Rekindling connections in the small flame of a qulliq

An Inupiaq writer welcomes the nourishing glow of a seal oil lamp into her home.

 

The seasons of Uŋalaqłiq” is a column by Laureli Ivanoff, an Inupiaq writer and journalist, exploring the seasonality of living in direct relationship with the land, water, plants and animals in and around Uŋalaqłiq (Unalakleet), on the west coast of what’s now called Alaska.

My sister-in-law, Yanni, says her grandma always had to sleep with a light on. Yanni once asked her why. Her grandma said that when she was growing up on Little Diomede, an island in the middle of the Bering Sea, there was always the light from a qulliq as she went to sleep. With only darkness at bedtime, the air felt suffocating.

That’s the only story I know of someone who grew up with the light of a seal oil lamp. Maybe my gram, too, went to sleep with a qulliq when camping with her family in a white wall tent. But now, like most questions that spring up in adulthood, it’s too late to ask.

I didn’t see a qulliq until I was a senior in high school. I had flown to the big city, Anchorage, from Uŋalaqłiq, or Unalakleet, the hardworking fishing and hunting town of just 750 people on the western Alaska coast, where I grew up and still live. To me, Uŋalaqłiq is the center of the world. Its name, however, means “southernmost”: We are the southernmost Inupiaq community in Alaska, and we’re cradled by the river with the same name.

In Anchorage, at the Alaska Federation of Natives Youth and Elders Conference, in a fancy downtown building, I was maybe 50 feet from the stage when the organizers lit a seal oil lamp. Maybe in ceremony. Probably in demonstration. I was annoyed that I couldn’t really see what was happening. But I saw light, and it felt sacred. People next to me were talking, and I wanted to stop them. To shush them. So they could notice. Appreciate. Because for generations, the qulliq had been forgotten. Seeing seal oil fuel light and heat ignited something inside me; I didn’t have words for it then, but in that moment I understood that goodness comes from reclamation. Now I understand that restoring what was lost or taken away not only strengthens my identity — who I am as a Native woman — it softens my heart in relationship with others. It’s nourishing.

Winter, Kivalina, Alaska.

Now I understand that restoring what was lost or taken away not only strengthens my identity — who I am as a Native woman — it softens my heart in relationship with others. It’s nourishing.

So this past summer, when I saw an Instagram post about a qulliq workshop, I immediately signed up. Soon after, our postmaster handed me a package containing a 3-by-4-inch block of soapstone, along with a flat rasp and a curved one.

I laugh today, remembering how after more than a year and a half of taking COVID precautions seriously and limiting my interaction with others, even the prospect of an online class made me nervous. But the anxiety completely left my body and kitchen the moment the workshop host, Kunaq, and the other students made their introductions. It felt good to be with other Inuk women who, though scattered throughout Alaska and the country, were eager to connect with a simple but long-hidden part of our culture.

Kunaq shared a few examples of different materials used for constructing a qulliq. She showed a photo of a 28-inch qulliq made of stone taken from Unalakleet and now housed in storage at the Anchorage Museum. She also showed a crude, simple qulliq made from an aluminum smoked oyster can. She discussed the traditional wicks: moss, or cotton from cotton grass or cottonwood.

Kunaq then asked a question that pulled at something deep and sad and hopeful inside me. “When was the last time a qulliq was lit in your community?”

I had seen a tiny, old seal oil lamp my cousin was gifted from a friend that sat on his shelf. No longer a tool for light, but an artifact. And when I was little, I found Papa’s skin scraper in his bedroom. The spruce handle, carved with peaks and valleys, was customized to perfectly fit his grasp. He probably never knew the word “ergonomic,” but Inuk tool makers like him were masters of the concept. He still had skins to scrape and preferred his handmade tools for the job, but by then Papa and Gram had electricity and no need for a qulliq.

On the final day of class, Kunaq taught us how to light our qulliit. Behind our house, surrounded by birch and black spruce, is a clearing of open tundra where we pick blueberries, cranberries and ayuu, or Labrador tea. That day, I gathered dry white caribou moss for the wick, and for the fuel I grabbed from our refrigerator a small mason jar of smooth white rendered fat from a black bear my brother harvested. Did my ancestors ever use bear fat? I plopped a few teaspoons of fat in the bowl of the lamp. Where is the last qulliq used by our family now sitting? I rubbed the lichen with my hands, feeling its dry scratchiness in my palms. I pressed lichen onto the lip, the highest part of the lamp, and lay more down its inside curve to connect the wick down to the fuel. What would my great-great-grandma have used for her wick? I dipped my fingers in the fat and dabbed, as if delicately icing the tippy-top of the wick. And in my kitchen, with a match, I lit my qulliq and watched the flame dance. 

“You should light your qulliq, Aaka,” my 3-year-old son, Henning, said to me. It was one of those rare calm winter days in Unalakleet. Henning had just come inside from playing in what my husband jokingly calls naluagmiu, or white man’s snow — fluffy flakes that had fallen straight down, a type we rarely see in this windy country. It was just about suppertime and already dark, and I agreed with my bossy toddler.

I placed a small piece of paper towel into the seal oil lamp and spooned some bear fat into the soapstone vessel. Once the dull paper held a purposeful sheen, I struck a match and lit the qulliq. Henning watched the entire ritual. Though it’s not a daily thing, I do this often enough now that he takes it for granted. Like Dad getting firewood, or Aaka making tea with big drops of honey. And I love that. That unlike my experience, the lamp will always be in his memory.

I left the lamp on our kitchen table, and for a moment we both watched the small flame dance along the rim. The light simultaneously ancient and new. Grounding and lifting. Giving strength from just a flicker of understanding of where we come from.  And I noticed my face and belly soften and my back straighten. Then Henning padded back to the living room to play.

The light simultaneously ancient and new. Grounding and lifting.

For a Christmas gift, I sanded a qulliq for Yanni and my brother. My black leggings turned white from the fine dust that fell as I sanded the block of soapstone into a curved and graceful vessel. My butcher-block kitchen counter, the one I daily lose the battle to keep clean and uncluttered, was covered in dust, too. A piece of coarse purple sandpaper lay crumpled and softened. Used up. My sinuses felt heavy, but the air in my kitchen was buoyant and dancing.

This will not just sit on a shelf, I thought, the life of the lamp emerging as I removed smaller and smaller bits to refine the shape. Finally, I rubbed bear fat into my hands like it was lotion. I cradled the piece of matte, light-gray stone in my hands and moved it around, feeling its slopes and valley, its slippery surface. Once the whole lamp had darkened, smooth and rich, the qulliq was complete. I placed it on our kitchen windowsill next to my own qulliq, ready to light. 

Laureli Ivanoff, Inupiaq writer and journalist, makes seal oil, dried fish and strong coffee in Unalakleet, Alaska.

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