Novel retells one of Alaska's amazing tales

Posted: Thursday, May 01, 2003

Maniilaq: Eskimo Prophet

By Sarah Haile

Bonneville Books


Move over Nostradamus. Alaska has its own prophet, and the story of his life is so odd and wonderful that it is a mystery so few know his name.

Sarah Haile set out to remedy that oversight by writing "Maniilaq: Eskimo Prophet," a fictionalized biography of the seer. Although she is not a great writer, she is not a bad one either, and the story is so fascinating it overwhelms the book's shortcomings.

Surviving historic facts about Maniilaq are sketchy. But there is no doubt he was a real man who mystified his contemporaries, astonished their children and left us plenty to ponder in our own time.

He was an Inupiat Eskimo born about 1830 in the Kobuk Valley of Northwest Alaska. As a boy, he began hearing messages, often with parallels to Christianity, from what he called "a higher intelligence" or his "grandfather in the sky." As an adult, he intentionally broke taboos and challenged hostile shamans. In his later years, he gave his people messages about the future.

His charisma and ability to survive the shamans' curses intrigued those he met, but most considered him a madman. That changed when his predictions began coming true with uncanny accuracy within a few years of his mysterious disappearance. Among other things, he foretold telephones, airplanes and the coming of pale strangers who would radically change the Inuit way of life.

But his most distant and disturbing prophecies have yet to materialize.

In the 1970s, elders in the Kotzebue region recorded what they recalled about Maniilaq. Some were his relatives, and some had seen him themselves when they were children. Their information provides the nucleus and inspiration for the book.

Only recently has Maniilaq appeared in mainstream Ameri-can literature. Nick Jans discussed him in one essay of his 1993 book, "The Last Light Breaking," and another book about him, "Maniilaq: Prophet from the Edge of Nowhere," by Steven B. Terry and Jill K. Anderson, came out in 2001.

Haile's book is the most ambitious and thorough of the lot. An educator, she first heard about Maniilaq in 1988 when she began teaching at Shungnak, and she really did her homework to learn not only about him, but about his time, place and culture.

"The more I learned of Maniilaq, the more intrigued I became," she writes in her introduction.

"The rich heritage of the Inupiaq people has been carefully handed to the present generation through oral history. Maniilaq's light shines from time past, through the present, and into the future. It is my desire that this book will be read by the descendants of Maniilaq so that his light can continue to shine in their lives, and by others who also hunger to understand the Inupiaq people."

The author is almost too thorough, to the detriment of the story's flow. She seems reluctant to leave out any gem of information she discovered. She made the unusual choice of sprinkling her story with quoted passages from the memoirs and ethnographies she studied. In addition, it includes Inupiaq terms, a variety of fonts and inconsistent spellings of the Inupiaq names. The book would have benefited from a professional edit to clarify and streamline some areas.

But despite those drawbacks, Haile writes with a lyrical flair, a knack for setting a scene and a warm sense of intimacy with her characters.

She weaves in detailed descriptions of the old way of life, such as customs of childbirth, feasts and subsistence techniques. And she gives the impression that she has walked in Maniilaq's footsteps when she describes the landscape, as in this scene of berry picking:

"The (river's) roaring faded as they came to the open tundra. The water squished from the spongy tundra, wetting their feet. Silken heads of cotton grass nodded in the gentle breeze. Tiny bits of fluff floated on the wind attached to the fireweed seeds.

"Maniilaq sat on the dry tops of the tussocks, eating blueberries as his mother beat the blueberries from the bushes with her scoop. The wind kept the mosquitoes and gnats from their faces."

Haile also provides footnotes, family trees, a bibliography and a list of elders who contributed to the history.

In sum, Haile has done a good job bringing a remarkable tale to life. "Maniilaq: Eskimo Prophet" is not only an interesting story of the past in a little-known corner of the world, but a good introduction to a unique historical figure whose words may carry even more weight in the future.

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