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(Many Paths)
An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America
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Growing Up and Getting by in the Land of the Nine-Month Winter
by Dwight Garner - The New York Times

Among the traditional delicacies of the native Inupiaq people in Alaska is something called utniq — pickled walrus flipper. It’s not a simple thing to prepare.

You need to first coat the flippers with the animal’s blubber. Then you wrap them in the walrus’s own skin, turned inside out. This package is stored in a cool, dry place for as long as a year. Meanwhile, the fermenting process works its strange magic.

The results are said to be pungently delicious — in fact, some would-be David Chang is probably working on a restaurant-grade version right now. The problem with pickled walrus flipper is that, if it is not prepared very carefully, it can become rife with botulism.

In William L. Iggiagruk Hensley’s often harrowing new memoir, “Fifty Miles From Tomorrow,” set in the far northern Kotzebue Sound region of Alaska, he recounts an evening in the late-1940s — the author was 6 at the time — when he and his adopted family sat down to a meal of utniq that had, unbeknownst to them, gone very bad. Before long, his adoptive father and pregnant stepsister had died. One stepbrother, in a hallucinatory daze, survived by paddling a small boat 10 miles to the nearest town.

For many memoirists, this kind of catastrophic event would be enough to hang an entire book upon. Mr. Hensley — many Inupiaq received their surname from visiting missionaries; Mr. Hensley was partly named after his maternal grandfather — and his adoptive family, Alaska Natives, lived along the Bering Sea, 29 miles within the Arctic Circle. They lived in tarpaper or sod houses and survived on what they could fish, hunt or grow in the region’s abbreviated summertime. It would be decades before the family or its neighbors had electricity, telephones, indoor toilets or medical care. Every pair of hands was vital.

Yet in “Fifty Miles From Tomorrow” these deaths take up only a few short paragraphs. Mr. Hensley has written a book that is so full of incident, yet so stoic, that life — and narrative — simply marches on.

Mr. Hensley’s account of what it’s like to grow up in the far north, 50 miles from the International Date Line, is rarely less than gripping. He did not know his father, a Russian-born fur trader, and his Alaska Native mother gave him up to his uncle’s seminomadic family when he was 2 or 3. “I think of those early years of my life as the twilight of the Stone Age,” he writes. The family was “always engaged in inuuniaq, the serious business of staying alive.”

“Fifty Miles From Tomorrow” can read like a sturdy primer on cold-weather survival. Mr. Hensley writes observantly about the killing and cleaning of seals, about constructing sod houses, about making toys from the talons of an owl and brooms from its wings, and about the intricacies of making coffee each morning by first chopping chunks of ice to make water.

Winters in this part of Alaska are nine months long, and for much of that time the sun is merely a weak blur on the horizon. Mr. Hensley recalls times when the temperature would not rise above negative-40 degrees Fahrenheit for weeks at a time. Physical labor was impossible: “If you worked up a sweat in the frigid cold, you’d begin to freeze the moment your body started to cool.”

It was a difficult life, Mr. Hensley writes, and “to those from the outside world, we might have seemed destitute.” But he makes it clear that his childhood was a good deal of fun as well. In the spring, he says, “we could not resist playing mauligauraq. Mauliq means to accidentally fall through the ice.” I guess you had to be there.

The tone of “Fifty Miles From Tomorrow” abruptly changes when Mr. Hensley leaves Alaska for Tennessee, after a visiting Baptist missionary arranges for him to attend a religious academy. By all accounts, he was a success there — he became the co-captain of his school’s football team, dated cute girls (including Rita Coolidge’s sister) and was voted class president.

But it was a bittersweet time, he writes. Mr. Hensley was not sure where he fit in the South of the 1950s. On Southern buses, he writes, “I sat neither in front with the white people nor in the back with the black people. I always chose a seat right in the middle.”

Mr. Hensley goes on to attend George Washington University in Washington during the early-1960s, the beginning of the era of identity politics, and becomes deeply engaged with what is happening back home in Alaska. When Alaska became a fledgling state in 1959, he realized, his people were at risk of losing their land as tribal councils lost political control to new city councils. Many Alaska Natives had never bothered to acquire deeds to their property.

He becomes politicized — “I was an angry young man,” he writes — and at the precocious age of 25 is elected to the Alaska Legislature, where he becomes an influential voice on Alaska Native issues. After years of his tireless lobbying, the United States government in 1971 set aside 44 million acres and nearly $1 billion for native people in Alaska. Mr. Hensley’s accounts of his victorious political battles, however, as important as they were, can’t compete with his more vivid tales of growing up in Alaska.

An aura of sadness envelops the book’s second half. While Mr. Hensley was working “like a whirling dervish” on various political fronts, his personal life was a shambles. We read almost nothing about his first wife, or about his current wife and children. “I had been a failure,” he writes, “as a husband and father.” Mr. Hensley’s memoir — instructive, gripping and perhaps too flinty — skims over tragic events as if they were black ice.

Kotzebue Sound, Alaska map
Kotzebue Sound, Alaska map
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