What was and what is

Joan Kane's work aims to bridge the gap between past and present

  • Joan Kane

    Joan Kane, self-portrait

Inupiaq poet Joan Kane grew up on a cul-de-sac at the edge of Anchorage, where the city meets a mossy forest of spruce and birch at the base of the towering Chugach Mountains. There were wandering moose and wild roses in the summertime, but it was no wilderness. Across the street from her duplex, a hastily constructed apartment block housed oil-pipeline workers; down the road were supermarkets, a military base and a tavern called The Cabin. For Kane's family, it was a home in exile.

Kane has never been to her ancestral home, a wild, abandoned island in the Bering Sea whose Inupiaq name, Ugiuvak, stems from the words for "big" and "winter." Kane's Inupiat ancestors inhabited the island for countless generations, and the stories of their life there were an ever-present backdrop to her childhood. Kane, author of the award-winning poetry collection The Cormorant Hunter's Wife, has devoted much of her writing life to chasing down the bones of Ugiuvak and her own place in the Inupiat Diaspora.

Kane's poems are filled with "weather and rock and moss," a "wilderness uninhabitable," with "the verge of land" and rooms that "squall with absence." She writes about staining puffin bills for dance mitts and picking anemone flowers to grind to a fine powder, about the way black cormorants sleep clinging to cliffs above a rough sea. Living far from her people's unreachable island, she tries to find her way back to it, through words.


Listen to Joan Kane read her poem, "Anchorage."

A full-time mother and writer, Kane lives near downtown Anchorage in a tidy townhouse smack in the middle of a gritty neighborhood. She has glossy black hair, girlish bangs, a warm, solid smile and the vocabulary of a person who often finds companionship in books. On this rainy afternoon her infant son, George, is asleep in a Baby Bjorn strapped to her chest; John, her toddler, giggles as he watches a video about penguins on her laptop, a rare treat for a television-less family that also includes Kane's husband, attorney Brian Duffy. It's a comfortable, organized home: There's a Subaru outside, paintings of birch trees on the wall, full bookshelves and Costco flats of canned chickpeas and dishwashing soap in the garage. Sometimes it's hard for her to believe, she says, that just two generations ago her family were subsistence hunters on an island in the Bering Sea.

King Island, as it was renamed by Captain Cook, is small, just two and a half miles long, and far closer to the Siberian peninsula than to Anchorage. From the mainland it looks like a barren meteor dropped into the ocean, terrifyingly remote and exposed. But despite its isolation and harshness, King Island was home to a rich and closely knit society. For perhaps thousands of years, around 200 Eskimos lived in a small winter village of stilt and walrus skin dwellings that clung to sheer cliffs. They called themselves ugiuvangmiut, "the people," shared meat from bearded seals and polar bears and gathered murre eggs from the rocks. They spoke an Inupiaq dialect unique to the island, which they knew intimately: Each hill, crevasse and stone outcrop had a name and a history -- a jumble of rocks called makhhuuqtuk meant "the old language," a mossy cliff called paum inat meant "no one is allowed there." Kane's grandmother and grandfather lived on the island -- her grandfather spoke no English, only Inupiaq. King Islanders had always lived seasonally, hunting in the fall and winter and crossing the strait in skin kayaks to the mainland in the summer to fish and sell carvings in Nome.

But things started to fall apart in the 1940s, when people began leaving for the mainland, in search of jobs and medical attention. Later, the school closed. By 1970, everyone was gone, including Kane's grandparents, mother and aunts and uncles. King Islanders retained their unique dialect and settled in cities in Alaska and beyond. They remain a cohesive group. But as former island resident Mary Muktoyuk says in an oral history, things "probably can never be the same again."

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