Daily Life In Point Hope, AK

Steve Ooomittuk in Point Hope sod house with whale bones

You’ll have to forgive me dear readers, on my zigzag way of writing. Regrettably, I had lots of blog post ideas earlier in the week, didn’t act on them, and now they are gone like Puff the Magic Dragon.

But, that’s ok.

Today I’m leaving for Kotzebue, and finally writing about Point Hope. I’ve noticed it’s difficult to be in “travel mode” and also do other “modes” at the same time, like “editing mode”, “blog mode”, and “Stay in touch with my family mode”. There’s a universal flow to things, like a current in the ocean, and often it doesn’t stop at “modes” that I think ought to happen. So be it.

Anyhoo, daily life here is really interesting. The entire village is on a gravel spit that sticks out into the ocean. The Chukchi Sea is to the North, and the Bering Sea to the South. The peninsula is being eroded North to South, and also a bit from the South, but further inland by about 5 miles. Instead of being a “finger pointing” which is what the native name Tikigaq stands for, it’s starting to become a crescent shape. As a result, the entire village was moved to its present location from about 2 miles closer to the point. The flooding and erosion made living in the whale bone sod houses undesirable. Yup, I _did_ just say sod houses made with whale bone. More on that in a minute.

All around town the traditional frame boats that use seal skin covers are drying on racks until next Spring, when whaling begins. There are many animal skins drying also, like seal, bearded seal (ugruuk), polar bear, marmot, wolverine, etc.

People stay up late here in the Summer, because the sun stays out so late. On my first day last Thursday, the sun didn’t set til Midnight. Since then, the sun has lost about 10 minutes a day; last night the sun was fading at about 10:45pm. When I walked back from my new friend’s house, an English teacher here in town, the sky was ruby red & shades of yellow til a deep ocean blue at 12:30PM. If I thought the camera could do it justice I woulda taken it out. But this one was meant just for memory.

All the kids play freely, with no “yards” or bundaries around town. All the adults watch out that the kids aren’t run over by ATVs, the primary form of transport. That’s because 98% of the land is gravel, made of rounded stones weathered by the ocean & deposited by the waves. My calves could cut a glass pane as a result of walking on this stuff.

People usually sleep in til about noon, then the most activity comes around 3-6PM each day. Now that school is in session, parents are up earlier. But napping is a favorite past-time. (This is my kind of places!) Probably about half the adults have jobs, and half don’t, mostly because there simply aren’t enough to go around. The non-“working” adults work in a different way, and that’s subsistence gathering.

Many people have taken their boats (not the seal skin ones, just regular engine-powered skiffs) to Point Lisburne to the North to hunt walrus. I don’t think anyone got one, or at least I missed their boat returning at the launch.

Tons of people are out berry picking, both blackberries (not the kind we know, but a small singular black berry like a mistletoe berry but black instead of red),and salmon berries. I was lucky enough to be taken out on a “honda”, as the ATVs are called here, for salmon berry picking the other day. They are called that because the big juicy bulbs of the berry look like salmon roe. The berries have a creamy & kinda nutty flavor, with a bit of tang & sweetness too. It’s hard to describe. They’re just plain delicious! People pick them like wildfire: the lady I went with picked 2.5 gallons in a couple hours. I was barely able to keep up: 1 gallon. But, that’s not bad given it was my first time.

Many homes have a trampoline for the kids to jump on. It is a hugely popular thing to do. It may be that it’s connected to the blanket toss tradition at the whaling feast each year, or simply that kids like to jump. Sadly, like most “small towns” there is not enough for the kids to do, so many of them turn to drugs & alcohol. Even though Point Hope is “dry” (booze is not sold nor allowed to be consumed), it gets smuggled in and young people buy it. That being said, many kids are doing well anyway, and the school has a great sports program for basketball, track, and swimming (they have a pool), and other stuff. Each high schooler gets their own laptop they can take home every school year. There are great computer labs, and even a program to help them learn Inupiat language!

The school is the hub of town, and the only store, the Tikigaq Native Store, is the only place to buy groceries. It also has hardware store stuff, and fabrics, etc. Many ladies in the village sew, and I’ve seen some gorgeous “parkees”, or parkas around town. There is a hood liined in fur, then a coat that goes long almost to the knees, with the cuffs & bottom hem lined in fur. The colors are usually bright, sometimes there is embroidered beadwork or other animal patterns, and then two large pockets in the front. They are lined with polyester waffle weave stuff like in a down jacket. I had no idea that such a beautiful & large coat was still made by hand here.

The weather was stunningly beautiful for the first few days I was here, and I camped out on the tundra near to the Baptist Church. By day 3, the winds picked up tremendously as a storm front moved in. I thought my tent poles would break. The pastor & his family (who are subbing for the official pastor who’s on vacation) have been so kind, compassionate, and nice to me this entire time. They are truly lovely people, and I’m so glad we met. They allowed me to stay in the spare room at the church, where there is a kitchenette, bathroom, etc. They have fed me several times, with freshly grilled fish, omelets, and even burgers with fresh lettuce! Truly they have spoiled me, and I am so grateful to them for their generosity.

The weather has been more “normal” the rest of the time, with overcast skies, sometimes sunshine peaks through, but mostly high clouds. Wind blows almost constantly, but often it’s a gentle breeze; when storms are coming in, it gets much stronger. Sunsets have tended to be outrageously spectacular.

On the whole, while many of the Point Hope people I’ve met have been shy, the longer I’ve been here, the more folks have opened up. That’s to be expected in a small community. Even so, the level of sharing & generosity has been off the charts. Sharing is a big part of Tikigaq traditional attitudes. Before the modern town with wooden houses on stilts (to keep off the frozen tundra), people lived in sodden houses with whale bones as the foundation. Whale jaw bones & shoulder plates were used to hold up the structure, and keep squirrels out (their ground squirrels here look like prairie dogs). There was a cold trap at the entrance. It was a hole dug below the regular floor of the home, lined with a fur skin. A person had to slide in & out almost, to get through. In the harshness of tundra life, people had to share to survive. There is a whole tradition of sharing with elderly and widowed first, as they were unable to hunt. From there, everybody gets a piece. As whales are caught, they are “marked”, and then cut along these lines, to be shared with the other whale boat crews and families in the village.

Honestly, this has been the most amazing part of what I’ve learned from Point Hope. This generosity is so different than anything a person experiences in Big City Life in the lower 48. It is a value we all should embrace, in order to preserve our planet and our species future. Despite Point Hope’s challenges, they have a better chance at surviving the future as a group, a team, a community, than many others because of the sharing tradition alone.

Just a quick historical note: humans have continuously inhabited this peninsula of land for about 5,000 years. Along with the “old town site”, there are ancient mounds here that date back 2500, and 4000-5000 years ago. It’s really something! It is recognized as the longest continually inhabited village of North America. To learn more, check out the book “Ultimate Americans” by Tom Lowenstein. It’s really informative, and uses original letters from the whalers of the 1800’s and also the first missionaries to describe the history & culture here. Point Hope is a whaling community, and life revolves around the whale hunt in Spring.

There’s so much more I could say, but I have to shower & pack up. I hope that this glimpse has whet your appetite for more. I highly recommend coming here for the whale feast in June, around the second weekend or so. I plan to come back next year, then head to Denali for a climb. Or vice versa.

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2 Responses to Daily Life In Point Hope, AK

  1. juan says:

    Thanks. This is a well written article, I loved your story. I am living in south Texas bow, but I want to move north, to Alaska. I do love the cold weather and want to challenge my skills and learn about Eskimo and Alaskan culture. Thanks.

    • marissa says:

      Thanks for stopping by, Juan! Glad you enjoyed the information. I encourage you to get out there & start exploring as soon as you can. No time like the present! There is a lot of work up there, too, for those with the proper skills.

      Best of luck to you!

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