Ben was born in the log cabin that used to be in front of my current house in Kotzebue. He said that the cabin was up so long that it started to get old and the wood was getting weak, so my grandpa had to build a new house and that became a part of the house that I live in now. I have only seen the original log cabin in pictures so I asked Ben about it. He told me that Kotzebue had a hospital and Nome did not, so when people from Nome came in for medical care my grandparents would house them in our cabin. When my grandparents needed money, they would offer to rent it out to people who came in from Noatak, a village upriver from Kotzebue. Ben said once the new house was built it seemed huge compared to the cabin and it was cool to have linoleum floor rather than just wood.
Before TV (and way before computers and video games, of course) Ben and his friends would read comic books and magazines. Once you read all of your comic books, you would go around the neighborhood looking for someone to trade with for something you haven’t read. Ben described the National Geographic magazine as a door to the outside world.
“I learned more from National Geographic than I ever did in elementary school.” Ben said. He told me in school they would talk about things like Christopher Columbus “discovering” America and other events that were either untrue or irrelevant to life in rural
Alaska, but National Geographic was real. The pictures and stories in there were real places, real people, real stories, and real events. “Plus, the winters were long.” Ben added.
I asked Ben where he was raised as a child. He told me that he grew up in Kotzebue but went to Sisualik every summer, which is one of my family’s traditional camps that is located about 13 miles across the Kotzebue Sound from Kotzebue. He would always look forward to going to Sisualik and enjoyed it a lot more than being in town. He reminded me that our camps Sisualik and Katyurak are a privilege to have because not everyone in Kotzebue has a camp; and that I have my grand parents to thank for that.
At Sisualik, Ben was always in charge of taking care of the water well that was dug into the tundra behind our camp. “That was my baby,” he explained. He had to always make sure it was clean and check on it often to make sure it didn’t need to be cleared out or rebuilt. The well provided our water, which was a necessity for cooking, cleaning, tending to the dogs for the dog team that needed water, and the family needed drinking water as well. He would clean it out each spring and make sure it was always in top-notch condition. It gave him something to care for and his maintenance of the well made his parents proud.
Another one of his projects was keeping the sigluak, or ice cellar, clean.
Each spring, he would have to clean it up by removing any old food and bringing it onto the sea ice to be taken away when the ice broke up. The sigluak always had to be clean because it was their way of storing food - their refrigerator. He felt it was a really important task because that was where the food was stored and it took so much effort to gather, hunt, and butcher the food. If the sigluak was not properly cared for, all the food and hard work put into it would be lost. The sigluak is built underground with a wood frame holding it up and sod placed on top of the structure for insulation. Ben told me that the wood has to be replaced every so often because it gets old and weak, which could cause the sigluak to collapse.
One of the stories Ben told me that he would never forget was when he was about 12 years old. He was at our camp Sisualik in the spring with his dad and uncles and they were planning to go back to Kotzebue before the ice broke up. He told his dad he was going to stay, and after talking amongst his brothers in Inupiaq (which Ben could not understand), his dad agreed. Ben would stay in Sisualik by himself until all the ice from the Kotzebue Sound had cleared out. His nearest neighbors were Kutvak and Bob and Carrie Uhl, which were at their camps miles away.
“I felt like I was the only one on the planet because there was just no one there.” He explained. He used a net for catching fish and made dry fish. That whole time he lived off of fish, ducks, and pancakes, he said. He didn’t know if he could make it the whole time by himself but once his dad and uncles were gone, he had no choice. He did not have a radio with him so really the only sound he heard was the tundra bustling in the wind.
It was quiet. At only 12 years old he had to hunt for his food and chop wood for himself and haul water from the well. He was there from May until the end of June, when the ice finally went away and his parents came with a boat. By the time his parents arrived, he had no more ammunition left for his gun. Once he saw his parents again he felt like a man; he had endured spring break up all by his lonesome. “It was one of the coolest experiences I had, I proved to my dad that he could count on me.”
His dad would always take him out hunting. They would travel from Sisualik to Katyurak (which is along the coast about 8 miles northwest of Sisualik) in the spring and set up a tent in the same area that our cabins are at now. Of course, this was before they were built – it was just the wide-open tundra and ocean with no permanent structures.
“Spring wasn’t a time to play because it was time to gather before the migration passed.” Ben said.
They would pack up everything they needed – sleeping gear, grub, a stove – and set up a tent on the beach. From there they would go out on the ice and hunt ugruk, which is bearded seal. Katyurak was his always his dad’s favorite place.
“We needed Katyurak,” Ben said. “We don’t have to go far for food – seal, ducks, caribou. They would always come to you.” It was a prime spot near all the animals’ migration paths. “You could survive if all you had was a tent.” He said. We are fortunate to have Katyurak as a permanent family campsite today.
In the spring it was hard to pick and choose what to hunt because all the animals were passing through. It is the migration season so it is very busy. After the seals pass, the belugas come through. All the while numerous types of birds are flying by.
Ben recalled hunting beluga with his dad. They would get in the boat, positioned with his dad at the front and Ben in back as the driver. His dad would use hand signals to indicate whether to slow down or speed up, or turn right or left. Ben never looked at the beluga, his eyes stayed only on his dad. “If I took my eyes away, we could lose the hunt.” It would feel so great to bring home beluga and Ben was proud to be a part of the hunt and success that brought the whole family joy and food for the winter.
As time went by and more and more modern technologies were introduced to them, Ben told me that his dad traded the dog team for a snow machine (snow mobile). When the snow machine broke down it was sad because he had no dogs to use and no way of fixing it, so he saw the whole trade as a bad deal. “It was a lot of work to make dog food to feed the dogs. You have to gather it all summer long to feed the dogs in the winter.” Ben said. They would usually feed them salmon and sii fish.
Speaking of sii fish reminded Ben of the nets they used to put out under the ice. “You have to have slack, if it’s too tight the net will stick to the ice and freeze and you will lose your net along with the entire catch.” Ben recalled a time when he was in charge of checking the net and he lost it all because he didn’t give it slack. He said it felt “like I lost a snow machine or something,” it was so devastating. But he said it was a learning experience.
Once Ben got a little older, maybe about 16 years old, he bought a one-way ticket to Washington. He was inspired by National Geographic to explore the world and what was out there. “It was exactly like it was in the magazine,” he recalled. He wanted the adventure, but he always thought his dad must have been disappointed in him. “He took me out hunting all the time and put all that effort into teaching me. And I’m not using the skills he taught me.” But he said each time he did come back home he would go straight to Sisualik. He loved being in the wide-open tundra.
We talked about games he used to play growing up. They would play a game similar to baseball on the ice called “Norwegian”, kick the can, and foot races were also popular. He told me of a specific footrace that they did in Sisualik in the fall where the loser would have to walk back to the lagoon in the pitch-black night to get an object like a ball to prove that he made it. He explained that he always took his shoes off to get the most traction so he would not lose because it would be a scary walk, and if you chickened out your friends wouldn’t ever let you forget.
Another thing we talked about was squirrel hunting. Squirrels used to be harvested and eaten; Ben described the meat to be tender. His favorite way to prepare it was with gravy with rice. It made me want to try it out because I didn’t know they used to eat squirrels until he told me during our interview. He said he would trade squirrels for money to by ammunition or trade for ammunition itself to hunt more animals. The older women would use the squirrel pelts to make parkies.
We talked more about our camps and I asked Ben about hunting because that is something I am interested in learning more about and become better at personally. He gave me several pointers including to site my gun at target practice before going out hunting, because if I missed that first shot it would scare the animal away and I might not get another chance.
I asked what is important to teach younger generations so that our traditional knowledge is not lost, to which Ben answered “You have to participate. Participate in the values, in cutting the fish, gathering and storing the foods. Learn the seasons when the game is available. Most people know the berry seasons but it helps to know the migration times of year.” He mentioned, “Treat the place (land, campsites) well and they will treat you well. “If you participate, you will feel like you belong.” He said.
These days we are fortunate enough to still have our campsites of Sisualik and Katyurak. Ben mentioned how when we go to camp today, we take every thing we need, even things like chicken or bacon, when it isn’t really necessary. The land can provide all the food we need to survive. If we didn’t take the food we would be forced to participate in our traditional ways of hunting and gathering, and everyone would have to participate. We do not appreciate our campsites as much as they should be acknowledged and utilized. “We should pass it on to the next generations to use as a place to hunt and gather and also as a place to go to correct yourself.” Ben said. He explained that if you’re stressed out and need a place to get away, Sisualik or Katyurak is the best place to go. They make you feel good just by being there. “It’s like a person – you miss it. It’s good to be together again, and you’re happy to see it every time.”
In Memory of Benjamin Chuck Iñuuraq Wilson.
September 27, 1958 - August 28, 2016