Harry Brower Sr. lived with a remarkable family in a remarkable place at a remarkable time. So it is no wonder that "The Whales, They Give Themselves," based on interviews with the Barrow elder before his death in 1992, is intriguing.
Harry Brower Sr., also called Kupaaq, was born in 1924 in Barrow. He was the youngest son of Asiannataq and Charles Dewitt Brower, a New-York-born trader so successful and prominent with his North Slope ventures that people called him "the King of the Arctic." Harry's father and his older sister, Sadie Brower Neakok, are the subjects of well-known books.
The Brower children had an unusual upbringing in a bilingual, biracial and bicultural home. Virtually all outsiders visiting Barrow passed through their home. During the day the youngsters snacked on traditional Inupiaq foods; each evening they sat down to a dinner of Euro-American fare presided over by their father.
This eclectic background gave Harry the ability to interact comfortably with people of all sorts.
"As this life history reveals, he had a unique ability to communicate in a variety of contexts, surely making strategic decisions about how he said things. Race did not matter to Harry," Karen Brewster writes in her preface.
Harry showed a particular attraction to the land, animals and hunting from an early age. His mother took him duck hunting, and his father showed him how to collect and mount tundra birds for museum collections. But his wilderness education came primarily from his uncles and other traditional hunters, who showed him skills ranging from celestial navigation to setting fox traps to aiming a harpoon to cleanly kill a bowhead whale.
The outlines of Harry's biography, told through his words and Brewster's, reveal an eventful life lived against a backdrop exotic to nearly anyone else. In addition to his remarkable childhood, he served in World War II, worked as a guide for nearly all the post-war mapping work done on the North Slope, was employed for many years by the Naval Arctic Research Laboratory, trapped, cared for his own children and led a whaling crew. Along the way he made subtle but major contributions to forming modern Barrow institutions and the North Slope Borough.
Any part of this would make for interesting reading. But Harry Brower's anecdotes really soar when he talks about the subject of his greatest expertise: hunting in its varied forms. Trapping foxes, for example, he turned to some unusual bait:
"But one year, I did pretty good. I got over 900 white foxes in one season. I treated them pretty good; got the foxes all drunk ... .," he told Brewster. "I poured the wine on the snow right close to the traps. I used just enough so when they stepped on it, started smelling that, it wouldn't take long to attract them. ... I think the scents of the female urine when they're mating is like the wine, 'cause they go real crazy for it."
Harry Brower combined his hunting prowess with a profound respect for animals. His hunting focused on providing for his family and village; he abhorred waste and unnecessary suffering. Other people cited in the book refer to his "sixth sense" and his extraordinary link with animals, especially whales.
At times his abilities had supernatural overtones. The book contains a remarkable anecdote from his final years. Harry was in an Anchorage hospital during the whaling season, and his family feared he was dying. He emerged from a coma with surprising energy and told them the spirit of a whale had taken his spirit to Barrow and back. He reported problems with the hunt he had seen through the whale's eyes. He accurately described incidents that had happened while he was 1,000 miles away and unconscious.
Harry Brower's story is modest and low key, but offers readers much to ponder. In his life he was remarkably successful at combining old and new ways. People described him as remarkable for his patience, intelligence, generosity and tact.
Brewster herself succeeds in combining the academic discipline of oral history with a touching tale of a friendship.
Although they avoided uncomfortable topics such as internal family relationships, she and Brower grew close. Her affection and admiration for him shines through the pages. She candidly declares that his death cut short the project and dealt her a personal blow, as well.
"For the first few years after his death, I could not bear to listen to the tapes. Finally, in 1995 I was able to return to this project. Instead of hardship, I found joy. It was comforting to hear his voice. It was like visiting him again," she writes.
And later she adds, "Through-out this project, my main goal has been to be true to Kupaaq. I hope he would be happy and proud of the result."
The book is the most recent in a series of oral biographies published by the University of Alaska. Each collaborative volume preserves the voice and wisdom of a respected Alaskan framed by historic photographs, contextual essays and careful editing.
"The Whales, They Give Themselves" feels incomplete in some ways, but it provides an appealing and even touching insight into a life well lived under remarkable circumstances.
Shana Loshbaugh is a writer and former Clarion reporter who now lives near Fairbanks.
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