National Geographic : 2017 Apr
152 national geographic • april 2017 “ Twenty years ago the elders began to say the ground was sinking,” says Warren Jones, as we chat in his office. “ The past 10 years or so it’s been so bad everybody’s noticed. We’re boating in Feb- ruary. That’s supposed to be the coldest month of the year.” The strangest thing? Three successive win- ters without snow. On his computer, he pulls up a YouTube video made by a teacher at the village school. As the song “White Christmas” plays in the background, fourth graders try to ski, sled, and make snow angels on bare ground, in December. Even without warmer winters, the children’s lives are very different from what their elders experienced. Qanirtuuq chairperson Grace Hill, 66, sees trends that concern her—like the fading language. “When I went to first grade, I only spoke Yupik. Now the kids only speak English,” she tells me in the fluent, slightly accented English that she learned in school. And then, of course, there’s the modern technology that’s changing everything everywhere. “The kids are more into computers—and they’re forgetting about our cul- ture,” she worries. Like other older villagers, Hill at first opposed the excavation of Nunalleq because Yupik tradi- tion says ancestors shouldn’t be disturbed. But now she believes that archaeology can serve a greater good. “I’m hoping this will get the kids interested in their past,” she says. Henry Small has the same thing in mind one sunny afternoon when he brings his 11-year-old daughter, Alqaq, to Nunalleq to check out the progress of the dig. This is their second visit this summer. When I ask him what he hopes his daughter learns here, he responds as if the answer were obvious: “Where she comes from!” Alqaq, in a pink T-shirt, plaid capris, and movie-star sunglasses, is getting the message. On previous visits she has helped sort artifacts and sift the excavated soil for small things the archae- ologists might have overlooked. She especially likes the dolls, she says, and the lip plugs. And what about the ulus, like the one her father made for her birthday, with her name carved into the handle? “It’s cool that we get to use what our an- cestors were using,” she says without hesitation. Today’s visit is brief, with no work to do, so Alqaq and her father soon head up the beach toward home on an ATV. Archaeology’s potential to inspire such appre- ciation for the past is what motivated Jones to get the dig started. He asked Knecht to assess the eroding site, then helped convince the village’s board of directors that excavating Nunalleq was a good idea. He also got the board to fund the first two years of digging and provide ongoing logisti- cal support. “It wasn’t cheap,” he says. “But to get the artifacts for our future generations, money didn’t matter.” At the end of each field season the archaeol- ogists have packed up what they’ve found and shipped it to the University of Aberdeen for con- servation. But all the artifacts will be sent back later this year, destined for an old school building that Quinhagak has converted to a heritage center. Jones envisions this as a place where people can see, touch, and share stories about the beautifully worked possessions of their ancestors. “I want our kids who are in college now to run it and be proud that it’s ours,” he says. And when this dream takes shape and the center opens its doors? “I want to be the first to go in and say, ‘I’m Yupik, and this is where I come from.’ ” j The weather-bleached whale bones piled around clothesline poles in a Quinhagak backyard likely washed up on a beach nearby. Village elders remember bringing home dozens of whales every year, but those days are gone. Hunters now may make just a single catch on the open sea. Senior writer A. R. Williams covers archaeology and ancient cultures for the magazine. Passionate about places “where the landscape is extremely important to people,” Erika Larsen has photographed Sami herders in Scandinavia, tourists in Yellowstone, and writer Garrison Keillor in Minnesota.