "taking care that when purchases are made, an officer may always be present to prevent disputes." Mindful partly of the venereal diseases that even Cook's well-disciplined men had transmitted to Hawaiians, the officers of the Blossom were also ordered to be "guarded in their intercourse with the females, so as to avoid exciting the jealousy of the men." There is evidence that the sexual activities of some of Beechey's party did excite jealousy, but this, as we shall see, was the least serious outcome.

Also governing Admiralty instructions lay the knowledge that peaceful landings were often dependent on local goodwill. Beechey therefore requisitioned a cargo of "utensils," or trade goods, for distribution to Natives. Some of the goods that came ashore at Isuk included items from the following cargo:

50 yards of blue and red broadcloth; iron in the form of hoops and bars; 500 hatchets, nails, saws; 4 cases of beads, jewellery and trinkets of different colours but mainly blue; 500 knives; 100 printed handkerchiefs; 50 kaleidoscopes; 100 bundles of needles; 40 pair of scissors; 80 looking glasses; 36 common shirts; 1,000 fish hooks; 10 bundles of vermilion. Two double-barrelled guns had already been presented to the kings of Tahiti and Sandwich islands [Hawaii]. (Gough 1973:22)

These would be among the earliest, though not the very first, manufactured goods to reach western Eskimo people.

Beechey: "Necessary Observations"

The son of a successful London portraitist, Beechey was a Napoleonic war veteran and a future admiral of the fleet. A close observer of people and places, Beechey was also a naturalist and draftsman, and his account of the Blossom's round-the-world passage provides the first published description of Tikigaq and its people. Beechey had enjoyed the South Pacific. He had socialized with Polynesian royalty who remembered Cook, and on Pitcairn Island he had met the last of the Bounty mutineers and their extraordinary mixed-race children. Cook himself had sailed past Tikigaq in 1778, but had been too far out and low in the water to observe the peninsula. In 1819, two Russian vessels had visited the cliffs where Beechey would land and had inscribed their charts with Russian place-names-but these Beechey patriotically ignored. Also in the Russian service, the Baltic German Otto von Kotzebue had spent some days about a hundred miles south of Tikigaq in 1816. Thus, while the people at Isuk might have had some secondhand knowledge of previous visitors, this was probably their first experience of Europeans. And just as the people of Tikigaq would for the first time see themselves in mirrors that the Englishmen distributed, Beechey's colleagues give us our first glimpse of Tikigaq faces.

This brave new world did not, however, seem to have provoked much wonder in either party. No Tikigaq stories of first encounter survive, but judging from Beechey's account, they seemed neither surprised nor awed by the Blossom's arrival. The British of course were not there to study Eskimo lifeways: they were focused on the business of communicating with Franklin, completing Cook's maps, and not least collecting the natural history specimens and artifacts for transportation to London.

No matter that the Blossom was carrying Russian maps of 1819 and that Beechey knew that another Russian expedition had three years earlier dubbed as Cape Rikord the outline of the headland. Beechey's first act on rounding the cliffs was to name them in English. From that day to the present, the locally known Imnat ("cliffs") would become Cape Thompson:

On the second of August 1826, being favoured with a breeze, we closed with a high cape which I named after Mr. Deas Thomson [sic], one of the commissioners of the navy ... As this was a fit place to erect a signal-post for Captain Franklin, we landed and were met upon the beach by some Esquimaux, who eagerly sought an exchange of goods. Very few of their tribe understood better how to drive a bargain than these people; and it was not until they had sold almost all they could spare, that we had any peace. (Beechey 1831:I, 262-63)

This encounter, during which Beechey identified these coastal people as Eskimos (Bockstoce 1977:16), was socially successful: goods exchange compensated for the absence of a common language. As Beechey observed, the Eskimos had some metal tools, which bespoke trade with Siberian Natives who obtained their metal from the Russians. "We found them very honest," wrote Beechey, "extremely good natured, and friendly. Their features, dress and weapons were the same as before described in Kotzebue Sound.... They had more curiosity than our former visitors, and examined very minutely every part of our dress." But from "their being frightened at the discharge of a gun, and no less astonished when a bird fell close to them, we judged they had had a very limited intercourse with Europeans" (Beechey 1831:I, 262).


Excerpted from ULTIMATE AMERICANS by Tom Lowenstein Copyright © 2008 by University of Alaska Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

“Eskimo! White Man!”




Brief Chronology

Historical Characters

Missionaries at Point Hope

Spelling and Terminology

Pronunciation Guide

1. Introduction: First Encounters

2. Contact with the Chukchi and Europeans Up to 1854

3. The Alaska Purchase and the Russian Period

4. The U.S. Navy, the Alaska Commercial Company, and the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service

5. The Commercial Whale Hunt—1

6. The Commercial Whale Hunt—2

7. Jabbertown: Point Hope’s Shore-Based Whaling Station

8. Jabbertown: The Transformation of Point Hope’s South Shore

9. Atanauraq: Shaman, Trader, Point Hope’s “Chief”

10. Atanauraq and the White Man

11. Atanauraq and Charles Brower at Point Hope, 1884

12. How Atanauraq Was Assassinated

13. Disease in Alaska

14. Sheldon Jackson Takes on Alaska

15. The Search for Order

16. John B. Driggs: Medical Missionary to Point Hope

17. First School on the Arctic Coast

18. The Hidden John Driggs

19. Driggs: Consolidation in the Village, 1892-93

20. The Missionary Edson—Fear and Trembling

21. Sunny Teachings: Death and Resurrection

22. Disease in Point Hope and the Great Sickness

23. Millenarian Alaska: Return of the Spirits—1

24. Millenarian Alaska: Return of the Spirits—2

25. Drigg’s Homecoming, 1896

26. Driggs: The Final Years and Deposition

27. Reburying the Ancestors

Appendix A: The Point Hope and Jabbertown Census of 1908

Appendix B: The Point Hope Qalgi and Its Changes

Appendix C: Driggs and the Issue of Missionary Trading



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