William Van Valin was a school teacher at Sinuk, Alaska, during the 1911-'12 and 1912-'13 school years. Sinuk is on the Bering Sea coast of the Seward Peninsula to the west of Nome, not far from King Island.
In June 1912, he went walrus hunting in a small powered schooner with a party of Eskimos. From Sinuk they traveled east to Nome to pick up another passenger, then went west, across the Bering Sea to the Siberian Coast.
On June 8, they reached King Island and spent two days there. Van Valin was a sympathetic and careful observer. He wrote about his visit in his book, Eskimoland Speaks, published in 1944. For reasons explained at the end of the post, I' m assuming this trip was in June of 1912 (if I'm wrong it's not by more than plus or minus one year).
As the schooner approached King Island one of the first things he noticed was masses of birds wheeling around the rocks:
Upon nearing King Island, we saw clouds of waterfowl circling about and leaving the rocks when startled.
Birds are food:
The Eskimos have a novel way of capturing these birds. They use a long spear having three extra points - sharp pieces of notched ivory or bone. From a throwing stick held in the hand, the Eskimos hurl these spears into a flock of passing ducks. Sometimes they get a bird on the main point, with two or three on the side prongs. They could hardly fail to get at least one bird at every throw when the clocks of ducks are so dense.
Another method of capturing them is to take a piece of walrus rope and tie, along its entire length, at two-inch intervals, a series of thin whalebone nooses, ingeniously held open by the knots on the rope. The Eskimo stretches the line at right angles across the face of the cliff, fastening each end with a heavy stone. When a big flock arrives and tries to make a landing on the steep sides of the rocks, the birds put their feet through the nooses, which close suddenly around their legs. The more they try to escape the tighter the nooses draw. Before long, the Eskimo has them well filled. he then removes his catch and resets the traps. Necessity has developed a marvelous resourcefulness in these people.
Later he writes:
On King Island everything seemed t0 be in animation. The very air was vibrant with the screams of the various kinds of marine birds. The qu-u-u-ow-wuk of the red throated loon, the shrill cry of the great northern diver, and the calls of the swift-flying loquacious hahalik (old squaw) were intermingled with millions of lesser bird notes from many other species.
Other impressions on approaching the island:
Approaching the island, I had noticed large rectangular objects scattered over the village. Upon investigation I found that these were walrus hides, laced together in large frames of driftwood to dry....
There's a nice photograph from 1899 in the University of Washington Library digital collection showing the walrus skins drying on their frames.
When we reached shelter on the lee side of the island, we were surrounded with a fleet of kyaks. Some of them were built for two persons; the others single holed ones, were lashed in pairs to ensure stability while throwing spears at ducks....
There was no beach for landing, so we shoved our dory across the cake of ice, launched it, and rowed to the big rocks. Leaping from one to the other, we made our way to the shore at the foot of the rocky cliffs, then zigzagged up the trail to Ookevok, the village on stilts. The Eskimo stilt dwelling is built by standing two long poles of driftwood, on end ten or twelve feet apart. Between these, a cross-pole is lashed at right angles about twenty feet above the ground. Other poles are laid on this cross-pole and fastened into the rocks in the rear. This timberwork constitutes the foundation for the floor. The sides and top are then raised and covered with dry grass. The entire igloo is covered and lashed securely with green walrus hides. As these dry, they draw as tight and hard as a fibre trunk. This habitation is absolutely windproof and rainproof.
Here's an illustration of a King Island house published in 1900:
Nelson: The Eskimo About Bering Strait.
Entering one of these homes:
The kanatenny (storm shed), where hunting outfits, food for current use and all kinds of gear are stowed away, is entered first. From this, the living and sleeping room is entered through a hole about eighteen inches in diameter, by the entrant's getting down on all fours and pushing his head against the skin that hangs down over the wall on the inside to keep the cold air out. Of all insufferable odours, those of an Eskimo igloo are the most overwhelming. Old seal oil, the chief source of the noisome fumes, is so odoriferous that a polar bear, so it is said, can smell it at a distance of 150 miles when he is travelling against the wind. The air in an igloo soon gets stuffy, thick, and so hot that those inside must peel their fur clothing down to the waistline. My first igloo visits were of necessity very brief, for I would hold my breath from entrance to exit. But one soon overcomes this finicky attitude and becomes indifferent to this as well as to most of the other inconveniences in Alaska.
A population of 150:
There were 150 people on the island. The children had no schooling, but they were bright little chaps. They could travel these steep, stony, narrow trails like rocky Mountain sheep. If one of them should fall off the front porch he would not strike bottom short of a hundred feet below. The youngsters were fine archers. I found a level place and tried out their skill by setting up .22 short cartridges. They toed the mark quite a distance away. The boy who made the first direct hit was to get the cartridge. They were such good shots that they took one cartridge after another. As I saw they would soon clean me of my supply, I called off the shooting match.
Walrus were an important source of food and raw materials for Bering Straits peoples. Walrus provided meat, raw materials for umiaks (30 foot boats of walrus skin stretched over wooden frames) and King Island homes (as described above).
Also, material for for rope, and tusks for ivory carving and cash sale:
These islanders, marooned here nine months out of the year, make the finest walrus hide rope to be seen anywhere among the Eskimos. It is about the diameter of window sash cord. They are also very clever in making cribbage boards out of walrus tusks, with beautiful pictorial carving. The lines in the ivory are incised with a piece of pointed metal, such as a nail or a knife blade. When finished, the drawing is brought out very clearly by smearing it with soot or ink, or by lead-pencil marks. When enough black has settled in the grooves, the surplus is washed off....
He watched a woman process a walrus skin:
The whaling fleets had depleted the walrus populations in the late 19th century, and this may have caused mass starvation and death on St. Lawrence Island, and possibly on King Island. Commercial walrus hunters were still active in the area in 1912:
I observed a woman working on one of these skins thrown over a strangely shaped board. Since walrus hides in their original state are too thick for oomiaks (skin boats), the Eskimo has learned to overcome this serious difficulty by making two skins out of one. This is the only place I have seen this accomplished. This woman was just completing the splitting of a ten-by-twelve foot walrus hide with her oolooruk (an Eskimo woman's knife, triangular-shaped, with an ivory handle fastened to one of the points). She gave the knife a rocking motion, holding her free hand against the outside of the skin to feel the thickness as she was splitting it. She made two beautiful skins out of one hide without cutting a hole in either one.
The Norwegian ice breaker Kit came up and stuck her bow into the ice on which we had fastened our anchor. Her crew was on a big walrus hunt and expected to kill five thousand walrus. Of course, they would wound and kill several times as many as they would get. As they take only the heads for the ivory tusks and teeth, there is much waste. They generally save the skins, but always discard an enormous amount of meat. They wished to hire twenty Eskimo hunters to accompany they on this two-month ruthless slaughter, at twenty-five dollars a month, but the Eskimos refused; they are strict economists, and waste absolutely nothing - not even time; it is "root, hog, or die" all the time now with these northern natives. They are obliged to catch their game in its season now and preserve it for future use; if they fail to do this, they know, from sad experience, the results of an insufficient food supply.
The King Islanders were unwilling to take this work for $25 a month - the two month period would evidently have run from early-June to early-August. This would have conflicted - at least to some extent - with the King Islanders own walrus hunting period, and with their annual visit to Nome. In Nome they would have been trying to sell items made with walrus tusks and gathering foods and materials available on the mainland. The walrus hunt may also have conflicted with Eskimo believes about the proper use of harvested animals (as Van Valin suggests; see also A Land of Milk and Honey (If You Know Where to Look) and Over-Exploiting the Arctic Animal Commons).
While Van Valin was visiting, a King Islander brought in a headless walrus that had been killed and abandoned by the Kit's crew.
King Island is about 30 miles from the mainland, but apparently - once the sea had frozen - it was possible to cross the ice to shore:
King Island is comparatively near the mainland, so that when a severe winter causes Bering Strait to freeze over, it is possible to travel north on the frozen Strait and reach cape Prince of Wales, the most westerly point of North America. That it is a very uncertain and hazardous trip to make, even under the most favorable conditions, I learned from a resident of the island - a crippled man who, at first glance, I assumed to be clubfooted. He told me the story of his lameness.
A few years before, he said, he had had to go over to Cape Prince of Wales afoot. He had gone almost halfway when he broke through the thin ice, getting both feet wet. he beat a hasty retreat to his home, but his feet were so badly frozen that they turned black halfway to the heel. He saw that something had to be done, or the flesh would soon begin to slough off, gangrene would set in, and he would die. Using a piece of old rusty saw, he set about to perform a remarkable surgical operation. He actually sawed off the front half of both his feet - and survived.
Many visitors mention a large cave near the village. Most writers describe its importance as a natural deep freeze for preserving meat. This is the first I've read that it had defensive importance:
There was a large double cave at the foot of the island, to the left of the village, which used to serve as a refuge when enemy tribes on the warpath came over from East Cape Siberia, and from the Diomede Islands. The main cave ends about a hundred feet back from its mouth, but there is a secondary cave about ten feet above the regular floor. In ancient times, to gain this second level a piece of driftwood was driven tightly across the mouth, and a rope was thrown over it by which the Eskimos drew themselves up with their food, water, and weapons of defence.
He visited an underground men's house and watched dancing:
Eskimos are famous for their hospitality. They will share their best to the last with anyone. Upon our arrival here on this annual walrus hunt, we had a great time. The first thing in order was a big feast. Then we gathered in the kosga (village public dance, or rather physical exercise house), where we were highly entertained. Entrance to this house was made by passing through a long subterranean tunnel, at the end of which was an opening overhead just large enough to admit our head and shoulders when standing erect. By placing our hands out on the floor and jumping upward, we found ourselves sitting on the edge of the hole, in the center of the house - a good-sized room - around the walls of which are hewn driftwood plank seats about three feet from the floor. These are occupied by the men. The women sit on the floor, beneath their husbands, with the small children in front of them. The room was literally packed with natives, with just enough space left for the dancers who were to perform. There was no light, save that which came from the seal-oil lamp and that which came through the translucent skylight made from the dried entrails of the polar bear or walrus.
The drummers were seated in a row withe their sowyits drums, made by stretching the stomach of a walrus over a hoop. A vessel of water was passed along, and the heads of the drums were wet to give them more resonance. Everything was all set. Two muscular middle-aged men, stripped to their waists, faced each other on their knees, with their fur garments between their legs. Much of this strenuous exercise, as well as outdoor activities, had developed their arms, shoulders, and chests of these men to that they looked like professional athletes. The drums began to tap softly and soon were supplemented with a low hum from the drummers which gradually increased in speed and volume until the leader tapped his drum louder than the rest. That was the signal, and they were off in full swing, with their "Yah-yah-yah, unga-yah-yah, e-yah-yah-yah-yah!"
The exhibition given by these two men is the most remarkable one I ever beheld among the Eskimos or anywhere else. They call it imitnaw (all same) sea gull; their gesticulations mimic to perfection, in perfect harmony and time with the music, the characteristic motions of the gull. No words can paint the rhythm and grace that this dance presents: combining as it does the suppleness of the head on the neck and the realistic animation of the arms and body, bringing so many muscles into action.
Gold was discovered at Nome in 1898 and by 1899 there were 10,000 persons there (wiki). The market for ivory carvings - and King Island summers at Nome - would date from that time. The yearly round involved migration to the island in the fall, and to the mainland in the early summer:
Their long winter's work ends in June, when the south current sets in and clears the ice out of Bering Sea. Then they load their oomiaks and sail to Nome pitch their summer camp on the sand spit, and sell their ivory curios to the Nome shops and to tourists.
Van Valin visited the King Islanders at Nome one summer:
...I then struck on up the sandspit to the King Island campers, who came over every year with their big oomiaks loaded with women, children, and camping paraphernalia. They turn the skin boats on edge, leaving the front edge about five feet above the sand, securely supported upon the paddles. This provides a waterproof and windproof shelter for living and working. They spend most of their time eating, sleeping, and visiting. Their occupation is the making of crib boards, napkin rings, and various other articles out of the walrus tusks which they bring back from their hunting expeditions. They are fine workmen and do beautiful carving.
He was there one 4th of July and got to watch another King Island dance:
...The program closed with a regular Eskimo dance composed by a King Islander and called "Building a Schooner." Thirty men and women sat facing each other on a large platform in two rows five feet apart. The women were dressed in spotted reindeer ateggies (parkas) and wore white gloves. The men sang the song and beat time with their sowyits (drums) made of walrus stomachs stretched over hoops. The dance was concluded with all the women standing, waving and jerking their arms and bodies in perfect unison with the music - a beautiful calisthenic demonstration.
There are more King Island posts here: King Island.
Notes - Van Valin is vague about the years he spent in Sinuk and the year he traveled to King Island. The back cover of his book says his first visit to Alaska was in 1910. His text says he spent two years at Sinuk. A review of sources in Google Books suggests that he taught at Sinuk River during the 1911-1912 and 1912-1913 school years, and in Wainwright during the 1912-1913 and 1913-1914 school years. He might have gone to King Island in June of 1911, 12, or 13.
Van Valin doesn't give the year he went. I'm assuming he is more likely to have traveled with a group of Eskimos after a year's opportunity to make friends and that during the summer of 1913 he would have been preparing to move to Wainwright and would have had less time for the trip. So, 1912. However, it could have been one of the other years and if I confirm the date sometime, I'll update this post. The exact year doesn't seem to be as important as knowing the approximate period when he went.
I've reorganized Van Valin's account somewhat to pull together the descriptions of different topics.