Teachers of the Ancient Ways

February 20th, 2016 by

Kobuk River Elders at fish camp

As a boy I fantasized about living with Indians (Native Americans) before their world had been radically changed by European domination.

My fantasies became reality in the early 1960s when my wife and I moved to Alaska. We worked as teachers in remote Native villages in the northern reaches of the fledgling state. We found ourselves in a setting as wild as that of the early colonial days residing with Natives closely tied to the natural world. They traveled by dog teams in the winters and by skin covered canoes during the brief summers. It was a dream come true.

It was soon apparent that Native Alaskans were on the cusp of changes that would alter and possibly overwhelm the old ways. In 1966, Richard K. Nelson and I collaborated to document the subsistence practices of the Inupiat living in Wainwright, Alaska. We later joined with other cultural scholars to carry on research among the Native residents of the upper Kobuk River, the Koyukuk River and the central Brooks Range. These studies were published by the University of Wisconsin, the University of Alaska and the National Park Service.

Among the many Native Alaskans who influenced my life two played particularly important roles, Wesley Ekak (Ekak) of Wainwright and Joe Sun (Imuk) of the upper Kobuk River. Both were respected elders renowned for their knowledge and skills of living from the land and for their encyclopedic command of the cultural history and traditions of their people. I was fortunate to spend time with each in their village homes and at camps while they engaged in subsistence activities.

One of the important lessons that I learned was that Joe Sun and Ekak viewed the world through cultural lenses far different than my own. They saw and sensed nature in ways profoundly more insightful and sensitive than did I. Where I saw simple topographic features, wildlife and vegetation they saw a world filled with spiritual presence. Animals had souls and could communicate over great distances. Trees were aware and sensed what humans said about them. The land itself could be offended by carelessness or the arrogance of humans. The land and the creatures on it literally spoke to them, and they listened.