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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field Seminars for adults: cultural and natural history of the Colorado Plateau. With guest experts, local insights, small groups, and lodge or base camp formats....
  • PLANNED GIVING OFFICER
    National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the nation's oldest and largest national parks nonprofit advocacy organization seeks a Planned Giving Officer. Do you find energy in...
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    The Methow Valley Citizens Council has a distinguished history of advocating for progressive land use and environmental values in the Methow Valley and Okanogan County...
  • ACTING INDIGENOUS AFFAIRS DESK EDITOR
    High Country News is seeking an Acting Indigenous Affairs Editor to oversee the work of our award-winning Indigenous Affairs Desk while our editor is on...
  • GRANTS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Cinnabar Foundation seeks an enthusiastic, team-oriented and knowledgeable Grants Program Director to work from their home in Montana. Established in 1983, the Cinnabar Foundation...
  • ARTEMIS PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Artemis Program Manager will work with National Wildlife Federation sporting and public lands staff to change this dynamic, continue to build upon our successful...
  • ALASKA SEA KAYAK BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Well-known and successful sea kayak, raft, hike, camp guiding & water taxi service. Sale includes everything needed to run the business, including office & gear...
  • MEMBERSHIP AND EVENTS PROGRAM COORDINATOR
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a detail-oriented and enthusiastic Membership and Events Coordinator to join our small, but mighty-fun team to oversee our membership...
  • PROGRAM DEVELOPMENT FACILITATOR
    ABOUT THE HIGH DESERT MUSEUM Since opening in 1982, HIGH DESERT MUSEUM has brought together wildlife, culture, art and natural resources to promote an understanding...
  • LAND STEWARD, ARAVAIPA
    Steward will live on-site in housing provided by TNC and maintains preserve areas frequented by the visiting public and performs land management activities. The Land...
  • DEVELOPMENT WRITER
    Who We Are: The Nature Conservancy's mission is to protect the lands and waters upon which all life depends. As a science-based organization, we create...
  • CONNECTIVITY SCIENCE COORDINATOR
    Position type: Full time, exempt Location: Bozeman preferred; remote negotiable Compensation: $48,000 - $52,000 Benefits: Major medical insurance, up to 5% match on a 401k,...
  • EXECUTIVE ASSISTANT
    ArenaLife is looking for an Executive Assistant who wants to work in a fast-paced, exciting, and growing organization. We are looking for someone to support...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Driggs, ID based non-profit. Full time. Full job description available at tvtap.org. Submit cover letter and resume to [email protected]
  • ENVIRONMENTAL AND CONSTRUCTION GEOPHYSICS
    - We find groundwater, buried debris and assist with new construction projects for a fraction of drilling costs.
  • SPRING MOUNTAINS SOLAR OFF GRID MOUNTAIN HOME
    Located 50 miles northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada in the pine forest of Lee Canyon at 8000 feet elevation. One of a kind property surrounded...
  • MAJOR GIFTS MANAGER - MOUNTAIN WEST, THE CONSERVATION FUND
    Cultivate, solicit and steward a portfolio of 75-125 donors.
  • NATURE'S BEST IN ARAVAIPA CANYON
    10 acre private oasis in one of Arizona's beautiful canyons. Fully furnished, 2123 sq ft architectural custom-built contemporary home with spectacular views and many extras....
  • HEALTH FOOD STORE IN NW MONTANA
    Turn-key business includes 2500 sq ft commercial building in main business district of Libby, Montana. 406.293.6771 /or [email protected]
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.