‘The way we were raised’: The story of an Inupiaq elder

As the ice thaws and new technology pervades, an Alaska Native elder finds life quickly changing in his Arctic town.

Story of an Inupiaq elder
[Illustration by Jawahir Al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]

Ernest Norton does not hunt like he used to.

He is 76 years old and a village elder, a title of respect given to older members of Native communities.


He lives in Kotzebue, a coastal town 40km above the Arctic Circle. Located at the confluence of three major rivers that feed into the frigid Chukchi Sea, the area has long been a regional hub for Inupiat people, a subset of Alaska Natives. Currently, more than 73 percent of its roughly 3,300 residents are Native.

As in most remote Alaskan communities, the cost of living in Kotzebue is high; groceries are brought in by plane or barge from Anchorage – a city 880km away – and can cost more than twice as much as they do in urban areas.

Residents hunt and fish for subsistence. From the sea, they harvest bearded seal, sheefish and salmon. On the sparse tundra, they hunt caribou and moose, and pick berries and wild greens.

Over his lifetime, Ernest has seen Kotzebue’s population grow and its climate warm.

More vessels pass through nearby waters as Arctic shipping routes open up, warmer temperatures have altered animal migration patterns and record-low ice coverage has made hunting on the sea more dangerous.

When commercial fishing prices dropped too low for him to make a living, Ernest took up a job with the tribal government, a federally recognised governing body overseeing public services and cultural programmes, as their transportation director.

Now, he can buy supplies or trade for the wild foods he wants, but he still teaches his sons to hunt.

His role as an elder is to pass down Inupiaq values, but as the sea ice thaws and new technology becomes pervasive, Ernest worries about how quickly life is changing for younger generations.


Growing up, Ernest loved going out to the country.

“My dad was a good hunter,” he says. “My favourite times were just going out with him to hunt.”

In the winter and springtime, they would look for seal. The clouds helped them read ice conditions; a dark spot on their surface signified open water where the ice would otherwise reflect light.

'My favourite times were just going out with him to hunt' [Illustration by Jawahir Al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]
‘My favourite times were just going out with him to hunt’ [Illustration by Jawahir Al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]

During the winter his dad used a dog team, eight to 12 Alaskan huskies harnessed to a sled, to travel out over the ice in search of leads, or fracture lines of open water between ice coverage. If he was lucky, he could shoot a seal on the ice. Usually though, he would shoot one in the water and paddle out in his kayak to retrieve it.

Once he brought the seal home, his mum would prepare the skin to makes “mukluks”, soft animal skin boots, as well as sealskin bags, called “pokes”, for holding seal oil or berries. The meat they would cook or eat raw, or share with relatives and friends. They would also dry meat and store it for the year in pokes filled with seal oil.

‘The only mistake you make is your last’

For Ernest, learning how to navigate the ocean, including guiding a boat through kilometres of broken ice, is important.

“You have to know what you are doing,” he says. “Otherwise, if you go out there you might make a mistake and … the only one you make is your last one.”

If a hunter misjudges, the ice can break off and carry him out to sea; chances are he will never be seen again. If the opposite occurs, and winds push the ice towards shore, the pileup can crush entire crews.

“You can be a world track runner but you can’t run faster than the ice breaking when it’s bad out there,” he says. “It comes like a bulldozer and destroys everything around it, even the hunter.”

If the lead closes while a person is offshore, it is “like a door shutting”; they can’t get home.

'If you go out there you might make a mistake and … the only one you make is your last one' [Illustration by Jawahir Al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]
‘If you go out there you might make a mistake and … the only one you make is your last one’ [Illustration by Jawahir Al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]

Ernest once had a close call. As a teenager, he and a friend went hunting on the Noatak River. After three days they started back home, but their way was blocked.

“The ice … was going out and we got stuck out there for a couple weeks,” he says. “We were right across from our community but we couldn’t get back home.”

They ate the game they caught on their hunting trip and would wave to their relatives across the ice. There was another group stranded with them, but they were more experienced and could navigate the leads more quickly, while the teens had to wait for easier passage. “I guess we wanted the adventure, too,” he says with a laugh.

The Inupiaq way

Some of Ernest’s earliest memories are of travelling to a spring camp to spend time in the country and hunt for game.

When the days lengthened and the weather began to warm, his father would pack up the family and they would take their dog team to a 200-acre (about 81 hectares) area along the Noatak River for the season.

“We would be living off the land, like waterfowl hunting and other little animal hunting,” he says. The fur trade was lucrative at the time, so they would also hunt mink, otter, muskrat and squirrel.

His family would spend time with other campers in the area, including relatives from their village.

When you share that first one, man, it takes that stinginess out of your heart.

by Ernest Norton

When Ernest and his siblings began to hunt for themselves, Ernest caught his first caribou at age 15, their family was proud of what they brought back, no matter how small. Following tradition, they gave away their first catch to family and friends, leaving none for themselves.

“After that, then, everything you bring home is yours. The fur is yours, the tail is yours, the feet are yours,” he says. “When it’s yours … you want to have that feeling again so you give it away again.”

It is the Inupiaq way. “When you share that first one, man, it takes that stinginess out of your heart.”

‘Every time I opened my mouth it was in Inupiaq’

Before Ernest entered a classroom at age six, he only knew his native language, Inupiaq.

He began first grade at a schoolhouse in Kotzebue, which was run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs as part of a federal system that by 1931 oversaw schooling for the majority of rural Alaskan Native children. The classroom held rows of metal desks and about 20 students of different grade levels.

Following a historical precedent for assimilating Native children, the school required that Ernest only speak English, despite him not knowing any.

“Every time I opened my mouth, it was in Inupiaq and I got punished for it. Sometimes, I would be [sent] out to the storm shed,” he says. “That hurt me so bad. I wanted to be with my buddies, but I couldn’t. So, I tried very hard to learn English.”

'I wanted to be with my buddies, but I couldn't. So, I tried very hard to learn English' [Illustration by Jawahir Al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]
‘I wanted to be with my buddies, but I couldn’t. So, I tried very hard to learn English’ [Illustration by Jawahir Al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]

In a year, he began speaking English, and it took him two or three to learn how to read it.

“That scarred my … psyche for Inupiaq,” he says.

Nowadays, he has to practise Inupiaq words in his head before he speaks them. “I can speak it real fluent in my mind, but I can’t speak it through my mouth.”

Ernest was also part of a generation of Native children that left their homes for boarding school before a legal ruling in 1976 required mandatory high schools in rural communities. The school only ran up to the 8th grade, so he attended all four years of high school in Sitka, a city 1,770km away.

His father pushed him to attend the school. He regrets leaving his village but he knows it prepared him for adulthood – and that he, in turn, can prepare his children.

I was an Inupiaq speaker and the system kind of alienated me and nowadays there are only a few kids who want to try to speak Inupiaq, and most of them don't.

by Ernest Norton

His five children, two of whom are adopted, range in age from 15 to 38. He teaches them how to live off the land while also supporting them in the classroom. Sometimes, he teaches them Inupiaq – when they ask. But he knows that coursework, standardised tests and college applications will remain in English.

“What I don’t want them to do is neglect the school system requirements. They need to get good grades, to go to college.”

Ernest sees the town’s current efforts to revive Inupiaq, the tribal government offers immersive language programmes to children between three and eight years old, as a reversal of his childhood.

“I was an Inupiaq speaker and the system kind of alienated me and nowadays, there are only a few kids who want to try to speak Inupiaq, and most of them don’t.”

“I think it’s good that they are trying to keep it alive but it’s kind of difficult because if a kid starts talking in Inupiaq, you know how kids are, they will treat him different.”

Strange weather

On a recent hunting trip, Ernest’s son came up to him across the tundra to say he shot a beaver. Ernest was surprised; growing up, he remembers the closest beaver dams were roughly 200 miles (320km) southeast of their area. Now, there were beavers directly outside of town, as warming temperatures and thawing permafrost likely make the Arctic more inhabitable for them.

He also worries about the ice as the climate gets milder, Alaska has warmed at a rate twice as fast as the global average and winter temperatures increased 3.3 degrees Celcius over 60 years, and the ice gets more dangerous to tread.


“By the time you got out in the ocean, it [used to be] three and a half feet thick, and now it’s just honeycomb,” he says. “You can’t walk on it.”

“It’s a new trick that you have to learn to hunt in that kind of environment.”

Residents typically exchange notes on climate conditions before going out, and elders pass down their knowledge. But with the changing weather, some lessons simply do not apply any more.

“When you go up and [conditions are] different then, boy, you are kind of perplexed.”

Despite sporadic weather and migration changes, the community still lives off of its usual game, including caribou, waterfowl, salmon and seal.

“One thing about the Inupiat … is [they can] adapt to change … in a second,” he says.

‘When someone needs help’

Growing up, Ernest was responsible for taking care of his family’s 25 dogs. He cooked for them and refilled their water up to four times a day. He had to trek a quarter of a mile (0.4km) to get fresh water and bring it back, one bucket at a time, over multiple trips.

When they went to hunt seal, they would pack for a two-day trip and take their dog team to search for solid ice and get their catch.

Now, Ernest sees everything happening more quickly. Residents can survey the ice on their computers, drive snow machines out to the hunting spot and be back with seal in hours. In a day or two, a family can have a full stock of caribou meat for the season.

But Ernest is concerned about what happens when there is more leisure time.

He worries about having to motivate his son to go hunting. He worries about video games, which use guns for violence instead of subsistence. He worries about televised football games that keep people at home when there are tasks to do around the community.

“That kind of a thing I don’t like, having that [technology] available when someone needs help.”

'One thing about the Inupiat … is [they can] adapt to change … in a second' [Illustration by Jawahir Al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]
‘One thing about the Inupiat … is [they can] adapt to change … in a second’ [Illustration by Jawahir Al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]

He remembers that, during his childhood, when the community needed to dig a grave – a daunting task given the area’s hard permafrost – a large group of men would come out to help with pickaxes and shovels. The same task done today with jackhammers may take the same amount of time, because there are fewer people showing up to help.

There can also be smaller turnouts for berry-picking or fish-cleaning. “Eventually, you get the thing done, but it kind of hampers the idea of being with family,” he says.

Rules to live by

There were a handful of rules Ernest was taught to live by growing up: do not touch someone else’s fish net; do not touch their animal traps; do not touch their driftwood pile; do not touch their gun.

“If anything happens to that family because they couldn’t get fish to eat, or they couldn’t shoot a caribou with their gun, or they couldn’t keep their family warm, then they die. And that’s true when you take that stuff that they need to survive. That’s murder, so to speak. You are responsible for what happens to them.”

Ernest teaches his son to take care of guns, to not point them at people, and to respect them as tools for gathering food. His family also makes sure to do subsistence activities together. But he worries that other families do not teach these values.

“There are parents that are too busy doing other things, like taking drugs or drinking. They are not taking care of their family.”

He says it’s a concern for elders – except for the times when it is not. He thinks the younger generations will always be capable of living off the land and are good at balancing the demands of formal schooling with subsistence life.

'Our students nowadays are really adaptable. They find a thing that they want to go into and they pursue it' [Illustration by Jawahir Al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]
‘Our students nowadays are really adaptable. They find a thing that they want to go into and they pursue it’ [Illustration by Jawahir Al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]

“There are a lot more good people than there are people like that. More people not watching TV, more students being straight-A students. There are several … that are valedictorians.”

Students go to universiy or attend technical schools to become health workers, carpenters, electricians or machine operators. One of Ernest’s daughters is studying to be a video game developer at a university in Washington state. Another is attending an Ivy League school.

Others will support themselves, families or community members by subsistence hunting and fishing. “In a way that’s making a living. You can live out here if you have nothing else.”

“Our students nowadays are really adaptable. They find a thing that they want to go into and they pursue it. They’ll do it.”

The whale

For years, one of Ernest’s friends from Point Hope, an Inupiaq community located 240km north of Kotzebue, tried to convince him to join a whale hunt.

When he finally went, the spectacle amazed him. A hunting party with dozens of sealskin boats full of crews paddled looking for bowhead whales. The steers for the boats navigated the ice and tracked the movements of the whales. Harpooners hefted 25-pound (11kg) weapons, which require careful judgment to strike a whale within a range of 10 feet (three metres).

It's tradition that can't be broken, otherwise, the system will fail

by Ernest Norton

Women on the shore worked around the clock keeping the camp areas clean and cooking food for the hunters. When a whale was struck, crowds thronged together to lift the whale on pulleys, inch-by-inch, onto the ice. Experienced men measured and butchered the whale with long knives.

“That was so awesome to be amongst those people … It was so intense up there,” he says.

The captain and first boat to strike the whale gets the best share. This includes the tender belt of “muktuk”, whale skin and blubber, around the middle of the whale. “When you put that in your mouth, it’s like butter, it melts in your mouth,” Ernest says.

The second boat to reach the whale gets a slightly smaller share than the first boat, and so on. The meat is later distributed among the community.

‘Everyone is taken care of’

One year, Ernest’s boat was first to the whale, and he offered some of his own meat to the boat with the smallest share. The boat head refused, saying he could not take from other people. “It’s tradition that can’t be broken, otherwise, the system will fail,” Ernest says. “You won’t have a system that is successful over the centuries.”


The ice is several feet thinner now than when Ernest was last out whale hunting in the 1980s. Hunters face greater risk of injury; residents work harder to get the meat ashore; underground food cellars are thawing and harvests are delayed.

Relatives come up to meet each other and share the whale. Others will ship muktuk to family across the state and relatives elsewhere.

“The beautiful thing about our culture is that no matter what everyone is taken care of because of our shared attitude. It trickles down. And when you ask people are so giving.”

“We take care of everybody that is brought to us … That’s how we were raised.”

Source: Al Jazeera