Since the 1700s, young Eskimo girls have spent hours every day telling each other stories by illustrating the tales by drawing pictures with storyknives. The storyknife has an ivory handle and blade and is etched with scrimshaw pictures such as fish, seals, and polar bears native to the land.
Playing storyknife is bound by rules like all games. Several girls sit in a circle. They smooth a small patch of mud or snow between them with their storyknife.
The girl telling the first story begins by sketching a floor plan of an Eskimo home with her storyknife, setting the stage for the drama. Next she draws the characters using stick figures as they arrive on the scene. Characters cannot speak or act until they have been drawn and must be erased when they leave the scene. When the first girl has finished her tale, another immediately begins sketching her story.
Traditionally, the game is played only by girls. It provides a creative outlet and is a way for them to work through their made-up dramas and learn the moral and practical lessons. It is essential to Eskimo life and customs that are taught to them by their mothers.
With her head wreathed in frost and the pent-up energy of spring, eleven-year-old Meeka set out on foot to lead the reindeer across the Arctic tundra. The women reindeer herders were moving their herds across the tundra so they could graze and fatten, some to be harnessed to sleds to pull not oversized loads, but fair loads. Herding meant keeping on the move throughout the year to search out good grazing, the reindeer meat and skins replacing the years of the shrinking whale harvests.
Meeka collected moss and heather along the way. She has kinship ties with the reindeer. She is from another land, not this one, now a young girl on the verge of womanhood. She expresses her needs, talks about her worthiness, asks for cooperation, and prays for survival. Her safety was an issue for her mother before she was even out of the womb. The only way humans and animals have for learning to abandon fear is to leave the frightening situation altogether.
Meeka took from the pocket of her reindeer fur coat, a piece of raw, frozen reindeer dipped in mustard sauce. At the heart of traditional nomad life near the Arctic Circle, Woman and Reindeer become almost related. Reindeer, also called caribou, are everything to these women reindeer herders as they are food, clothing, shelter, and transportation.
Storyknife fascinates Meeka, but because she isn't originally from this land, she doesn't own a storyknife, didn't even know the game of storyknife existed before coming to this new land. To be able to be in the game and tell a story, a girl has to own one of the prized storyknives. You can only get one from one of the women ivory carvers and there aren't too many, but Meeka knew just where there was an Eskimo woman who carved ivory. She just followed her nose to those remembered currents of air where she recalled the smell of rank air from a-day-old nanook slaughter, nanook being the Eskimo word for polar bear.
"Are you the child who leads the reindeer?" the Eskimo woman asked her.
"Yes, I am the child who guides the reindeer for your people," Meeka answered, memorizing the gamey aroma of fresh polar bear meat.
"Is your mother the one who lassos the galloping reindeer?"
"Yes, she is the one who lassos the reindeer."
"Will she share with me some of her reindeer stories one day?" the Eskimo woman asked, handing Meeka a chunk of raw bear meat.
"Yes, I think she will be willing---even eager to share her reindeer stories."
"Are there many stories?" the Eskimo woman asked.
"There are many stories...twelve-thousand hooves worth, tucked in behind their muscled flanks," Meeka said, and she knew every one of them, steam rising from their dun-colored backs.
"The way you tell it child, that's three-thousand stories. Nanook hunters and reindeer herders are special people. We just want to be who we are," the Eskimo woman said.
It is true . These people live in a totally different dimension and follow ancient ancestral teachings of hunting and herding. They have hung on to tradition. That is how they survive the modern era.
When the scientists and environmentalists ask the Eskimo woman, "How many in the polar bear population, how many do you have?" she replies, "We do not have figures, but we know the pattern. For thousands of years, our people have known the pattern, no numbers, but we know."
She can't understand why they won't accept that knowledge and spend millions on polar bear studies. "It's just part of the cycle, the thousand-year cycle," she says. What the scientists call global warming, she calls the "thousand-year cycle," why her sled dogs got their new fur in February, months later than usual. "Are you lost, reindeer child?"
"No, I am not lost...I am found. Because I am worthy of one, I have come to ask you to carve me a storyknife. I have prayed for this storyknife and my desire for one is so keen."
"Do you have a story to tell, reindeer child?"
"Yes I have a story to tell," Meeka replied. "I have this soapstone with grooved edges. I have moss and heather for a wick to be laid into the grooves cut into the rim and I have seal blubber when melted makes oil to feed the wick to make light. Will you take this bowl of soapstone and use it for a lamp in trade for a storyknife?"
"Let me see this simple light," the Eskimo woman said, curious to see if it would make enough heat to cook her raw bear meat. The term Eskimo was coined from the American Indians meaning "eaters of raw flesh." Frequently unable to cook their food while traveling during the winter, Eskimos are accustomed to eating uncooked meat and raw fish. "Can we light it up?" the Eskimo woman asked.
"Yes, let's do that," Meeka agreed.
Where did you get this, reindeer child?" the Eskimo woman asked, fascinated with the seal-blubber lamp melting the blubber and the oil floating the sawtooth piece of moss wick after Meeka lit it with a match that was as precious as the soapstone, both the match and the soapstone making the long journey with Meeka and her mother from their homeland to this new polar land.
"From a sea-faring whaler woman who carved soapstone from inside the far top of a lighthouse. Clay and firewood is scarce in my homeland, so they carve soapstone lamps for light and to heat meat and fish."
"May I?" the Eskimo woman asked, picking up the lamp. She set it on a tripod of stones.
"Yes heat nanook and give me your answer...I must be on my way before dark you'll understand."
The Eskimo woman digested the warm chunk of nanook. "On the seventh day, my cold world is created from the warmth of this bowl you call soapstone. I have a piece of walrus tusk and I will work it every night for seven days by the light of this lamp with enthusiasm for the reindeer child who says she has a story to tell. What do you want carved on the handle and engraved in scrimshaw on the blade, reindeer child?"
"A seal," Meeka replied, then she was off to Brigade Twelve where her reindeer caravan was, her and her mother the leaders of the women reindeer herders, earning their positions because in the spring they dressed like the cards---hat, colorful tunic and leotards, and pointed ankle-high booties, like the queen in a deck of playing cards, Sami, Norwegians who are the best reindeer herders in the world.
Brigade Twelve is set up for spring calving grounds, many of the female reindeer pregnant. There is plenty to eat, good grazing here, clumps of white and pale green lichens buried under the snow, the staple food of the reindeer in the winter and well into the spring. When Meeka got back to reindeer camp, her mother was putting up their shelter made from a bowhead whale rib and reindeer skins, the shelter they will occupy for the next few months until the female reindeer calve.
"Meeka, light up the seal-oil lamp...I want to tell you a story about the lead reindeer," her mother said.
"Mother, I am sorry we will have no light from the soapstone. I have traded it to an Eskimo woman who is carving me a storyknife from a piece of walrus tusk."
"That soapstone was so precious to you, daughter."
"So are stories, mother," Meeka said.
"If your storyknife draws a story from the heart, then it is a fair trade. We can move our shelter closer to the other womens' tents and we can borrow the shadows given off by their light."
"Thank you for your cooperation, mother. I am worthy of this storyknife in an unselfish way and my desire for one is so keen. I do not need it to fit in. The Eskimo girls have accepted me and for that I want to get in the game."
On the first night, the rough line of the storyknife was created, then the Eskimo woman settled in and snoozed after she snuffed out the seal-oil lamp. Management of native resources such as the walrus tusk is inseparable from spirituality. Her village's responsibility is to care for the terrritory, sustain and share the indigenous bounty.
On the second night, the storyknife took shape. Remaining true to her roots, like her ivory-carving ancestors, she held the mouthpiece of her bow drill made of thong and bone between her teeth, giving her a free hand to work sawtooth ridges in the harpoon-point blade so it will draw sharp pictures in the mud and snow.
On the third night, through the immortal spirit of the ivory, it was evident the storyknife had retained the curve of the walrus tusk. She perfected the lines, knowing the storyknife would have to be perfect to compliment the reindeer child's storylines. Pleased with the personality it took on, the woman opened her tin of biscuits and had tea warmed by the seal-oil lamp to symbolize her proud achievement thus far.
On the fourth night, she exaggerated the line by carving elongated roundness into the handle the likeness of the seal. Eskimo languages have no word for "art." No other word can adequately describe the beauty of the ancient traditions of ivory carving.
On the fifth night, not letting the seal-oil lamp burn full, in the dim shadows, she sanded the storyknife sleek and smooth. She snuffed out the seal-oil lamp early, without fear of having no oil for...
...the sixth night, in the age-old tradition of scrimshaw, she engraved a spirit helper seal on the blade. To bring out the lines, she blackened the etching with soot, unburned carbon from the oil lamp.
On the seventh night, she polished the storyknife with bear grease to give it an afterlife where in the food chain, the polar bear ate the walrus and the Eskimo woman ate the bear.
And that is the story of the storyknife. The nether world familiar that will give the storyknife its spiritual potency and storytelling power will be the seal...
Copyright 2005 Sage Sweetwater, firebrand lesbian novelist---read part 2---Feminist Ivory: Carving a New Life and Raising the Reindeer Pole