Some of you may remember this post covering a host of murals in downtown Anchorage. I even had the privilege to meet Ziggy, the source for many of these toward the end of last summer. Over the last year or so, I’ve found a few more murals and picked up a few new pics of the old ones. Finally got a few pics of the last one i was after on my way out of the ice-box. I’m headed to Vegas and a summer with (fingers crossed) more time for bloggety things. So, I thought I’d show the additions now.
You may click to embiggen.
Have you heard about the big harbor at Cape Thompson in Alaska? Oh it doesn’t exist, of course, no thanks to the Atomic Energy Commission. they were going to make a harbor at Cape Thompson, just south of Point Hope. They were going to build it in a jiffy, so to speak.
I did mention this was the Atomic Energy Commission, didn’t I?
Project Chariot would have set off a series of atomic bombs at Cape Thompson in an effort to provide the proof of concept for operation Plowshare, a program to develop peaceful uses for nuclear explosives. In 1958, the prospect of geological engineering stood high on the agenda for the folks behind Operation Plowshare, and the Iñupiat people of the North Slope stood to become human guinea pigs in the process. Already showing signs of increased radiation due to above ground tests, the native population of the North Slope would have seen still more radiation flowing into the lichen to caribou highway to their own bodies. Luckily the natives of Point Hope understood radiation enough to fight back. It took an extensive public relations campaign and several years of struggle to stop Project Chariot. A lot of people fought damned hard to keep that harbor from happening and thankfully, they won, but that was hardly the end of the story.
When the Atomic Energy Commission finally gave up its plan to bomb the North Slope of Alaska for the purpose of building a useless harbor, it then proceeded to conduct a study of the radiation would have on Ogotoruk creek in Cape Thompson. Toward this end, they planted radioactive material in the creek and studied the effects.
…without telling anyone in the area.
Are you mad yet? I know I was when I first learned about this story. Bastard that I am, I just had to share the outrage, but I’m not going to tell that full story here, partly because I really am a bastard, and partly because others have already told that story better than I could. A thorough account of the controversy can be found in Dan O’Neill’s book, The Firecracker Boys. More recently, Iñupiat movie-maker Rachel Naninaaq Edwardson released a documentary on Project Chariot. Edwardson’s work raises a number of questions about the lingering effects of the tracer study and health problems in the Point Hope community (including concerns that something may still be buried at Ogotoruk Creek). Her film is available through the North Slope Borough School District.
It’s been an odd year here in Barrow, rather warm in fact. Still, a bit of snow did manage to stick to a wall or three, and in due time a few creative individuals took the time to do something clever with it. I don’t have a huge batch of snow-graffiti this time, but a few of these are really cool.
In related news, I actually took the time to tweak a couple of these photos, nothing special. just enhanced the contrast and shifted the color a bit in an effort to make the art come through better. I wouldn’t say that I accomplished anything brilliant, but at least you can read the writing. This is, I think, the first post where I have actually done any post-production on a photo. Sometime, I may have to go back through my old pics and see what I can do to improve a few of them.
Click to embiggen! …come on, all the cool kids are doin’ it!
Sometimes moving to a new location can change your place in history as much as it does your place on the map. I first noticed this a day or two after arriving in Barrow as I watched a small child drive an ATV down the street. No-one seemed to notice, not that time or the next. I’m pretty sure that its as illegal here as it is most places I’ve lived, but law on the books and law in daily life aren’t always the same thing. So, I saw this for the first time, and the word ‘frontier’ came to mind.
…and I smiled.
Of course, the notion of a ‘frontier’ (with all its ideological baggage) would seem to place Barrow on the cutting edge of history. That notion comes up from time to time, especially in the context of oil exploration and drilling, but also with scientific research, and other topics that people like to project onto a scheme of ‘progress’.
At other times, the logic of history places us behind the curve, so to speak. By “behind the curve” I mean that we fall behind someone else’s idea of the direction history is supposed to be going. It might seem more reasonable to think of the issue in terms of straight-forward disagreement, people do things that others don’t approve of, but the point is that people sometimes filter such disagreements through ideas about the general arc of history. It may be a history they urge on the public, or it may be a history they take for granted, but people often plot their values on some sense of an historical timeline. It’s not real history that I’m talking about; it’s an ideological projection of the way history ought to proceed.
I was reminded of this quite clearly the other day when a student of mine recently shared the video below. It starts with some beautiful outdoor shots of Barrow, AK, but (readers be warned) it continues to show the butchering of a Bowhead whale. The video might seem a jarring journey to some, but for most of us (I believe) here on the North Slope, the transition seems quite natural. A whale harvest is a joyous event as it means food for a lot of people. Much as the serene images at the start of the video, a whale harvest is prone to make us want to smile.
I asked what kind of comments, the video had gotten. A moment of scrolling later, I received my answer. The images of whaling had drawn criticism both on the video and on my student’s Facebook account. On the video itself one individual had written; “It’s really strucked up about how cruel people are to animals. It would be great for all animals and humans to go vegan and to respect each other.” I smiled and laughed as I recalled the first time I posted images of a whale harvest to my own Facebook account. I’ve since learned to post warnings and what-not.
This is one of the many ways that life in Barrow (and much of Alaska) differs markedly from that of the lower 48; hunting is a way of life for many people up here. It simply isn’t for the majority of people down there, and at least some of those people imagine all of history moving towards their way of life. The many artifacts of subsistence hunting are bound to rub such folks the wrong way. A friend once commented about the necessity to remove one’s furs before hitting the Seattle airport, and we both laughed. Surrounded by folks in all-manner of furs, I could only imagine the reception some of the day-to-day outfits of the North Slope would get in other places.
I remember once trying to find a gift for a friend who likes Native American art. A vegetarian with significant interest in animal welfare, she would not have appreciated the ivory earrings or baleen etchings locals produced, nor the many varieties of fur. Most of the native artwork here involves dead animals of one form or another, and that really should come as no surprise in a community where hunting is for many people a fundamental part of their way of life.
The issue isn’t simply a question of whether or not to support or oppose hunting, fur, whaling, and so on.; it’s also a question of how you frame the issues. There is a big difference between the commercial fur industry and the hand-made clothes of locals who’ve eaten the meat previously kept warm by that same fur. Likewise, there is a big difference between a whale taken for commercial purposes and those whose blubber will be shared out to the community. Whether or not that settles the issue is another question, but quite often I think people simply fail to notice the difference.
Which brings us back to whaling!
There is a world of difference between the significance of whaling up here and the meaning given to it in other places. This problem was all over a New York Times article on Spring Whaling published a few years back. Its author framed the whole issue in terms of ‘tradition’, then proceeded to worry over the use of technological innovation in pursuit of that tradition. I also recall a discussion of the Makah whale hunt on a random website (I can’t find it now). Participants simply dismissed the idea that native whaling could be anything but a token gesture, a practice akin to preserving a museum exhibit. A similar view can be found in one of the comments to this post, Whaling Camp: Frozen Seas and Ice-scapes at the blog, Cutterlight. In response to this post, a woman named Kirsten Massebeau wrote:
There is no humane way to kill a whale. Today we know whales and dolphins are higher beings. Sometimes these whales suffer for up to 5 hours after being harpooned. Isn’t it time we stop letting the word “tradition” be an excuse for doing something so wrong. Please stop murdering the people of the sea! You are obviously wearing store bought clothes and shoes. Surely you can see your way clear of murdering our ocean friends.
Don’t get me wrong, I think this woman (as with others) raises some legitimate concerns in her comment, but I also think there are legitimate answers to those concerns, and I think the whole thing thrown askew by a certain refusal to take the Native Alaskan population seriously.
What all of these examples have in common is a refusal to allow or even to imagine the practice of whaling in the modern world. They cannot even fathom the possibility that such a thing could occur in the present world. To many of these folks, whaling (or at least the indigenous version of it) is by definition a thing of the past, a mere tradition, and one gathers an empty one at that. This seems to be a common perception of whaling on the North Slope, and that perception injects a great deal of prejudice into any subsequent discussion. It is a prejudice shaped and defined by people’s ideological views about history as much as anything else.
Whaling here on the North Slope is first and foremost a native matter, but it affects us all. The effort to bring in a bowhead is not limited to the crew of a single boat. Extended families and friends all work together to outfit and support a given crew, and the entire community of the North slope accommodates the needs of those involved. Time off from work is granted without question when it’s time to cut a trail through the ice. Homework deadlines are extended when it’s time to butcher and cook the blubber. Blubber and meat are shared throughout the community following a successful whale harvest. Whaling is no quaint tradition on the North Slope; it is one of the most important economic activities taking place up here.
Seeing the importance of whaling to an entire community, the condescension of some of these random comments can be quite maddening. Of course these are merely random comments on social media, but they provide a telling glimpse into the way that the larger public closes itself to local realities. Folks just can’t seem to find room in their view of the present for activities such as whaling and subsistence hunting. Presented with evidence to the contrary, it seems a common response to construe such things in terms of a museum exhibit.
…even when that exhibit is real people going about their daily lives, very much in the present day.
Epilogue: The disconnect between people’s perceptions of whaling works both ways. I recently received a charming example of this when a student of mine who teaches in one of the local villages passed information about the New England whaling fleet of the 19th century onto her own native students. They wanted to know how the meat and blubber would be shared.
It was a good New Year here at the top of the world. It began at about Texas-Midnight when Maria Falvey posted one of my old Blackberry pictures to her blog. She cropped the picture perfectly and just generally made it much better. So, I was pretty psyched as I headed out at 11;30 to watch the fireworks. Course I didn’t realize the fireworks actually start before midnight, so I could see them going off as I walked down to the lagoon where the whole event took place. Luckily, there was plenty of bang to be had last night, so I still made it in time to see plenty of cool pyrotechnics.
I tried to get some videos of the fireworks, but my camera kept freezing up. It wasn’t working at all during the grand finale. Still, it was pretty cool standing just about directly under some of the blasts, but I have to admit the Aurora may have pwned the whole display shortly thereafter. Conditions (which include a bad photographer and a camera that wanted to hide in my pocket) were less than ideal, but I finally got some pics of the Northern Lights worth showing.
So, I walked over to the elementary school to watch the last night of the Winter games. This is an annual event here in Barrow, the community spends a week on a variety of odd contests late at night, all of it ending with the New Year. Tonight, the contest was between singles men and married men, and the same for women. The women were neck-a-neck, but the single men were getting their asses kicked. If only I had the courage to go down there and join in, …then I guess I would have to say that WE got our asses kicked.
…and I guess we did anyway.
Suffice to say, I stayed in the stands last night, but I had fun just the same, as did most everyone I could see.
Things got started a little after 1:00am in the morning and they were still going strong when I wimped out at about 4:00am. Anyhow, the photo-gallery is just below, and I’ve included a few videos afterwards. You may click on a picture to embiggen it. I don’t know everyone featured below, so if anyone from Barrow sees themselves and prefers not to be featured here, speak up and I will be happy to take your picture down. In any event, it was a great evening, and I really enjoyed all the activities.
Happy New Year everybody!
A brief clip of fireworks.
Both the men and the women have moved on to new games.
If you’re curious about the counting in this one, it’s because no-one had stepped up to challenge the singles-guy on the neck-pull. A ten-count is essentially a way of saying step-up or it’s over.
I don’t recall what this men’s game is called, but the women’s challenge in this one looks especially tough.
Ship Creek Trail near downtown Anchorage is always good for a nice walk, even in the winter. It’s at least a little odd, because there are always factories and warehouses just beyond the trees, and of course downtown is never far away, but the trees and the water work their magic quite wonderfully.
In the summer a small shack sells fishing gear near the bottom of the trail, and a good day will see plenty of people hoping to catch something, or perhaps to just pass a little time with a rod in hand. Alongside the shack, one finds an upscale restaurant on a low bridge, all of this under an overpass. The end result is an oddly rustic (almost rural) scene nestled snug into a concrete frame. The restaurant is only open for 3-months of the year
I’ve wandered down this route a time or three now and managed to get a few decent pictures. So, let’s see…
(If you click it, it will grow!)
Ship Creek in August
Ship Creek in December
A couple of months back I found myself in Anchorage without too much to do. On my last day down there the devil that sits on my shoulder lost a debate with the nerdy bookworm that sometimes passes for my angelic adviser, and so I actually chose to do something instructive and educational. I went to the Anchorage Museum.
Don’t be too disappointed; it was actually kinda cool. My favorite part of the museum was actually the science exhibit, much of which was interactive. sadly, I don’t think my pictures and videos did much to capture the brilliance which was that particular part of the museum. Being a museum, the place was of course full of wonderful artifacts and displays casting light on all manner of things Alaskan. Being a cruel fellow, I am not going to show you much of that.
…at least not today.
Today, we are looking at dioramas. A number of these were strewn about the museum, and I managed to get few decent pictures of some. I won’t pretend that this is a complete set, so to speak, as I am pretty sure that a few of thee exhibits told my camera to screw off and I completely neglected to right those wrongs, but at any rate, these are the pics I got. Both my devil-advisor and my nerdy-near-angel hope you enjoy them.
Quick Note: rather predictably, the scenes depicting Alaska Natives seem to have got most of my attention here. Depending on how broad you want your paint strokes to be we can bundle the Native Alaska population into 3, 5, or lots of general groups. I would normally go with 5; the natives of the outer Aleutian Islands (Aleutian or Unangan, depending on who you ask); the Alutiiq (or Sugpiak) of the Eastern Aleutians parts of the Southwest coastal region; Yupiit of the Western coast, Inupiat of the Northern coasts, and Athabaskans who occupied interior Alaska. For those wondering, the Yupiit and Inupiat are the natives once commonly referred to as ‘Eskimos’, but we aren’t going to do that here. …oh, and let’s not forget the Northwest Coastal natives, who are ironically located in Southeast Alaska. When I say “Northwest Coast natives” I am referring to a common classification used by anthropologists to break the Native American population into about 10 distinct culture areas. So, ironically enough, Alaska’s Northwest Coastal natives are in the Southeast. …and if that manner of speaking seems weird, then the devil on my shoulder is well pleased.
I don’t seem to have pictures (even bad ones) for Yupiit or Alutiiq populations. I don’t know if Missed an exhibit or if I just wasn’t in a button pressing mood when I happened upon them. So, we have here representations of 3 native populations (depicted more or less as they might have lived prior to contact). I also have a few other pieces on the Alaskan Railroad, the Aleutian Campaign of World War II, and one beautiful scene of a community that I failed to identify (cause I’m a bad man).
One thing about coming to Barrow, it has made conversation much easier, at least in the lower 48. All I have to do is tell people I am from Alaska and the conversation is well on its way. They will ask more questions than I could possibly answer, and once I start telling them about Barrow I can generally be assured of willing and sympathetic audience. I’m a socially awkward kinda guy, so yes, this is a good thing. Anyway, I’m happy to talk about my new home. Barrow can be damned interesting!
…so I suppose it should come as no surprise that this town has made its way into the occasional television show or movie production. Three particular movies about Barrow seem to have made it into the popular culture to one degree or another. These films couldn’t be more different from one another. Each tells a different kind of story to a completely different audience, and each portrays the community of Barrow in a very different way. I’m always fascinated to see the community change its shape in order to meet the needs of the film-makers behind these project.
…fascinated enough to write a post about it anyway!
Barrow as Darkness: Thirty Days of Night is of course the most well known movie about Barrow. In this film based on a graphic novel) vampires descend upon the town at the outset of Polar Midnight in order to enjoy a month-long feast in the safety of a season without sun. Thirty Days of Night wasn’t filmed here; it was filmed in New Zealand. Still, the central premise of the film is very much about Barrow and the dramatic significance of a long polar night.
The small hills and valleys of the movie’s opening sequences were about all it took to shake my sense that this film had much to do with the Barrow in which I live. The exaggerated sense of polar midnight didn’t help either. Once it goes dark in this film, it stays dark, …completely dark. What a lot of people don’t realize (and what the film-makers didn’t seem to find interesting) is the fact that we get a kind of fake sunrise here. If you can imagine the moment before the sun actually rises, that’s what we get in the midst of polar midnight, only it isn’t followed by an actual sunrise. You could swear the big ball of warmth was just about to pop over that horizon, and then the light just starts to fade.
…yes, it can be a little disappointing.
…kinda like Thirty Days of Night.
But perhaps I am being too harsh. Barrow does one thing only for this film and that is to provide the central premise, a vampire paradise. So, it should come as no surprise that the movie makes no attempt to convey anything meaningful about the people of this community. Still, you would think the directors would be kind enough to give their villainous horde of undead a bit of variety in their diet? Nope. The Barrow of this film is a lily white community if ever I saw one before. As I recall, a token native does make an appearance in the living feast that is Barrow’s population for this film. Other than that, the menu is white meat only.
This is a fun film in its own right, but it is definitely, not the Barrow I know.
Barrow as a Big Warm Hug: Hollywood has made one popular film here in Barrow, and they did it since I arrived, The Big Miracle. At least it was about Barrow, and they did shoot some film up here. Some residents even made it into the movie, as did natives from other parts of Alaska. With a cast featuring Drew Barrymore and Ted Danson, this film recounts a real event in the history of this community. In 1988, three grey whales became trapped in the ice not far from here. The entire town as well as a number of outsiders (including a Russian icebreaker) worked hard to break them free.
The ironic thing about this movie is that it was based on a rather cynical book, ‘Everyone Loves Whales’. I gather the original script may even have had a little bite to it, but the final cut of this film is a feel-good celebration of compassion, humanity, and …whales! By the end of the film, the plot is fully focused on efforts to save the big lugs of the sea, but the early scenes focus on political questions about whether or not anyone will help them. One of those questions was apparently whether or not to eat the whales instead of saving them. The Iñupiat community of the north slope harvests Bowhead whales every year, so that possibility could hardly be described as a stretch. This plot point is eventually resolved when the whaling captains of the town decide instead to help free the whales.
(Big sigh folks!)
The eat-or-save sub-theme provides The Big Miracle with its main window into the community up here. Unlike Thirty Days of Night, this film actually finds a place for the Iñupiat community of Barrow in its storyline. They start out as potential villains and end up being god guys in the end.
…kinda like Clint Eastwood, only with chainsaws and snow-machines instead of Colt Walkers and a horse. (Let’s not talk about the harpoons.)
Folks up here are of mixed minds about how whether or not the film does justice to Iñupiat community of Barrow. Drew Barrymore (who plays a Greenpeace activist in the film) gives a pretty brutal speech about the native community and its whaling practices, and its hard to shake the sense that some of her points in that speech might have served as the voice of the film-makers. Later attempts to show the native community in a more positive light may or may not be enough to settle concerns about the politics of the movie, and for those here still very much committed to whaling, the major theme of the movie itself may be a little discomfitting. Barrow’s native community gets some love here precisely to the extent that their actions do not reflect what natives of the North Slope normally do with whales. It’s a conditional kind of love, and I can’t blame folks for being wary of the conditions.
For what it’s worth, this movie at least knows that natives exist in Barrow. It even kind-of likes them, so long as they aren’t eating muktuk.
Barrow as Native Youth: I can think of one REALLY good film set in Barrow, and that is On the Ice by Andrew Okpeaha MacLean. MacLean is from Barrow, and he uses the film quite deliberately to tell us something about life here at the top of the world. On the Ice tells the story of two young Iñupiat men with a secret they’ve been concealing from the rest of the community. And while this main story plays out, the film does a wonderful job of revealing the interplay between indigenous values and outside cultural influence in the native youth of this community.
On the Ice is a tense drama, and one which portrays the native community with a deliberate sense of realism. This film was shot in Barrow, and it features a number of residents in the supporting cast. It’s both amusing and a little disconcerting to see scenes on street corners I pass regularly, and even more so to see people I know in various scenes, but that is definitely one of the film’s charms. If the other films are set in Barrow (or at least an imaginary version thereof), the real Barrow jumps right out at you from this film.
…at least it does for me.
What’s missing from On the ice is everyone else! …besides the Iñupiat community, I mean. Every once in awhile you can catch a glimpse of a non-native somewhere onscreen in this film, but that is definitely the exception. For the most part this film has eyes only for the native population. Gone are the white folks, yes, but so are the Koreans, the Thais, the Tongans, the Samoans, and the Filipinos, each of whom has a substantial place in this town.
On one level, fair enough. This movie is about native youth not the rest of us. On another, it’s a simplification, perhaps even an over-simplification. I can’t help but think it makes a difference that the outside influences (and the people who represent them) are present here in Barrow itself, and I would think that would be part of the story of native youth, at least if that story is to be a realistic portrayal (perhaps it is not). It would have been interesting to see how these characters dealt with ethnic relations over the course of the story. Leaving out all the sub-communities from the town simplifies the storyline and that is the one thing that jars me a bit when I watch it. But seriously, I mean to praise the film with faint damn. Because what this film does, it does well.
If you want to watch a movie about Barrow, this is the one.
So there it is. The community in which I live takes on radically different forms whenever a camera is pointed at it. It is darkness for those seeking a fright, a reluctant helper for those seeking a heart-warming smile, and in it’s best incarnation to date, it is an all-native community. The full community of Barrow never seems to make it into these stories, and the interplay between all the ethnicities of this town has yet to make it onto the big screen.
Ah well, goodnight.
This post was going to be called “Fat Loot and Three Cool Characters from Anchorage,” but thanks to the airlines, the ‘Fat Loot’ part is now in the questionable column. Somewhere out there a piece of luggage is lost and looking for its home.
…or maybe it’s out looking to party with the internet service for the hotel I stayed at last week. If you see a band of wifi coverage and a grey-colored stand-up suitcase doing lines of coke at a local strip club, please tell them both to go home.
That said a little stint in Anchorage has yielded a few good memories, not the least of them being a chance to meet some some truly memorable characters.
I first noticed Ziggy‘s name on some of the beautiful mural‘s throughout downtown anchorage. He is responsible for a lot of the pieces featured in this post. On a lark, I decided to google the name and see if he might be found in the area. As it happened, I had only to cross the road and enter the coolest crafts shop in town. That’d be the one piping vintage blues out onto the street, a fact which had not escaped my attention, even if the name ‘Ziggy’ all over the establishment had.
Sometimes the path from 2 and 2 takes the scenic route to get to 4.
Richard Ziegler (that’s long for Ziggy) runs the Arctic Treasures Trading Post, which is also known for its 4th Avenue webcams. You can buy all sorts of Alaskan goodies in this trading post, but Ziggy does the leatherwork himself, so I have a cool new wallet. That much escaped the great suitcase escape of the summer.
My only beef with Ziggy is that he hasn’t done any new murals within the last year, a fact which is almost unforgivable. But seriously, it was a real treat to meet the artist behind so much of the public art in Anchorage.
I first noticed Aunt Phil’s Trunk while looking for links to provide students in my Alaskan history classes. I was looking for short vignettes and flavor pieces to counter-balance the usual dense survey texts, and her website provided quite a few gems for use in the classroom. So, it was a pleasant surprise to find Laurel Downing working a booth at an arts and crafts fair in downtown Anchorage.
Laurel is the person behind this great website. Her path into Alaskan history started with the passing of her Aunt Phyllis. Phyllis Downing Carlson had written quite a bit about Alaskan history in her day, and Laurel picked up the torch when she inherited her Aunt’s life’s work. She wet to school to learn the skills necessary and then began turning out stories about Alaska’s remote past at an astounding pace. She is up to 4 books now, all of them worth a read.
We chatted a bit and Laurel was in high spirits as she had just sealed the deal on some new publications. For the present, I walked away with all four books from her series and a supplement of crossword puzzles to boot. Seriously, this is local history at its best.
…here is hoping my luggage doesn’t pawn all four of those books to pay for booze and cheap sex.
Mike the Pissin’ Off Texas Guy is one of a kind, …which is probably just as well, but hey, let’s just be glad there is one of him anyway. I laughed my ass off the first time I saw his work, the state of Texas sitting snugly inside the boundaries of Alaska. At the time I didn’t think much about it; just an internet meme as far as I knew, albeit a damned funny one. Little did I know, Mike has parlayed one-upmanship over the Lone-Star State into a gig of its own. His shirts are $20.00, but he offers a smaller price to his little buddies from Texas.
Mike seems to do a lot of business at the fair, …Texans are of course his best customers. I think he gets pretty much anyone from down that way right over to his booth, without exception. But it’s all in good fun.
My damned suitcase better not be giving my shirts away, …dammit! Seriously, I know a piece of luggage with some serious explaining to do!