Generations of anthropologists have appeared in Alaska Native villages and attempted, with varying degrees of tact, naivete or insight, to explain the villagers' lives. These efforts have produced many books, likewise varying in their validity and accessibility.
Blackman, who teaches anthropology at the State University of New York College at Brockport, comes from that tradition of academic anthropology. But in "Upside Down: Seasons among the Nunamiut," she parts from typical scholarly writing to create a book of essays that read more like personal memoir than academic treatise.
" ... I tired of academic writing," she says in her introduction. " ... I became increasingly irritated with the uncanny ability of so many anthropologists to render, in stilted prose, the most interesting cultures hopelessly pedantic and unappealing. I wanted to write differently about Anaktuvuk Pass."
The result is a beautifully written exploration of an anthropologist's life as well as a portrait of the remote Nunamiut village in the Brooks Range.
After doing a dissertation on Haida life in the Queen Charlotte Islands, Blackman married one of her former professors, fellow anthropologist Ed Hall. In 1980 he brought her, for the first time, to see Anaktuvuk Pass.
She describes it as " ... a memorably scenic place, cradled by the gray shale mountains that rise around it, verdant in the moment of summer, pristinely white in the deep freeze of winter."
That trip proved only the first of many. Although Blackman never spent a full year in Anaktuvuk Pass, she returned to the village nearly every year for summer field work interviewing Inupiat elders for various projects and spent a semester as a visiting instructor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
The village became part of her family's life. She and Ed collaborated on projects and, later, when their marriage unravelled, she returned alone to pursue her own research interests. Their daughter, Meryn, grew up among village children and tundra outings.
"Upside Down" weaves together stories of Blackman's family and the village. The author speaks candidly about her personal problems and heartbreaking events in the village. She also admits to skepticism of her role as an outsider coming into the Bush with a tape recorder and notebook, knocking on people's doors and badgering them with questions.
"That's the anthropologist's gaze looking in from the outside, all the while trying to understand from the inside. It is an odd kind of double vision," she writes.
But hers is not a cynical story. Despite setbacks, Blackman conveys warmth, sincerity and even a gentle sense of humor. It is obvious from her essays that she is deeply attached to Anaktuvuk Pass and considers its residents as friends rather than research subjects.
The village shines through her words as a fascinating place. She explains clearly how its residents are an inland people (that is what "Nunamiut" means) who lived as nomadic caribou hunters until about 50 years ago. Elders still alive recall how the late Simon Paneak, a remarkable man, befriended pioneer aviator Sig Wien and asked the pilot to help the villagers get a school and church, the institutions that formed the nucleus of their settlement.
The wandering wolf, once viewed as a symbol of the villagers' nomadic lives, became the school mascot.
Today, the village remains one of Alaska's most remote although, as the author reveals, it cannot be called isolated.
The essays cover a range of experiences and topics relating to her work there. These include classic Bush fare such as berry picking, caribou hunting and airplanes. But the author adds nuanced observances of modern rural Alaska, such as Internet access, citizens' band radio, tourism and Native children's alarming addiction to junk food. Much of the book talks about a local specialty craft that particularly interests the author: caribou-skin masks.
Blackman praises the villagers' creativity, adaptability and friendliness, but she expresses dismay at the gradual loss of Nunamiut traditional knowledge and uniqueness.
"For us anthropologist sojournors to the Arctic in the 1990s, the gastronomic low point, the culinary culture shock, comes not from eating the soured contents of caribou stomachs or gnoshing on warble fly larvae but from being reduced to buying TV dinners at the Nunamiut Corp Store," she writes.
"Upside Down" is an unusual book, quiet and thoughtful. It emphasizes people rather than events, family life rather than societal institutions. It does not pretend to be a definitive analysis of Nunamiut culture, but instead offers a rare window into the unusual and very personal relationship between an anthropologist and modern informants.
Royalties from the book go to the Simon Paneak Memorial Museum Endowment Fund.
Blackman offers a unique vantage, both through her own life and her ties with a special part of Alaska. She writes in a low-key style that, while not always exciting, grows on the reader.
For anyone interested in the subtleties of modern Bush life, "Upside Down" is refreshingly well written and impressively honest.
Shana Loshbaugh is a writer and former Clarion reporter who now lives near Fairbanks.
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