A blog by Bill Hess

Running Dog Publications

P.O. Box 872383 Wasilla, Alaska 99687


All photos and text © Bill Hess, unless otherwise noted 
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Wasilla is the place where I have lived for the past 29 years - sort of. The house in which my wife and I raised our family sits here, but I have made my rather odd career as a different sort of photojournalist by continually wandering off to other places to photograph people and gather information, which I have then put together in various publications that have served the Alaska Native Eskimo, Indian and Aleut communities.

Although I did not have a great of free time to devote to this rather strange community, named after a Tanaina Athabascan Indian chief who knew Wasilla in the way that I so impossibly long to, I have still documented it regularly over the past quarter-century plus. In the early days, my Wasilla photographs focused mostly upon my children and the events they participated in - baseball, football, figure skating, hockey, frog catching, fire cracker detonation, Fourth of July parade - that sort of thing. 

In 2002, I purchased my first digital camera and then, whenever I was home, I began to photograph Wasilla upon a daily basis, but not in a conventional way. These were grab shots - whatever caught my eye as I took my many long walks or drove through the town, shooting through the car window at people and scenes that appeared and disappeared before I could even focus and compose in the traditional photographic way.

Thus, the Wasilla portion of this blog will be devoted both to the images that I take as I wander about and those that I have taken in the past. Despite the odd, random, nature of the images, I believe they communicate something powerful about this town that I have never seen expressed anywhere else. 

Wasilla is a sprawling community that has been slapped down hodge-podge upon what was so recently wilderness of the most exquisite beauty. In its design, it is deliberately anti-zoned, anti-planned. In the building of Wasilla, the desire to make a buck has trumped aesthetics and all other considerations. This town, built in the midst of exquisite beauty, has largely become an unsightly, unattractive, mess of urban sprawl. Largely because of this, it often seems to me that Wasilla is a community with no sense of community, a town devoid of town soul.

Yet - Wasilla is my home and if I am lucky it will be until I grow old and die. Despite its horrific failings, it is still made of the stuff of any small city: people; moms and dads, grammas and grampas, teens, children, churches, bars, professionals, laborers, soldiers, missionaries, artists, athletes, geniuses, do-gooders, hoodlums, the wealthy, the homeless, the rational and logical, the slightly insane and the wholly insane - and, yes, as is now obvious to the whole world, politicians, too.

So perhaps, if one were to search hard enough, it might just be possible to find a sense of community here, and a town soul. So, using my skills as a photojournalist and a writer, I hope to do just that. If this place has a sense of community, I will find it. If there is a town soul to Wasilla, I will document it. I won't compete with the newspapers. Hell no! But as time and income allow, it will be fun to wander into the places where the folks described above gather, and then put what I find on this blog.


by 300...

Anywhere within a 300 mile radius of Wasilla. This encompasses perhaps the most wild, dramatic, gorgeous, beautiful section of land and sea to be found in any comparable space anywhere on Earth. I can never explore it all, but I will do the best that I can, and will here share what I find and experience with you.  

and then some...

Anywhere else in the world that I happen to get to, such as Point Lay, Alaska; Missoula, Montana; Serenki, Chukotka, Russia; or Bangalore, India. Perhaps even Lagos, Nigeria. I have both a desire and scheme to get me there. It is a long shot. We shall see if I succeed.

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The story of an Eskimo drum, part 1:* When she gets sung to on her birthday, Nannie Rae hears the drumbeat of the bowhead whale

Nannie Rae Kaigelak on her 22nd birthday. Originally, after I posted Friday's preview, I said that I would post this story on Monday, yesterday, but I am running behind.

The last image in my entry of September 15 was this one, of Nuiqsut Iñupiat whalers pulling hard on some ropes as they butchered one of the four whales they had landed on Cross Island. This is what the ropes were attached to - sections of maktak that whalers, such as Brian Nukapigak, were cutting away with flensing knifes.

The Iñupiat have hunted bowhead whales since what is known in these parts as "time immemorial." When Jesus walked the earth, the Iñupiat hunted whales - and they prayed before, during and after each hunt. When Christopher Columbus set sail for India and wound up in the Americas, the Iñupiat hunted whales. When the Russians first sailed along the shores of Alaska... well, you get the picture:

The Iñupiat have been hunting whales for a very long time. Tools and methods have been adapted to the times, but the bowhead remains the most important element in Iñupiat diet, culture and way of life. The Iñupiat teach that a whale gives itself only to a worthy crew, one that will freely share it with his community.

This whale gave itself to the crew of Billy Oyagak, who will keep a relatively small share of it for himself, his family and crew and will give the rest of it away. Other than their physical help in the landing, butchering and distribution of the whale, no one will pay him for their shares. And those who are too old, ill, or incapacitated to help will still receive their shares, just as if they had worked hard.

And all who show up for the feasts of Nalukatak, Thanksgiving and Christmas will also be fed generously and will take home shares, whether they participated in the original hunt or not.

As they worked on the whale, I saw Maniksak Nukapigak, left, begin to cut the skin of the liver away from the meat. Others joined in to help. Soon, the liver skin had been removed from the whale and taken to a safe place.

Eric Leavitt had brought this Eskimo dance drum to Cross Island during last year's hunt, but had forgotten to take it home. Now, it needed a resonant new skin to cover it.

After cutting away a properly sized section of the liver skin and placing it on cardboard, Vernon Elavgak, who came from Barrow to whale with the crew of Edward Nukapigak, Jr., double-checked the fit.

Vernon then scraped the skin with a plastic spatula, so as not to tear holes into the skin. 

Vernon and Eric check out the scraped skin. They decide to scrape it some more. Afterward, Vernon takes the skin out into the darkness of the night to wash it off in the salt water of the Beaufort Sea.

Then Eric molds the skin to the drum frame.

Vernon double-checks the fit.

They bind the liver skin to the frame with twine.

Vernon pulls the bind as tightly as he can.

The drum is nearly done.

Vernon examines the inside of the drum skin in the beam of a flashlight held by Eric.

The drum is skinned. As Eric checks it out, Thomas Nukapigak, brother to Edward Jr, passes through with one of the darting guns used in this year's harvest. Eric Leavitt, Jr, "Sonny Boy" observes.

The drum is hung to dry overnight. Everyone who stays in the Nukapigak cabin is expected to leave their autograph on the wall. I would leave mine in two places.

In the morning, Eric checks the drum. The skin has dried. He is ready to put it into action.

Throughout the hunt, every hunter in every camp, every boat and at the Com Center are linked to each other via radio. Captain Edward Jr. puts out a call to Nannie Rae up in the Oyagak cabin. Everybody wishes her happy birthday - but Eric goes a little further.

He sings the traditional American "Happy birthday to you..." song, but accompanies it with the beat of the newly skinned drum.

So when Nannie got her song, it came in part from the bowhead whale that for so long has supported her people.

Remember this, next time you see the Iñupiat of the Arctic Slope dancing to the beat of drums made in the traditional way - that powerful, powerful, drumbeat that you hear is literally the sound of the bowhead whale.

In the evening, I ate a big meal with the Nukapigak crew and then hiked up to the Oyagak cabin, thinking that it was time for Nannie to blow out her candles. I arrived a little bit early. Everyone had just sat down to dine on caribou soup. Nannie ladles out a bowl.

I ate again, and found a huge piece of delicious caribou tongue in my soup. I do not joke or exaggerate - it tasted so, so, good. I have eaten at some fine restaurants in places like New York City, Washington, DC, Cabo San Lucas, Mexico; Bangalore, India and I have enjoyed every bite.

But there is nothing in this world better than Alaska Native food, caught and prepared right. Many people who don't know better shy away from it, but that is just because their palette's have not yet learned. After I finished the first, I downed a second bowl.

When I overeat the kind of food that I generally eat when I hang out down here in Wasilla and elsewhere in the "mainstream" world, I always feel rotten the next day.

On this trip, I overate again and again... whale, caribou, moose, salmon, white fish, polar bear, seal, duck and geese... and not once did it leave me feeling anything but good the next day.

Finally, it was time to light the cake. Nannie joined in the lighting. 

The banner above Nannie's head was hung last year... Cross Island has become the place where she celebrates her birthday. The gentleman standing to the far left is whaling captain Billy Oyagak, who accepted the gift of the 51-foot bowhead that provided the drum skin used on this day to sing "happy birthday" to Nannie Rae.

And then she blows out all of her candles. I wonder what she wished for? I didn't ask, because such wishes are supposed to be kept secret.


*As noted in the title, this is part one of this Eskimo drum story. There might be one more part, maybe two, possibly even three - I am not certain. But for now, I am not going to post them, but will save them for Uiñiq magazine.

One day, well after the next Uiñiq has been published, I will post those parts either here or in whatever this blog has evolved into by then - so, to those who do not have access to Uiñiq, stick with me until then and you will get to see the full series - plus much more that for now I will hold back.

I do plan to put at least two more Cross Island related stories on this blog over the next two or three days.


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Reader Comments (10)

great photo journal...i knew the drums where made of skins but never realized it was the skin of the liver,

September 21, 2010 | Unregistered Commentertwain12

AWESOME photo journal!!! It's a keeper for me, to tell her children, when they come.... Thank you so much for your post!!

September 21, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBernice Kaigelak

Thank you so much! Oh, how I have learned today. My heart is happy!

September 21, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKathryn

Hey Frostfrog

We lead interesting lives. Loving your blog.

September 21, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterGordon Lafleur

Wow!! Just wow!

September 21, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterWakeUpAmerica

Amazing ,amazing...thank you again FROSTFROG...!!!

I have to bring more civilians over here...thank you

September 21, 2010 | Unregistered Commentera civilian-mass audience

This is so nice. The best part is realizing that the tradition is carried forth in spite of the changing world and its ways of life and everything. I am so glad and grateful for this blog! Thanks Uncle Bill! Thank you so much for the information. It yet again makes me realize that the world is big enough, and that so many great cultures truly exist.

September 22, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterVijay

Hi Bill! I noticed your comment on my blog, and it took me a few seconds to realize why the name sounded familiar. I'm quite flattered by your kind words! I've gotten over my unabashed jealousy at trailing you as a distant 2nd (sometimes 3rd) on the blogger's choice awards and I've started following your blog fairly regularly. I particularly enjoy posts like these, which give a real glimpse into the native culture up there. I would humbly request that you include more images of the landscape up there, you live in a really beautiful spot that I'd love to get to explore more through your lens.

Anyway, thanks again!

September 22, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDave Fry

Since I like making things with my hands and enjoy many crafts, I was fascinated with the making of the drum! Oh, how I wanted to hear its sound!

And, may I add, a very Happy Birthday to Nanny Rae!

September 23, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterWhiteStone

Hello there Bill, those are some really good photo's you tooken at Cross Island last September.

November 21, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterVernon Elavgak

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