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Otis Ahkivgak, Part 1
Otis Ahkivgak

This is a recording of Kenneth Toovak providing a verbal English summary translation of an interview he conducted in Iñupiaq with Otis Ahkivgak on December 8, 1979 in Barrow, Alaska. The interview was for UAF researchers Dr. Lewis Shapiro and Ron Metzner on the project Historical References to Ice Conditions Along the Beaufort Sea Coast of Alaska (Scientific Report, Geophysical Institute, University of Alaska Fairbanks, 1979). Kenneth summarizes each of the four original tapes made with Otis on separate new tapes. Ron Metzner is with Kenneth, asking clarifying questions. Unfortunately, the location of the original Iñupiaq tapes are unknown; the UAF Oral History Collection only has these English audio translations and their transcripts. In this first part of a four part interview recorded on January 6, 1980, Kenneth talks about Otis talking about ice conditions along the Beaufort Sea coast between Barrow and Barter Island, and life along the northern coast, including hunting, traveling, and trading at the trade fair at Niġliq on the Colville River.

Digital Asset Information

Archive #: Oral History 97-64-05_PT.1

Project: Sea Ice in Northern Alaska
Date of Interview: Jan 6, 1980
Narrator(s): Otis Ahkivgak, Kenneth Toovak
Interviewer(s): Kenneth Toovak, Ronald Metzner
Transcriber: Lisa Krynicki
Location of Interview:
Funding Partners:
Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Coastal Marine Institute, North Pacific Research Board
Alternate Transcripts
There is no alternate transcript for this interview.
There is no slideshow for this person.

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Being born in Wainwright and moving to Barrow

Trade fair at Niġliq on the Colville River

Choosing trading partners

Barrow people traveling to the Colville River for the fair and having a foot race

Living at Kuparuk River

Living at Brownlow Point and his dad trading for a kayak

Learning about wind, current and tide's effect on the ice

Returning to living in Barrow after having been inland

Moving east again after marrying Taaqpak's daughter

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After clicking play, click a section of the transcript to navigate the audio or video clip.


RON METZNER: Testing, one. This is January the 6th, 1980 and we’re translating the interview with Otis –- what’s his last name?

KEN TOOVAK: Otis is the, just about the -- one of the oldest -- oldest man at Barrow. So, I recorded it -- his memorizing of what he knew and lived at the -- up around the east area.

This was recorded on December 8, 1979.

Otis was born at Wainwright on March 16, 1918. Correction, on th -- on the year March 16, 1891.

And see on the -- I was born at Wainwright and the parents eventually moving to Barrow before I begin to know anything -- not knowing anything.

I was moved to Barrow the time when the -- when the whalers were having a difficulty with their ships -- wrecked ships -- and -- and I know when those whalers were caught here at Point Barrow, and lived with the man named Charles D. Brower. I translate --

Those sailors living with Charles D. Brower and they hauled their drinking water in ice cubes from at least a mile-and-a-half or so -- just right off -- south of main village, by pulling a sled.

And they made their own shelter by using the lumber and putting a little bit of insulation of some kind.

I don’t know what -- well he don’t know what -- of kind of insulation they used. But anyway they try to make it a bit of a kind of a winterized shelter.

Kenneth questioned Otis about how old was he, but roughly he was between eight and ten year old.

Otis -- I at the time when I was a boy, I don’t even follow my father when he’s out hunting on account of I was just a -- a little boy still.

So those days eventually the -- the people that do lived around Colville River gather up, usually gather up in the summer months. So before at the time, when the -- before they break up, they sent -- they sent couple people to Barrow to have an invi -- invitation to met at Colville.

After those couple men invitation before break-up, and as soon as the -- the -- there's a bit of an opening, the -- the Barrow people took off with their skin boats to met and have a festival at Niġliq River .

Those Nunamiut people who lived at inland above Colville, down river with their skin boats and however they travel, they -- moving down river to have a great festival.

Those two men that first, when they’re arriving, they arriving to Barrow, they have to come in kind of sneak -- sneak in.

Rather in the daylight. They have to wait 'till -- the -- 'till it gets dark so nobody would recognize them when they arrived to Barrow.

So they made a guest to one of the homes and -- and live or spend the night or two with the family and made a bit of friendship.

On account of that, when the people find out the -- they made kind of -- bit of a house against those two men.

First arrive, so the -- the -- the people here at Barrow have a -- a gathering or shelter, which they use when they're having the performance of any -- anything.

RON METZNER: For dancing? Eskimo Dancing?

KEN TOOVAK: Eskimo dancing, gathering place. So these two men eventually they'll go into this gathering iglu, so first they have to put kind of a -- some kind of a curtain, so they won't be recognized by -- by the people of Barrow.

So these two men each have a stick -- a long stick -- I don't know, I didn't ask him how long. But each man carry a stick and then that stick had a -- kind of a ribbon that they -- people liv -- at the Colville, put some kind of a tag in the stick each head man of the family.

So, the -- eventually in that meeting iglu when the men and the women gather, when these two men put these two sticks and each head of the family -- the man -- take the ribbon, a tag, so that way they make a partner with whoever put that ta -- tag and the man that pick up that tag made a partner.

RON METZNER: At Colville?

KEN TOOVAK: At Colville.

RON METZNER: For the festival?

KEN TOOVAK: Yes. Yeah. In the summer months after they -- after they pick out their -- their partner by getting the tag, after they had a deal like that.

So they took off with their skin boats up to Colville. So Otis' family took off with a group to -- to -- to plan to move up to east in the summer.

The -- the people left from Barrow before they get to -- get to the -- the group that are waiting at Niġliq River, they sent these two men that were at Barrow earlier.

They travel with these two men back to Colville and so they had to stop. Otis say that he don't have no idea how far away they stopped and waited for some of the men from -- from Niġliq River.

And -- and these men have to have a foot race from where the Barrow people stop and then the Barrow men and Niġliq -- Niġliq men they have to run a race to Niġliq group.

To find out which group won the -- the foot race. Let's see. When the -- when the -- the group from Niġliq men arriving the Barrow group, they jump and -- and yell and raising with the high feeling --


KEN TOOVAK: -- that they have to make this a real joy to their -- to -- amongst themselves. So, Otis remember that -- that Barrow group sang a Eskimo song when these men were arriving, the group -- so --

RON METZNER: So they sang a song, right?

KEN TOOVAK: Yes. The -- the men took off for a foot race. So at -- at the time Otis was still kind of a boy, not man enough to -- to -- to have a -- part -- participate on this foot race. So Otis ran for a little bit and then the men passed him and then he went back to the -- to the rest of the group.

The -- the -- the Barrow group left with their skin boats to -- towards the -- the gathering group at Niġliq and then when they arrived to Niġliq they stop for a little bit.

The -- Otis' parents and one or two other families, they stop for a little bit there and then they continue on to Kuparuk, I mean to mouth of Kuparuk River.

RON METZNER: Spell that? -- Beechey Point --


RON METZNER: Okay, just past --

KEN TOOVAK: Past Beechey Point -- and then they -- they got to their destination to mouth of Kuparuk.


KEN TOOVAK: So they -- when they -- when Otis family rest with the other two -- two families they made a shelter at the mouth of Kuparuk and live on caribou and whatever they could catch.

There are still lots of foxes at the time, but the fox skins weren't even on the market. There was years when Otis -- Otis was a boy and moved up east so they spent the winter there.

Yeah, when -- when Otis family -- parents -- arrived at Niġliq where the people were made a gathering, they stopped for a little bit and talked for a little bit there and they didn't even spend the night there, so they just continue on to where they planned to made winter months.

RON METZNER: Past Beechey Point?

KEN TOOVAK: Past Beechey Point. On up to Kuparuk River. After spending few years, the -- the -- Otis parents decide to moved up further east, so they did.

And -- and then they stop at somewhere around Brownlow Point, just other side of Flaxman Island.

At the time, Otis wasn't -- still not man enough to -- to follow his dad when he's out hunting.

One time when they -- when they were living at Kuparuk and then, so they -- decide to stay and live at Brownlow, I mean somewhere around Brownlow Point again.

There was another family, lived at the Flaxman Island when Otis parents made a -- a shelter at around Brownlow Point and these two couple that lived at Flaxman Island, they -- they do have a real good sized kayak of what this man was using.

Actually this man -- these two couple that do live at Flaxman Island, they’re from Point Hope.

Point Hopers and then they got a big kayak of what this man was used. So the -- he -- Otis dad bought -- well, bought it or trade it with -- no -- Otis dad trade -- trade this kayak for some -- with something and then he owned -- eventually he owned this kayak of what this man owned. And so in the winter months -- winter months he use his kayak to go out on the ice for safety -- safety fact use in case the ice break up.

At the time, Otis start to -- getting to be kind of a man enough to follow his dad, which he did.

And so Otis know and remember that when wind is kind of big, blowing from south -- south wind -- warm spell in winter months, Otis has seen the ice broke up when the tide -- when the tide come up. And the ice will broke up and took off.

RON METZNER: Where was this?

KEN TOOVAK: That's right at the -- when the -- when the Otis family were living at Brownlow -- Brownlow Point.

RON METZNER: Is this ice seaward? From the barrier islands? Or -- this is, this is the sea ice?

KEN TOOVAK: Sea ice.

RON METZNER: And the south wind, the warm -- warm wind --


ON METZNER: -- raises the water?


RON METZNER: And then --

KEN TOOVAK: Yeah, the -- the south wind got a bit calm --


KEN TOOVAK: -- and warm spell --


KEN TOOVAK: The -- the tide raises --


KEN TOOVAK: The tide raise and then -- soon as there's a crack --


KEN TOOVAK: -- the broke -- the ice start to drift away.


KEN TOOVAK: When the tide raise -- raises and the ice broke up even here at -- at Barrow, that he made a comment, even here at Barrow the hunters made their passage way out to the lead and then -- and then in winter months the hunters left their kayak and some of their gear that they used when they're out hunting. They left them for overnight, or -- or whatever.

Figure that the -- the ice won't break up. But even though the hunter knew or -- or -- or had a bit of a knowledge of the ice, the -- the ice break away more like the unexpected.


KEN TOOVAK: Due to the wind, plus with the -- with the current and tide. Otis, I remember here at -- at Point Barrow when this man named Taaqpak, plus with the other -- other trappers, they got their trap lines for foxes -- white foxes, north of -- of Point Barrow, which is Nuvuk.

They got their -- had their trap lines and they were out on their run, Taaqpak and -- and this other man named Quŋusiq.

While they were out there, the ice break up and then they were caught there for -- for a while when the ice break up.

At the time when it happened, with Taaqpak and this man named Quŋusiq, Otis didn't know exact year, but he made a comment that those days the men usually told the -- the younger -- younger group to try and listen to the -- to the elderly men when they tell a story. To listen and to -- so they have to use it as their guideline or their background use.

RON METZNER: Taaqpak would later be Otis' father-in-law. I'm going to change sides on the tape now.

KEN TOOVAK: Got married to Taaqpak's daughter, one of the -- one of his daughter. I lived at Barrow -- Point Barrow, and I just hunt day after day on the ice, weather permitting.

I just have to watch for directions of the wind and the current when I'm out hunting. That's why for one thing that I haven't been drifted away with ice.

Lots -- many ti -- I haven't been drifted away many times on account of the knowledge of what Taaqpak and -- Taaqpak and some of the elderly men have told me.

I just use their -- their background of what they have told me and -- and live with it.

Otis Ahkivgak going back to the -- the time when he was a boy living at Brownlow Point and then he begin to be kind of a man, and they got the -- the -- the strangers came from the people that used to -- was living at -- inland, somewhere in between Anaktuvuk Pass and -- and above Barter Island.

Just about all -- all the way to Peter's Lake. So he's going back to that -- to that area.

RON METZNER: So Otis went up inland with -- with his friend? Is that --



KEN TOOVAK: Yeah, from Brownlow Point.

RON METZNER: Okay. Okay. So Otis left his family and his parents and went to live with this family inland, and they stayed inland several years and he learned about caribou hunting and other things.

And so we're gonna skip that and go on to when he was back on the coast. While he was inland he found out his parents moved to Barrow.

KEN TOOVAK: Yeah. Oti -- I mean Otis find out that -- he got the word that his parents left to Barrow, so that he have to hitch a ride with the group that -- that were again having a festival at Niġliq River.

So he's catching a ride back to Barrow through the -- through the group. The year he couldn't exact -- or how old was he but eventually somewhere maybe around fifteen, sixteen years old, when he was returning to Barrow.

While returning to Barrow, on a trip, he got some kind of a boil -- pain on his chest. Before he got to Barrow, this liquid was -- or boil or something -- really in pain.

So one of the companion on the trip get a knife and hold on all of his -- I mean hold his arms and legs and they had to cut open that -- that boil that was forming or whatever it's called.


KEN TOOVAK: And the liquid drained out, and -- and got way better. He thought that -- that one of the medicine man was gonna give him a --


KEN TOOVAK: A curse or whatever .

RON METZNER: A spell? I see --

KEN TOOVAK: I -- Kenneth ask him when he arrived to Barrow, no doubt that he got to his parents, which he did.

RON METZNER: He talks about that fall, the ice forming and going out polar bear hunting and just missing the bear, sort of playing hide and seek in the ridges. And he goes on to explain that his father for some reason never, ever had any luck catching polar bears, and this was sort of an example. And we'll skip most of the details and continue.

Now Otis tells a story about a little later, going another year, going out to some high grounded ridges just north of Nuvuk .

And since they were grounded and it was safe, they built a snow shelter and spent days out there staying in a shelter and hunting seals. And enjoying the hunt. And he talks about that for a while.

Otis talks about the time he was out camped by the high ridges some more. He had three companions that came out with him, and he went hunting a seal at a blow hole, which he caught.

And while he was there, he heard the other guys shooting. They missed the bear, but he was basically hunting polar bears and he had a pile of seal blubber beside his snow house to kind of attract them by the snow. And that's, that particular story.

KEN TOOVAK: I ask Otis that after few years spent at Barrow, they start to decide to move up east again after he got married to one of the Taaqpak's daughter.

There were several other -- other -- other families moving up east on account of the -- the --the fox skins were on the market and kind of high price.

So Otis -- him and his wife and -- left up east with Taaqpak. That was on the year of 1918.

RON METZNER: That ends the first of three tapes of Otis which Kenneth took.

KEN TOOVAK: Twenty-seven years old.

RON METZNER: Right. Last statement that he made was he was twenty-seven years old. Now it ends the first of three tapes.