Page 5, 11th August 1939

11th August 1939
Page 5

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Organisations: Mission of Alaska
Locations: Montreal, Chicago, Nonte


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Father Cunningham is a New Zealander, who entered the Australian noviceship of the Society in 1921. While studying philosophy at Louvain he got interested in the Mission of Alaska and volunteered to go there. He was accepted, finished his philosophy in California, did fourteen months' catechising in Alaska, and then returned to Montreal for theology. After theology he was sent—three years ago now—to a pagan island in Bering Strait. This island is about two square miles in area and has a population of about one

hundred and forty. Father Cunningham's three-year apostolate has

left only one pagan on the island! For eight, months of the year Father Cunningham is cut off from civilisation. Not until late in May this year did he know that there was a new Pope! The difficulties and trials of life on the island can be gathered well enough front the article itself.

By Rev. Thomas Cunningham, S.J.

ITHINK all those who have experienced it will admit that the Alaska cold goes away beyond being relative and, whether you suffer from it or not, it's something real and substantial, something that is ever present, that knows no limits and that respects neither Eskimo nor white, neither dog nor bird, fish nor flesh.

Alaska serves up different kinds of cold. In the interior the temperature often falls below –GO degrees, but it is dry and calm. In proportion as the temperature goes down the wind abates.

On the coastline, however, the wind blows all the time, usually from the North, and on Little Diomede Island here in the Bering Strait I have noticed that the lowest temperature is always accompanied by the strongest wind. Some scientists say that the Diomede Islands and the (Ignalit, Little Diomede Island, via Nonte, Alaska, U.S.A.) Siberian coastline immediately opposite them are the coldest spots on earth, and though as a rule we are sceptical of these scientific findings, in this case they have my wholehearted belief. The islands are on the fringe of the Arctic Circle. They are three miles apart, and the international date-line separates them. The larger one belongs to Russia, the smaller is part of the Territory of Alaska.

Third Winter This is my third successive winter on the smaller island, and having kept daily weather reports, I have a good idea of the weather and its variations.

We have no really warm weather, only different kinds of cold. The winter proper begins at the end of September and lasts till the middle of June. I call that period the winter proper because during it one can expect frost and snow every day. During July and August snow and frost are occasional. The word ukiuk means both winter and year. July and August are called uvanrak—the warm period — or more often ukiushak : just before the winter. The worst snow-storm last year was on June 18.

This winter, 1938-39, has been the coldest I have experienced, and the old men on the island tell me they can remember none colder. In common with all old men, the local patriarchs are inclined to exaggerate a trifle when speakiw.c, of the old days, so

this admission can be taken as absolute truth. It is true the people have never been so near starvation, and it is a long time since seal-meat and oil have been rationed so sparingly. It was too cold to hunt.

Seal-hunting is the mainstay of our lives on the island. We use the oil to heat and light the houses and for all forms of native cooking. Seal meat to us is what rice is to the Chinese, and all our outside clothes and our footwear are made from seal-skins. Each family needs perhaps two seals per week to live comfortably, and there can never be an over-supply.

All during winter the seals are plentiful, though the number varies from year to year. But there have always been enough seals to go round, and if one man is particularly lucky in hunting he can easily dispose of the seals he doesn't

want. A seal weighing a hundred pounds yields five gallons of oil, skin for two pairs of boots, and a good supply of meat.

Nothing is wasted. The intestines are dried, opened, rolled up, sewn together, and used for windows or for water-proof parkeys. They say that in the Chicago packing houses every part of the pig except the squeal is used for something. The Chicago packers are no more economical than the Eskimoere The claws even are used in decorating various carved ivory figures. So if a man gets two seals per week he can get along well, with three he can rest a day or two, and with four or five seals a week a family is in the lap of luxury.

Seal Talk

Most of the island conversation centres round the seals, the various circumstances in which they can be caught, the different sizes and weights, the length of time they stay under water, the length of time they remain above water, and the ease or difficulty one might have in getting one's seal on to solid ice.

The first word a newcomer hears and learns is netsac (a seal), and during one day's hunting the newcomer can learn many variations of that one word. He will hear that this man nctsatoc (caught a seal), that man lost a wounded seal (ktillicsimazoac), or again, and quite often, a certain hunter savitatoc tailintatting necsanani (shot five times without getting anything). And there are a host of other expressions relative to the seal's coming up or going down, to its birth or life, its wounding or death. The seal is spoken about every day and every hour of the day. Unfortunately, many of the words cannot be used in any other connection; but, still, to acquire all the words and expressions relative to the seal is in itself an intellectual feat.

Too Cold This Year

This winter, however, we caught very few seals. They were abundant, as in other years, but the weather was too cold for us. As a rule one can hunt comfortably at 30 degrees if the wind is not too strong.

This winter we had one hundred and twenty days from December till the end of March with a continuous north wind. Generally it was between thirty and forty miles an hour, sometimes dropping, sometimes increasing to hurricane proportions. The temperature fell as the wind grew in strength, till that day of days, January 21, when the temperature was 54 degrees and the wind sixty miles per hour. During January and February it was absolutely impossible to hunt. No one would think of venturing out on the ice,

Afraid to Sleep

The people made any kind of stove and burned everything combustible in sight, in an effort to keep warm, They even took down the driftwood framework of their houses. I distributed my meagre supply of coal, which helped considerably, and I also rationed out some of the crude oil used in the church. We managed to stave off the cold to a certain extent, but no house could be called comfortably warm, even though the houses are underground. There were days at a time when it was impossible to venture out of the house.

The blizzards were so thick that one could not see a yard ahead. When we were hunting in March our rifles would freeze up and the moving parts simply would not function. I once froze a thumb and finger in the twenty seconds necessary to insert and turn a key in a lock.

I used to be afraid to go to sleep at night, lest the fire should go out and I should freeze to death. On one occasion I had a fifty-gallon tank boiling at 11 p.m.—between that hour and 4 a.m. it froze and burst! And that was inside the house! Coal, oil, and gasoline would thicken and give poor results, and fuel oil 27+ gravity often thickened like molasses and would not flow through a quarter-inch pipe.

On one hunting trip in March I walked round a small open space of water in the ice. Returning home one hour later I was able to walk across it. The wind seemed to penetrate everything. It came through the walls, up through double floors, round well-caulked windowframes, and at times, one would swear, through the glass itself. I have found little hillocks of snow on the altar in the church, and I decided the only way it could possibly have entered was through the infinitesimal space between the nail and the wood into which the nail was driven. This sounds impossible, I admit; but I could find no other way!

There were times when it was impossible to move in an upright position going with or against the wind. Even crawling on all fours was hazardous. Great chunks of frozen snow were ripped off the drifts by the wind and hurled against the church, and I used to wonder how the building ever stood it all.

Even Birds Froze

Strangest of all, Arctic 'birds were found frozen to death. I often saw them struggling against the wind, gradually slow down and fall. I examined several of these birds, and when picked up they felt like pieces of ice. There were no traces of any disease. One or two fell near the church and I managed to revive them, not out of pity, as they were eaten at the next meal, but just to be sure that they died from the cold.

All these things happened during the darkest months, which made everything so much the more frightening.


The food situation was also very serious. After all, we are accustomed to a fairly cold winter and never do expect our climate to be anyway salubrious, nor do we consider our island an ideal picnicground. But heretofore we had enough to eat.

A solid diet of seal-meat and oil gives one some kind of protection against the cold, just as the layer of blubber enables the walrus and seals to be perfectly happy in their Arctic environment. This winter the seals and walrus had their usual sources of supply, but we humans were out of luck.

Fortunately, I had four or five cases of canned meat and fruit, and though they did not go far when divided up among all the families, still they wore a help.

I used the winter supply of flour in one grand baking, and I was thus able to give three loaves apiece to each family. Bread, plain bread, was all we had for four days.

By February we were down to one meal per day, and that meal consisted of the remains, buried under the rocks, of the whale we caught in 1937!

We were all fairly thin by March 1 and we couldn't put so much energy or heart into our hunting. During March there were perhaps ten days when conditions were favourable, and all the hunters were fairly successful. Whereas in good times we would stay perhaps only an hour alongside a water-hole waiting for a seal to appear, before seeking richer " pastures," we now spend three, four, or even six hours. We work on the principle that if there is a seal anywhere in the vicinity he must come up sooner or later to breathe. And there is nothing so exasperating as to miss the one and only seal that appears after a six-hour wait! Now the seal-oil lamps are burning again and we begin to lose that half-starved look. For Easter Sunday we will all have new sealskin pants and new boots. The skins did not come any too soon. Our clothes only looked warm and the boots were as much down at heel as it is possible for heelless footwear to appear.

On April 1 the wind changed and blew from the south. This promises warmer weather. To-day is April 6, but up till now the south wind, while having a warming influence on the atmosphere, is too strong to allow us to venture on the moving ice. But it's a good sign. At least we know the south wind still blows!

Not Just an Omen There is a saying here: Tigmiret kaitpate isehalgsaerava—When the tigmirets (small Arctic birds that nest here) come there will be no more cold. The tigmirets come in the latter hail' of June. But as long as the north wind doesn't blow too hard and the temperature stays round the 10 degrees mark or above it, we will be happy. The tigmirets are bound to come, and they don't like the extreme cold any more than we do. If they don't come it will be an evil portent.

I suggested to one of the old men the possibility of their not coming, and he replied, quite logically, that in all his years they came during a certain moon and there's no reason why this year should be an exception.

As a rule our life here is tranquil and there is little to report when we cross over to the mainland. Next July, however, we will be bursting with news, so to speak, and most of It bad, but still news. We don't know how things have been outside our island home, but we hope, and perhaps it's mean of us, that other settlements had a taste of the same bitter north wind. Horace complained of the same north wind. It seems to bother everybody.

Spring Here the people say "Maezumant takkrimi iiocatain in naglinactoc—This moon is the most miserable of all." They seem to mean that if we live through March we will manage the rest of the months. Anyway, this week, the first in April, every Eskimo on the island has a broad smile and no longer that haunted and hungry look that frightened the dogs. When the old whale meat gave nut we were going to start on the dogs. They already had that furtive look in their eyes, and didn't seem to howl as much as of old, knowing possibly how things were and wishing to remain as inconspicuous as possible.

Now that It's relatively safe to look back, one's optimistic nature begins to take the upper hand, and we naturally seek some good results from all the distress. To be perfectly honest, it is mighty hard to find any good results, beyond, of course, the care of Providence when everything seems lost. I can see no other good results, except that this winter provides a milestone in the lives of the F.skirnoes. It will be spoken of for generations to conic. It will be useful, too, in future years, when trying to figure out the ages of individual natives. Up till now the arrival of Father Lafortune in Alaska has been the big event. I simply ask a middle-aged man about how old he was when first he heard of Fr. Lafortune. If he answers he was big like Ilarana, I take Ilarana's age—nine years -add on the thirty-six years since Fr. Lafortune arrived in Nome, and I have the man's age within two or three years.

In future generations the big or hard winter—Ukink sanernateae—w111 be a good milestone. The Romans had the date of the foundation of their city, the Irish have the year of the big wind. and we now have the hard winter.

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