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Legends of the Northern Eskimo

William A. Oquilluk

From People of Kauwerak, Legends of the Northern Eskimo by William A. Oquilluk with the assistance of Laurel L. Bland. Copyright 1973, Alaska Methodist University. Reprinted by permission of Alaska Pacific University Press. Used on this web site with the permission of the publisher for educational purposes only.


Foreword by Laurel L. Bland
Prologue: The Writing of this Book
Chapter One: We Are of the Inupiat — The Northern Eskimos
The First People

I. The People of Ekeuhnick's Time
II. The People of Beeueoak's Time
III. The People of Anayuhk's Time
IV. The People of Kauwerak

The First Disaster

I. The Boyhood of Ekeuhnick
II. Aungayoukuksuk Comes
III. Aungayoukuksuk Teaches
IV. How to Tell Time Is Passing — The Eskimo Calendar
V. How to Tell Weather
VI. The Warning
VII. The Last Visit of Aungayoukuksuk
VIII. The Disaster
IX. Clothes
X. Fire
XI. Snow Comes
XII. The First Net
XIII. The First Boat
XIV. The First Houses

The Journey

VI. Winter Comes
VII. Spring Comes
VIII. The Way Back
IX. The Return
X. The People Move

Chapter Four: The Second Disaster

See also this March 2001 ABCNews.com article by Lee Dye - "The Summer that Wasn't"


William A. Oquilluk was born at Point Hope, Alaska, on March 27,1896, although his parents were actually from the central inland area of the Seward Peninsula. They spoke a different dialect and had different ways from the people of Pt. Hope, the Tareumiut, even though they could trace their lineage to several families of that territorial group. For five years William's grandfather looked after the whaling station at Point Hope until he was replaced by employees of the whaling company. William lived with his grandfather, although his parents lived nearby. He was "given" to his father's parents, in the customary fashion, to comfort them since they had no small children in their house.

William became the vessel for his grandfather's memories concerning Kauweramiut oral traditions. He would be expected to teach these traditions, to learn the intricate songs, dances, and rituals related to them, and to find and instruct a successor for the transmission of this knowledge.

About 1902, when he first heard Christian hymns sung by Eskimos returning from Kotzebue, William probably first recognized how different his destiny was to be from that of his grandfather. Not long afterward, his father was converted to Christianity, and he, like his father, assumed a Christian name.

When William was nearly seven, the grandparents decided to return to the village of their people. The Grandmother was poor in health, and the family wanted to be with her relatives in her final years. In a skin boat, they began the long difficult trip from Pt. Hope to Aukvaunlook village (Mary's Igloo), deep in the interior of the Seward Peninsula on the banks of the Kuzitrin River. When they came near Kiktuk (near Shishmaref of today), the Grandmother sickened and died. Here the family stopped and buried her according to tradition beneath a pile of driftwood on a bluff near the sea. Today the pile of driftwood logs that mark her grave can still be seen from boats and planes. There is no marker to show her date of birth or death, nor to give her name, Seeowuk of Kauwerak.

Shortly after the Oquilluk family — grandfather, aunts, uncles, his parents, and all the cousins — returned to Mary's Igloo, William's father John, his mother, Mary, and William traveled to the Kougarok mining country deeper in the interior of the Seward Peninsula. Here the father sought work with the pick and shovel crews digging out the gold bearing ore or constructing ditches to bring water to power the hydraulic operations at the larger mines. William spent some time here with his parents, but returned to spend much more time with his grandfather. The old man began taking William to all of the places important in tradition and ceremony of the Kauweramiut. They climbed the rugged Kigluait Mountains and sought out the ancient markers. They located an old Eskimo mine in a natural cave (now covered by a rockslide) and marked it with human skulls they found nearby. William and the other boys his age joined his grandfather and other older men in the kazghi (community house). Little by little, the older men began to let William and some of the other boys observe the preparations for ceremonies like the Eagle-Wolf Dance, and began to teach them the intricate rhythms of drumming, the special songs with tonal differences hard for Western ears to comprehend, and the dances created over the centuries.

When the Grandfather died some years after their return, he was given a Christian burial on the hillside near New Igloo, and placed in a grave marked Oquilluk. If his Eskimo family name, Etorina, was engraved on the cross, it has long since faded away. When William visited this long abandoned cemetery in September 1971, the wooden cross had been neatly cut in two by bullets of passing sportsmen and lay decaying on the tundra partially covered by low bushes heavily laden with glistening blueberries.

Sometime between his tenth and twelfth year, William entered school at Mary's Igloo. His teacher, who regarded the Eskimo people with respect and admiration, encouraged students to see parallels between their legendary Eskimo heroes and those they learned about in American history books. His next teacher, H.D. Reese, encouraged William to record the Kauweramiut legends he had learned from his grandfather.

William's schooling ended when he was about fourteen. He was growing up in a place that was a small Eskimo village when he arrived but rapidly became a large mixed community of Eskimos, white traders, miners, inn-keepers, missionaries, and teachers, and support crews for barges or transporters of mail and supplies. In the summer the village became a roistering bustling town of clapboard and tar-paper houses, traditional sod-covered Eskimo homes, tent houses, two churches, several inns and hotels, a school, warehouse with docking facility, and skin tents of visitors. The community was complete with electricity supplied by a generator and a telephone connection to Nome. A railroad only fourteen miles away ended at a station called Bunker Hill. The train was sometimes powered by steam, and other times it was pulled by dog team.

With his father, who was mayor of Mary's Igloo for many years, William was a herder for the village reindeer. They sold reindeer meat, wild game, and fish to the large mining companies still operating in the region, as well as to the various inns, roadhouses, and hotels. The price for furs had reached an all-time high, and William, like most of the men of Kauwerak, trapped for additional cash income.

A terrible flu epidemic circling the earth after World War I, struck the Seward Peninsula in the winter of 1918 from a ship newly docked at Nome, and traveled with mail carriers and others throughout the villages, wiping out whole communities in a matter of days. It left behind, with few exceptions, pathetic groups of weakened survivors, numbed with unresolved grief and shock, to face empty houses where crowded homes stood only shortly before. Without favor, the flu struck Eskimo and non-Eskimo alike, but there were few Caucasians in the villages at that time of year.

Within two years, a tuberculosis epidemic followed. In many cases the remnants of an extended family of thirty or forty people who survived the flu epidemic, succumbed to tuberculosis, pneumonia, or other respiratory diseases a few years later.

William fared better than many others. Gone were his father, mother, virtually all of his older close relatives, many of his friends and family of his own age, and his friend, the government Reindeer Supervisor, W.C. Shields. In a few more years he would also suffer the loss of his beloved first wife, a young girl from Diomede, leaving him with a firstborn son to care for. Several of the herders and their families were still living, and some of his cousins, including John Kakaruk, who spent part of their boyhood years with him in the kazghi, remained.

Thriving villages and towns of the past fast disappeared from the Seward Peninsula. Mary's Igloo people were split by the relocation of the public school and the principal trader to New Igloo, a location fourteen miles downstream, and by the establishment of a large orphan boarding school at a mission fourteen miles upriver at Pilgrim Hot Springs. Since the reindeer herds of New Igloo were thriving, the remnant of the Oquilluk family moved to make that village their home.

Early in the 1930's, the reindeer began to disappear. In retrospect, many reasons are given. Ownership and marketing of the herds had become a monopoly of non-Eskimo businessmen. The herds had overpopulated and overgrazed. The promising local village reindeer associations were largely destroyed by the flu and its aftermath, leaving few men with the ability or desire to manage the herds. William believed the final destruction occurred when two unusually severe winters in a row killed great numbers of the deer, and a peak population of marauding wolves and bears decimated and scattered the others. Regardless of cause, the reindeer diminished suddenly and dramatically, and those remaining were driven off into the timber by predators until most of them joined wild caribou herds and were absorbed. The Reindeer Act to protect Eskimo ownership and government intervention to support the herds came too late.

William remarried. He worked at a tin mine on Lost River near Teller, as a pilot on the barges while they still operated in the waters around the Imurik Basin area, and on the docks at Nome. He spent some time as a laborer at the local dredges, and combined subsistence hunting and fishing with whatever work he could find.

Over the years, it was known that "Old Willy" was writing down Eskimo stories. Until his last years, he was not particularly admired for his odd hobby. He began writing when he was 18 or 19 years old. After twenty years, he had recorded about half the material contained in this volume when a fire that burned his home also destroyed all his writing. But a few years later while in a hospital convalescing, he started all over again.

In later years, William and his wife Maggie joined with John Kakaruk and his wife Alice to perform Eskimo dances for the public and at Eskimo gatherings. William was the Drummer, and John the Singer, keeping alive teachings of the kazghi of the Grandfather's time. This team performed and demonstrated for many years in Anchorage as well as in other places.

When I first met William, he was about 71 years old and already suffering from palsy. Jerome Trigg, President of the Arctic Native Brotherhood (the only representative organization of the area active at the time) had invited me to come to Nome to aid in the documenting of the "old people's stories" as a basis for establishing ancient and aboriginal use of the land at Congressional Hearings being called to establish Alaskan Native claims to the land. His daughter Barbara suggested that William Oquilluk and I work together to preserve his stories in printed form. Slowly through 1968, William and I transformed his manuscript into typewritten chapters. The next year, William decided I should see the Imuruk Basin country so much of his writing concerned.

In September 1970, William and I traveled in a fourteen-foot open wooden boat from Teller to Mary's Igloo along the major rivers and sloughs of Imuruk Basin, visiting places he had written about. At the long-abandoned village of New Igloo, in the partially demolished remains of the schoolhouse, were school records, vital statistic ledgers, old half-size composition notebooks of minutes of village reindeer association meetings handwritten by the owners and herders, and correspondence dating back to nearly 1900. This treasure of historical data and information lay scattered on the wet floor, spilled outside on the tundra, and buried in places under trash, animal droppings and debris. Here, in this remote and isolated spot were the documents to begin to reestablish lost family identifications and to describe a portion of history virtually unknown at this time.

William and his friend, John Earl Komok, helped me to collect a few specimens, and we continued on our three-day trip. Strangely enough, the accidental discovery of these abandoned papers not only served to provide the means to enable William and me to finish his manuscript, but they also provided the evidence to begin a project to document and preserve the little-known history and prehistory of the Seward Peninsula. In brief, through evidence of the samples from New Igloo, the information in William's writing, and the sponsorship of the Arctic Native Brotherhood, the Alaska Federation of Natives and the Alaska Legislature provided funds to initiate a project to record the places described in William's manuscript and other places Eskimo people subsequently took us to see. This was called the Imuruk Basin Project.

In May of 1971, William and I with two fellow workers moved into New Igloo to set up a centrally located camp to serve as our base of operations until the following December. At this time, William read and approved the material now printed in this book.

In the fall, William began to speak unemotionally of his impending death. A sense of urgency was communicated in his wish for us to see as many of the places difficult to locate as possible while he could still be with us. By mid-September William found it increasingly difficult to move around, and it was heartbreaking to watch him attempt to draw illustrations or maps in order to instruct the crew. He was no longer able to control the constant shaking of his hands and one leg. William returned to Nome the last day of September, just before the beginning of freeze-up would halt all traffic in and out of the area for about six weeks. The crew carried on with the instructions he had left behind.

The Arctic Native Brotherhood planned to honor William on January 6, 1972. It was to be a surprise, but to assure his presence it was arranged for him to present the Brotherhood with a copy of the completed manuscript for this book. I visited William the day before the presentation was scheduled to take place to assure him we would go to the meeting together in a taxi. We discussed some of the details about printing the book, and William thanked me for helping him. He said he was happy "our" book was done, and told me to "take care of it." He spoke again of his belief that his death was near in a tone of quiet acceptance and without regret. The next afternoon, William went to bed to rest in anticipation of the meeting, and in sleep, quietly died.

This book is a memorial to William Oquilluk, to one man's dedication to his personal ideals in response to the obligations imposed on him by his cultural heritage.




These stories began long, long ago. They have been told by our ancestors, from century to century, by passing them on from generation to generation, until I, William A. Oquilluk, came into this time.

I have heard of the Three Great Disasters of ancient times and saw the Fourth Disaster of later times. Each one killed most of the people, leaving only a few to survive on the land. Those who survived, each time, made the population grow up again in Northwestern Alaska. Each time those few left told their story of what happened in other centuries to the young ones while they were growing up.

If someone writes these stories down, it should bring understanding and thoughtfulness to anyone who reads them.

Writing down these stories began like this:

When I was a boy, I used to go into the kazghi with the others. Sometimes instead of dancing, they used to tell stories like the ones here. We used to hear these stories. People liked to listen to them, but it seemed nobody was interested in writing them down. I used to wonder about that.

When I was big enough to go to school, I was eight or nine years old. One time the teacher showed us George Washington's picture. He told us this was the First President and things like that about him. Then he asked us, "Do any of you fellows have any stories like that about your ancestors?"

I raised my hand. I told him, "Yes, my grandfather knows those stories." He said, "Will you please go get your grandpa now?" I told him my grandpa did not speak much English. Then he asked me, "Do you know somebody who could interpret those stories from your grandpa's language for us?" I told him, "My uncle can do it but he cannot walk. His legs are bad. "So the teacher had some of the bigger boys go and get him. They carried my uncle, John Utkook, to the schoolhouse.

My grandpa told us some of the stories in this book. The school teacher said those stories were very interesting, but he did not write any of them down. He sure did like to hear them, though.

A few years later another school teacher came. His name was H.D. Reese. He liked those stories, too, and was going to write them down. He had so much to do he never had a chance to get that done. When I got to the sixth grade Mr. Reese told me, "Now you remember those stories your grandpa told you. You should write them down. They are interesting and important stories about the first Eskimos and the troubles they had with the disasters."

I started thinking about that, and decided it was a good idea to try to write them down. I knew I might miss some of them and not get all of them done, but I could try, anyway. I could get most of them. Most of the stories were written down when our house burned. That was in 1918. I did not start writing them again until two or three years later. I am still writing them down now.

One reason I decided the stories should be written is because of what I learned when I traveled around quite a bit. I heard these same stories other places but nobody was putting them on paper. I heard these things first from my grandpa. Then I heard them from an old man at Sinruk River. He did not know my grandpa. He told me he had heard these stories lots of places in his life time. He said maybe this was the last time he would tell them to anyone, because he was getting so old.

Another time I was at a place down from Brevig Mission. There was an old man there. He told me the same stories. After he finished I asked him where he got those stories. He said he heard them from his grandfolks.

Next time, when we went over to Koyuk River area for hunting we went by Council City. There was a man over there who was not too old, but old enough. He told these same stories. He said he heard them up around Golovin and White Mountain from the old people there.

The places that the stories tell about like the caves, the places on the land, the graves, are all those things I have seen. The only place I did not go was where they got those sharp rocks to make oolus and knives. That was pretty high up and it is a dangerous place to climb. My grandpa did not want to take me up there because I might get hurt. It was pretty steep. He just showed me where it was. My grandpa used to take me to all those places he told me about. Other places I know about because I saw them later when I was herding the reindeer or hunting. It would not be right to put things into the stories I did not know about myself. If people want to, they can see these places for themselves, too. The young people and the children coming along should see how their ancestors used to live by the land. They should hear the stories of their forefathers. That is why I have written these things down.