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From Skeptic to Believer: The Making of an Oral Historian

by Ernest S. Burch, Jr.*

[Source: Alaska History, Vol. 6, No. 1, Spring 1991]

Many non-Native Alaskans believe that the Native peoples of the state do not have a history.1 In the narrow sense of history as a written record of people and events, this notion is correct. None of the Native peoples of Alaska traditionally had a system of writing, and they therefore lacked the means to compile a graphic record. But they do have a past. Indeed, in most cases, this past extends back several thousand years. At least the last two centuries of it have formed the basis of a rich body of information, a comprehensive record of people, events, and processes derived from observation and experience. The major difference between Native history and, say, European history, is that the latter is written, whereas the former is orally expressed and orally transmitted from one generation to the next. In the broad sense of "history" as a substantive record of the past, Alaska Natives definitely have a history.

Regrettably, there are rather few people who have any knowledge of the history of Native societies before they ceased to exist due to European influence. I am one of the lucky ones. However, I did not achieve that status very easily or in a manner of which I am very proud. Since the way in which I did so is indicative of both the richness of Native history, on the one hand, and of the inept manner in which it has been studied, on the other, I hope it will be instructive to recount for others some of my experiences.

I first arrived in northwestern Alaska in mid-October of 1960. I had been hired by the University of Alaska to assist in conducting a human ecological study of the Inupiaq Eskimo village of Kivalina. I was concerned primarily with what was going on during that particular period, not in what had happened a hundred years earlier, As the winter progressed, I heard occasional references to, and stories about, ancient warfare between different Inupiaq groups. Among other things, I noted that the home side always won the battles that were described to me. That made me suspicious. Besides, in order to have had wars, the Inupiat had to have had different countries, or at least different tribes.2 Everyone knew that they lacked anything of the kind. For these reasons, I pretty much ignored everything that I was told about ancient Eskimo warfare. My attitude was buttressed by Robert F. Spencer who, in his famous monograph on the north Alaskan Eskimos, had declared flatly that "there was no institution of warfare" among the Inupiat of the Alaskan Arctic slope.3

In 1964, and again in 1965, I returned to northwestern Alaska. On these visits I was carrying out a study of Native family life for the purpose of writing a Ph.D. thesis. As during my first trip, I was interested primarily in the present, not the past. However, I again heard the occasional story about ancient Inupiaq warfare. This time — apparently because people knew me better — they admitted that sometimes the home side had lost. Furthermore, some of the older people began to tell me a bit about what they called "Eskimo nations." These nations, they claimed, had existed in northwestern Alaska at some time in the past, and it was the citizens of these nations who had engaged one another in war.

The stories still did not ring true, however. By the end of 1965 I had collected enough genealogical and family history data to establish that, as far back as 1890, Inupiaq family groups in northwestern Alaska had been highly mobile geographically, and that a high percentage of the inhabitants of any particular region were related to the inhabitants of several others. This meant that the Inupiat could not have been divided into separate tribes, not to mention separate countries. The notion that anything usefully referred to as "warfare" occurred in such a context was absurd. I therefore concluded that my informants were talking about interfamily feuds, not wars.

In the fall of 1969 I returned to northwestern Alaska for a fourth time. On this occasion I was there to conduct research that was explicitly historical in orientation. My interest had shifted for theoretical reasons, not because I had altered my opinion about the accuracy of the stories I had heard earlier. For nearly nine months I travelled extensively in northwestern Alaska, systematically seeking out individuals whom the Inupiat regarded as knowledgeable historians. I was excited, and frankly surprised, to find that there were quite a few of them. Some were truly brilliant, scholars and intellectuals in the most genuine senses of those words. Simon Paniaq Paneak,4 for example, used to seek out and interview Native experts on various subjects practically every time he left his own village of Anaktuvuk Pass. Charlie Sagaluuzaq Jensen, who had been a reindeer herder for many decades in his younger years, had tried always to have elders stay in his camp for the explicit purpose of having them impart their knowledge and provide intellectual stimulation during the long winter nights. Della Pu'yuq Keats spent much of her life seeking out experts on various subjects and listening to and remembering what they had to say.5 Others, such as Martha Nunamiu Swan, were exceptionally intelligent people who soaked up knowledge like a sponge absorbs water. Raised by a brilliant grandmother who had been born and raised along the upper Noatak River, she was quite knowledgeable about that area (even down to place names) despite the fact that she had never even been there herself. Still others, such as Robert Naszuk Cleveland and Frank Kuutvak Glover, were simply very intelligent people who were old enough to have been born into a world in which the oral tradition was still a vital force and who had absorbed much of what it had to offer.

These Native historians could tell me not only about what had happened during their own lifetimes, but also about events and people from their parents' lifetimes. Some could tell me about events that had taken place during their grandparents' lifetimes and even earlier than that. I had not seriously expected to be able to learn much about any period before 1890. That was all right, because I thought that the Natives had been living in a very traditional manner at that time. But I soon found myself hearing of events that apparently took place more than half a century before that, and it soon became clear that a great many changes had occurred in the Inupiaq way of life before 1890.

The Natives I questioned told me about Inupiaq nations and about Inupiaq warfare. Some of them claimed to have visited old battlefields as children. They had been guided by a grandparent who had personally fought there, or whose parent or grandparent had. They had seen with their own eyes the skeletons of the soldiers who had died there, and the decaying debris of war. They had walked over the ground and had listened to the story just as we might tour the Gettysburg Battlefield today.

These Inupiaq historians distinguished very clearly between feuding, on the one hand, and warfare, on the other. In the context of war, they talked about the differences between fire tactics and shock tactics, and about fire weapons and shock weapons. They spoke of wearing armor, of maneuvering battle lines, and of firing arrows in volleys. They even talked about stockades and earthworks. They spoke, in short, about a sophisticated kind of warfare that rarely has been described for hunting peoples anywhere, and which never had been described for any Eskimo group.

My disbelief in these stories was shaken, not only by the conviction and manifest knowledge with which these people spoke, but also by the fact that their separate accounts were mutually consistent. For example, a historian from Kotzebue claimed that his people had once defeated the Point Hopers in a battle fought around a stockade built at Sheshalik, across the inlet from the modern town of Kotzebue. Inquiries among the Point Hopers a few months later confirmed the story in all essential details. But I was still skeptical, and wanted additional corroboration.

For help I turned to the early historical literature on northwestern Alaska. In the account of Frederick William Beechey, from 1826 and 1827, I found a description of what honestly had to be called a battle line.6 There was also a description of what must be called a military entrenchment.7 In the account of Alexandr Kashevarov, written in 1838, I discovered that his party had been confronted by battle lines on several occasions.8 He also chanced upon the fresh remains of a battle,9 one that my own sources later told me marked the defeat of a force of Point Hopers by an invading party from Kotzebue. Furthermore, Kashevarov listed the exact tribes or nations that my sources said had been located along that part of the coast. Indeed, he corroborated what the Inupiaq historians had told me about where the precise boundaries of those countries had been. I was further shocked to discover that Knud Rasmussen had actually published a photograph of one of the old battlegrounds in which the remains of several dozen people were clearly visible.10 I say "shocked" because I had read much of this material before, yet had somehow overlooked these facts. Apparently I had done so for the simple reason that they were so contrary to my expectations that I could not see what was right before my eyes.

Of course, I was not able to find independent corroboration of most of the events my sources had described to me, Most of them had taken place during years, or in seasons, when no non-Natives had been present in northwestern Alaska. But the explorers' accounts did corroborate many of the general patterns that my sources had reported to me. Indeed, in every single instance where independent corroboration was possible, the accounts of the Native historians were confirmed. I had no choice but to believe that the greater part of everything else that they told me must be true as well.11

If what the Native historians reported to me was true, then many of my previous conceptions about the nature of traditional life in northwestern Alaska had to have been false. Despite my personal inclinations and my professional training, both of which should have predisposed me to pay attention to knowledgeable Natives, I had been blinded by my own preconceptions. When what people told me did not conform to my expectations, I simply ignored what they had to say.

Preconceptions are not easily overcome, however. I will illustrate the problem, as well as some of the practical difficulties involved in this type of research, by describing how I learned about the Dihai Kutchin.

During my first period of field research on the northwest coast of Alaska I heard occasional references to warfare between Inupiat and Indians. That was all right, because everyone knows that Indians and Eskimos were always at each others' throats. The only thing that bothered me was how the Inupiat way out there on the coast could have gotten close enough to Indians to have engaged them in battle. The nearest Indians were nearly four hundred miles away, on the Koyukuk River. Obviously, these coastal people had never come into direct contact with Indians.

A few years later I happened to be present when a Kivalina man was teasing his wife about having an Indian ancestor. She did not appreciate his remarks, which suggested to me that they might have some substance. Unfortunately, the husband could not tell me much about it, and his wife would not tell me anything about it. I knew that she was of upper Noatak ancestry, however, and that the upper Noatak valley is a lot closer to the Koyukuk River than Kivalina is, I surmised that a Koyukon raid and rape expedition might have been the source of her alleged Indian genes.

The next year, when I was back on the coast again, Martha Swan told me a story she had heard about upper Noatak Inupiat actually engaging in exchange marriages with Indians.12 Unfortunately, she did not know where the Indians had come from. She did know that the Indian families involved had lived for a time in the upper Noatak valley. She also knew that, both individually and collectively, these particular Indians had been unusually easily disposed to anger. Because of this sensitivity, the marriages had not worked out successfully; indeed, they resulted ultimately in bloodshed. Perhaps, I thought, one of these marriages had produced the Indian element in my friend's ancestry. The Indians must have been Koyukon.

Five years later, when I had become fully engaged in historical research, Charlie Jensen gave me an account of the massacre of the residents of Nuvuraluaq, one of the smaller Point Hope coastal villages. The perpetrators of this deed, he told me, were Indians.

I had already established to my own satisfaction that Jensen was very intelligent, knowledgeable, and honest. When he told me something, I could not just ignore it. So I pursued it further. I subjected him to a series of questions about the raid. I had already learned that the Inupiat generally, and Jensen specifically, distinguish clearly between myth, on the one hand, and history, on the other.13 He placed this event squarely in the realm of history. Furthermore, no matter what approach I took, he insisted that the raiders were Indians, not Inupiat. The settlement whose occupants they had exterminated had been located right on the coast, only a few miles up the beach from the big village out on the tip of Point Hope.

Jensen did not know where the Indians had come from, beyond the fact that they had come from the east. However, he did know that, when the rest of the Point Hopers learned about the incident the next day, a party had pursued the fleeing raiders and had managed to kill one or two of them. But that was the extent of his knowledge on the subject.

About a month later, I was in the village of Shungnak, on the upper Kobuk River. While there I interviewed Robert Cleveland, a distinguished old gentleman whose competence as an historian was held in great esteem by people whose judgment I had grown to respect. I put to him a standard set of questions concerning the names and territories of traditional Inupiaq groups located in and around the Kobuk valley. All of his responses confirmed and elaborated on information I had acquired earlier — until he mentioned the group name "Uyaraarmiit." The Uyaraarmiit, he said, had occupied the region around the Noatak River headwaters during his great grandfather's time. That would have put it in the early nineteenth century.

In the ensuing discussion a number of points emerged. First, the Uyaraarmiit did not speak Inupiaq, although Cleveland was using an Inupiaq word as a term of reference for them. Rather, they spoke some Indian language. Second, both their language and their customs differed significantly from those of the Koyukon Indians. (Cleveland could speak knowledgeably on that point because, as I had already learned, the Upper Kobuk Eskimos and the Koyukon Indians had had extensive relations with one another for centuries, and a great many of those contacts had been friendly. As an example, he could speak Koyukon, in addition to Inupiaq and English. So much for my preconceptions about Indian-Eskimo relations!14) The third point was that the Uyaraarmiit were an extremely contentious people. As individuals they were very easily angered; as a group, they were ready to send out raiding parties at the slightest provocation.

Here, evidently, were the people who had become involved in the ill-fated exchange marriages with the upper Noatak people that I had heard about earlier. And they must have been the source of my Kivalina friend's Indian genes. But where had they come from, and what had they been doing in the upper Noatak valley?

Unfortunately, Cleveland did not have definitive answers to those questions. He did know that the Uyaraarmiit had come to the region from the east. He knew that they had lived in the area between Howard Pass and the upper Alatna River, just east of the territory of the upper Noatak Eskimos.15 Finally, he knew that they had been driven out of the upper Noatak valley sometime during his grandfather's lifetime, which probably would have been just before the middle of the nineteenth century, and that they had fled toward the east.

Within the next few months I was able to combine this information with several published reports,16 as well as with additional information I obtained that same winter from Simon Paneak in Anaktuvuk Pass. The combined data indicated clearly that the Uyaraarmiit must have been the Dihai Kutchin. They had been driven out of the Chandalar country by other Kutchin-speaking peoples, apparently late in the eighteenth or early in the nineteenth century, and had moved toward the west. They finally stopped when they reached the uninhabited region of the western Endicott Mountains and remained there for a generation or so. They were eventually driven out of the Noatak valley by neighboring Inupiat who had gotten tired of being endlessly harassed and raided by them. Finally, they were all but annihilated in an epic battle near Anaktuvuk Pass. The few survivors fled eastward, where they were absorbed by other Kutchin groups.

But the story does not end there. In the fall of 1980, I was in Point Hope working on a study of nineteenth century land use. As part of my research I collected information on place-names, a straightforward, rather mundane sort of investigation, but often a very informative one as well. In the midst of it, I suddenly found myself confronted with the name Itqilliq Nazvaq, "Indian Pass." It was a passage through the Lisburne Hills, just north of where the lpewik River cuts through them.

Why, I inquired, would any place that near the coast be called "Indian Pass?" The answer was that it had been the route taken by an Indian raiding party on their way to the coast. Whom did they raid? My informant, Walter Sigliuna Kowunna, did not know. Where did they come from? He could only guess that they had come from the east.

Even a quick glance at a topographic map of the Point Hope area indicates that any raiding party coming from the east, and wishing to avoid the numerous small Point Hope settlements along the lower Kukpuk River, would have found this pass an ideal one to use when crossing the Lisburne Hills en route to the coast. In fact, it would have provided a direct route to Nuvuraluaq, which is where the massacre of Point Hopers by Indians is said to have taken place. And this consideration got me thinking about that event once again, after a hiatus of nearly ten years.

While I was in Point Hope I seized the opportunity to try to put some of the major battles I had heard about into chronological order. On the basis of this investigation, it appeared that the raid on Nuvuraluaq had taken place sometime between about 1820 and 1840. This, of course, overlaps with the period when the Dihai Kutchin lived in the western Endicott Mountains. Then, in the winter of 1981, when I was writing my Point Hope land use report, I examined the notes that the late Don Charles Foote had made in Point Hope between 1959 and 1962. I discovered a sketch map based on information provided by Jimmy Killiguvuk. On it an "Indian grave" is marked. This grave was located just a few miles east of the place that my own informant had called "Indian Pass;" a name which Foote, apparently, did not record.

Whether or not they were true, the various bits and pieces of a coherent story were emerging. If they were true, a party of Indians did cross the Lisburne Hills, did massacre the unfortunate people of Nuvuraluaq, and did flee over the route whence they had come. They were pursued by the Point Hopers, and at least one of them was killed just east of the Lisburne Hills. But could these people have been Dihai Kutchin?

Certainly there were no other reasonable candidates as far as Indian populations were concerned. But it still seemed preposterous. At its closest point, Dihai country had been 250 miles away from Nuvuraluaq as the crow flies. The round trip probably would have been at least 750 miles on the ground. Could a party of Indians have walked that far on a raiding expedition?

The answer is suggested by a well-attested case involving a different group of Kutchin, the Natsit, which is probably the one whose ancestors had driven the Dihai out of their earlier territory on the Chandalar. Early in the spring of 1854 Captain Rochefort Maguire, commander of the Franklin Search Expedition at Barrow, made a lengthy exploration toward the east. On April 25, just east of the mouth of the Colville River, right out on the Arctic coast, he came across a party of Indians.17 (I should note that another set of preconceptions was destroyed by that observation. Indians were never supposed to visit that part of the coast, since it was Inupiaq country, and they were not supposed to visit any part of the Arctic coast at that time of year. But there they were!)

Since they were about to leave for Fort Yukon, three hundred miles away, Maguire gave the Indians a letter to take to the manager of the Hudson's Bay Company post. They delivered it on June 27, despite the fact that their trip spanned the breakup season, when travel on foot is nearly impossible; and of course they must have had to stop periodically to hunt. It took them only three more weeks to take another message the 250 miles from the trader at Fort Yukon to Captain Richard Collinson, near Barter Island, when they went out there to trade with the Alaskan Inupiat and the Mackenzie Delta Eskimos.18 Thus, within a period of less than four months they had covered a distance of some 550 miles as the crow flies, crossing the Brooks Range twice in the process, once during the breakup season. Altogether they probably walked 1,500 miles on the ground in about five or six months as part of their ordinary annual cycle of movement. If Natsit Kutchin could cover that much ground, presumably so could their cousins the Dihai. It would appear, in fact, that both Inupiat and Indians frequently did this kind of thing in early nineteenth century northern Alaska.19 A Dihai raid on Point Hope would not have been an extraordinary event physically to the Native peoples of that period.

But why would a party of Indians go to so much effort to wipe out an Inupiaq community whose residents probably were completely unknown to them? Regrettably, no one knows the answer to that question. My Inupiaq sources could not tell me why, and by the time I began to investigate the matter there were no Dihai left to ask. Part of the explanation must lie in the fact that, as noted above, the Dihai were extremely warlike as assessed by both their Inupiaq and Indian (both Koyukon and Kutchin) neighbors; apparently they just plain enjoyed making trouble. The party could have been out on a reconnaissance to try to find a better country in which to live, since the western Endicott Mountains are not particularly rich in resources; they happened upon Nuvuraluaq, and decided to attack it just for fun.20 But the real answer is lost forever.

This account of my experiences in learning about Inupiaq warfare and about the Dihai Kutchin are just two of several dozen examples I could give of how my preconceptions of traditional Alaska Native cultures and histories have been disproved, or at least seriously called into question, by a growing array of facts. The really upsetting thing about this is that if I had been willing from the beginning to pay attention to what elders were telling me, I would have known all of this ten or twenty years sooner. As it was, I missed an entire generation of people who probably knew more than my own informants did.

Thirty years ago, my view was that all narrative history which challenged my notions of common sense should be regarded as false until confirmed as true. Unfortunately, what originally passed for common sense proved to be little more than nonsense. In 1991, I would restate my position as follows: information that is provided by people whom the Inupiat consider competent historians should be regarded as true until proven false, no matter how extraordinary what they say may first appear.21

Despite my embarrassment and frustration for having committed them, I have been confessing my errors for some time now in the hope that others may benefit from my experience. So far, I regret to report, this effort has been something of a failure. Most of my colleagues still do not believe what Natives have to say about their own histories. "Narrative history," "oral history," "memory culture" — these phrases commonly are used as pejoratives by many representatives of the social science disciplines in Alaska. Several scholars have actually boasted to me that they do not believe what Native elders have told them: the archaeologists do not believe anything that is not manifested in stone tools or middens; the historians do not believe anything that was not written down on paper by a contemporary observer; and the ethnographers do not believe anything they have not seen with their own eyes. Ironically, but perhaps appropriately, many Natives do not believe archeological, historical, or ethnographic accounts of traditional Native life — when made by Euroamericans — unless they are corroborated by the oral testimony of elders. In this, the negative impact of preconceived ideas on the learning process comes full circle.

In 1991 there is a solid body of evidence indicating that the history of Alaska's Native peoples is much richer and more exciting than any of us were prepared to believe thirty years ago, and more so than most people are prepared to accept today. This is the first, and the most important point I want to make in this essay.

Contrary to what I believed twenty-five years ago, the precontact population of Alaska was divided into a large number of nations, or countries. These nations were tiny ones in terms of population, but they were nonetheless just as distinct from one another as Israel and Syria, or as Germany and Austria, are today. Each of these nations had dominion over a clearly delimited territory, and each of them was comprised of a clearly defined citizenry. If we only had enough synchronous information from all parts of the state, we could compile a political map of mid-eighteenth century Alaska reminiscent of a political map of, say, medieval Europe. The structure of the countries that would be represented on such a map was of course different from those in medieval Europe, but not as much so as most people think.

The tiny nations of Native Alaska had their great leaders and their villains, and their triumphs and tragedies, just as the great nations of Europe and Asia had theirs. The citizens of these tiny nations could and did engage in international intrigue and in war. They engaged in international diplomacy; they created international alliances and regional power blocks; and they participated in international trade.

In some cases, they even held international athletic competitions. All of this was on a minute scale compared to what we are used to, but it happened nevertheless. Most of the countries that are known to us endured for at least several generations, and probably much longer, which is a reasonably respectable span of time even by twentieth century standards of national longevity. Technically, one should speak in the plural — of Alaska Native histories, not of Alaska Native history — for each of these nations had its own.

Another thing we failed to understand is how early and how quickly these traditional countries were destroyed. Along the Pacific rim this destruction resulted from a combination of direct armed intervention and disease. In some other regions, disease alone did the job very effectively. In still others, famine led to a nation's demise. In any event, by 1890 the nations in most parts of Native Alaska were just a memory. That is why students of traditional Inupiaq history, for example, must concentrate their efforts on the period before 1890; students of Tlingit or Aleut history must go back much farther than that.

This leads me to my second point, which is that a major effort to tap the knowledge of Alaska's Native historians must begin immediately if we are to make much progress beyond our current low level of knowledge of Native life in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. If the people who are ostensibly interested in the history of Alaska's Native peoples make the same kinds of mistakes I did — as many of them seem to be doing — they will waste as much time as I did. And by the time they discover their error, another generation of Native historians will have passed away. In recent years many Native organizations have sponsored important historical research. They have acquired a tremendous amount of useful information, but even they have not been sufficiently vigorous or systematic in their work. They have not moved relentlessly enough back through time to get the information that is in the greatest danger of being lost, and they have not done enough transcription and critical analysis of the information they already have on hand to be able to assess the current state of knowledge. Much more work is required. Most of the great Native historians are already gone. The few who survive are sometimes difficult to locate. Many of them have given up trying to communicate what they know to people who refuse to believe them. And, as my example of the Dihai clearly shows, no one of the surviving historians controls enough information to resolve some of the most interesting historical problems. Finally, the strong oral tradition of the past has been seriously eroded over the past several decades. My own work has been carried out primarily in the Kotzebue basin where, since 1985, I have been able to find only two elders who could speak with any authority about any aspect of Native life in the early or middle nineteenth century. I am told there are still some outstanding Native historians left in other regions, however, and I sincerely hope that is so. We must learn as much as we can from them before it is too late.