A couple days later, I borrowed a four-wheeler and followed a hunter east out of Savoonga. We cut across roadless, trackless tundra, going around racks of abandoned reindeer skulls, and in and out of grass gullies. A storm from the Arctic was blowing in, steel-gray clouds and pale mist swirling like ghosts across the eerie expanse. When we neared shore, mist whipped off the sea, wetting our faces, soaking our outer layers. Our fat tires crunched over generations of whalebones and butchering camps. Several miles out on a cape, we stopped. Wearing a colorful wool cap and greasy Carhartt coveralls, the hunter threw a shovel over his shoulder. We walked together through blowing fog onto a mound of tundra-gnurls and pits. It was an ancient Yup'ik village where nobody lived anymore, and it was honeycombed with dig-holes. The hunter climbed down into one.
He had told me that sometimes he hunts seal, and sometimes walrus. There are seasons for salmon and seasons for murre eggs. On a scant, windswept island like this, you take what you can get. Now, he said, was the season for artifacts.
Permafrost had loosened its grip enough for him to push a shovel into the ground. He'd been digging here, he said, most of his life. His current pit was a little over waist-deep, with water collecting at the bottom where he dug out heaping shovelfuls of muck, seeking a prehistoric harpoon tip or a chunk of fossilized walrus tusk, something worth selling. The site was surrounded by spoil piles of countless walrus skulls and bits of artifacts useless on the market. I picked up a beveled whale rib and poked mud out through holes drilled into the bone. It was a sled runner, I saw, and the holes were where it had been laced under a footboard. St. Lawrence Island is a Native corporation, not an Indian reservation. Under U.S. law, Siberian Yup'iks have the legal freedom to do whatever they want with what they have on their land, even if what they find is thousands of years old. Then again, they were here a thousand years before U.S. law ever existed.
Although some of the villagers reject the practice, many Yup'ik hunters rely on harvesting artifacts in today's cash economy. The ancestors have helped them, they say. A rare cache that includes scrimshawed ivory, or maybe a set of beautifully carved snow goggles, can fetch hundreds of thousands of dollars on the antiquities market. But you can also sell broken carved ivory tips and parts of useless, ancient halibut hooks for $5 or $10. It all adds up, if you're persistent.
The hunter told me I could take a souvenir: anything I found on the surface. Even though I was captivated by the pieces of drilled or carved bone scattered around us, I couldn't do it. None of it was mine. I wasn't even sure how I felt about the hunter's ethics, but it wasn't my place to speak. I crouched and thumbed one of the ice-scrapers out of the ground. Five hundred years old, or maybe a thousand? Whatever the case, it was far beyond the scope of my horizon.
What artifacts do I have? My grandmother's wedding ring from Big Bend country in West Texas; a box of arrowheads from my great-grandfather in southern New Mexico? Even those were beyond my scope; I had moved too many times. What should I say when I was asked where I was from? Where I was born, maybe? My most recent home? The place I get my mail?
Here on this mist-driven mound, I felt a long way from ever being native. My ancestry lacked roots: a veneer of cities and trash dumps, maybe a pile of rusted cans, and –– if you looked back far enough –– a handful of sickly Pilgrim villages, now archaeological sites on the Northeast Coast. I had nothing like this in the ground beneath my feet, no ancient bone tools or skulls of animals eaten by my ancestors.
There are older people than Yup'ik, though. You can't see them anymore, but they lived here, too. At the height of the last Ice Age 20,000 years ago, sea levels were down more than 300 feet and a land bridge connected Siberia to Alaska, back when St. Lawrence Island was not an island, but a high point in a landscape of seemingly endless steppe roamed by mammoths.
This is where the first people are thought to have crossed into North America. They lived in what is now called Beringia, the subcontinent that connected Asia to North America. Anatomically, they were identical to modern people. Most would have had northern-Asian facial features and copper-brown skin. They used stone tools, hunted, fished, and gathered plants or eggs, whatever they could find in this hungry, wild country.
Years before I visited St. Lawrence Island, I traveled the rim of the Arctic Circle across Yukon Territory and Alaska. A college buddy and I were running a thousand miles of river through rumpled mountains and flats. We were traveling through what remains of Eastern Beringia, part of this lost subcontinent that stretches from northwest Canada across Alaska to the sea. The region's ecology has changed relatively little over tens of thousands of years; the landscape is considered an Ice Age relic.
Recent graduates of the University of Colorado, out to see the world on a grand adventure, the two of us had a 17-foot canoe and more leathery, home-dried fruit than anyone should ever consume. The Yukon River carried us north through spindles of black spruce clustered around open plains of tundra, sweeping us into a land utterly unlike anything we knew. With our sunglasses, mosquito nets and rich Arctic-sun tans, we felt like Lewis and Clark, our paddles gliding as green-backed mountains rose ahead of us, then fell to our backs.