Alaska – Muk-pi and Her People

SIR HUBERT WILKINS, who with our own truly heroic ” Fairbanks boy,” Ben Eielson, made that great flight over uncharted polar seas, once said to a group who are his friends here: “Most of you have been to college and derived some idea of polar conditions. I, too, studied these conditions in school, but in late years I have found that most of the facts about them which I learned in school were wrong, not because the teachers intentionally told us anything that was wrong, but because they had been misinformed.”

Now I am inclined to believe that most of us approach the Far Northland as did Sir Hubert, with a great many pieces of misconception and misinformation in our mental luggage. I know that I did. For one thing, I was taught that ” Alaska is the land of the Eskimo,” only to find out when I got here that only one quarter of Alaska is Eskimo inhabited, and that only one quarter of its people are Eskimos, an-other quarter being Indians, and fully one half of Alaska’s population being white colonists, even as I myself.

But Nome lies in the center of that quarter of Alaska which really is Eskimo Land, and I was fortunate in having a very dear Eskimo friend, even before I first visited Nome, ready and eager to show her people to me. This little woman, scarcely more than a girl in years, had been for five seasons on one of the famous exploring expeditions into the still further North, and, although born and brought up near Nome, was considered by her own people to be most widely travelled, sophisticated, and learned in the curious ways of the curious white man. Muk-pi, you see, had had ” advantages ! ”

To me, Muk-pi was like a bit of old China. Though a full-blooded Eskimo, she might well have posed as an oriental girl any place in the States. She looked and was a Madame Butterfly, a child-woman of really singular charm. Muk-pi was dainty—even fragile in appearance—and yet I knew that she had mushed the longest darkest Arctic trails practically alone, and that her firm little body was tempered as a strong steel spring. To any one who had been taught to think, as I had, that Eskimos are ” a filthy and benighted people, living on the fringes of desolation,” this very dear friendship which I came to share with Muk-pi was a revelation. She had the finest sense of courtesy, a wisdom that was deep and old and penetrating—the wisdom of a life lived close to great Earth Mother, who had been her teacher. With all her childlike sweetness, she held the philosophic wisdom of the Orient in those dark Mongol eyes, and blended with it was the practicality of all genuine North-dwelling people. When with her I was but a humble learner, for there was nothing in the lore I had which seemed worth telling in exchange for little Muk-pi’s rich good sense, the fruit of all The North had taught her cheerful, hospitable, and family-loving folk, in all their years of perfect adaptation to its rigorous ways.

And I was humbly glad, too, that Muk-pi and her brothers, Tuk-tuk and Chick-em (and her brothers’ wives whom I came, too, to know) were tolerant of me. The brothers were great seal and walrus hunters and skilled ivory workers, and they, too, had been on many trips with whalers and explorers; and in the hard school of travel and experience they had learned a tolerant amusement for our peculiar, unreasonable, and ofttimes silly-seeming white-man ways. They were too cosmopolitan and humanist to believe that what is different is necessarily inferior, or to distrust the strange in us, as we so childishly are apt to do in them. This Eskimo family which I came to know so well were aristocrats among their own people, unusually keen and, too, perhaps unusually kind, because I had truly been their sister’s friend. I write of them—and must—in friendly prejudice, for I can write no other way of what I saw and know. All Eskimos are not, perhaps, like Muk-pi, but of her many people whom I met, she was the one I knew most intimately.

Muk-pi was a pure type of Eskimo, a girl of perhaps twenty when I first knew her, and similar to a high-bred Mongol girl in feature and copper hint of color, with the same dark oblique eyes, the same black stiffish hair, high cheek bones, patrician smallness of well-shaped hands and feet, gentle manner, subtle poise and delicate humor. I have no friend in all the world to whom the good word ” lady ” could be more justly given. I learned from knowing her that Eskimos are human beings, not mere quaint curiosities. When with her I was often paraphrasing, in my mind, hurt Shylock’s tragic cry of a misunderstood and often a misvalued race: ” Hath not an Eskimo eyes? Hath not an Eskimo hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons? Subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer? ”

My little Muk-pi—strong, gay, full of bubbling giggles of rich fun, so happy in the warm home life of her own people-but ” subject to the same diseases!” Will Shakespeare truly put his finger there upon the root of my dear little friend’s deep tragedy.

Nome may seem to you an outpost of civilization, but to the Eskimo it is a great city; and many of them, such as my Muk-pi’s family, live in its suburbs on the Sandspit. These “city Eskimos” seem very urban to their country cousins who come to see them each summer: King Islanders, Eskimos from St. Lawrence Island and the Diomedes, families from Bering Straits and the Shismaref and Kotzebue country, with kindred Chuck-chee Siberian natives as well, all come in their skin-boats to Nome to trade, to visit, to sell their furs and lovely fossil ivory, to make merry in their own care-free, happy, summer-holiday fashion. For a people who live through the long winter months so close to imminent death, whose days are so compact of hardship, who know so well the tooth of hunger and the bite of winter cold, whose near neighbor is the paleocrystic sea, whose very name for winter (Uk-shuk) is a verbal shiver—to possess such amazing humor and sweetness and amity as I witnessed those long days I spent among Muk-pi’s kinsfolk, was beyond my comprehension. Kind, courteous, and unbelievably hospitable, a highly intelligent although in many ways an undeveloped race, I found them much more pleasant, quick, adaptive, eager, than many of our pure-blood Interior Alaskan Indians with whom I’ve come in contact.

I have travelled about a good deal upon four of our major continents, and I have never seen a people more perfectly related to the earth on which they live, in their social organization and in their technique of comfort, than are the Eskimos. We make a great mistake if we are sorry for the Eskimos, and we make an even greater mistake if we try to change their ways too much toward our ways, for they have acquired social and domestic and economic habits marvelously well suited to their environment. I am speaking from my own experience among them, and some of my very best Alaskan friends violently disagree with my feeling about the Eskimos. Many think that all their ways are bad and should be mended. I feel that many of their ways are very good, and should not be disturbed. If we can give them of the best of our civilization without destroying what is best in theirs, then only, I believe, will be a happy outcome for this contact of cultures.

We white colonists in Interior Alaska are not to be pitied, for we are here because we love it here. And neither are the Eskimos to be pitied because they live on Bering Sea and Arctic Slope. As Stefansson again and again reminds us, the North is not terrible to people who LIVE in the North. And these Mongoloid Eskimo people, who long ago moved North out of the great central Asian breeding place of races to take up new land, not only live here to-day but have occupied this country gradually, have reshaped their hands and minds to its conditions, have chosen it, prefer it. In every contest (and there have been many in the past) between the Eskimos and the Indians living south of them, the Eskimos have been both the aggressors and the victors. If they had wished to move south, if they had preferred the sheltered inner valleys, there was nothing to prevent their going. The Indians are and have been much more afraid of the Eskimos than the Eskimos have been of the Indians. The very word ” Eskimo” is proof of this: ” Those who eat raw flesh,” a name given to the Innuit by southern Indian tribes who feared their fighting qualities. Do not for a moment think that Muk-pi and her people live on the northern shore through anything but choice and preference, or that they have been crowded out from below by a more powerful folk into an undesirable or unwanted place which they now inhabit. Stefansson, who’s very blunt and practical about such matters, shows up the silliness of this notion that north-dwelling peoples only live north because they have to, when he says: ” Do the British inhabit England because crowded by the French? Are the inhabitants of the northern U. S. A. inferior and crowded north by the southerners? ” It’s a thought worth digesting!

I have never been able to decide in my own mind whether Muk-pi and her people are so happy in their simple primitive ways of life because they are philosophers at heart, or whether, being philosophers, they have evolved such perfect tools to meet their chosen environment. They are like super-cheerful Yankees in some things, for they are great contrivers. They love tinkering and fixing, they are great natural mechanics, they like to do ” neat jobs,” they are ” faculized” (as Nantucketers call it), and all for much the same reason as the typical old-time Yankee is all these things: because they have few resources at their command, and therefore make the most of those they have. And though, like the true Yankee—Nantucket and New Bedford and Salem men of old—they respect the northern sea, they do not fear it, but use it and make an honest living from its waters, reaping the harvest of the moving meadows of the untilled sea with skill and patience.

But Chickem is an ivory hunter, too. Over that ancient bridge to Asia, in prehistoric days, came hairy mammoth with great curving tusks, and they ranged everywhere over what is to-day Alaska, the most abundant animal in Pleistocene times. The bison followed, and then horse and caribou in lesser numbers, so the archaic searchers say, and other mammals of that age and time. But the great Elephas primogenius, the woolly or northern mammoth, left his remains all over this then forested north country, where large fossil trees of that day still remain but where now are barren tundras with frozen subsoil. Osborn says one can imagine “moose and reindeer in these forests, horses and bison grazing on the uplands, elephants and rare mastodon browsing on forest borders,” in days when forests stretched clear up to the shores of the Arctic and the elevated western shelf now submerged was ” an enormous level plain covering most of the present area of Bering Sea; and the diminished body of water, in connection with the prevalence of north-west trade winds, would have given to this region a very dry climate.” Mammoth have been found here recently, in places such as Elephant Point, where a sealing of soft mud and a later complete freezing have perfectly preserved both skeleton and hair from any bacterial decay; and dogs and men millennia later—even the last Tsar of the Russias, at a great imperial banquet—have actually eaten the strange flesh of prehistoric beasts, dug up in Siberia.

Mastodon ranged into Alaska in the interglacial stages, when the climate was much milder than now, and this southern species could therefore spread; and rare and beautiful, dark-colored, mastodon ivory, as well as the more common mammoth tusks, are hunter’s trove for Chick-em and his ivory-worker brother. Fossil ivory has been long prized for its beauty of color and texture, both by the Chinese and the Russians. We have a record that in 1771 Liakhoff obtained exclusive rights from the Empress Catherine ” to dig for fossil ivory in The North,” and ivory of mammoth, mastodon and walrus has been to these Eskimo people possessing few metals a substance useful, necessary, and long sought. The walrus hunts yield tough strong hides of leather for all heavy purposes, as boats, but the tusks serve both as wood and metal to this resourceful, Yankee-contriving people of my Muk-pi.

Old ivory has for ages been precious for its lovely soft color; and tourists in Alaska to-day pay high prices for long strings of exquisite old ivory beads. But I warn you, before buying, to consult one who knows, just as you would in buying rare furs or precious stones. The soft velvety colors of truly pre-historic mastodon are so prized that sharpsters have discovered artificial means of coloring new walrus ivory (by a short boiling in seal oil or, so I’m told, even in coffee!) so that it takes on a temporary coloring similar in appearance to that acquired by centuries of genuine soil burial, though a skilled eye can quickly tell the difference.

The whale is another Arctic Sea mammal, but with the fast-increasing technique in their slaughter, a time may soon come when Arctic and Antarctic whales will be practically extinct. To-day this unctuous sea-harvest is not only being reaped with aid of the explosive harpoon invented by the Norwegian Svend Foyn (a cannon-like gun mounted on a pivot at the bow of a small staunch iron steamer), but this gigantic game is being pursued into its last far polar retreat by sea-plane-equipped whaling boats, with Pilots Riisar-Larsen and Leutgowe Hohn, seasoned polar flyers of the lost Roald Amundsen—experiments off Alaska having shown that whale gam can be spotted from the air, resulting in a tremendous kill.

Perhaps you wonder of what use are whales, these days of collarless and corsetless women who wish no whalebone stiffening, and these electric-lighted days needing no whale-oil lamp. I’ll tell you a secret. I know a man who owns and operates a fleet of whaling vessels in Alaskan waters to-day, a fleet which rides up to the North each March following the whales arriving. In May the opening of the ice barrier permits them to resume their northland journey. Again in the fall they return.

I asked this friend: ” Please tell me what the whales are used for, now that whalebone and spermicetti both have so many substitutes and so few uses. I’m interested, for I have Nantucket kinsmen, you know. Where do you sell your product? ”

He answered in two words, ” It Floats! ”

For a moment I was puzzled—and then I saw the point! Since then I’ve learned that whale oil sells in the United States for fifty cents a gallon, and is used to-day mainly ‘ in the making of fine soaps. Soap was old Father Duncan’s first missionary Alaskan product, at Metlakatla; and soap is evidently to be the end product of that once great whaling industry which has continued for a thousand years—for there were Norwegian whalers at least that long ago, as we know from King Alfred’s account of Oh there’s voyage to the White Sea. But Muk-pi’s people will not believe the day of whales is passing, and during the whaling season the Eskimos still make their camps out on the ice floes bordering the Arctic Ocean and keep a constant lookout for whales. Then, as soon as ever a leviathan is sighted, a boat puts out in swift pursuit of prey which for so long has meant Goliath source of food and light to the children of the North.

The igloo, the parka, the mukluk, the kyak, the umiak, and a score of other typical Eskimo inventions are the ” cutest tricks ” imaginable for the purpose to which they are designed and perfectly adapted. White men living in the far North never do more than adopt and adapt the Eskimos’ own tools and ways for meeting the exigencies of the North. The failures among northern explorers are those who have refused to listen to their Eskimo friends; the outstanding successes in Arctic exploration and adaptation are those men who have listened wisely.

Take the umiak or long skin-boat, of which I have seen hundreds at Nome and north of Nome—the Eskimo freight boat or ” woman boat” thirty feet long, with a frame made of driftwood lashed with leather, covered with skins, carefully stretched and double stitched to water tightness by the expert and incomparable Eskimo workers. It will hold thirty people or a ton of bulky freight, can be carried by any two stout men on portage, can bump into rough ice without smashing (as a whale boat of similar size, but four times as heavy, would surely do), or it can be put on a sled and drawn overland by five or six husky dogs. If it ” busts ” (though usually even a stiff crack against sharp ice or rock will only make it bounce back like a rubber ball) a new rib can be quickly set, or a patch can be laid on with a heavy bone needle and sinew thread. And what more do you want, for emergency service?

I remember well seeing an umiak unload at the Sandspit near Nome, and being reminded of a conjurer’s hat. After at least three full families of Eskimos had piled out (and two by two like Noah’s ark, for women and children were carried ashore through the surf, like sacks) I thought it surely must be empty. But then, from somewhere, there scram-bled out at least twenty Eskimo dogs, and then came the freight of household goods—skins and furs and cooking utensils and gifts for all the Nome aunts and cousins—and fish !

” Muk-pi,” I said, ” please find out where they came from with all that stuff. It can’t have been far, loaded so.”

I no ask, I see him,” she replied, in her quiet way. ” You see, man parka? You see, woman parka? He Chuckchee man, Chuckchee woman.”

Chuckchee! I knew they lived in Asia, across the Straits—East Cape—Siberia—Russia—stalwart swarthy Chuckchees! When I hear certain skeptical, undaring, stay-at-home scientists say, “The earliest Americans could not have likely come from Asia by that perilous northern route, but much more likely by the southern islands,” I merely unpolitely sniff! Haven’t I seen them come, with my own eyes, just yesterday?

When Muk-pi’s people wish, they improvise a sail of skin and rig it in the umiak; or when they travel coastwise by a sandy beach, they hitch their dogs and let them out for exercise by rigging up a tow line to the boat, like a canal team’s harness, and bowl along in swift style, the happy dogs (as I have seen them at Port Clarence) yelping and scurrying along the shore in joy at stretching of their legs, the happy crew singing and laughing and making summer holiday outing.

The kyak is the Eskimo sport-model roadster, or ” personal car,” as the umiak is their family car. It is a tricky light canoe of hides, decked over, and into it a man just fits, through a hole in the top. The Eskimo walrus and seal hunter can do unbelievable stunts in this little boat, even to turning completely over in the water and coming right side up again—smiling and all dry below decks.

Mukluks are Eskimo boots, made with durable oogruk or bearded-seal-hide soles and water-shedding reindeer legs for tops, all brightly decorated with intricately matched brown-gray and white checkerboard-pattern collars at the top and bright red strips of root-dyed walrus stitched above the black turned-up sole. Muk-pi made me a pair and gave me several others of various types and kinds; for the design of the mukluk has social significance, and no perfect Eskimo lady would be seen wearing a striped mukluk, just as no Seward Peninsula Eskimo man would be caught wearing a scalloped or apron-shaped parka, with its two wide dips, fore and aft. Men’s parkas here must have a straight edge. These are very serious matters, and to offend such ancient customs would brand you as ignorant, or revolutionary and radical.—Watching Muk-pi and her sisters-in-law, 0-ti-ouk and Maw-graw-gee, at work upon my lovely mukluks, I realized what matchless needle-workers these Eskimo women are, their stitching so perfect, their seams absolutely waterproof without any greasing. Muk-pi, when the mukluks were finished, blew them up like a balloon and tested them for air leaks like a tire, against her face as well as over a flame. There was no flicker, for the job was featly done. I once heard Stefansson say, ” There are few man-made articles more nearly perfect as to comfort and durability than the foot-gear of the Eskimo.” Just like a man, for the mukluks are woman made! Hay, dried from sweet-smelling seashore grass, is crushed into a little bed or mat and wadded all along the sole, you wear a double pair of woolen socks, and then you can mush thirty or forty miles a day in them—if you are a real musher—and never tire or get a blister.

The Eskimo parka is the perfect winter garment, and is an especial boon to aviators. It is a one-piece knee-length coat of fur (reindeer, ” sik-sik-puk,” or the soft under fur of muskrat) slipping on over the head like a sweater, with no fastening at all, and no opening but the face hole of the attached hood, which may either be worn over the head or thrown back. This hood is faced with wolverine, for the Eskimo has found that, due to some peculiarity of the hair shape or oil distribution, wolverine is the only fur that does not hold frost from the breath; and to have a frosty fur next the face would not be pleasant in extreme temperatures. The parka hood has also a wide fringe or ruff of wolf fur, coarse and long. In windy weather this projecting ruff is whipped across the face constantly, and sets up a stimulating circulation, keeping one’s face from frosting. Being of one piece and fitting snugly about the head and shoulders, no cold enters and no warm body air is lost, but all is conserved inside. So warm is a well-made parka that, when exercising, it can only be worn in comfort during extreme temperatures. Parka is but one of many non-patented gifts of the little brown Eskimo to all who live and work here in the North.

I never saw a people more devoted to their families than are Muk-pi’s people. Though many children are not the rule, the parents are slavishly fond of those they have; and while the round chubby youngsters, who always smile, never seemed to me to be punished, they are put through an early rigid training to fit them for their future existence as good clansmen and family providers—both boys and girls. Because their diet is of necessity so nearly all a meat diet, babies are often nursed by their mothers until they are four or five years old, or until their teeth are strong enough to chew meat. Teeth are terribly important to the Eskimo. Fuel is scarce, and half-raw meat must be eaten (and is preferred—so they’re in no fear of scurvy!) ; and Tuk-tuk the ivory worker told me that a man of his people must be very careful when choosing a wife, to pick one with good teeth! For mukluk soles must be chewed into shape, and if the wife and mother has poor teeth, then the family cannot have proper mukluks, and a leaky mukluk may well mean a frozen foot, a gangrened limb, and death.

Muk-pi loved song, her people all love song, and use music as well as enjoy it. It is a fruit of life with them, a flowering of experience. They sing of what they know, of hunt and chase, of beasts and fish, of tribal lore and custom. They sing when sad, and then (as Muk-pi told me when I found her first, near starved, deserted, in a stranger’s land) “make song, no hon-gree, no catch him big pain—here!” They sing when glad, too, and make a happy music to all sport and family gathering. And they even mix music with jury duty! For some groups of more eastern Eskimo have a quaint, old, and now passing custom, the nith song, by which controversies used to be settled, before we brought our white man’s courts to Nordland. They knew no lawsuits in the old days, but parties to a dispute came before a gathering of all the people in the community house and here sang at each other, before the council of their peers. They ” sang their man down ” until the laughter of his own people proclaimed one man the victor. White men discouraged this charming custom. They didn’t think it “serious enough ” and it ” wasn’t the civilized way to do things.” Had they forgotten troubadour and minnesinger, ” The Hall of Song,” ” Tannhauser and der Sangerkrieg auf Wartburg?”

But music still envelops all the life of Muk-pi’s people. They live by and they live to music. Is that why they are such a happy people, because they live with laughter and with song? Or have they that God-given gift because they so deliberately choose to live upon what seems to us least lovely of these continental shores, and make themselves so usefully content there?

Half of each day, when I was visiting Nome, I always spent with Muk-pi and half with my white friends. My white friends gave me of their best, in royal hospitalities; but Muk-pi and her people gave me more. She gave me of her very self; and from my little Eskimo Butterfly I learned, upon the wind-blown barren Sandspit, that courtesy and courage are close kin and may be found under a wolfskin parka hood as well as under the white helmet of magnanimous Navarre.