BSNC shareholder and Elder John Tetpon is a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer. John has graciously agreed to share with us a series of stories he compiled from decades of travels across Alaska and the Lower 48. Here is the story of shareholder Lela Oman in his own words:
On a dark and wintry night, a small group of Inupiaq people in Nome, mostly young, gather in secret to tell stories of a time long past; stories long forbidden by missionaries to be told. The windows of the host house are covered, and the doors are locked. No one not of the group is allowed to enter.
To repeat these tales of wonderment is said to be a sin punishable by a living death for infinity, where each one would burn alive for millennia in hell, never to see or feel the sting of death. Pain and suffering of being on fire forever would be in store.
“Never tell of these stories to others who may betray you,” each of those gathered are told. “You will be called evil.”
This was the world of Inupiaq writer Lela Oman. She was about 65-years old, and a well-known creator of Inupiaq lore gathered from the old people.
Remarkably, she was also a member in good standing of the Nome Covenant Church where she often heard ministers tell of the sins of her people.
How she traversed that terrain of expanded consciousness of the aged storytellers and the explicit warnings of the white ministers of the gospel remains unclear. Perhaps it was for her sole purpose to know and tell of the age when such things were as normal as the sun shining down on Earth.
In my visits with her, often at Native gatherings, she never offered an explanation, as if to say, I do not believe it is so. But there always was a knowing countenance upon her face.
Born in Noorvik, Lela learned of the stories from her father, who also swore her to secrecy — that she and her siblings would never tell others in the village of their private sojourns into that mythical and mystical place of Inupiaq reality.
That night of sharing, a swift wind blew hardened snow like sand to one’s face. It hurt. The moon, in an obvious attempt to show itself once in a while, reflected tiny ice crystals like diamonds in the snow. The night was cold.
Hot tea was offered to those present. Candles were lit to avoid bright indoor lights. Seated on the floor, and in chairs that drew a circle, the group began their journey into the world of the ancients.
“I heard a story once about three hunters lost in a snowstorm near Savoonga,” one visitor said. “They were out of food, no coffee, no crackers, no butter. They were hungry.”
“They quickly made a snow and ice shelter and covered the entry with a sealskin doorway. The place soon became warm.”
Once inside, one of the men took his parky off and laid it down in front of himself. “I’m going to the Native store,” he said. He reached into the neck of the parky and in his hand was a can of coffee. He laid it down. He reached again and his arm disappeared into the fur ruff. Out came a box of crackers and butter.
“I’m looking for tomcod and seal oil,” he said. “I think I have some in the front shed of my house. I’ll reach in for them.” His home was 50 miles away.
He pulled out his arm and laid out a small gunny sack of frozen fish and a plastic jar of seal oil. The hunters were saved from starvation and minus 50-below winds. The man was never identified in the woman’s story – as was the practice of local practitioners of little-known powers handed down for generations.
“I heard that story before,” one of the group said with a smile. “It’s popular in Savoonga and Gambell,” he added.
“I’ve heard it too,” another visitor said.
Soon each member of the group recited their own tales of wonder.
“I was told a story many years ago of little people who floated a few feet above the tundra and traveled in the air,” another member said. “They were called Whistlers.”
He said the Whistlers were people who left the village in anger and wandered about in the trees and willows, becoming so dry that they whistled at each breath. “They were small and moved quickly as if to remain unseen,” the man said. “They couldn’t go back to their homes and are only seen at night. Never leave the village while you’re angry,” the storyteller said. That was purpose of that account of events, he said.
There are hundreds of incidental but purposeful tales with a proverb hidden under its words. They did not come from strange and spiteful places, but were passed down from one generation after another for more than 12,000 years.
It is, however, a confusing mix of ancestral knowledge and the written word to this day. We each have a compelling imperative to treasure and save them for our children and our grandchildren.
They come directly from our Creator, Lela Oman said.
Lela passed away peacefully on July 9, 2018, in Wasilla.