Vagabond writer Craig Childs on 20,000 years of wanderlust

by Craig Childs

Savoonga is the place to be on the Fourth of July. The village is a cluster of roofs on the north side of St. Lawrence Island, a treeless hump of capes and dormant volcanoes rising out of the Bering Sea, battered by Arctic weather. The Native Yup'iks here celebrate the holiday with more gusto than people in most small Western towns. On that clear and sunny morning, folding chairs were placed in front of the two-story plywood town hall. People of all ages came out of their small, boxy government houses, some walking in family groups, others arriving on four-wheelers from the other side of the village. They greeted each other with a spritely, "Happy Fourth of the July!"

St. Lawrence Island is Alaskan, though far out of view of the American mainland and barely within sight of the mountainous Siberian coast. Villagers told me they celebrated the Fourth because it was better than being Russian. Savoonga holds foot races that day, and bike races, and hot dogs are served on paper plates with bags of Doritos and a little stack of cookies for dessert.

Out came the old, red fire truck, siren wailing in celebration. A PA system announced the raffle winners' numbers. I listened for my own, but it was hard to tell the difference between English and the Siberian Yup'ik tongue spoken on this island. Besides, I didn't want to hear my number called; I was a stranger in this subsistence village, and I dreaded the embarrassment of having to get up in front of everyone to claim a prize.

I was here for other reasons. I had come with questions about the Yup'ik sense of place. This sea-hunting culture has survived on these desolate sub-Arctic capes for 2,000 years, ever since its Siberian Eskimo ancestors first crossed the Bering Strait. Home freezers are stocked with walrus and seal. Even though they also rely on canned meat, deep-fried pork rinds and Pop Tarts from the cavernous village store, people still go out in small aluminum skiffs and harpoon the occasional whale by hand.

You don't come to visit empty-handed, according to scientists who'd worked here, so I'd brought gifts: fresh fruit, bags of vacuum-packed coffee, Celestial Seasonings blueberry tea as a special request. When I arrived by plane on their gravel strip several days earlier, handshakes welcomed me, and if I stayed in one place for too long, women brought me fresh baked bread or cookies wrapped in foil. Conversations flourished around kitchen tables and over hot coffee in front of woodstoves.

A vagabond myself, I had come to Savoonga hoping to learn what it means to belong to one spot on the map, to say that this place is your home and always has been. Many described how the island is changing. They spoke from a perspective of generations: Seasonal weather patterns shifting, new pelagic fish species and migratory birds appearing that are unlike anything ever seen in their history. They saw the world in longer timeframes than I was used to, and they were oddly unfazed by the idea of climate change, as if they already knew that the only thing one could do on an island this remote was adapt to whatever came next.

I wondered what it would be like to know an island that well, to remember it through stories that recede over a horizon of centuries ––  not just what you learned from your folks or in school, but what was remembered and preserved by the land itself.

That evening, I went to the high school gym and sat in packed bleachers while men on the floor struck walrus-gut drums. People left the bleachers and danced. They knew their places, every gesture, every footstep memorized. Toddlers came onto the floor and tried to imitate what they were seeing, while little boys stomped for their grandfathers, and little girls painted the air with their arms for their grandmothers.

A man snatched fur-lined mitts from the floor, tugging them on as he dropped into a boot-stomping promenade. He swung at the air with his mitts in swift, ritualized gestures, using expressions I didn't know. I imagined these same movements repeated generations or centuries or thousands of years ago, danced not in a gym, but out on a gray cobble spit. Women in one line, men in another, they would have scuffed the ground with their steps. Dressed in skins and furs, living on a rock in the cold and wild Bering Sea, they began something that still hasn't ended.

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.

The mouth of the incoming Porcupine River gaped wide among scrawny black spruce. As we passed, we stared along its passage and wondered what was up there, what other worlds we were passing by. We had no idea that 250 miles up the Porcupine is a cluster of high limestone grottos known as the Bluefish Caves. Raised atop a hill, they look across rolling, hummocky country, similar to what this region looked like when the first people reached North America. Inside these caves, human-related deposits start showing up 23,000 years ago, putting one of the oldest pins into the map of the Americas.

We were entering one of North America's great historical crossroads. All around the northern bend of the Yukon and its fat, ox-bowed tributaries, paleontologists have scratched and scrabbled at the riverbanks, discovering rich deposits of what appear to be human-worked mammoth bones. This part of Beringia may have been a massive butchering ground. If this anomalous layer of mammoth bones was created by people, as some believe, then human presence here in Eastern Beringia may go back as far as 40,000 years ago.

Regardless of how many zeroes there are in the number, this is a lot of history to confront when you are a stranger, your generations in North America fewer than you can count on your hands. But I was still in my early 20s, and I had never questioned my ancestry or my right to be here. I was on the Yukon to explore, to feel the shape of the land.

The river opened wide as it passed the Arctic Circle. An anatomizing labyrinth, the Yukon braided until it was 20 miles wide. Backwater channels increased and became a challenge to avoid, some dammed by logjams from spring runoff. Spinning in eddies half a mile wide under a circle of endless sky, we were bedazzled, the sun looping around us like a slow hula-hoop.

A couple days into the flats, we saw someone waving from the point of a distant bar. I glassed him from a hundred yards out: He looked Asian, a lonely shirtless figure in cutoffs, his canoe pulled up on the cobbles. We turned ourselves with our paddles and started in his direction.

As we drew near, we saw how excited he was to be found.  A solo paddler, a Japanese guy our age, he grabbed our bow and helped drag us in.

"Little English," he said, wiping the back of his cutoffs as if he didn't know what to do with his hands. My partner, a shirtless Anglo man, asked if he was OK, and in some of the most nonsensical English I'd ever heard, he explained that he was lost. He'd been paddling alone in sloughs for days, climbing logjams only to see erratic driftwood blockades too big to portage alone. He didn't have a map. He hadn't thought you needed one; the river would just carry you.

Why was he here, we asked? Of all places in the world?

"Adventure is here," he said.

We pulled out our neatly folded maps and showed him different ways back to the river's main stem, tracing our fingers around blue-printed bends and the gray scrabble of gravel bars.

We asked how far he planned to go.

"To the waves of the sea," he said.

That was another thousand miles. At least he now grasped how to get back to the central channel so he wouldn't spend the rest of the summer paddling around in a maze. When we pulled away, he could hardly stop waving at us. He receded as the wide horizon turned, and we never saw or heard from him again.

I come from a restless, wandering culture – a generation or two here or there, rarely staying long in any place. As a kid, I moved every year or two or three, crossing the Southwest as the only child of a single mother, as if we were mariners bound for the promised land. The urge to journey to the farthest edges was in my blood, and obviously in the blood of this Japanese man. We reflected the yearning to explore new territory, the instinct that probably lured people across the land bridge in the first place.

A paleontologist who excavated some of the older human occupation sites in the Americas once told me he believed that people originally traveled great distances not merely in search of resources, but out of curiosity, inspired by a sense of adventure. That, he thought, is why the American continents were occupied so soon after the first human beings appeared. Within several thousand years, they had wandered as far south as Patagonia. If they saw an unknown mountain range, they traveled to it. Sooner or later, they would have discovered the mountains had another side, another landscape stretching even farther. Horizon after horizon, generation after generation, they crossed this ground.

A couple days after seeing the Japanese man, we pulled into Stevens Village on river-right. We had no idea what time it was, and, deep in the Arctic summer, no one ever seemed to know when to sleep. We rambled around the small town, past chained-up dogs and people who were outside doing whatever they were doing. Outside the post office, I talked with an Athabaskan firefighter in his 30s. He came from a settlement on a side channel, one we'd seen signs of, unmanned fish wheels turning in the current. He called the place Diné Village.

"Diné?" I repeated, puzzled by the name. The Navajo who live in the dry Southwest also call themselves Diné. It means the People.

"Diné," he said. "You know, the People."

This struck me like thunder. At that point in my life, I hardly knew what Native meant. They were a people whose history I could scarcely grasp. They just lived here; they always had. But I had no idea why they were here, or where they came from, or what was the true difference between one group and another. Suddenly I saw the connection, an Athabaskan migration, an ancient linguistic trail that stretched 2,000 miles down to the Southwest.

Later, I'd learn how language is used to define movements of cultures and ethnicities. When you see the map of a language family, you are seeing ancient patterns of migration, originating from the same mother tongue. The Athabaskan family, also known as the Na-Dene family, stretches from Alaska and western Canada down the Pacific Northwest, and is firmly settled from the Four Corners down to parts of Texas. Trace it back far enough, and you'll end up in central Siberia.

Outside the Stevens Village post office, I felt the land begin to move in my mind. I connected dots I had never noticed before. I began excitedly telling this man about a faraway desert with cliffs the color of blood, a place where people also call themselves Diné.

He looked back at me with a sort of polite smile. He simply said, "Could be."

 

In a northern Arizona Hogan, an old Navajo man sat on a child's school chair in the cold morning air. A fire burned in a rusted steel barrel cut in half. His middle-aged grandson stood off to the side, wearing a denim jacket. My friend and I had come as visitors, seeking permission to trek around the base of a sacred mountain that rose out of the man's backyard. We'd be out there for a couple of weeks, and we'd brought gifts of fresh food and a new coat. Fire crackled as the old singer spoke to us in Navajo, trying rough Spanish every now and then. We understood him mostly through his grandson. The wizened old man chuckled as he spoke to us, half bent over, the skin on his hands wrinkled like crumpled paper bags.

The grandson translated, "He said you should come help him herd sheep instead."

We laughed in return, trying to explain that we were here for the shape of the country, and we had our own ways of travel.

The grandson waved our words away. "He understands. You have permission."

But I had other questions, ones I wasn't sure how to ask.

"Why does he keep corn pollen?" I asked, noting the small leather pouch rubbed smooth in his hand.

The old singer explained that corn pollen is one of the most sacred things a person can carry. My questions continued: When did corn come to the Diné? Before the Athabaskan migration –– before those first arrivals became Navajo and Apache tribes –– corn had been cultivated in this high desert for well over 2,000 years by a different people.

The singer answered me, and the grandson translated, "Corn has always been with the people."

"But when you came here?" I asked. "Do you know when it became part of Diné culture?"

I wasn't trying to appear obtuse, but I didn't understand. There is no corn in the Arctic, which is where his bloodlines, or at least his language, originated.

The grandson translated my question into the notoriously complex and subtle Navajo language. Words went back and forth a few times, the old singer nodding, unflappable. The grandson turned to me and said, "We have been here since the beginning. The people didn't come from someplace else. We came out of the ground."

I shut up then. He and I understood the world very differently. While I was stacking evidence in neat rows, as my people tend to do, he was telling me that time is neither linear nor separable from place. It is woven into the ground itself. He gestured at the dirt under his feet, hoping I would understand. When your people say they emerged from the ground, when they didn't come from someplace else, that is when you know you are native.

The red and dusty floor was cold, slowly warmed by the fire. In that earth lay the singer's ancestry, his bloodlines running through the landscape like an ancient river. This same dirt nourished the Pueblo culture, which created the rock art and cliff dwellings  around the base of this sacred mountain. There were also Paiutes in this fine, dry matrix, and the early Desert Archaic culture back as far as 8,000 years ago, and before them what are known as Paleo-Indians, a genetic cast of Asians who appear to have come from the Bering Land Bridge when the ice was high and the seas were low.

Traveling a human migration corridor from top to bottom, at each end I encountered groups of people very settled in their places, who've been there so long they mine the detritus of their ancestors to make a living, people who say and believe they came out of the ground. Yet they've also been wanderers over thousands of years, like my own ancestors.

We left the old singer's hogan. Entering deep canyons, we backpacked our way around a sacred mountain in a land where every mountain seems sacred. In sheltering alcoves, we ate and slept, and on clear nights we watched the Milky Way pass overhead, framed by narrow canyon walls. Like the first cartographers, we measured the land with our bodies and our outstretched hands. We found old markings: painted shields, human figures, and handprints from ancient people, and the more recent horse-figured petroglyphs of Navajos. From the rock art, we sought directions. It's just what you do when you're not from around here.

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