When they were on the island, they lived in the village of Ukivok, which clung - impossibly - to the sheer rocky south side of the island.
But they didn't spend the whole year on the island. In June they migrated to the mainland where they lived in a summer camp at Nome, hunted, fished, gathered, and worked and sold carvings to raise money.
In October, when the weather began to get really cold, of all things, they left the relatively large and modern support network in Nome and migrated back to their barren rock to spend the winter largely isolated from contact with others.
During the winter they lived an unexpectedly comfortable life in homes perched on stilts (to level them out on the steep slope). The Bureau of Indian Affairs supported a small school and coop store, and the Catholic church maintained a priest and church.
They exploited a wide range of resources - fishing for fish and crab through the ice right in front of town, harvesting seals, polar bear, and walrus from the ice around the island, and harvesting small plants, birds, and bird eggs from their rock once the spring and early summer had come.
The King Islanders were historically a seafaring and trading people. They had sailed in their umiaks (oomiak) from St. Lawrence Island and the mouth of the Yukon in the northern Bering Sea, to Siberia and Point Hope in the Chukchi Sea. Around the turn of the century, when the goldrush led to the founding of a large community at Nome, several native communities, including the King Islanders, began to travel to Nome in the summer for their trading.
By the 1950s and 60s - the period covered by this post - the King Islanders returned home in October on Bureau of Indian Affairs Bering Sea resupply ships called the North Star II and III. A North Star headed north each summer, and spent the summer and early fall working its way through the communities in the Aleutians and Bering Sea, up into the Chukchi Sea north of the Bering Straits, and as far as Barrow, before turning around and working its way south again.
She delivered supplies and medical support to the remote and isolated towns and villages in the region, and provided transportation between communities for goods and people. Lael Morgan wrote about the resupply effort: The "North Star" .
Loel Shuler got to go along for the ride on North Star II as a young woman in the summer of 1950. Shuler was the wife of the medical director at the Alaska Native Services hospital in Sitka, when her husband suggested that she take the journey.
She took lots of notes on her three months, and even drafted a manuscript describing her trip, but then life intervened and all the paper went into a drawer. Many years later she came back to it, and worked it up into a short book, Alaska. In the Wake of the North Star . Shuler took a lot of photos on her trip, and some of these can be seen at the website for her book: Loel 's * Site .
In 1950, the North Star left Barrow in early September. She worked her way back and forth around the coast, finally arriving at Nome to pick up the King Islanders, and people from Little Diomede Island who were also traveling home to their own remote island community, on October 2. She apparently left for King Island late at night on the 3rd.
At Nome, larger vessels must anchor offshore, and smaller vessels are used to move goods back and forth to and from the beach. The King Islanders moved their goods in umiaks. They built these themselves. The umiaks had wooden frames with walrus hide stretched tightly over. The larger umiaks I see in pictures look like they might be 40 feet. Here is some video from the Alaska Digital Archive of King Islanders making an umiak: King Islanders constructing an umiak at King Island, 1945-1955 (42 seconds).
While the crew got some R&R in the relatively large town of Nome, the King Islanders, and the Little Diomeders, traveled back and forth to their ship in their umiaks, loading their things. Shuler was impressed by the variety:
...The miscellany being lifted into the forward hold was beyond credence: radios, batteries, stoves, bedsprings, sleds, endless seal pokes and boxes, brooms, broken chairs, dogs, guitars, and even that wondrous possession, a bicycle.
Finally the passengers were ferried out, 40 persons to an umiak. The umiaks themselves were then taken on board. There were five larger umiaks and two smaller ones. It sounds like a generally happy crowd:
People, from infants to ancients, swarmed into the hold, eating, sleeping, gabbling, singing, and playing games.
However, Shuler was aware of some tensions between the King Islanders and the Diomeders, and among the Diomeders:
The two groups held themselves aloof from each other. Moralistic in the extreme and hyper-concerned with salvaging their dying culture, the King Islanders shy away from association with the members of any other group. They are particularly cautious about keeping their children from the "evil" influences of the Diomeders and the Nome Eskimos. The Diomeders area apparently divided into camps, defined loosely as the drinking Diomeders and the non-drinking Diomeders. The two factions are so antagonistic that in Nome they set up separate villages on either side of the King Island camp.
Shuler certainly could observe any self-enforced segregation between the groups. But she might not have had much chance to talk to them. Many would only have had a poor command of English. I'd guess that she is accurately reporting a school of thought current in white circles at the time. Shuler isn't the only person to comment on these tensions between different Native communities in the region.
The North Star arrived at King Island, and anchored a few hundred yards off of the Ukivok townsite on the south face of the island. This is the view from the North Star in 1948. That looks like an umiak stored on deck, right behind the mother and child. The large white building at the bottom of the town is the Bureau of Indian Affairs school; the larger white building at the top of the town is the Roman Catholic church.
Then the unloading began. There is no beach at Ukivok. The island rises up out of the water at a steep angle. The lower end of the village begins about 100 feet above the water. the villagers had to launch their umiaks from the North Star, load them with goods and passengers, take them to shore, and land from the bobbing umiaks on a jumble of rocks.
Their first action is to toss the soft seal pokes, filled, one supposes with clothes or maybe seal oil, on the rocks between the boat landing and the beginning of the stairway. These soon wedge themselves down between the boulders and manufacture a somewhat more even footing with better traction over the treacherously slippery rocks. Men women, and children alike, bent nearly double from heavy loads, trek up and down and up and down all day long until one wonders that they do not collapse.
Here are the King Islanders unloading cargo on the rocks, sometime in the 1930s. You can see cargo, people, a dog, all helter-skelter among the rocks. I imagine the view was similar in the 1950s.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs maintained a school at Ukivok, and in 1951 it sent over two young teachers, Juan and Rie Muñoz.
While they were on the island, the Muñozes kept a journal in the form of letters home to their parents. Juan also took photographs. Juan used the photos as the basis for a January 1954 National Geographic story. Many of these photos with captions can also be seen at the Rie Muñoz Gallery website: King Island. A True-Life Adventure.
Juan Muñoz died in 2005 and when his son went through his effects he found the cache of negatives. Rie still had the letters. This fall his son published a selection of the pictures and letters as: The King Island Journal . Here's a story on the origins of the book from the Anchorage Daily News: Rediscovered photos show vanished King Island society (Sarah Henning, Dec 23, 2007).
In 1951, the North Star was to sail at midnight. The Muñozes boarded late - just before sailing. Juan wrote,
Our last night in Nome, the ground was covered with snow from the storm of a few days before. it was cold enough so that there was a layer of ice on the river when we launched our boats to of out to the North Star, and, true to story book form, there was a brilliant display of northern lights. The northern lights were active enough to keep up my interest, and I was therefore able to think about something beside the cold. As the skin boat went out the river to the ocean, you could hear the ice crackling around it. It was one of those times when it not only was cold, but sounded cold....
Rie recalled that they were swung aboard on a cargo pallet, presumably hanging from one of the deck cranes.
Two children's books written by Jean Rogers of Juneau with input from Rie Muñoz include accounts of the trip from Nome to King Island.
In 1951, Ukivok only had a few years left. In 1959 the Bureau of Indian Affairs responded to declining population and school enrollment by closing the school. People with families would no longer be able to spend their winters on the Island.
In the 1980s, Muñoz and Rogers, told the story of the last year the full community was on King Island through the eyes of a fictional 12 year old girl, Esther Atoolik: Goodbye My Island. (Rogers and Muñoz set their story in 1963-64 although other sources indicate the school was closed after the 1958-59 school year.
While the account is aimed at young people, it isn't sentimental and directly addresses the stresses that were undermining the community. Here is a review of it by Cheryl Jerabek. The photo to the right is from the Eagle Tree Gallery .
Rogers and Muñoz deal with the decisions people were making about whether to spend the winter in Nome or to go to King Island. Esther's best friend Mary and her family will be staying behind, apparently to take advantage of the school and local job opportunities. On the other hand Wooko and Vivian decide to return to the Island. Wooko drinks heavily in Nome. He can't stop himself. His wife insists they return to King Island where he won't have access to liquor. He hits her. The King Island leader Ooloranna (based on a real person with that name - he appears freqently in the Journal) talks things over with them and convinces Wooko to return to the Island for the winter to be away from the bars and in a place where can carve "in peace."
The North Star is loaded with barrels of fuel oil and the summer's subsistence harvests:
The men and boys are busy loading her. right now they are loading the oomiaks with the big oil drums, enough to keep us warm all winter in the schoolhouse and the church. Our tents and our pots and our groceries and our tea and the berries we picked in Nome have already been taken to the boat. Silook and Ooloranna are watching everything to see that nothing is left behind. Nothing must be forgotten, not a single thing...
Rogers and Muñoz give a vivid account of the ride on the cargo hoist from the umiak to the North Star's deck.
...Last of all, the people will climb into the boats, putt-putt-putt out to the big boat. climb onto the hoist, and be lifted up to the deck. Even our oomiaks get a ride on that hoist. Oh, how that strange ride used to frighten me. The hoist swung and swayed and swooped, and there was only my mother's hand to keep me from the greedy mouths of the waves. They looked so big, those waves, ready to swollow me up in one gulp. Now I am like my brother, Lewis. We like the ride. We like to swing out above the big, hungry waves. It makes us laugh. And I know it means we will soon be home again...
I assume they cover the ninety miles to the island in the night. The next day:
Yakut was the first person to see our island. He is one of the best hunters because his eyes are so keen... "See that thin white line," he said, "That is King Island." Soon we all could see it, our big rock, sitting alone out there in the sea. Soon we could see specks, sea gulls wheeling in the sky above it, and then the waves splashing on the big rocks....
But now we have to hurry, hurry. The North Star is eager to go south, and we must get all our things off as fast as we can. Everyone knows just what to do. We have done this every year for as long as anyone can remember.
Rogers and Muñoz capture the excitment of the landing:
First the oomiaks are lowered, and down we go in the hoist, one last wild ride. Everything must be taken to shore in our boats and stacked on the big boulders, safe from the splashing water, until we can carry it up to the houses. All the men know just exactly how much they can carry each trip. What a bustle. Everyone is happy to be back. Birds are squawking and crying above us. The dogs we left in June are down on the rocks, barking to welcome us and fighting for places on the big rocks nearest the water. There is laughing and shouting and noise from the motors. There are our two dogs. Lewis and I spot them together. Good. They have managed to catch enough birds and eggs to survive during the months we were gone.
Mother and Lewis and I have a long climb to our house. We carry our loads, first up the path and then to the wooden steps. Father is making more trips in the oomiak, as fast as he can. So many things to unload for all of us and the teachers' and Father Tomas's things as well. Stuff is piling up on our rocky shore in big heaps. It will take us three days to get everything hauled up to the village. Father Tomas will go straight to the church and direct the storing away of his things. Marie will do the same at the school; school supplies in the schoolroom and food and fuel in the storage shed at the back. The oil drums will be the very last because it doesn't matter if they get wet. Besides, it takes all the men to pull them up to the schoolhouse and the church.
What a happy time this is in our King Island village. We are all working together so that we will be safe and comfortable in the coming winter. When the unloading is done, Father Tomas will hold a service in the church and the teachers will give a party at the schoolhouse.
This bit of video at the Alaska Digital Archive shows what's involved in landing people and goods onto the rocks from a bobbing boat - also an idea how steep the place is: Houses and umiaks at King Island, 1941-1955 (37 seconds).
In the Journal Juan Muñoz recalls the last view of the North Star the night after the landing was completed:
Our view last night was of the North Star lying at anchor off the island. The water was quite calm, and the boat had all its lights on. Overhead, a half moon was shining...
In 1951, the North Star returned on October 25 to drop off the village priest. Because the wind was from the south, and it was too rough to land an oomiak on the rocks at the village, the North Star delivered him to the north side of the island, where the wind was blocked.
This meant the islanders had to carry umiaks up the cliff above the village to the top of the island, across the top, and then down the other side (described as even steeper than the village side). Almost the whole village made the hike. Apparently smaller oomiaks, about 17 feet long, were used. The water on the northern beach was calm, but it was rougher further out. The captain of the North Star decided not to bring the vessel in close to the island because of concerns about rocks. Juan went out in one of the umiaks:
It was rough enough that we couldn't see the other skin boats following us, unless we both happened to hit the crest of a wave at the same time. We tied to the ladder they dropped down from the North Star and the crew started to pass things down. The other skin boat tied up alongside us, and we passed half the stuff to them, including Father Carroll. I still wonder why nothing fell in. It was all over in about 15 minutes and the North Star took off...
This episode became the basis for a popular children's book written by Jean Rogers and illustrated by Muñoz: King Island Christmas .
And then they were alone.
King Islanders returned to the mainland in late June, or early July.
This trip was made in open umiaks. By the 1950s when the Muñozes taught on the island, these were powered by outboard motors, although they also appear from pictures to have retained masts. This trip strikes me as a dicey exercise. The trip took them 20 miles out into open water. The open umiaks were heavily loaded. Their gunwales were inches about the water. The King Islanders rigged canvas sheets on poles to extend the height of the gunwales.
In the Journal:
It's quite a perilous journey - as always, weather dependent. One of the King Islanders who was good at reading the skies had been watching the weather patterns for days, as one storm after another flowed through the area. Finally, during the middle of one of these fronts, he gave the word to go. The strategy is to ride the last of the current storm out to sea, catch the lull in the middle of the Bering Sea, and hopefully cross over to the mainland before the next storm strikes. If you waited for calm weather you could get hit by a storm in the worse part of the ocean...
Directions were shouted left and right. At the very last moment everyone was aboard the boats, except for the few men who were waiting to untie the boats from the rocks. Oolarana could be seen standing on a rock not more than 30' away, yelling directions in a thunderous voice to the men freeing the boats.
The first two hours of the trip were rough...
People and dogs were both sick. Rie remembered one older woman:
Sitting right next to me was one of ancient women of the village. She must have been near 90. She was nearly blind and could hardly walk. She divided her time between crying, yelling, moaning and groaning the entire trip. Well, I had no sooner put my head down when she became quite seasick. She had taken her potty with her on the boat and took this out of a bag to use. The boat was piled high with luggage and it seemed that the only place that she could steady her potty was right next to my ears. She then commenced to get very, very sick. I know, because I could hear her every breath. All this of course didn't make be feel better, but as there was no other place to rest my head, I stayed there an eventually fell asleep....
We were lucky to get in the smallest oomiak. We only had about 16 other people with us including a lot of baggage. I saw one of the other boats go by with between 50 and 75 people in it, mostly kids. It would have been hectic to have gone in that one, which, by the way, caught on fire shortly after we left the island. It was an outboard engine fire but everything turned out alright. Another boat had engine trouble and had to be towed to the mainland.
The trip took 13 hours. The convoy traveled east until it reached the coastline, and then traveled south along the shore to Nome. They may have stopped for break when the reached the coast in other years. In 1952 they went straight through.
Rie's biggest challenge was passing the "13 hour test."
...I had been so horrified by the thought of a long oomiak ride that I had hardly touched any liquids for the four days prior. Therefore I passed the 13 hour test very comfortably, altough slightly dehydrated.
Many years later Rie would recall in the Anchorage Daily News story:
"All the King Islander women just brought coffee cans and heaved them over the side when they were done, but I was too timid to do anything like that. But now I'd do it in a minute."
Rie also described the trip in Goodbye My Island. This is June 1964, the last time the community will be making the trip, and they know it.
..."Time to leave, time to go, be ready when the storm dies."
So those were our last three days on King Island. It is ninety miles across the open ocean to Nome, and with the outboard motors working as hard as they can, it will take us all of a long day to get there. We must leave just when the storm is over so that the seas will be calm and smooth for us the whole way. Yakuk climbs up where he can look out toward the mainland and see just the moment when the storm is safely over. Yakuk of the sharp eyes will watch and watch for us all. He will tell us when he sees the storm is coming to an end. Then we will hurry, hurry and pile everything into the boats as fast as we can.
Toward evening of the third day Yakuk brought the word to start loading. Teacher says it is the fifteenth of June.
Everyone carries bigger loads down to the shore. The piles grow bigger and bigger. So much has to go. There is even some of the blubber left to take. The muktuk of the white beluga is the very best in all the world, so we always try to make it last a long while.
Each oomiak has a captain, and he sees to the loading of his boat...
We pass the piles beside our oomiak into the boat as fast as we can, everyone helping. Is there going to be any room left for us to squeeze into? The dogs know we are going, and they are whining and barking among the rocks on the shore and getting in the way.
When we are all in, Father and Simon and Tan fasten paddles up along the sides of the boat, and canvas is strung up to keep the waves from splashing in and swamping us. The sides of our oomiak are close to the water... We have done this many times before, and the men know just how much each oomiak can carry, but we know we are stretching it this year.
Ooloranna stands up and gives the signal to leave. Quick as a flash our father tosses in our two dogs...
Father starts the outboard. The others are starting now, too, and the dogs left onshore know what that means. What mournful howls rise up from their throats. So much noise makes all the birds start up, screeching and crying. As we chug away, the sky over King Island is black with them... it is only moments before we round the point and our village can be seen no more.... The barking of dogs and the cries of the birds can no longer be heard, only the steady chug-chug of our motor and the slap of the waves hitting against the walrus hide of our boat.
This post suggests organization and leadership. There is Ooloranna, on the rocks, waiting to give the signal to go. And there are boat captains. Linda Ellanna, an anthropologist, lived in Nome for many years, and wrote a doctoral dissertation on the King Islanders and several other island communities. This is available for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game's Division of Subsistence: Bering Strait Insular Eskimo: A Diachronic Study Of Economy And Population Structure .
I don't know what "diachronic" means either, but the thesis is fascinating. Ellanna spends a lot of time on the organization of walrus hunts. Walrus was very important to the King Islanders. The hunts were organized under boat captains who supervised the construction of the umiaks for this purpose, and hunted the walrus with 9 to10 man crews, mainly composed of relatives. The boat captains status and influence in Ukivok. These are the captains we are talking about here. Esther's Dad is one of these men. I'd guess that the captains and crews would stick together for these migrations, and that they'd tend to carry their own families and friends.
Here is some video from the Alaska Digital Archive of King Islanders arriving on the beach at Nome, and disembarking from their umiaks: King Islanders arrive at Nome in umiaks, 1928-1932 (69 seconds)
- This post only deals with the King Island crossings from 1950 to 1959 (or possibly 1964). These are the last days of the traditional community life. In fact, this life must already have been very different from that of the King Islanders of 100 years prior.
- The history and evolution of their annual travel would be a good topic for a future post. How was their behavior affected by changes in the available technologies - the introduction of guns and outboard engines. How was it affected by the emergence of a new regional market for their work and carvings as the white culture intruded, and by the increased availability of food and other modern goods. Again, how was it affected when Nome became a focal point for summer travel by people from many of the other regional villages.
- The Bureau of Indian Affairs resupply effort began in 1894. Shuler and the Munozes would have traveled on the North Star II, and in 1964, Esther Atoolik would have traveled on the North Star III.
- Another thing to bear in mind is that the accounts I've used are by sympathetic, but outside, non-Native, observers. Except for Ellanna, they aren't trained as anthropologists.
- The map of the Bering Sea was taken from an illustration in Juan Muñoz's article in the January 1954 National Geographic.
- Rie Muñoz later became an important Alaskan artist. Here is a biographical news story: Everyday icons: Rie Munoz (Sarah Henning, Dec 23, 2007).
Revised with details on the North Star resupply vessels on Dec 18, 2007. Corrected date school closed (from 64 to 59) Dec 19. Hopkins (Bureau of Indian Affairs Alaska Native Enrollment Statistics, 1953-1977) supports the 1959 school closure. The paragraphs on Linda Ellanna's thesis were added Dec 20. Edits Dec 23. Some updates following Anchorage Daily News story on Dec 23.
For more posts on King Island: King Island.