qutuq irelan

nome | king island

Irelan outside his home on Nome's East End.

Irelan outside his home on Nome's East End.

“The first nalaukmiut [white person] boat that went there [to King Island] ... Marie Saclamana just recently passed away, and she told me about [how the outsiders] got there, and the nalaukmiut sailors gave the [King Islanders] a piece of pilot bread. And he, [Marie's relative], didn’t know what to do with it. So he starts throwing them all like frisbees! And they’re like, 'Augh! What are you doing, what are you doing?? That’s food!' That was a King Island story about a first encounter."


Hunting polar bears

My grandpa had prized dogs that would chase down a polar bear, and it would give the hunters time to catch up and shoot the bear. Before that, they would use bow and arrows, spears and knives. The dogs were key parts in getting the bear tired. The day my Uncle Bobby was born, my grandpa got three polar bears in one day. That was a big step for King Islanders, getting your first walrus, your first polar bear. It was like a big festival, the Polar Bear Dance they would do. They'd all eat it together, and include stories of the hunt into their song. [There are] lots of recorded polar bear songs. [During] the whole dance after, they would put the skull up, they would fill a certain part up with water, and it would drip. They had to keep dancing until the water stopped dripping. That could be days, could be one night—could be a few hours—could be days. In the summer, [when they came to the mainland], they would leave the dogs on the island to fend for themselves, eating birds for the summer. If you went back and your dog was gone, your dog was gone. These dogs are pretty wild still, at the same time. Capable animals. Had to be smart. Well-trained polar bear dogs would be something someone would want there. 

before outsiders came to alaska...

The way people hunted was different. They didn’t have firearms, so it was harpooning. The men had slingshots. Hunting birds with a pole—that’s a fun sport! It’s one of the purest things you can do instead of using a gun and just shooting. When I was in Diomede they got me into it. You got a hoop with a net on it. You just sit there and catch birds out of the sky. When I grew up, if we caught a bird and it was still alive, you wring it’s neck around. They showed me a way that kills it faster. You go and find its heart, and disconnect its heart, and then it’s pretty instant. But that was a good learning experience when I was working and hunting with the men there. The hardest part is getting your first bird. After you get the first one, they have what's called a manaun line. Made of walrus hide. You tie it on a rock, and you tie it on the nostrils of the bird. You don’t kill that first bird. It sits there just continually flapping. And what that does is attract all the other birds so they come lower, slower, and closer. Then you can get them. You can have up to 6-7 birds on your manaun line. I know a guy he had three freezers full of birds. So he would get 7, 800 birds--he'd tell me, "I'm at 800 today!" And then, “Now I’m at 852!” ... You’re catching them with a net. There’s no bang. There’s no shot going off. It’s pretty quiet actually. All you can hear is the birds. 

moving from king island to nome

My grandma didn’t really like talking about when they moved, when people started moving. I remember she told me about the theater. Eskimos on one side, and then the white people on the other side--that kind of thing. That was here in town, here in Nome.  It was a kind of segregation, exactly. I’m not sure when it ended. When she was a kid, maybe the 30s or 40s? Long time ago. My grandma wasn’t too bothered by it. She told me that when they started wearing clean clothes and taking baths, nobody cared after [about segregating]. They would go around and ask Eskimos how often they take a bath. Their clothes were always dirty, smelled like seal, Eskimo food. That’s a real intense smell for people that aren’t around it. Even for me. We live in a house now. All our stuff is in a freezer. I know when someone walks in and they’ve been eating Eskimo food. You can tell. Like that sushi--that fishy sealife smell. 

contemporary inupiaq culture

There’s a whole generation where, yeah, it was pretty bad for them. Like going to school and everything. They were taught that it wasn’t good enough, pretty much. Their culture wasn’t good enough. We lost a lot there. [Today,] there are some people who don’t even acknowledge [their heritage] and don’t even care. It’s like German immigrants or Scottish immigrants. Are they going to like that? Or are they just going to be "North American people," and not really care about it? If you want it, it’s there though. That’s what's good. It’s always there, if you want to go back to it. There’s people holding the torch still. But there’s a lot of it that’s gone, just because people grow, we move on, things change. ... [I don't feel like I want to try to be a cultural leader,] not anymore. For a while, if someone asked me a question, like you guys doing this--or if I see some relative or another Ukivokmiut, King Islander, start complaining about running, I’d say, "People are hunting on the moving ice. Why are you being such a sissy? Let’s go. Get going!" I’ll say something like that to them, and they’ll kind of look at me. And they’ll either get up and keep going, or go home. ... There’s people that are doing really good about going back to the dancing, that didn’t really do it growing up. 


A boat ride away

I have moved. I've travelled a lot. I’ve been a lot of places. I went to Germany. I went to Amsterdam, parts of Canada. And, you know, my dad, when we were growing up, we went to almost all of the states. Traveling, vacation, yeah. I’m not going anywhere anytime soon. I like Nome. It’s the closest to King Island that has running water and everything. I like being a boat’s ride away from there. … Hunting, fishing, talking to elders. … I would have to travel too far to get what I like to eat. Caribou, I’m hooked on that!