Monday, 20 April 2009


'Ultimate Americans', just published by the University of Alaska Press, is the third of Tom Lowenstein’s trilogy of books on the Inuit of Alaska. What is so special about his work as an anthropologist and historian of contact is the way that, alongside this scholarship, he has sought to reconstitute, in a series of powerful (and sometimes very funny) poems, the hunter-gatherer way of life, the palaeolithic if you like, from some of its last surviving remnants. Thus in 'Ancient Land: Sacred Whale' (Bloomsbury 1993) the prose narrative is interspersed with long stretches of poetry evoking the traditional whale hunt and its rituals. It's a remarkable enterprise and his book got some excellent reviews when it came out - but it seems a pity that few in the poetry world appear to have acknowledged it. In 2007 Shearsman published 'Ancestors and Species' with more longish narratives on the same themes.

'Primitive' peoples - and the rituals of shamanism in particular - can all too easily be subjected to a sentimental poeticising, a shortcut to exalted or visionary experience. Lowenstein's work is informed with humanity and firsthand knowledge, and avoids idealising his subject. 'Ultimate Americans' is a work of historical scholarship focussing on one community at Point Hope in Alaska and the effects of contact with commercial whale hunters, traders and missionaries, one missionary in particular, a man called Driggs. Here's a short extract from the opening chapter:

Surrounding the camp lay a mass of equipment: skin boats, kayaks, harpoons, fish nets, coils of sturdy seal skin rope, and a clutter of little tools for the making and mending of yet more equipment. Awaiting transformation into boots and parkas, bedding and boat skins, lay seal, caribou and walrus skins. Sea mammal carcases – fresh, half-butchered, some half putrid – lay among skeletal remains from past seasons’ hunts. Higher on the bluff rose driftwood racks where the women had draped meat they had sliced thinly to dry in the wind that had scarcely stopped blowing since the last Ice Age. Hunting, cutting, drying and preserving were a daily labour. Bags made from hollowed-out seal stood by the tents filled with dried meat, eggs, birds steeped in seal oil, or blueberries and meat chips packed in caribou back-fat. Tethered securely away from this larder, were the dogs that had dragged the skin boats along the inshore water from the village. And all this work and clutter was framed by heaps of grey, weathered tree trunks: spruce, birch and cottonwood from the southern rivers which had drifted up coast and which the sea had been disgorging here for innumerable centuries.

On an August day like this the work of hunting and accumulation was mixed with hours of lazy enjoyment. The temperature hovered between forty and fifty degrees Fahrenheit. For Tikigaq people, who experienced winter temperatures of minus thirty (and far lower given wind-chill), this was warm. The children ran bare-foot, the little ones naked. Adults shed one layer of their double caribou skin parkas and trousers. ‘Silagiiksuq’ (beautiful weather!)’, people would murmur. Such days sunshine and a light south wind would soon be replaced by violent equinoctial storms and then freeze-up in November.

. . .

When activity came it was often sudden. The nets stretching from the beach would stand empty for days. When belugas arrived, the thick skin mesh would thrash violently with struggling white dolphin-like whales. When the wind changed direction, the men might take off inland to hunt caribou, returning with back packs of meat and skins, repeating their journey to fetch what they had left and to visit the traps they had left for foxes and marmots.

Things also happened for people simply to observe. Grizzlies ambled from the ridges where they’d been browsing for berries and excavating squirrel burrows to scavenge for dead seals or walrus. A grey whale, not worth chasing for its meagre coat of blubber, would swim into view in the middle distance. Or an orca would cruise inshore to attack a seal. The women would laugh, throw stones and shout, ‘When you have eaten, bring us a share!’ What came round the cliffs habitually belonged to a world that was known and which could be interpreted. The animals were always welcome. But people from beyond were often dangerous . . .

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