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Eye of Awareness- The Inupiaq Symbol of Spirituality Part I

Voices of the Wilderness Artist Residency

Once again, I was off into the unknown. This time I was headed north, above the arctic circle into the vast Selawik National Wildlife Refuge. It was September, the summer had been warm down in the south-central part of Alaska where I lived. Yet, I knew, as I packed my dry bag for the journey, that I was headed to the cold and mysterious. Just the name Selawik brought up an unusual tingling energy in my body and I found myself reciting the word repeatedly in the days before my departure…as if the land was calling me.

I went to the refuge on a Voices of the Wilderness artist residency. The year was 2015. The program is modeled after traditional residencies in national parks…with a twist. Instead of staying at a remote wilderness cabin, artists are paired with a wilderness specialist and actively engaged in stewardship projects, such as research, monitoring, and education. The idea is to use art to help bridge the gap between resource managers and the public and explore the concept of stewardship. In return for the opportunity, artists are required to donate an art piece to the public lands they visited. I was thrilled to be selected as I had been chasing these northern waters for years.

Rivers of the Selawik National Wildlife Refuge taken from the plane

Located in the northwest corner of Alaska, the refuge is immense with over two million acres of land. Home to the famous western arctic caribou herd, numbering around 200,000 animals, the largest in Alaska, the refuge is a haven for the wild and free. The vast wilderness is filled with winding, free-flowing rivers and thousands of lakes. Here, where the boreal forest of Interior Alaska meets the arctic tundra, thousands of migratory birds, fish, and other creatures rest, breed, and feed in the vast wetlands. Moreover, it is the land of the Inupiaq people who still hunt, fish, and gather as their ancestors have done for thousands of years.

Selawik Village, Alaska

Flying over the refuge, I could not help but be mesmerized by the awe inducing land. Below, rivers bent and wound in lazily flowing patterns, adorned with huge curves and near-perfect circles, they seemed endless and perfect. As we flew gently along, I sensed I was entering another world. I had been to other Alaskan Villages both as an artist installing my public artwork and working as a fisheries technician for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, but this place was different.

Landing on the gravel runway in Selawik village, I was greeted by Fish and Wildlife education specialist Brittany Sweeney. For several years, Brittany had been conducting research and community outreach with the village. I was the refuge’s first artist in residence and we both were wondering what we were getting into. A lovely woman, Brittany easily transmitted the confidence that I was in for a great trip.

It had been a long spell since I had spent a proper amount of time in a native Alaskan village. Not to mention, that for years I had been dreaming of catching the large white fish of the north, the beautiful sheefish. As I looked around at Selawik village a deep sense of peace washed over me, as if I were home.

The first part of the residency was a full-on expedition. The adventure started with a five-hour open boat ride, during a snowstorm, which carried us deep into the heart of the refuge where the field camp was set. Upon arrival, we met with the lead fisheries biologist and three local Inupiaq specialists named Sonny, Kipmaluk, and Patrick. The crew was collecting biological samples for population demographics of one of the main subsistence food in the region, my beloved sheefish (Stenodus nelma). "Siilvik" is the Inupiaq name for Selawik, meaning "place of sheefish."

Fishing on the river in the early morning

Introductions occurred in the main fortress, an arctic oven, which is a cold weather wall tent complete with a portable, wooden stove. The biologist delivered a briefing on the daily routine, project mission, and safety. After a hot meal, I set about to put up my tent. Sonny helped me and I began to learn a little about him. He told me he was also part of search and rescue for the refuge and that he had been on this river and site numerous times. It was very clear that he full-heartedly loved and respected his environment.

Early-morning snow greeted us daily as we traveled upriver to spawning sites. We fished, with rod and reel, to catch male sheefish and collect their otoliths (ear bone) for aging and population data. I stuck close to the natives, wanting to learn their techniques. Shy at first, they stayed quiet, but as the catching got hot, they shared hoots and hollers. We harvested 200 fish all of which were sent downriver to the villagers for food.

Left- Patrick prepares an otolith sample. Middle- a sheefish otolith Right- Sonny and Kiplaluk headed out to fish.

The three Inupiaq elders were joyful workers, great fishermen, and superior naturalists. At camp, the boys, as I called them, slept together in their arctic oven. I would stay up late as we huddled around the wood stove and talked about their culture, traditions, and the changes and challenges they faced. Climate change and capitalism had created a difficult situation for the Inupiaq. Their children and grandchildren were more and more reliant on government subsidies. The supply of American food has had a drastic effect on their once locally-based diets. Now health problems are occurring as the community grows further away from traditional ways. Like many subsistence cultures around the world, Coca-Cola, Snickers, and potato chips are replacing the once healthy, robust diet of the Inupiaq. However, one thing was clear to me as I sat with these men, they loved eating the sheefish, moose, and berries, which made me sure that the traditional life was far from lost.

Left- the sheefish crew Middle- fish drying rack Right- Sonny filleting fish with an ulu knife

The boys also shared their spirituality with me. Their Inupiaq gods were replaced by Christianity. Yet, the old ways were not completely snuffed out. The stories were still with them and they told me of ancient prophecies, ghosts of elders, and the little people who lived in the wild. But the most intriguing story was how Kipmaluk got his name.

As the story began, Patrick, the youngest of the crew, opened the wood stove to fuel the fire. Bright light splashed across the weathered face of Kipmaluk, illuminating his toothy smile and thick black hair.

“Before the missionaries came, we had Shamans,” he began.

Traditional native Alaskan dress and mask

The story unraveled. Kipmaluk described the recent past as a time when the church was thoroughly extinguishing most of Selwaik’s culture. They effectively took away traditional dance, music, and language. The shamans, who were priests and medicine people, were also done away with. However, one man remained hidden from the church although the villagers knew of him. To survive, the shaman stayed on the outskirts of the village.

Most Inupiaq were afraid of him, as they were taught by the church that shamanism was an evil practice straight from the devil himself. But the shaman still worked in the village, undercover, and when Kipmaluk’s mother became pregnant with her first child, the shaman approached her. He told the mother that she must name her firstborn son after him or that the child would die. This terrified the mother. She was caught between the wrath of the church for obeying witchcraft and the warning of the shaman. However, the day the child was born, indeed a boy, she named him after her grandfather and not the shaman. Shortly thereafter, the child died. As Kipmaluk told the story the air in the tent thickened, the fire crackled, and my interest peaked.

Relatives of the mother were angered by the acts of the shaman. Kipmaluk told us that his uncle and two other relatives went to find the shaman, with a rope. They found the man wandering the tundra and told him they were there to take his life. The shaman, unafraid, told them to go ahead, to take off his head if they must, but that they would see him in the village in a few days.

Quickly the three men put the rope around the shaman’s neck and took off his head. For good measure, Kipmaluk continued, “they buried the shaman’s head separately from his body, putting over a mile between the two parts….however, three days later the shaman was seen walking in the village."

The graveyard at Selawik Village

An eerie chill filled the arctic oven as the words settled into my mind. I quickly did the math in my head and dated the event to around sixty years in the past. Recent.

Kipmaluk continued the story by stating that the mother, a few years later, was pregnant again. This time, even though the shaman did not approach her about naming the child after him, she named her second-born son Kipmaluk.

Standing in front of me was the name-sake of Kipmaluk, the last known living Shaman of Selwaik village. I was aghast. “Was the story true?” I asked.

“Yes, that is what I was told by my uncle who was there when they killed the shaman…and that is how I got my name.”

Kipmaluk hanging sheefish to dry

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