Remembering What We Were Taught: The Man Who Killed a Whale and … Later Drowned in Whitefish Lake

by Mark Leary

In the fall of 1997, the late Iftikum Evan of Lower Kalskag was checking his net at Whitefish Lake. The water was low and the mud was showing way out from the grassy shore to the water where his net was set. As he walked through the mud towards his net he saw a piece of something made of wood sticking out. He reached down and pulled the object out of the soft muck.

Immediately he knew what it was and just where it came from. He brought the object back to his boat, carefully wrapped it up, and went back to checking his net.

When Iftikum got home he called and told me to come to his house. He wanted to show me something he found.

I went right down. There lying on his table on an old piece of canvas was the object. He had carefully cleaned it and it was easily recognizable.

It was the ancient wooden bow stem of a qayaq – you know, the part with the big carved out hole where the owner could grab the qayaq and easily drag it.

Iftikum knew exactly where it came from because the people of the Middle and Upper Kuskokwim didn’t use qayaqs – they used spruce framed canoes covered with birch bark and sealed with spruce pitch.

He then told me the story of how a qayaq came to be at Whitefish Lake – a long, long time ago.

The story is long – too long to tell it all here but to summarize:

Way down at the coast somewhere around Quinhagak there was a young hunter. He was so good at hunting that he got bored with the usual animals and became arrogant – catching too much, wasting, not listening to the teachings of the Elders, and generally being disrespectful.

He started to think about hunting the one animal that “Nobody Hunts”. It was a large whale that would protect hunters in their qayaqs way out in Kuskokwim Bay when bad weather came up. When the wind and the waves would get too high the whale would raise up out of the water to block them and slowly drift with the wind while the hunters safely paddled to shore on the lee side of the big gentle animal.

Because of this, the People showed their appreciation and respect for the whale by never hunting it – even when they were hungry.

But this young arrogant hunter broke his People’s tradition and killed the whale.

After killing it the hunter realized it was too big for him to handle it alone. He went back to his village to get help from the other men. When the People found out what he did there was a great outcry. After much discussion it was decided that he should be banished from the village forever.

The young hunter left in his qayaq paddling up into the mouth of the Kuskokwim and into the River itself. But at every village and camp that he came to the People already had heard of the bad thing he had done. The young hunter wasn’t allowed to stay so sadly, he would move on up the River.

After traveling for weeks he reached the Kalskag area. Nobody that far up the River had heard of him or what he had done, so he decided to stay. He ended up settling down with an old man in a little mud house near where the creek to the Kuskokwim leaves Whitefish Lake (you can still see the depression in the tundra where the sod house was).

It was a good relationship. The young hunter provided meat and fish. The old man cooked or preserved it keeping the young hunter well fed.

But the young man hadn’t learned anything. He was still arrogant and it was this arrogance that eventually got him killed while trying to cross Whitefish Lake in his qayaq during a storm.

Just before he set off into huge whitecaps of the storm-tossed Lake he laughed at the old man telling him, “I’m from the Coast! This Lake is like a mud puddle to me!”

Pieces of his qayaq washed up along the north shore of Whitefish Lake for days, weeks, and years after his death including the bow stem Iftikum Evan found many years – maybe hundreds of years – later.

As a young man, Iftikum used to talk to me a lot and told me many stories. He also reminded me of another traditional teaching that I hadn’t heard since I was a kid:

When an animal – fish or game – that aren’t usually found in our country wander in – it’s not a good thing. It means something is out of balance in the world. It’s best to just leave that animal alone. Let it pass so things can get balanced again.

I always try to follow what others took the time to teach me.

Thank you.

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