When I was a TV reporter in Alaska, I traveled to Barrow, the northernmost outpost of America. I covered a story on the last sunset of 1990, and explored a few things Inupiat people do to deal with the long winter night. When my memoir, They Only Eat Their Husbands, comes out next year, it won’t include the whole story. I thought you might enjoy this tale of strong women…
At Barrow High School on a Saturday, in a classroom empty of teenage noise, a handful of women elders were scraping and sewing animal skins. They were preparing the fur to make parkies, or parkas. Many Alaska Native parkas are made with fur on the outside. But, in a blending of old and new, many tribes also make parkas with fur on the inside, used as lining and trim. The outer garment is colorful modern cloth, sewn into a sort of muumuu with a ruffle at the bottom. After spending a 22-hour night in Alaska’s largest Inupiat village, I could understand their love of bright flower patterns.
The rasping sound of an ulu knife scraping clean the inside of a caribou pelt had a comforting rhythm I can still hear. Outside, the sky was so foggy that the sun’s less than two-hour flight remained invisible; only a dusky change in the darkness hinted at its passing. As I looked out the window at the white ground and white sky, they seemed to change places. I entertained the notion that those of us in the room might be all that was left of the world, and the scraping sound of the ulu our only tether to reality. It was the loudest thing in the room, where the women worked mostly in silence.
They might have been silent because they felt shy in front of the video camera held by Josh, the young photographer who’d come with me. But I also sensed that these women came from a culture, or generation, that didn’t feel the need to make small talk, unless it might inspire laughter. Otherwise, they apparently didn’t find it important to speak unless they had something important to say. As a woman whose own chatter was as reliable a sign of life as her pulse, I found this idea both compelling and discomfiting.
Although they spoke little, the elders proudly showed me their sewing projects, and lamented that there were no young women in the group. The youngest was in her mid-forties. The rest were 65 to 85.
“The old way, young people don’t want. They want hi-tech,” said Alma, the oldest, a woman with solemn mouth and smiling eyes, whose face had been shriveled by age into the sweetness of a dried apple.
Sarah, the youngest, clarified, “Gore-tex, space-age fibers, from the catalog, that’s what the kids want. But slowly they’re finding out real fur is much warmer, and as you’ve noticed it’s very cold here.”
Alma pressed a heavy needle through a strip of thick, dark pelt, then stroked the fur with her hand. “Beaver fur is very good for the ruff, around the face. It keeps away moisture, keeps your face warm.” She was silent for several minutes, then spoke again as if there’d been no pause: “If the young people don’t learn, who will pass on my mother’s pattern?”
Sarah told us that most of the women here couldn’t even speak to their own grandchildren. “Most of these women don’t speak much English. But their children were punished by the missionaries if they spoke Inupiat, so they mostly speak English. Today the grandkids take native language classes in school, because we’re trying to save the language. But most of the time they speak English. So, many of the elders and the grandchildren don’t speak to each other, and the old traditions are dying.”
I waited through another long silence. Then I asked Alma, “Can you tell me how things have changed in the village since you were a girl?”
“When I was a girl we had none of these lights.” She gestured at the fluorescent tubes overhead. “In the summer, we had the sun. In the winter, we had the moon. But now, the sky is more dark. The sun and the moon? I think… I think is tired.”
I felt her meaning, though I didn’t fully understand it. I’d heard reports of a dirty haze over the Arctic, which scientists attributed to industrial pollution from Europe and Asia drifting over the pole. I believed that electric lights disrupted the natural rhythms of day and night that Alma had learned as a child, and diminished the power of the sun as conductor of that rhythm. I sensed that, as winter darkness descended she was perhaps feeling the melancholy we all feel in the season of sleep and death. I knew there were stories she had lived that, even had she spoken perfect English, I wouldn’t have understood. Those unspoken stories may have wearied the sun and moon that had witnessed them all.
Or perhaps she’d truly had a talk with the sun and moon about their feelings.
When we left, Josh gushed, “Those women were awesome! Especially Alma. This place is brilliant, absolutely brilliant!” I was tempted to laugh at his brimming enthusiasm. Yet I was equally excited to be in this icy seaside village at the top of the world, a place where humans didn’t belong, yet had carved a niche for themselves until they had become inseparable from it.
The next day, we went to Point Barrow, the northern edge of the earth. As we stood on the shore staring at the junction of the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas, my brain refused to register that there was any kind of sea before my eyes. All I saw was a white expanse of ice so vast it made me want to cackle like a madwoman. I was reminded of an endless wheat field in Kansas, the only image I could think of that was remotely akin to this. The only things that prevented the frozen sea from appearing flat and monotonous were the random humps and ridges of shifting ice. I might take off across that ice, enter another dimension, meet God, continue walking for eternity, and never reach any destination; or I might walk for five minutes and end up where I started—all without the least surprise.
At 12:35 in the afternoon on November 18th, we turned our eyes east, to watch the last sunrise of the year. A tiny, distant ball of glowing embers shyly lifted itself to peek over the horizon, then swiftly crawled a few inches across that imaginary line. Tiny crystals of ice fog gave the air a sparkling, reflective quality. In the hour and 12 minutes from sunrise to sunset, the sun’s feeble rays turned the ice fog into rainbow dust shivering atop the arctic plain.
At 1:47, the sun disappeared off the edge of the earth. It wouldn’t rise again until January 23rd, more than two months later—not six months, as my friends “down in America” believed. Still, that was a helluva long night.
“The sun?” I said to Josh, “I think, is tired.”
(The names in this story have been changed.)