BATTERED, BREACHED AND BLEACHED

My Iñupiaq name is Kavik, which means wolverine. I had originally declared to the class that my Iñupiaq name would be Muktuk — which I thought meant whale but literally translated to whale meat, similar to the difference between bull and beef — and all the students, mostly Iñupiat, laughed at me. The Iñupiat have 100 words for snow and nearly the same for ice, I don’t know how many words they have for white but I imagine it’s more than one — some Chinese agrarian societies have dialects with a dozen or more words for liquid water, I think I remember hearing somewhere. But I know I remember there was muktuk at the bottom of the soup the day of the fight, and maybe that’s why I just sat there, why I didn’t move a muscle, so I didn’t choke on the muktuk.

It was a small piece, about a half-inch. Half black and half white. Half dense muscle, used to propel 100 tons of organs towards 2 feet of sea ice and smash through it like a battering ram to access oxygen, and half greasy fat,  part of a 2-foot layer of blubber used to keep warm in below-freezing water. The black part — the muscle — is chewy and tough — as you can imagine.

In Kotzebue, Alaska, they hold a muktuk eating contest on the 4th of July, as part of the Iñupiat village’s celebration of American independence — the competition is competitive — capitalists rejoice — because the muktuk is hard to swallow. It takes them 20 minutes to eat a square of both black and white meat that’s about three inches wide and maybe a centimeter thick. The Natives know to cut their square into smaller, more manageable pieces while the white people take large, indiscriminate bites. Those bites will turn into a chewy ball in their mouth, which they might chew the rest of their lives, and then pass down to their ancestors to chew, but will probably be spit into a trash can 20 minutes later.

But back to the day of the fight.

I was sitting on the edge of the table next to Richard, he was my best friend at the time, and I had already drank my cup of broth and popped my small chunk of muktuk in my mouth. I remember a television was at the front of Iñupiaq class that week, and there was soup, so it must have been a special occasion. Maybe the argument had been as superficial as a discrepancy in movie preference, but I was 10, so it’s hard to remember exactly.

We got pulled out of 5th grade once a week at June Nelson Elementary School for Iñupiaq class, usually for a quick lesson and then a few assignments in our workbook, which usually consisted of assigning the proper Iñupiaq name to different plants, animals and foods of Arctic Alaska. Aqpiq is salmonberry and tutu is caribou, and muktuk is whale meat. I wonder what June Nelson meant.

Richard and Peyton were both Iñupiat, but Richard looked it more. The Iñupiat have wide and pale faces with straight, black hair. They are usually stocky, and wrestling is the most competitive sport in the region. Peyton had gotten me into wrestling when I moved to Kotzebue in 3rd grade. We traveled to Shungnak and Selawik together to wrestle their elementary school teams. Me and Peyton were best friends during that time, when I had first arrived in Kotzebue. But, we were just on the wrestling team together, and it wasn’t wrestling season, the day of the fight.

Again, I don’t remember what the argument had been about, but I remember words stopped at, “At least my dad isn’t dead.”

The funny thing is I couldn’t tell you if Richard’s dad was dead or not and I guess that’s really not funny. But I knew Peyton’s dad was, and I knew Richard knew Peyton’s dad was. In a village of 3,000, everybody knows when somebody dies.

Peyton’s dad had crashed his airplane coming home in a whiteout a couple months after Peyton and I had became friends; Peyton was the first friend I made when my family moved to Kotzebue. We moved there in early March and the whiteout snowstorm was in late May, but time seemed slower then and there, in the world of May whiteouts. It was whaling season — the Iñupiat hunt bowhead whale from the edge of the melting spring sea ice — and Peyton’s dad had gone to one of the whaling villages to pick up muktuk, which filled the hull of his downed plane. Maybe the whiteout was responsible for the crash. Or, maybe, the weight of the muktuk pulled the plane towards the frozen ground below, the spirit of the deceased whale yearning to once again smash against the ice, to break through to the other side, to return its remains to their natural resting place. But, likely, it was a combination of the two.

I don’t remember if I cried or not at the funeral, but things between Peyton and I weren’t really the same after his dad died. I think there was a concerted effort to give him and his family space afterwards and I quickly developed and deepened other friendships.

When Peyton and I were still best friends, there were two weeks that I rode my bike to the post office everyday hoping my Gameboy Color had arrived. It was 2001 and Amazon didn’t have live tracking yet and the village of Kotzebue, Alaska doesn’t have home mail delivery. Also, my best friend’s house was close to the post office so it didn’t matter if my Gameboy wasn’t there, I’d go play Tekken 4 at Peyton’s. I was an Eddie Gordo button-masher.

Peyton’s house was prefabricated, like the vast majority of homes in Kotzebue were, and had probably arrived a few decades ago on a barge. Kotzebue was pretty much like a big trailer park. The prefabricated houses had either solid blue, green or yellow siding and white trim, and could literally be found anywhere in rural America — they especially reminded me of the houses out in Jemez Pueblo, New Mexico then and especially remind me of the houses out in Sun Valley, Nevada now. The only exception was the blues, greens and yellows of the houses had been battered, breached and bleached by the 70-mile-per-hour winds, the white-out snows, the negative 40 degree temperatures, and the 24-hour summer sun that is found 30 miles north of the Arctic Circle on a peninsula protruding into the Bering Sea. And the houses were on stilts, because the permafrost disallowed for traditional foundations. Other than that, they were living relics of quintessential Americana.  

From what I remember, Peyton’s house was two stories, and it was blue with white trim, not green or yellow. It was close to the post office, but it was also close to the Uutuku — which was a Chinese restaurant that also sold hamburgers, pizza and Pokemon cards, and was owned by Koreans. His house was also close to the school and to the village’s hotel, the Nullaġvik. It was also pretty close to the hospital’s employee housing where my family lived. It was pretty close to Richard’s house. It was a small village.

The aesthetic of the inside of Peyton’s house was eclectic hunting cabin. The walls were full of family photos and caribou antlers, and the bookcases. The tables were full of more family photos, porcelain figurines of caricatured Native Alaskans and porcelain figurines of caricatured Jesus’s with white faces. The kitchen cabinets probably contained a year’s supply of stove-top meals, seal oil and smoked salmon. Peyton and his brothers shared the first room upstairs. They had both Playstation and Nintendo gaming systems.   

Richard’s house was white, with white trim, like an igloo if an igloo had siding and trim, and we used to play Dave Mirra’s Freestyle BMX on Playstation there. I don’t think the house was originally white, but I think it had arrived on a barge a few decades before Peyton’s,  and its color had faded entirely. It might have even been blue, just like Peyton’s, at some point.

But Richard’s house was a single story and a single-wide, from what I remember. He lived there with his mom and his grandma and grandpa. I don’t know if these were his grandparents on his mom or his dad’s side, but I assume his mom’s. I never spoke a word to them, I don’t think, and they didn’t to me, I don’t think. I am not sure if they spoke English, but they probably did. I do know they were both alcoholics and began drinking early in the morning, because Richard and I would see it when I slept over. They kept a bottle next to one of the legs of the kitchen table they both sat at all day. I think they were trying to hide the bottle, not realizing that me and Richard weren’t sitting at the same table and that our 10-year-old frames actually made the things under the table more visible than those on top. Richard’s mom was an alcoholic too, but she was more functional. She and my mom were coworkers at the hospital.

Kotzebue was a damp village, meaning it didn’t have a liquor store. It also had no roads in or out, except the 30-mile ice road across the Kotzebue Sound to Noorvik — obviously only operational during the winter — and Noorvik was damp too. But, starting at the turn of the 21st century, you could order liquor (and Gameboy Colors) off the internet. The local favorite was R&R, short for Rich and Rare, Canadian Whiskey and you would frequently find little plastic pints emptied by some connoisseur on the ground throughout the village. My parents found a bottle under their bed when we moved into our furnished apartment. My sister’s friends, who were in 8th grade at the time, had a bottle one night as they went out “walking” — the favorite pastime of Kotzebue youth too old to be occupied by bikes, sleds and video games. My sister didn’t drink any, according to her.

Before my family left Kotzebue and I re-joined my Albuquerque friends from 2nd grade in 5th grade at Bandelier Elementary School, Richard had been planning a party for when his mom was going to be out of town. He asked me if I was going to drink and I said I would have “a” beer, but we were gone before the party.

Richard definitely had more of an edge to him than Petyon. We were interested in girls already, and even found a porno at a mutual friend’s house — which we watched, me being too embarrassed to voice my utter confusion as to everything — and I mean everything not just the faulty plot lines — that was happening in the film.

I had asked Teresa, one of the few white girls in the village and a fellow “gifted” program student, via MSN Instant Messenger to be my girlfriend and she said yes. Then, Teresa broke up with me about two weeks later via MSN Instant Messenger, citing that her parents said she was too young to have a boyfriend. I didn’t really care though because I was interested in Karina, an Iñupiat girl.

Karina had an edge to her — so it seemed — and I thought I needed one to get to her, and so my friendship with Richard deepened. My family lived in Kotzebue for about three years, and for about the first year and a half, I was bullied by kids like Richard, and for about the second year and a half, I bullied, with Richard, and I never once held Karina’s hand, or kissed her, or asked her to be my girlfriend on MSN Instant Messenger.

Richard taught me how to talk and dress like an Iñupiat kid, through specifics and osmosis, which stopped me from getting singled out as “the white kid,” even though I had never felt white at Bandelier Elementary School. He used to say to me sometimes, “you can suck my toe all the way to New Mexico,” which for some reason would get me riled up, and he would sometimes make fun of my Hispanic and Jewish heritage — neither of which he understood. He would try and fight me sometimes, and I would always be too scared, so I would say, “I don’t want to throw punches, let’s wrestle,” and I would always win. When Peyton and I would get matched up at wrestling practice, he would always kick my ass.

I don’t remember who won the fist fight between Peyton and Richard, and I don’t think it lasted long enough for a winner to be crowned. I remember what I remember about most fights I witnessed as a child: two little boys with tears streaming down their leaned-back red faces hurling as many tiny fists as they can at a target they are imagining behind their closed eyes. I remember hearing what Richard said, and I remember seeing Peyton’s tears swell and his first punch flying. I remember sitting there and I remember feeling like a loser as two kids with zero dads propelled their tiny battering rams toward each other’s wide faces. My dad said I did the right thing by not getting involved. My family left Kotzebue that following summer.  

The Facebook Age

Peyton and I aren’t friends on Facebook, but Richard found me a few years back. He sent me a message asking if I remember him, reminding me by saying he used to keep me from getting beaten up. He didn’t have to tell me that, I remembered — both him and the fact.

He told me he lives in Anchorage now but wants to move his family down to Seattle — I guess he’s a dad himself now — giving the crime in Anchorage as the reason. I told him I would like to go back to Kotzebue and see how everything has changed. He said he hadn’t been in 10 years but he heard it had changed a lot. He said he heard lots of new people had moved to town.

“They trynna take over the town” and make it into “gang territory,” he wrote. He said to let him know when I’m “gonna go up north” and that he would come with me, so we could “super man sum shit.” I felt honored that Richard would consider enlisting me to help recover his fortress of solitude.  

The Beginning and the Beginning of the End

We originally moved to Alaska because my mom had just graduated nursing school saddled with a substantial amount of student debt. Medical professionals received a premium wage in the small villages of Arctic Alaska. We were broke in Albuquerque — a city ruled by what would be a coastal city’s middle class — but we were rich in Kotzebue — a town ruled by elders, the federal government, and a famous dog sled racer.

In 2015, President Obama brought a procession of over 20 blacked-out secret service SUVs to Kotzebue to drive on the two paved roads. He toured the shoreline and met with local legend Jon Baker, a famous dog sled racer and Alaska native who won the Iditarod in 2011, in order to address climate change. But he didn’t stay at the Nullaġvik and likely slept on the flight back to Anchorage. When my family left in 2002, the village only had one paved road and probably only two cars, and Jon Baker was married to Tammy Baker, who was my mom’s best friend. I have a signed poster from Jon Baker with his slogan, “I dream. I try. I win.”

Every year-round resident of Alaska receives a dividend from the profits generated by the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System after the resident has resided in the state for two consecutive years. The natives would usually purchase new ATVs or snowmachines, or buy plane tickets to Anchorage to watch movies in a theater. They usually spent their money on things that consumed more fossil fuels, feeding the complex. My family received our first and only dividend right before we left and I assume it went towards our moving expenses, which included plane tickets. I remember we watched the first installments of both the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter series in a movie theater in Anchorage on our way home to New Mexico.

Compared to Kotzebue, climate change places the nearby whaling villages in a much more precarious position; Point Hope — a village notorious for its suicide rates and where Peyton’s dad might have been returning from when his plane crashed — has already been almost completely swallowed by the surrounding Bering and Chukchi Seas. My parents went back to Kotzebue for a year in 2010 and my mom told me Peyton’s mom had died from cancer, for which the Iñupiat are at extreme risk; it is hard to maintain their traditional diet and their bodies are maladapted to processed foods, like stove-top meals, while their traditional diet, including muktuk, smoked salmon and seal oil, contains a disproportionate amount of artificial contaminants, especially mercury.  

“Get the lil’ town clean, back the way we left,” Richard wrote via Facebook Messenger about going back up to Kotzebue with me. “I’m down brutha,” I replied.

After I sent that message to Richard, I thought about how I, Kavik, formerly Muktuk, and all the other explorers of European descent — including Barack Obama and Otto Von Kotzebue — had left the village of Kikiktagruk, Alaska. I thought about Peyton, and I thought about everything my parents have taught me. I thought about Richard, and I thought about the thick skull of the bowhead whale, battering the ice, breaching the surface, trying to breath — and then bleached by the sun when all the muktuk had been carved off.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *