The 4th of July. We were in the Iñupiat town of Kotzebue, the largest community in Northwest Alaska. Kotzebue is on the Chukchi Sea north of the Bering and opposite Russia, some 50 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle. Before the Europeans came it was a major Arctic trading port between the Russians and the Iñupiat Eskimos who traded in fur, skins and seal-oil, later in gold. When the whale boats and missionaries arrived, trade increased.
When we landed the day before, the ice-floe hugged the shoreline and we were shivering in our parkas. But within the space of 24 hours, the temperature had rocketed.*
Perhaps I should say we’d been shivering in our ‘anoraks’ (put aside the unfortunate connotation the word has in England). An authentic anorak – the word derives from the Inuktitut/Inuit “Annuraaq” meaning an article of clothing – has no front opening, just as ours didn’t, and has to be pulled over the head. A ‘parka’, as it was originally conceived by the Inuit, is strictly knee length and has a front opening. The word ‘parka’ originates from Nenets, the language spoken by indigenous people of northern Arctic Russia with whom the Inupiat traded.
We hadn’t planned to be in Kotzebue on Independence Day and had lost sense of time in this land of round-the-clock sunlight. But there we were, bang on time for their 4th of July celebrations and notably the Miss Arctic Circle contest where the girls flaunt their beautiful hand-make parkas. The day started with us being woken by children shouting and truck engines roaring outside. We went to join them, first taking a quick walk down by the sea front to find that the ice floe had vanished, receding beyond the horizon. The sea was a bright blue, sparkling under a gloriously warm sun. The trucks rumbled down the tracks, festooned with flags of all sizes, branches of driftwood, tassels, plastic bags in ribbons, snow shoes, in the back young ladies dressed
up in their parkas, waving to the crowd, their long, black hair gleaming.
The Kotzebue fire engine slid by too, with a middle-aged man – the mayor or a local counselor perhaps, everyone seemed to know him – dressed in a thick white cloak and wielding an elaborate spear – at an imaginary polar bear, someone explained to us. Then came a truck carrying a small airplane, the wings spanning the width of the roadway and from which
dangled a stuffed figure in a sealskin coat. Young couples carrying babies wrapped up in synthetic parkas, giggling children and stragglers such as us followed the procession, which eventually came to a stop at the large sports field near the lagoon where the beauty contest was to take place.
The contest had all the makings of a fashion show. But it wasn’t, in the European sense of the word. Far from it. Woe to anyone who tries to copy these wonderful parka designs. A UK design company did just that and had to pull out their clothing with an apology. Because, we were to learn, each parka has a story to tell. The adjudicator introduced each and every young lady as they walked round the field for the crowd to see, announcing her name, what village she came from in the Arctic Circle, who the able seamstress was – it was often a grandmother or aunt.
The designs on these parkas reflect a particular historical event in the family’s ancestral history, with the symbolic pattern normally sewn in on the front, or on the shoulders at the back. Despite the heat, the girls flaunted their heraldic parkas with justified pride, obviously aware of the personal stories they were wearing. This was a public showing of historical, family events. In fact not long ago Inuit girls used to recount these family stories out loud down by the shore to each other; when they passed the rites into woman hood, for a period of a year, they were only allowed to continue to do so from inside in the smoke houses. In some Arctic communities, boys weren’t allowed to tell these stories at all since it was believed it would diminish their hunting skills.
Through his loud speaker the adjudicator explained what each parka was made of. Most were made of sealskin – but some parkas are of caribou hide which is light-weight to wear but warm and durable and rendered waterproof by using strips of sea-mammal intestines. The parka hoods, which have a pouch underneath to carry a baby, are surrounded by shiny fur from the Arctic fox or wolverine which catches the snow and from which the snow can be easily shaken off. Inner clothing has the fur facing the skin – (musk ox fur, we were to learn the day later when walking in the mountains, is also extremely heat-inducing if placed against the body).
It was not only the parkas which were on display during this event: one of the girls sported a pair of gloves with a fox head on each one; her gloves were attached to a leather tether which went round her neck. Boots, “kamiks” or “mukluks”, were also an integral part of the show, mostly made of seal skin with patterns matching each parka.
It must have been uncomfortably hot under all that animal fur. As they walked round the field the appreciative crowd clapped and waved – flicking away the mosquitoes, too. With the occasional whoosh of wind and a group of clouds obscuring the sunlight, everyone gave up taking on and off their own more ordinary parkas, the extreme hot and then cool air meaning constant ups and downs of heat.
When the ceremony was over and Miss Arctic Circle crowned, the field was cleared for the children’s Arctic sports contest. Two young boys in front of us ran forward, threw themselves on the ground and, turning on their stomachs,
took a push up position then hopped forward: on their knuckles. They were having a try at the punishing Knuckle Hop (see picture). Others rushed in to join them, many collapsing in a heap of laughter, more coming up, leaping forward from a kneeling position: this was the Kneel Jump. They didn’t seem to care that most of the families were packing up and leaving in their pick-ups, but boisterously continued in what seemed a disorderly bunch under the eye of the brave adjudicator watching those who were concentrating hard; some were trying the Alaska High Kick, jumping up at a ball dangling from a post, trying to kick it with one foot thrust high in the air.
The fun and games over, we finished the afternoon’s excitement with a quiet walk and passed the cemetery. It is perched on a hill at the edge of the village, above the lagoon and from where we had the only perspective of the town. Kotzebue is situated on a kind of gravel spit in the Baldwin Peninsular and is the gateway to the Bering Land Bridge National Preserve, the Noatak National Preserve and the Kobuk Valley National Park. We heard a cracking sound in the undergrowth. We’d thought we were alone with the wind, wagtails and pipits, but some stranger was wandering around the mounds of earth and stones like a ghoul come alive. We eventually came face to face with a young caribou, coat as if moth-eaten and so unlike the beautiful condition of the coats we’d just seen. He was molting, wandering amongst the crooked graves which were leaning at various angle no doubt as a result of the melting then freezing of the permafrost beneath.
It was now early evening and we walked back along the shore by the fish camps. The salmon was hanging out to dry on the racks, an array of almost luminous pink in the curious light. The remains of a dead bearded seal** lay half eaten at our feet on the beach in a golden sunlight, its entrails sprawling over the gravelly sand like the plaited tresses of some eerie mermaid, reminding me of Sedna, the legendary Inuit seal goddess. Perhaps pieces of this seal skin would be sewn into another beautiful parka, the entrails used to render a caribou hide parka waterproof.
Ringed seals, bearded seals, spotted, and ribbon seals are hunted here by the coastal Alaska Natives for food, oil, materials, clothing, and handicrafts. It must be remembered that the Alaska Natives have negotiated rights for controlled culls of protected species for subsistence living (see conversation with William in “Whaling: Ancient and Modern“).
*According to Nature, since 1979 there has been an annual 3% decline in the measure of ice in the Arctic regions. This year, 2016, sea ice is particularly scarce, especially in the Bering Sea, as a result of the El Nino effect pumping heat and moisture round the world, and the Arctic Oscillation sending warm air northwards.
**Updated seal tracking maps can be found on the Alaska Department of Fish and Game website