Mary, the Nunamiut


eskimoI met Mary when I worked on the pipeline, north of the Brooks Range in Alaska.  She had grown up in a small village, but had come to the city to go to community college. She never explained how that led her to sell bone and ivory carvings.  Her combination of friendliness and reserve fascinated me, when I met her in the Fairbanks library.

On the pipeline, we worked 12-hour days for ten days in a row, and then flew back to Fairbanks for a week or R & R. I began spending my weeks off with Mary.  We would go hunting together – or poaching, rather, since I had no license.  “Nunamiut men hunt,” she told me.  “Not the women.  But I am women’s lib.”

One day in September, we were hunting in the Northern foothills of the Brooks Range.  The tundra glowed dull red in the arctic sun as we crossed a ridge separating two valleys.  As we peered over the ridge, it looked like the whole valley was moving.  It was the Western Arctic Caribou herd, heading south for the winter, 50,000 strong.  We silently watched for two hours as they passed.  Finally, Mary said, “Like a dream, or like the dream of a dream.  Islands of smoke.”

We hiked and hunted through the summer and into the fall.  Whenever we came to a new vantage point, or over a pass, Mary would put her finger to her lips to hush me.  “Don’t talk,” she said.  “Listen.”  She thought it was a sign of respect for the land to listen first, and speak only later.

Sometimes Mary would tell me stories, or riddles.  “A thousand stars falling upwards?” she asked.  “Salmon swimming upstream.”

Mary’s parents were Westernized Christians (hence the name).  But Mary loved the older Nunamiut traditions.

She knew all the old stories.  “What exactly do the Nunamiut believe?” I asked.

“We don’t believe,” she said.  “We fear.”

When my job on the pipeline ended, I searched for Mary to say goodbye.  I found her sitting on a rock.  She had shot a wolf, and was trimming the hood of her winter parka with its fur.

“Goodbye, Mary,” I said.

“Goodbye, Knox.  Remember, when you come to a new place, listen.”

I do remember.  And I try to listen.  Sometimes, I even manage it — when I’m not too busy talking.

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