King Island takes up about two to four square miles of the Bering Sea, just south of the Bering Strait. It's about 30-40 miles from the U.S. coast. In the winter it’s surrounded by the Bering Sea ice pack. Until the late 1950s - 1960s it was home to about 150-200 Inupiat Eskimos in the village of Ugiuvak (or Ukivok, also the Inupiat name for the island). Ugiuvak clung to the side of a cliff, on the south side of the island. I’ve posted on King Island before, here, and here.
The picture below shows Ugiuvak in the late 1930's. The large white building at the lower end is a Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) school, the large white building towards the upper end of town is a Roman Catholic church. Most of the village lies on the ridge under the church and just to the right of the school. If you click on the photo you can get a more detailed view:
The next picture was taken many years before, but it gives a good idea of the way the houses were built. They weren't built on dirt foundations dug into the slope, but were built on platforms perched on long poles.
Paul Tiulana was born in Ugiuvak in 1921. In the late 1970s he told Vivian Senungetuk about life on King Island in the 30s and 40s. Senungetuk transcribed his account, edited it somewhat, and published it as A Place for Winter. Paul Tiulana's Story. Tiulana is leaning heavily on his spear on the right in the cover photo below (taken in the late 1930s):
Hunting was important for King Islanders in the 20s and 30s - it was a source of food, clothing material, everyday items, building materials, and trade goods. Tiulana says that others in the village began to teach him hunting skills when he was about 10, although he must have picked up a lot before that.
Like hunters everywhere, Tiulana had to learn the signs and habits of his prey, in this case, birds, walrus, seals, and polar bear. He had to learn how to exploit those habits to kill them, and how to slaughter them and recover the meat, skins, bones, intestines. He needed to learn how to use a kayak, to hunt walrus in the spring. There were the teamwork skills needed for hunting and bringing home the products.
Much of the year hunting took place on the pack ice around the island. This was an extremely dangerous environment – the ice and ocean under it were often in flux, and dangerous changes occurred suddenly and unpredictably. Tiulana’s own dad died out there in 1930, when Tiulana was nine.
Tiulana had to understand the interaction of wind, currents, and tides around the island, and how these would drive the ice - creating pressure ridges, or suddenly creating open water leads between a hunter and the shore. He had to learn how to see the signs of changes in the weather and infer what these meant for the ice. He had to learn what to do if he fell through the ice into the water, how to get fresh water while out on the ice, how to fix his position with respect to landmarks on the island.
Physical fitness was important. A hunter might have to move quickly across the ice, running steadily for miles, his life at stake, if a north wind threatened to create a "lead" of open water between him and the village on the south face of the island.
The U.S. entered WWII in December 1941. Tiulana's account suggests that King Islanders did not completely understand the issues. But Tiulana was drafted and in May and June 1942 he was in Nome, a Bering Sea town on the mainland, not that far from King Island:
I had only been in the army, training in Nome, for one month when there was an accident that broke my leg. I was helping to unload a transport ship, moving some lumber. The sling slipped out from under some timbers and the lumber fell on me. I was put into the hospital in Nome but the doctors did not set the fracture properly and infection set in. That month the Japanese invasion started in the Aleutian Islands and the doctors were trying to make room for wounded soldiers. So they transferred quite a few patients, including me, to Barnes General Hospital in Vancouver, Washington. By this time gangrene had set into my leg.
The doctors at Barnes said that if I had been sent sooner, they could have tried to save my leg, but it was too late. So they had to do three operations to amputate my leg. It was very painful.
I was sent down to Bushnell General Hospital in Brigham City, Utah to be fitted with a wooden leg. I was there about five months....
This was a difficult time.
...I felt that I wanted to die. All my preparation to be a good hunter was lost. I had lost everything. I could not go out hunting in the moving ice any more. The Bering Sea ice moves all the time – north, south, east and west – and it is very dangerous. It is a very dangerous place to be even with two legs.
After I was discharged from the army and sent back home, my cousin made me crutches. I was just completely disappointed at that time, frustrated and depressed. Most of the people who had a very close relationship to me said that they had lost somebody who would have been a successful hunter. They had tried to prepare me especially to be a polar bear hunter. That is partly what all the running was for, to build my muscles to run after polar bears when they tried to get away. And I had lost that. I was twenty-one years old and I had lost everything.
He returned to King Island. He doesn't give the date, but if he got to Bushnell by the end of June and spent five months there, this could have been late November. Did he have trouble landing from the boat - jumping from a bobbing small boat, and scrambling over the rocks at the shoreline? It must have been challenging at first to work his way up and down the network of boardwalks, stairs, paths, and slopes leading between the different parts of the village and the different parts of the island.
I decided that I would hunt anyway. What else would I do? I made myself heavier crutches so that I could walk on the ice. Starting out, I tried to hunt mostly on the shore ice because the ice was not moving. I was able to carry my rifle and my hunting bag over my shoulders and to move through the shore ice using my crutches.
He must have been frustrated often, and in fact, ultimately decided that it wasn't a good idea to travel over the ice to do most of his hunting:
One day the weather was really nice, the current was not moving fast, and the wind was calm. When the wind is calm, the current is slow. I went out hunting and I got myself a seal. I felt pretty good about it. I had gone out into the moving ice and I had been successful hunting. I started to drag the seal toward the shore ice. I took a line from my hunting bag, tied it around the seal and around my waist, and headed home. I did not get very far. A lead opened up in front of me, open water, and I fell in, inside the moving ice. I could not get out. Good thing there was somebody nearby. I hollered at him and he came running and pulled me out.
Another time I went out hunting on the moving ice and I lost my rifle. I was catching a seal and I had some of my equipment out near its breathing hole. My hunting bag and my rifle were some distance away. The ice cracked between my rifle and myself and I could not jump it; I could not go over to get my rifle. The lead was only about two or three feet wide. Anybody else could have jumped it but I could not. So I made a really long walk around the lead to try and get my hunting bag at least, but the ice cracked again and the rifle sank. The hunting bag was floating in the water but I could not get it. It would have been saved if I had not been handicapped. So I said to myself finally, “If I try to go out hunting on crutches, one day I will not come back. It is too dangerous.
He tried alternative ways of doing things:
So I built myself a little skin boat. My nephew, my brother’s son, and my brother, helped me make the wooden frame and some of the women of the village sewed the split walrus hides to cover the frame. I thought I could hunt from a skin boat more safely than by walking on crutches. Whenever the north wind blew, I hunted in the open water on the south side of the village. That way I started getting more seals. I had used a kayak to hunt seals before my accident, but I could not balance myself anymore in a kayak. I had more weight on my good leg and less weight on my wooden leg. In order to balance my kayak I had to lean towards one side and it was very hard on my back. So I never used the kayak anymore. I used the little skin boat; it was about sixteen feet long.
Even though I became handicapped, people at King Island tried to be helpful to me in every way that they could. One winter my nephew, my brother and I went out hunting on the east side of the island. We went out until we could not go out any farther because the area was closed with ice and the skin boat could not go through. We pulled our little skin boat on top of the ice. I looked north and I saw some object above the pressure ridge of ice off in the distance. Above the object were two ravens flying.
Now when I was young, my mother used to tell me that whenever my father saw two ravens playing with something on the ice, that meant that an animal was present, maybe a fox or maybe a polar bear! And I saw those two ravens go down and go up and go down and go up. I just kept looking where they went down in the distance and I saw that object, and I knew right away that it was a polar bear. I told my brother and my nephew, “There is a polar bear coming towards us. Maybe we should pull our skin boat up some more so that it will not be carried away by the ice.” So we pulled it up a little way from the water.
We went over behind the big pressure ridges and we hid. We saw that there were three polar bears, a mother and two cubs almost the same size as the mother. Every time we looked, they had come closer. They could not see us, only our skin boat. They may have thought the boat was a seal or a walrus. Finally, as they started to move away from us, we each took aim at one polar bear and we shot all three.
My mother was still living then and when we came home she asked me, “Did you kill that polar bear, son?”
I said, “Yes,” and she began crying for joy. She thought I was not able to kill a polar bear because I was handicapped, but I managed to get one. We used the meat for food and we sold the furs….
He adapted his goals and expectations to his circumstances:
I think I killed every type of animal at King Island – seal, walrus, polar bear, birds. I did what I had prepared for before I became handicapped. My preparation to be a good hunter was not wasted at all. When I started to hunt form my little skin boat, I could compare with the other hunters. I never tried to be a great hunter but only to compete with the others. But I proved myself to be a hunter – not a handicapped person – but a hunter.
About 1948, families began to leave King Island and move to Nome, to get jobs and to be closer to medical care. Tuberculosis was a serious problem. In the late 1950s the BIA closed the school, and families had to go elsewhere to educate their children. The last family left Ugiuvak in 1967. Thereafter the village got limited use by individuals as a base for hunting. By 1978, Ugiuvak was looking a little run down:
King Islanders are still a distinct community in Nome, and have their King Island Native Corporation, one of the Alaska Native Land Claim settlement corporations.
Tiulana married and lived in Ugiuvak until 1956, moving first to Nome and then to Anchorage. He and his wife had two daughters. In Nome he worked as a janitor, an ivory carver, and hunted. Later in Anchorage, he took jobs helping Alaskan Natives cope with urban life. He played in important cultural role in Alaska, taking a leadership role in forming the King Island Dancers and Singers in the 1970s. He died in 1994.
Tiulana and Senungetuk supplemented their book with about 40 pictures taken in the late 1930s by Father Bernard Hubbard, which they annotated. Tiulana of course knew the persons in the pictures (and turns up in some of the pictures himself). Senungetuk later wrote a kid's version of the earlier book: Wise Words of Paul Tiulana: An Inupait Alaskan's Life .
King Island tends to get more attention than many other Alaska Native communities. This may be because of its dramatic setting. A popular Alaskan artist, Rie Muñoz, spent time there as a teacher when she was young, and the book she illustrated for author Jean Rogers, King Island Christmas, and a musical that followed, have attracted attention. There is a lot of good stuff on the web:
- Loel Shuler traveled through the Bering Sea in 1950, and has posted some great pictures of King Island here: Loel Shuler's Site. She has written about her trip recently in Alaska in the Wake of the North Star .
- Alaskan artist Rie Muñoz was a teacher on King Island shortly after Shuler was there (1951). Her husband Juan's photos show life in the village and out on the ice: King Island.
- Deanna Paniataaq Kingston of Oregon State University has been studying King Island, and its people: The Ice Sages . One of the slide shows available at this site has photos of Ugiuvak from between 1888 and 1928. This version can be printed out: The Ice Sages .
- The Alaska's Statewide Library Electronic Doorway(SLED) web site has a good collection of 19th and 20th Century black and white photos, and some movies, of Ugiuvak and King Island: SLED.
- The King Island Native Corporation, established by the Alaska Native Land Claims Settlement Act, has a web site: King Island Native Corporation .
For more posts on King Island: King Island.