Monday, June 27, 2011

The Inupiat of the Arctic

A Warm Feeling for the Arctic

To many Americans, Wasilla, Alaska, seems like a very distant corner of the national map. For the photographer Bill Hess, 60, it is just the starting point. He has spent about half his life traveling from his home in Wasilla to the far more remote realms of the North Slope Borough, where the Inupiat people live. He pilots his own bush plane and, once on the ground, travels by snowmobile or dog sled. He is home. “Alaska speaks to me as no other place I have ever been,” Mr. Hess said. “I love Alaska with every piece of flesh and spirit that is me. It speaks most strongly in the communities and camps of its native people, for they have ties to the land, sea and animals — and knowledge of the same — that is possessed by no one else. I can feel that when I am with them. When I am not with them, I miss that feeling.”

Bill Hess Bryan and Bruce Nukapigak with a silver salmon from their net. Raised as a Mormon in Utah, Mr. Hess felt a powerful, mystical attraction to Alaska and Native American culture even as a boy. He read and reread the poetry of Robert W. Service (“There are strange things done in the midnight sun”) and took on the nickname Kodiak. Called to service as a missionary, Mr. Hess asked to serve at the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation and Crow Creek Sioux Reservation in South Dakota and at the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in Montana. He was enthralled by the beauty of the culture and deeply disturbed by the hardships the people faced. During this time, he met Marjorie Roosevelt, a White Mountain Apache who was also on a Mormon mission. They later married, when they were students at Brigham Young University. They have five children.

After moving to Alaska 30 years ago, he freelanced for two Anchorage newspapers and later wrote and photographed for The Tundra Times, a statewide newspaper for and about native peoples. As Mr. Hess covered the Inupiat, he slowly learned their ways. “I recognize there are times not to ask questions but to just be quiet and observe,” he said, “and the answers will present themselves to you.” “In the traditional world of the Inupiat,” Mr. Hess added, “it is the movement of animals, birds, fish, wind and current that sets the agenda. Not the clock.“ As his relationship with the Inupiat solidified, he published a quarterly magazine, Uiniq, from 1985 to 1996. It was distributed around the 89,000-square-mile North Slope Borough. He also wrote and photographed the book “Gift of the Whale: The Inupiat Bowhead Hunt, A Sacred Tradition” (1999), and the Web gallery, “Inupiat Bowhead Whale Hunt.” In the book and the magazine, he documented the Inupiat fight to preserve the traditional bowhead whale hunt, without restrictions. “Now they have turned their attention to a new, internal battle,” Mr. Hess said, “the battle to reverse and undo the damage brought to their community by alcohol and drug abuse.”While trying to help the Inupiat, Mr. Hess finds himself in a position most anyone in Alaska — or the Lower 48 — would envy: living the life he dreamed of as a child.

No comments:

Post a Comment