Passing through Danger

Finding words for this pandemic in Inupiaq

Joan Naviyuk Kane
Image of COVID-19 virus. Graphic by Bianca Ibarlucea.
Graphic by Bianca Ibarlucea

It’s nice to impart a piece of good news. On the phone, I’m telling my mother about our King Island dictionary, which we’ve almost finished digitizing.

“But,” my twelve-year-old son interjects, “we were getting kicked out of Mom’s office building, they almost didn’t let us in on the last day! I have to fix the page order and put it in a PDF again.”

It’s 9 p.m. in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and my younger son, who turned ten last month, is finishing a bowl of rice on the living room floor of our apartment. I’ve called my parents in Anchorage, in part to check on them, in part so my mom can ask the boys when they’re going to bed, in part so the boys can thank her for the letters they received (in which she asked my younger son, “Why do you stay up so long?”).

And I called in part to ask my mother about Inupiaq etymology. King Island is where our family is from. When I moved to Cambridge to take a yearlong fellowship at the Radcliffe Institute, one of my projects—one I hoped to share with my sons—was completing a dictionary of the dialect we grew up speaking. I’m trying to find a word for pandemic. The etymology in English is muddied, and semantic vagueness troubles me. I see people using a cognate—sikpin?—for “Are you sick?” and it doesn’t seem right. I find words in other dialects that don’t seem to have affinity with words in the King Island dialect.

I ask my mom about the prefix naŋ-. It seems to have to do with avoidance, precarity, suffering, speaking ill, inflicting pain. Naŋaagaa: she/he is avoiding it. Naŋiikłaa: she/he is complaining about her/him. Naŋiaġna.tuq: a precipitous place is frightening. Naŋiaqtuŋa: I feel terror in a precarious place. Naŋiituq: she/he is sick. Naŋitkia: she/he beat her/him. Naŋiirvik: hospital, sanatorium. Naŋirun translates to “epidemic” in most Inupiaq dialects. My mother’s explanation is characteristically direct: “It’s something that makes you suffer. Naŋirun.”

I tell my mom that my older son and I have been experiencing a lot of déjà vu. Tonight he helped me make an eggplant and potato curry with ingredients from a combination of sources—none of them a grocery store. He was eager to mince garlic once we’d trimmed spots of rot; he watched me peel a ginger root before taking on the task himself. When he tastes it, then asks if we can make it again tomorrow without the eggplant, I stop and tell him I feel like we’ve had this conversation before.

“But I’ve never been brave or hungry enough to try eggplant until tonight,” he answers.

Déjà vu, I explain. “Like when I hear Brahms,” he says.

“Like my dreams when I wake up in the morning,” says his younger brother.

Our phone calls with my mother punctuate the days now. My sons record words in our dialect and learn to make sentences. They ask her questions. We don’t speak of the future, and I don’t want to ask too much about her mother—orphaned in the 1918 flu pandemic. My grandmother’s parents and three siblings were all killed by the flu at Qawairaq (Mary’s Igloo) on the Seward Peninsula, where, according to ethnohistorians, the mortality rate was 54 percent. I don’t ask about the baby boy who died, according to church records, at the orphanage where my grandmother and her two sisters were raised through early childhood.

Instead, we talk about things she might remember from her visits to Harvard Square twenty, twenty-five years ago, when I was an undergraduate and she was the proud mother of the first Inupiaq bound to take a degree at Harvard College. We tell her about the empty streets of Cambridge and Boston. Of the boys sharing one scooter, using the bike lanes to get around now that there’s no traffic. We report on the birds and blooms we catalogue on our daily walks.

I tell her about the Inuit-related books I’ve managed to read lately. I spare her the details of the essay I am trying to write, the one I need to step away from in order to sleep. I tell her how I spend hours teaching my younger son long division. Helping the boys with Spanish, Mandarin, social studies, and a dozen other subjects. I say we’re playing violin duets and flute trios together.

The essay I started to write reads as a complaint, a summary of injustices, a preparation for worse to come. I think of the federal termination of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe’s claims to sovereign land that has just happened in the past few days, the government taking their land out of trust. I think of the eighty-one ventilators the Indian Health Service is said to have for all of us beneficiaries of the system.

I hope my parents stay home. I hope people stay away from them. We’re so far, with no way of returning to Alaska and no place to stay even if we did. My sons like it here in Massachusetts, though they dream of moving to Abu Dhabi, to Japan, of a couple of years in the E.U.

In recent weeks, we’ve all stopped saying things like “Remember when we had a house?” “I miss having a yard.” My sons now say, “I miss my friends.” I ask which friends, in Alaska or Cambridge. “All of them,” they say. Cambridge is empty. Our building is almost vacant. We’re stuck here for now.

We departed Alaska for Massachusetts last August, several weeks ahead of schedule. Wells Fargo had begun posting notices on our family home that the bank would soon be boarding up the doors and windows. A judge had ordered me to stop paying the mortgage (which I’d qualified for as a tribally enrolled homebuyer), determining it was my ex-husband’s responsibility. He hadn’t paid for more than eight months.

My sons and I spent most of the spring and summer emptying out the house, sorting our belongings into one of three piles: ship, share, sell. I can’t remember what we did with the N95 respirator masks. They had become a necessity in our final weeks, as we ferried boxes to the post office, brought bin after bin to relatives or Goodwill. I confer with my sons: they tell me we tossed the masks into the garbage before boarding our redeye to Seattle.

Anchorage’s hospitals had been handing out the masks to patients as a matter of public health. Air quality in much of Alaska had been deemed hazardous for most of the summer, as six hundred wildfires burned areas roughly equal in size to the state of Connecticut. Millions of acres of the state’s trees were dead from an infestation of invasive spruce-bark beetles; the invasion had spread as decades of dramatically rising temperatures expanded their habitat. Forests stood tinder-dry after prolonged drought. Many months in 2018 and 2019 saw the hottest days in the history of recorded subarctic and arctic temperatures; Anchorage had a newsworthy stretch of 90-degree days in early July.

The state was ill prepared to contain these wildfires—some caused by humans, some sparked by lightning, more prevalent in the intensifying storms of the arctic and subarctic—having never invested much in training or educating its population. Much of Alaska continues to do without running water, roads, and communications networks.

In Anchorage—a racist, violent city already in financial crisis due to Alaska’s dependence on petroleum and colonial economic policies, compounded by a massive 7.1 earthquake in November 2018—office buildings, schools, homes, and hospitals lacked air filtration systems that could make the air safe enough to breathe. It was a relief to dump those masks in the trash on our way out: reminders of the multiple traumas we were leaving.

We left a place that was not healthy. We adapted. We adjusted our expectations of time, space, and one another.

Have the governments imposed upon my family—municipal, state, and federal—ever responded constructively to disasters? Or have they only perpetuated them, protracted them? How much trust could I have?

When I wake my older son, he asks if he can read the news before he reads a book. I consent. I wish I knew how other single mothers cope right now with schools shut, childcare programs on hiatus, and the libraries, bookstores, and playgrounds closed to everyone. I’ve found little relief between cooking, cleaning, corresponding with students and my bosses at two different universities. I can’t bring myself to respond to most emails and texts. I call my parents. I wish I could tell my sons something certain.

I consider the stretch ahead: how much closer we might grow, how clear our boundaries might become. We’re fortunate to weather this here. We read. I write much less than I hope to. I wonder when things will change. I wonder if things have ever stopped changing for my family—for my mother, my sons. For my community. I think about our changing, living language, too. What do I convey to my children?

Naguasautuq: it got better? Itqiitigaaŋa: it makes me uneasy. Agulaq: it is the distance between things.

Joan Naviyuk Kane is the author of seven collections of poetry and prose, including Another Bright Departure. She has been a Hilles Bush Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University and a Guggenheim Fellow.
Originally published:
April 3, 2020


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