Later as they sat at supper, one of the children said, “Tell us a story, father.” When he had finished eating, Okfagit leaned back, lit his cigarette and thought a while.
“In the beginning, the spirits created everything, or at least the shamans tell us so. They made the sea and the land, the trees and the tundra, the mountains and the flat shore land we live on. They created all the animals, great and small.”
Ayit listened with big eyes, thinking of creation, the sunlight sparking on the waves, the green of the trees on the mountains, the tundra grass waving in the wind, the full moon shining in the winter night reflecting off the snow making it almost as bright as day. He loved the beauty of the land.
Okfagit went on, “They made the light and darkness. But they like the darkness better because that is the time they work.
“They want people to worship them. They come to each one of our people at times and offer them something if the person will worship and serve them. If a person agrees to worship, he then has to do what the spirits say, and it often isn’t good.
“I, too, was confronted by a spirit. One time I was out hunting, and I heard a voice which said, ‘What do you want? I will give it to you.’
“‘I want a new shotgun,’ I replied. Suddenly one appeared on the snow in front of me.
“‘Take it and worship me,’ the voice said. I knew it was one of the bad spirits and I was afraid, so I ran away.
“Others have told me about similar happenings. One man said a spirit promised to give him power and showed it by lifting up the walls of his house so he could look outside. Another man said the spirit took him to the village storage place, which was locked. The door opened by itself, and the spirit said, ‘Take whatever you want.’ The man refused and did not submit to the spirit.
“The shamans are those who have surrendered to the spirits. They obey them but also try to use them. They are given extra powers, like being able to fly. I have never seen one fly, but one time when I left for another village ten hours away, the Shaman waved to me as I left. When I arrived in the other village, the Shaman had already been there for several hours! They have power, but they must obey whatever the spirits tell them, and sometimes it is very bad.
“The spirits want to own us, control us, to use us. We can try to stand against them, but we are weak, and they are strong. We must appease them, we must perform the proper ceremonies to avoid making them angry, but not fully submitting to them. Life is a struggle to be free, but we never are; we must be ever alert.
“The spirits can bring sickness and death if we anger them, so we must be very careful. They may attack a family, causing their babies to die. We can protect our children if they become sick by changing their name; that way the spirits will be fooled into thinking they have targeted the wrong family.
“The spirits of the dead can also injure us, so we must visit their graves, offer them food, and speak well of them. It is also important not to insult or anger old people, because after they die their spirits can afflict us with suffering.
“More than twenty winters ago on Sivukuk, the big island to the East, there was a time of hungering. The fish did not come as usual in the summer, the seals were fewer and when Autumn came, the winds blew the wrong way, keeping the walrus out to sea. The hunters could do nothing.
“During the winter hundreds died of starvation, whole villages were left empty. It is said that the spirits did this because some hunters did not show respect for the animals. They caught a young walrus, pulled it up on the ice and began to cut it up while it was still alive. This made the spirits angry.
“We must be careful not to neglect the ceremonies of life to keep the spirits happy, or they will bring us death. We must treat the animals with respect, offering them water after we have killed them.” He drew on his cigarette and looked at the children. There was no hope in his eyes.
And there was none in Ayit’s heart either. He was suddenly afraid of the world he found himself in, filled with evil forces seeking to destroy his people. After they went to bed, he stayed awake a long time thinking of these things.
Picture: three seals that had been caught and killed, then offered fresh water.