Memoirs open window into Inupiaq history

Posted: Thursday, October 14, 2004

Simon Paneak's name has been in print before.

For more than a generation until his death in 1975, the Inupiaq elder worked with outsiders to explain the landscape and traditions that shaped his people, the Nunamiut inland Eskimos of the Brooks Range. His personality was so engaging and his knowledge so encyclopedic that anthropologists often cast him as the voice of his people.

"In a Hungry Country" showcases Paneak's voice, presenting his observations in his own words. It collects his narratives linking ancient oral history with contemporary memoir.

John Martin Jack Campbell is an anthropologist and archeologist who traveled to Anaktuvuk Pass, where he met Paneak in 1956. Campbell spent nine summers working in the central Brooks Range, including hunting and travel with Paneak, and the two men later corresponded and sometimes met

in Fairbanks.

Always, travels with Simon were delightful courses of study in Nunamiut lore, transmitted more often than not by sheer chance, Campbell writes in his introduction.

Eager to help Paneak preserve information he had collected, Campbell gave him an artist's sketchbook and, a few years later, a tape recorder. This book includes the transcriptions of the narratives from those sources. Campbell's previous book, "North Alaska Chronicle: Notes from the End of Time," contained most of Paneaks drawings and serves as a companion volume to the new book.

Paneak was born by the Killik River in 1900. He grew up in a time and place of crisis and social upheaval.

In the half century preceding Simon's birth, the Nunamiut had acquired, via their coastal Eskimo neighbors, white man's goods and white man's diseases, which together initiated the disintegration of the Nunamiut tribe, Campbell says.

Paneak had an insatiable curiosity and sought to acquire the wisdom, old and new, of those around him. As a child, he absorbed elder's tales of history and mythology. As an adult working with English-speaking scientists, he memorized Latin names of plants and animals. His curiosity was not idle, but born out of the challenges of surviving a harsh land.

"And by that time old people were talking about their hunting and trapping and how to set the trap and how to snare animals and I learn because I was interested," Paneak says of his childhood. "Interested to learn because my parents were kind of poor living, sometimes. ..."

His vast memory, revealed in his narratives, reaches back generations before his own life.

He recounts, with amazing detail, historic episodes such as trade with Siberia, how rifles displaced bows and arrows, warfare between Eskimos and Athabascans, and even an incident when sailors from an ice-locked whaling ship deserted, raided Native villages and tried to travel to the Klondike gold rush.

Paneak experienced later landmark events firsthand. He was 5 when he first saw a white person, and he tells about the first time he saw a kerosene lantern and how its light dazzled him.

Far grimmer is a dramatic recollection of a several-year famine that began in 1905 when the area's caribou herd all but disappeared. He tells how his parents traveled vast distances finding encampments where they could get by on mountain sheep or fish, the frustration of being too small to snare ptarmigan and the anxiety of waiting, with an empty belly, in the tent for his father to return. Others were even less lucky. That cruel time made a lifelong impression.

"And after my father came home, we starve on Anaktuvuk River," he writes. "And we came to Depot Mound and found a skin tent and my father opened the bear skin door and I saw two guys lying just like asleep. Those are dead men. And then we passed and we keep on going."

Not all the stories are so serious. Paneak includes humorous details, such as the traditional way to get rid of lice: "air everything thoroughly outside when the temperatures are real cold." And he shares stories told to generations of children, such as the whimsical tale of two little mice inventing the game of seesaw.

Adding to the text are numerous illustrations. Paneak's own line drawings, notable for their nave-style charm, illustrate many tales from the sketchbook. Campbell's collection of photographs from the region completes the visuals.

Although the chief voice of "In a Hungry Country" is Paneak's, Campbell played a major role in shaping the book. Concerned that Paneak's acquired English might perplex or put off some readers, he provides a side-by-side paraphrasing of the original narrative. This is a bit odd, as most of Paneak's words are clear enough, but it gives readers options on how to approach the essays.

Campbell's introductions to the book and to each chapter are invaluable. His well-written background information provides the context necessary to understand the essays.

Others contributed to the book, as well. Grant Spearman, who curates the Simon Paneak Memorial Museum at Anaktuvuk Pass, wrote an engaging and useful forward about Paneak's role as a tradition bearer. Robert L. Rausch and Stephen C. Porter contributed appendixes about the plants and animals (from the former) and tribe's genealogy (from the latter). These, while interesting, seem more parenthetical and incomplete.

On the whole, "In a Hungry Country" provides glimpses of a fascinating narrator and a fascinating culture. Readers without any background in the region's lore may find it confusing. But those with an interest in Inupiaq society, arctic history, the Brooks Range or subsistence lifestyles will find Paneak's posthumous voice compelling indeed.

Shana Loshbaugh is a writer and former Clarion reporter who now lives near Fairbanks.

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