Volume I, Number 1
The articles in this issue are a selection of the work done by students enrolled in English 106 at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, during spring semester 1973. With one exception, (see p.18), the authors can trace part or all of their ancestry to the Native groups that appear on the magazines cover. With the help of their instructors, Sarah Isto and Russell Currier, these students wrote, illustrated, and pasted up the magazine.
The idea for Theata was born when English instructors working with Student Orientation Services realized that many of the papers they were grading contained material that was not generally known by urban Alaskans or by people from the "Lower Forty-Eight States." Most of the students taking classes set up by Student Orientation Services, an organization which is designed to ease the rural students transition into college life, were born in villages scattered all over the state. Among the group there was broad knowledge about the lesser-known aspects of Alaskan life. Yet the papers they wrote, after being graded, were being lost into wastebaskets and bottom drawers.
Theata is an attempt to save some of this material to give readers a glimpse into Alaska as seen by these students.
by Teresa F. Pingayak
Chevak is a small village located in the southwestern part of Alaska. Among the houses, the one that seems most strange and interesting to the few visitors that come, is the qaygiq, the old mens house. Chevak is where I was born, and I have lived most of my life there.
The qaygiq is a large, dome-shaped sod house, usually called the bathing house, and is similar to a sauna. It is made out of sod and large pieces of driftwood. The wood is used for support inside and forms the walls and ceiling. The outside is covered with dirt dug up from the earth in squares, and put all around the qaygiq for insulation against the rain in the summer and the cold in the winter.
The qaygiq is about thirty-five feet in length, twenty-five feet in width, and is about fifteen feet from the floor to the ceiling. It has a dirt floor with a big opening in the center where the fire is built before the bath. The opening is about six feet wide and eight feet in length. Inside of the qaygiq on each side are long, low, narrow, wooden platforms which serve the men as seats. The only light that gets in is from the top of the ceiling where a space has been left open for the window covered with plastic or seal intestines in place of window panes.
The qaygiq, as I vaguely remember when I was about six years old, was built by the men of the village who helped each other. It was built especially for the men for the purpose of getting together to visit one another, work, bathe, or just enjoy the company of other men.
The men usually carry four items to the qaygiq when they are going to take a bath: soap, a piece of cloth, a can of water, and a mouthpiece called a qanermiaq made from pieces of driftwood carved into tiny pieces. These pieces have been gathered and tied in a bundle about the size of a fist with one end fixed so that the man is able to hold onto it with his teeth. The qanermiaq serves as a protection against the inhalation of smoke and the burning of the throat and lungs. At the time of the bathing the men breathe through this mouthpiece and not through the nose.
The fire is built with pieces of driftwood just before the bath. The smoke from the fire is let out the top of the ceiling, where they open a part of the window which also serves as a chimney.
Women and children hardly ever to the qaygiq. This may be because of the feeling that it was built for men. Once in a while a father will bring one or two of his children to the qaygiq for the purpose of baby sitting, or a mother will send one of her children to the qaygiq to get the father when she needs his help or wants him to come home to eat.
When I was a small child my father took me to the qaygiq with him while he visited with the other men. I was afraid of the men and kept real quiet to myself. There were no other children except me. The men were just talking to each other, and one was making a new paddle for his kayak. I dont know how other children feel. I suppose if I had had another girl like my sister, I wouldnt have felt so afraid and quiet. I never got another chance as a small child to find out what would have happened if I had started yelling and playing among the men.
The qaygiqs other use beside bathing, working, and just plain visiting is the practicing of Eskimo dancing just before Christmas and Easter. Those are the two special times when men, women and children mix to practice for the Eskimo dances until the rhythms to the songs are learned. At Christmas and Easter the final dances are showed at the community hall or at the armory.
Potlatches used to be held in the qaygiq once a year in the winter time. The people brought different kinds of food and materials for distribution among themselves. These potlatches are no more. It may be that some of the older people who have died were responsible for having these potlatches take place, and when they died the potlatches died with them.
The qaygiq is still the favorite place for the men of Chevak when they want to get together. I am sure the qaygiq will be around for a long time and still be an interesting sight to the visitors of Chevak.
Teresa F. Pingayaq was born and raised in Chevak, Alaska, and was a teachers aide there for two years before she started attending the University in the fall of 1972.
by John Pingayaq
Chevak, my home town, with a population of 462 people, is located in the southwestern part of Alaska and is twenty miles from the Bering Sea. In the fall during the month of August and the early part of September the seals increase in number on the bay and mouths of the Kivqliivick and Chevak Rivers. The Kivqliivick River is about ten miles south of Chevak. In the fall the men of Chevak start to go out and hunt for seals, with their boats and outboard motors. To these men, seal hunting is the most challenging, most thrilling, and one of the hardest kinds of hunting on the Western coast of Alaska.
The kinds of seals we find around our area are spotted seals and haired seals, muklaqaq, and they vary in size. Spotted seals are usually smaller and weigh from fifty to a hundred pounds. Haired seals are bigger, weighing from one hundred to over two hundred pounds.
The people in my village have a lot of uses for the seals. The Eskimos depend on them for the meat and seal oil. The skin is used for mukluks (Eskimo boots). The people also value the seal for its oil, because we use the seal oil for eating, be using it on most Eskimo foods, like dry fish, dried seal meat, and geese. In winter we use it on frozen fish of all sorts. We also use the oil to store dry fish for the winter.
Before seal hunting many things have to be preparedmotor oil, twenty-five to thirty gallons of red gas, ammunition for the guns and enough food has to be packed before going out. Other essential needs have to be prepared also, like a camp stove, sleeping bags and all the other things you think you will need for your hunt.
The harpoon is one of the important tools that must be taken on a seal hunt. It is a round, carved pole that can be held in the palm of the hand and is five to six feet long. At the top of the tool is an ivory or other heavy object, that is used for weight and has a small hole at the end to which the spear head is attached. The spear head is tied by twenty feet of cord to the harpoon. This tool is used mainly to prevent the seal from sinking and also from escaping when it is wounded. It is important for the hunter to harpoon the seal right away, because if the seal stays too long in the water, it will sink.
In calm weather seal hunting in the bay and rivers around Chevak is quiet. Only the sounds of the distant outboard motors roaring and murmuring on the glassy bay can be heard. We travel slowly watching out for black, semi-circular specks on the surface of the water. If a dark, semi-circular object submerges, this indicates a seal.
I remember one seal hunt on which I had my wife, Teresa, with me. We were going home from an old Kivqliivick camping place, and we were at the Chevak River about two miles inside the mouth of the river. We were not expecting to see any seals in the river, which stretches about eight miles from the mouth to Chevak. I was driving a thirty-three horse power motor. As I was looking along the banks of the river, I noticed a big, light-grayish object on the water. It submerged, and I slowed down the motor. I got excited and got my twenty-two rifle and my harpoon ready.
I told Teresa to drive and she did. I was observing at the front of the boat, ready to shoot the seal if it surfaced. It surfaced three to five minutes after it dove. I shot with a steady aim, but missed. The seal submerged, splashing its flipper against the water.
It is difficult to hit a seal in the water, with the boat moving, and small steady waves splashing against the boat. Some of the seals are easily lost because of their activeness and the long periods they submerge. Also, we had to time the speed of our boat to where the seal would surface.
The seal surfaced again, and I knew right away by its light color that is was a muklaqaq (a haired seal). I aimed with my .22 rifle and shot, and the seal splashed the water with excitement and dove. I was shaking a little and my face got white with excitement. The haired seal surfaced again in front of the boat. I shot and missed again. By this time we had been chasing the seal for thirty minutes, and the seal was getting tired. Then the most exiting thing happened; one of my shots hit the seal, and its back surfaced on the water. The blood was all around the seals wiggling body.
I took the harpoon, and yelled at Teresa, "Come on, a little faster!" The bow of the boat was right beside the seal. I raised the harpoon and aimed at the seal. I thrust is forward, and the harpoon landed on the seals back. The spear head had embedded strongly in the flesh of the seal, and it wouldnt come out now if I pulled on the cord. The seal was still moving about, and I shot it again in the head, and it died then. I got hold of the seals flippers and pulled them over the side of the boat. I pulled again and again until the seal finally rolled into the boat. The seal was five and a half feet long, and it weighed about two hundred pounds.
In our Eskimo tradition, in order to keep seals for ourselves, we must give away the first seals to the older people of the village. After getting his five seals, a young man can be considered a good hunter, and is respected for his manliness. When a young man catches his first maklaqaq, he must distribute the meat and the oil to the older families of the village.
During the spring months, if a man catches one of the maklaks (bearded seals) which are found in the Bering Sea, the maklaks oil is distributed to the families of the village. Usually the fat is cut into strips, so that everyone will have his share. Maklaks are difficult to catch. The men go many miles by kayaks toward the Bering Sea to catch them. They are too big to carry in the kayak, and men bring home the skin, oil, intestines, liver and most of the meat. The liver is a delicacy to both men and women of the villages, and the intestines are dried and made into rainwear.
During the hunt, if a man has someone with him other than his own family, and if he catches a maklaqaq or maklak, he must give his companion the lower abdominal part of the seal.
As the hunter arrives with his catch, the housewife puts small amounts of water in the mouth and under the arms of the seal. This has to do with the thirst of the seal after a life in salt water. This tradition shows some respect for the seal, because of the great value it has to the Eskimos.
It is believed if one does not follow these traditions he will no longer be as good as a hunter as he used to be. He will be talked about in the village, and it will be a big shame for him.
Most of these traditions are still followed today by the people of Chevak, and other coastal villages in Alaska.
John F. Pingayaq is a 1970 graduate of St. Marys High School. He is a freshman majoring in Elementary Education. He was born in Chevak, Alaska, and was a Teachers Aide for Chevak School for one year and served as a village councilman from 1970-1971.
by Teresa F. Pingayak
It is very unusual for a girl to get a seal in my hometown, Chevak, because girls seldom hunt. I thought it was impossible for a girl to get one until I got one myself when I was about fifteen years old.
My family was at fish camp on the Kivgliivick River early in the month of August. My father was putting up a new fish rack a little ways from the tent near the smoke house for the salmon. He stopped and came to the tent where my two sisters, Bernie and Cathy, and I were playing a game with cards. My two little brothers, the youngest of the family, were hunting birds with their bow and arrows.
My father said he needed more small pieces of driftwood to complete the fish rack and said he was going out to find some in our river boat. Since my sisters and I loved to boat ride, we asked him if we could go out and find the wood ourselves. He said, "Yes," right away since he had to tend tot he fish nets that kept him busy most of his time.
My sisters and I got in the boat; then my two brothers decided to come along and we were off. We passed our neighbors, the Nanoks, who were also fish camping on the same river. We went about a mile by river away from camp and went up into a fairly large tributary.
We stopped the boat in what seemed to be a good place for finding driftwood. We could see for miles around on the flat tundra as we looked for wood. We had good luck in finding wood for about an hour and started back to camp. We were happy with our haul of wood, for we always wanted to please Father very much and to let him know we were dependable since we had no older brothers to take care of the heavy work.
We had brought a .22 rifle and a few shells with us before we left camp. I had done a bit of hunting before of ducks and geese, but never hunted a seal.
It was late in the afternoon, and we were going along the river when we spotted a duck along the river bank. I told Bernie to slow down the motor, got the gun and put a shell in it and aimed at the duck. Just as I was about to pull the trigger, Bernie said she saw a seal. I asked her where; she said, "It just went underwater." I said, "Lets go after it." She was reluctant at first for we had never gone after a seal before and did not know of any women who had.
We saw the seal come up again about seventy-five feet away from our boat. The seals head bobbed up once from the water and seemed to disappear. I said, "I got it. Wheres the harpoon?" Cathy handed the harpoon to me, and together we tried to untangle the twine and at the same time wind it around the harpoon. I put the jagged spearhead in place while Bernie headed for the spot where the seal had gone down.
We were very lucky when we got to the spot where the seal was, to find it floating on its side instead of finding it sunk already. I was about to harpoon the seal, when Bernie told me the spearhead had fallen off. I dropped the harpoon in the boat and went to take over the motor. I slowed the motor down and went close enough to the seal so that Cathy could grab the seal by the flipper, and we pulled it into the boat. It was a nice, small, spotted seal.
My brothers just watched with great big eyes, and they looked as if they were saying, "Do girls get seals too?" We stood in the boat unbelieving and looking at each other; my brothers and sisters started laughing. I did not realize, after all the excitement, that I was standing there with wide-open eyes, shaking all over. My legs felt like jelly; even my voice was shaky as I tried to speak. I, too, then started laughing. All the things we did while we were going after the seal seemed so funny that we kept laughing.
We finally calmed down and headed back to camp. We were still excited and full of eagerness to let Father see the seal that I had caught. We reached camp and my father could not believe his eyes for a while. We told him the story, and he, too, started laughing. We cleaned the seal that evening and gave some to our neighbors. We saved the skin for boots (mukluks). The next day we cooked the seal meat and had a very nice meal.
It was a great feeling and experience to be the first girl in Chevak to get a seal. No other girls to this day have gotten a seal, but I hope to get another seal in the summer. When I get a chance to go out and hunt seals, I will certainly go.
Teresa F. Pingayaq is the third oldest in her family. She has two older married sisters, two younger unmarried sisters, and two little brothers. She is married to John F. Pingayaq and has one little daughter.
By John Pingayak
The wet clothes stuck my skin while I clutched the handle of the sled. I did not complain or utter despair to my two companions after having traveled all day and on into the night in the late winter storm. It was getting dark and no sign of our village in Southwestern Alaska was to be recognized. We knew that we were lost, but our only goal was to get to our warm houses in Chevak.
Chevak, which is twenty miles from the Bering Sea, is located in the southwestern part of Alaska. The land is flat and no trees are to be seen; only the willows darken the whiteness of the snow. To the north of the village the Cape Romanzoff and Scammon Bay Mountains stand out on a clear day.
In 1963, when I was fifteen years old, the only transportation was dogteam. Men used the dogteams to get fuel for their stoves, and to hunt and fish for their families.
I used to go needlefishing for our dogs, when the supply of needlefish was about gone. Each fishing trip I would bring home a sled load of two to four, hundred-pound sacks of needlefish, frozen. This was the dogs almost daily diet, and they all seemed to love them.
The needlefish are one to two inches in length and have sharp spines on them on the back and front of their bodies. These needlefish are found in fresh-water rivers, and the older men know where to fish for them. They run from fall to spring.
I had been telling my friend, Stewart Dowless, a schoolteacher in the Bureau of Indian Affairs Chevak School, about needlefishing and camping out in the late winter. I also convinced him that there were ptarmigans in the mountains. He got interested, and we planned to go out on Saturday to fish, hunt ptarmargans and camp out for the night. He wanted to supply the food and gas for our camp stove, so he did.
On Saturday morning we got ready, and I borrowed my uncles dogteam. We invited Jimmy Slats, who is about two years older than me. He smiled, his glowing, brownish-tanned face agreeing with delight. We brought playing cards and goodies and a lamp, so that we would enjoy our camping and fishing as much as possible. The weather at that time was kind of dull, but we went about our business without worrying about it.
At noon we left for the fishing area which was located north, about fifteen miles from Chevak. We traveled in the trail, which was hard-packed by other fishermen. Only the cracking sound of the sled and the hard breathing of the dogs could be heard.
We got to our fishing area, and we unpacked our sleds. We pitched our canvas tent beside our fishing hole, which was already made by men fishing previously in the frozen river. We used our two sleds to support our tent by putting one sled in each side of the tent.
The hole had been made by chipping the ice with an icepick. The fishing hole was one and a half feet wide and four feet long in a rectangular shape. At this time of the winter, the ice in the river was three and a half feet deep.
The weather at this time was clear, and the sun shone brightly. We agreed to hunt ptarmigans in the mountains before sunset. We traveled twenty minutes to the mountains. We stopped beside a mountain where the wind was calm. We tied our dogs to the willows and walked up the mountain. I hear a couple of ptarmigans calling like roosters, but they were not close enough to be shot with our .22 rifles. We had fun hiking around. From the mountain we could see many miles to the south. We could see the bluish line of the hills that were embedded in the tundra eight miles from us.
We went back to our sleds, and we headed back to our camp to set our fish traps. The fish trap has a triangular-shaped frame to which a net is attached. In one angle of the frame a pole about ten feet long is tied securely, so that the net will touch the bottom of the river when it is set. We would check our traps every twenty to thirty minutes. One net would get a fourth of a sack or less. The tide from the nearby coast was high and had pushed the river ice up, making the river deeper. When the tide was low and the river as shallower, we would catch half a sack or more. The small needlefish would wiggle when first pulled out from the water and then freeze in a few minutes at the twenty-below temperatures. We would pack them in one-hundred pound flour sacks before they froze.
Inside, our tent was warm because we kept our camp stove going. The three of us were staying in the same tent, and we played cards, and once in a while we would check our net. The fish were not running in large numbers, but we got small amounts. That night the weather was calm, but the stars could not be seen, indicating that the sky was cloudy.
The next morning it was a big surprise to us that the weather was stormy. It was snowing with big flakes of snow from the south. We could not stay because Stewart Dowless was to teach the next day.
At this time we took the nets out from the hole. I fed my dogs a handful of needlefish, and we packed our sled and our nets. We were all certain that we wanted to go home. It was dull that morning, and we hardly could see over a mile because of the storm.
We traveled home following the trail, and for the first thirty minutes the weather got worse. The snow started to get wet. I was at the back of the sled directing my lead dog. Then I started to notice that my kuspuk (parka cover) was getting wet, and I felt the dampness in the sleeves of my rabbit skin parka. We halted our sleds and decided to make camp, because we were getting wet. We set up our tent. We used blocks of snow to hold down the sides of our tent. I found that my pants were also damp, so we all took our wet clothes off and warmed up in our sleeping bags. Our tent was warm from the hot draft from our campstove, but we were running low on fuel. We only brought one gallon of white gas which Stewart had purchased from Sheppard Trading Store.
Our stove ran out of fuel. In a few minutes our tent got chilly. We openly discussed what we were going to do. We all agreed that we should go home no matter how bad the weather was, and said that it was no use staying without fuel. Another reason was that Stewart didnt want to miss class the next day.
We bravely put on our damp clothes and packed our gear into our two sleds. The weather was still the same, and we couldnt see a mile because of the whiteout. Whiteouts occur when the snow and the sky are the same color, and people easily get lost in this kind of weather. We could barely see the trails, and after a few hours of traveling we lost the one we were following. We didnt know which way the trails were, so we went west at a forty-five degree angle. We found one set of trails which were leading to the southwest. We followed one of these trails until we also lost it, but we kept going.
The wind was strong and the big flakes of snow hit against my face, giving me difficulty seeing. Our lead dog kept starting to run to the right; I think because the wind was hitting the left side of his body. Often I would command him to move left.
At this time I was confident that we would be home within a few hours. I started to feel the wetness of my clothes and my gloves, but I kept hold of the sled. Jimmys team kept close behind me, and his kuspuk looked wet.
The most discouraging thing happened when it started to get dark. We found that we had been traveling all day and no sign of home was to be recognized. The weather cleared up a little, but we were still in the whiteout. It looked as though the snow and the horizon were the same. In the far distance to the north we saw the lower parts of mountains, but we didnt know which mountains they were. We would stop to ask each other which way home was, but no positive answer was to be given. Jimmy told me to keep leading because he didnt know where to go as much as I did. Our dogteams were slowing down, but we kept going toward the south, hoping to see the lights of Chevak. At this time I could hardly see anything but darkness, and could hardly notice that we were on the hills.
It got dark, I was discouraged, and feared that we were lost. I had no idea where we were. We went over the top of a hill, and all of a sudden, Stewart yelled with surprise, "Theres a light!" The speck of light in the vast darkness flickered brightly. It really brightened our distress and discouragement. We traveled one hour toward the light we saw, but we didnt see it again. We couldnt go on further, so we camped out in the open, flat area with hills around us. Our dogs were tired, and as soon as we stopped, they curled up like balls and slept. We went inside our tent, took our wet clothes off and warmed ourselves in our dry sleeping bags. My shirt, pants and parka were wet, and the only part of me that was dry was my feet. We hung our clothes up, hoping that they would dry by morning, and went to sleep tired.
The next day, in early morning we found that the weather was kind of foggy, but we could see quite a distance around us. Unfortunately, our clothes had not dried.
The hardest thing I ever did in my life was putting on my wet, frozen clothes after being in the dry sleeping bag. First I put on my shirt, and slowly I put on my pants. They chilled my whole body. This was the first time I had ever felt being thoroughly wet and cold in winter. When I got through putting on my seal skin mukluks, I put my wet parka on and went out to observe the weather and the terrain. I knew that the fog was lifting and getting thinner due to the morning sun. I looked around and saw that we were in the middle of a flat area.
I fed my dogs a handful of needlefish each, and they ate them hungrily. We got things ready, and traveled toward the light we saw the night before. On the south side of us I saw wood that had been stacked in a teepee-shaped pile by someone for his winter supply of wood. All of a sudden we heard dogs yapping and howling west of us. I was confident that we were close to home. It was a big relief after all the distress we had gone through the night before. I often would smile at my friend, Stewart, who was sitting on the sled in front of me, but without any expression he would turn away.
One thing I couldnt understand was the stacks of driftwood around Chevaks perimeters, because I hadnt ever noticed them before. We were going up the hill, and at the peak of the smooth hill we stopped and looked hard without saying anything. We saw with delight the black figures of houses in the distance. Some chimneys were smoking, and the warmth of the houses could be felt just by looking at them. The place was Hooper Bay, which is twenty miles west of Chevak. Hooper Bay is right along the coast of the Bering Sea and is one of the villages closest to Chevak.
Stewart wanted to go on to Hooper Bay, but I didnt want to. We turned the opposite way and headed to Chevak. I knew the trail to Chevak from previous experiences. I was confident that we wouldnt have any problems finding our trail home. The sun shone brightly above us, and it was a comfort to me. I tried to dry my parka, by putting it inside out in the sun, but it didnt help much, so I put it back on. Finally, at last we were home. It was good to see Chevak again. The warm house and a warm cup of tea melted all the chilliness of my body. The dry clothes were a relief after wearing wet, frosted clothes. I went out an hour later and found that the weather had gotten cold. The wet snow on the ground had frozen. If we had stayed out longer, we would have faced a disaster. I thought to myself, "Never again will I ever try to travel in a storm. Instead I will stay in one place and keep dry until the weather clears." This was a close call and a lesson I will never forget.
John Pingayak also wrote "Seal Hunting in Chevak" which appears elsewhere in this magazine
Central | Alaskool
Topics | Curriculum
| What's New
Resources | Links
Alaskool | Guestbook
1998-2004, UAA-ISER. Individual copyrighted materials on this site are used
with permission from the author or copyright holder and are provided for
and informational purposes only.
This site has graciously been supported by the Institute of Social and Economic Research, University of Alaska Anchorage, First Alaskans Foundation, CIRI Foundation, Alaska Humanities Forum, and U.S. Department of Education.
Alaskool is developed and maintained and hosted at
Institute of Social and Economic Research
University of Alaska Anchorage
3211 Providence Drive
Anchorage, Alaska 99508 USA