Review of ‘North Alaska Chronicle’

North Alaska Chronicle
John Martin Campbell
Museum of New Mexico Press

The traditional society of north Alaskan Nunamiut Eskimos vanished in the 1970s. By their own account, their culture had endured in scattered communities on the Alaskan tundra since time immemorial, and their stories included references to woolly mammoths and the Great Flood. The anthropologists and archaeologists who had studied Nunamiut society believed that it had inhabited its traditional territory, in the central Brooks Range, for only some 200 or 250 years, but they discovered no evidence as to where the Nunamiut originally came from.

Such mysteries and contradictions remain a part of the hazy history of the Nunamiut, in stark contrast to the fact of the culture's disintegration and demise. Both the history and the loss are wonderfully evoked in John Martin Campbell's North Alaska Chronicle, a book in which science and scholarship are handmaidens to the drawings and stories of a Nunamiut native, Simon Paneak.

Campbell, a former Smithsonian Institution research associate and now chairman of the anthropology department at the University of New Mexico, first met Paneak in 1956, as a graduate-student member of the Yale North Alaska Expedition. From their first encounter in an Eskimo camp on the Arctic Divide, the two men remained "friendly correspondents and fellow travelers" until Paneak's death at the age of 75, in 1975.

Along the way, in 1967, Campbell asked Paneak to make a set of drawings recounting Nunamiut tribal history, leaving him with a sketchbook and some pens, pencils and crayons. During the next winter, Paneak filled almost a hundred pages with sketches and text, including "children's stories, accounts of ancient tribal events, the food quest, clothing and housing, fur trapping, travel, and traditional tools and weapons." In North Alaska Chronicle, Campbell provides brief background chapters on North Alaska and the Nunamiut Eskimos, but the heart of the book consists of Paneak's drawings and handwritten notes.

Campbell writes lucidly about the facts of Nunamiut life. He describes, for example, the criteria for establishing a main encampment in the sparse North Arctic terrain: caribou meat was the most important staple of the Nunamiut diet, so an encampment had to be sited on one of the caribou's favorite migratory routes, where animals could be killed while migrating both north to the Arctic Slope and again south into forestland. The camp also had to be on or near the shores of one of the scarce lakes, large and deep enough to hold lake trout, as well as near to a source of firewood and poles for building houses. "Willows, too, can be scarce," Campbell writes.

"Our own experiences include hours of tundra travel (both with and without expert Nunamiut companions) in which boiling coffee or tea awaited the discovery of a few willow sticks. An overnight camp calls for quite a few sticks, and a camp of several days requires a lot of them, so one may imagine the numbers of willows necessary to supply a principal Nunamiut settlement."

Once a campsite was settled, it could last only as long as its resources held out. A lake might be fished out, Campbell notes, but the wood usually ran out first. "Sooner or later the camp ran out of willows, a circumstance that necessitated moving bag and baggage to another place whose resources met the required criteria. And once the willows were exhausted, it took several human generations for them to grow back."

Paneak's drawings provide a record of Nunamiut tribal memory as well as the practical arts of survival in the tundra. There are fabulous illustrations of how an early Nunamiut hunter learned to kill a mammoth. There are whimsical drawings of the first mosquito parents, and how they tried to keep their hungry children locked up in the house all spring, so the little ones wouldn't freeze when they flew off to find blood. There are detailed drawings of tools, of men's and women's winter clothing; diagrams of a caribou hunt or the construction of Nunamiut houses, and maps of the best rivers for fishing. In the long winter during which he made these drawings of a living culture, Paneak may not himself have imagined how soon his work would become an epitaph for his way of life.

In the end, it wasn't the harsh Arctic conditions, or the scarcity of trout or willows, that did in Nunamiut society. In the 1970s, the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, along with construction of the Trans-Alaska oil pipeline, provided Alaska natives with land, formally organized village and regional corporations, large cash awards (to both tribes and smaller communities), and to some of them, including the Nunamiut, lucrative jobs on the oil pipeline. "These encroachments and their opportunities caused transformations in Nunamiut life of astonishing proportions," observes Campbell. "On my most recent visit, in 1985...the Nunamiut encampment had become a modern town of platted streets, split-level homes, home telephones and television sets, a hotel, and a restaurant."

Campbell admits that, in lamenting the disappearance of traditional Nunamiut life, he is both a romantic and an outsider. "Nothing will bring it back," he writes, "and even if a return to the old ways was possible, neither big government nor the people themselves would allow it." In North Alaska Chronicle, Campbell records the way it was, and Simon Paneak's drawings take on a life of their own.

Reviewer Paul Trachtman writes from his home in New Mexico

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