An Eskimo examined: Our in-house Inuit illustrates icy inheritance
As local New Year’s Day celebrants prepared this week to Exercise Like the Eskimos, one authentic local Eskimo reflected on his native culture and what it means to him. For 13 years, Shaun Lambert has been living in Delaware, more than 4,000 miles from his home state of Alaska.
“I’m Inupiaq, or Inuit. I believe that word to us means ‘first people’ or ‘the people,’” Lambert explained. “From what I’m told, a lot of Eskimos believe all people come from Eskimos, that we were the original people.”
Lambert grew up living all over Alaska, from Kotzebue to Anchorage to Tok to Mentasta Lake.
“Kotzebue is very small, probably around 3,000 residents, and most of those are year-round. There are a lot of white people; there are some African-Americans. A lot of the independent businesses are owned by Koreans,” he said. “I can’t compare it to Delaware towns. When I was a kid, most of the roads were dirt. I went back once and the main road was paved. Now, apparently, they’ve paved a couple of other streets. But it’s very small community.
“There is a lot of commercial fishing in the summer. We have native corporations and village corporations, and they employ a lot of people. There’s commercial fishing. There’s shipping through barges and things like that.”
Lambert said that when people find out he’s an Eskimo, many ask him about igloos.
“I have never seen a real igloo. As far as I know, we never lived in igloos,” he said. “We lived in sod houses. We did use igloos when we were out hunting. When you went out hunting, you would be away from home for one or two weeks, depending on how far you had to travel. So igloos were probably used back in the day for that.”
However, during a cold-weather survival class in seventh grade, Lambert did sleep in a hut made out of snow.
“I did learn when I was young how to make a snow Quonset hut-type thing. It was just a big round thing that you’d hollow out the inside of it. You’d mix different layers of snow together, and a chemical reaction happens between the different layers of snow that causes it to harden,” he said. “I have slept in one of those before.”
He noted that he had a sleeping bag and that snow is a very good insulator, so it helps keep it warm in there.
“Part of what we had to do was, we got a sleeping bag, a survival knife — which had fishing line, hooks, matches and a compass — and you had to go spend all day, a whole night, and most of the next day all by yourself out on the lake. So that’s what we did. And we had to fish and hunt. It also came with a snare so you could snare rabbits.”
He noted that many Eskimos no longer wear traditional garb.
“More often nowadays, people wear normal clothes, like the thick Carharrt jackets. It’s obviously pretty cold. Some people will wear fur coats — we call them parkas. I don’t think people make them as much as they used to. Mukluks — which are the fur boots — some people will still wear those, but not as often as what I remember when I was a kid.”
The widely believed idea that Eskimos have hundreds of words for snow, Lambert said, is not true.
“There are different kinds of words for snow, but it basically has to do with the different states of snow. A lot of them use the same base word but have a different suffix. There’s a word for falling snow, wet snow, snow that’s blowing sideways. So there are different words, but it’s not just for ‘snow,’ and I couldn’t tell you how many there are.”
Although he was taught some of the Inuit language when he was a child, Lambert said there’s very little he remembers.
“I remember, in pre-kindergarten, we had classes to try and keep our language alive because it was dying so fast. I don’t think that was very successful. I know some words, but I don’t think a lot of people are fluent anymore, which is kind of sad.”
Along with his given name, Lambert has an Inuit name, Nanuq.
“It means ‘polar bear,’” he explained, adding that he’s only seen one polar bear in the wild, and it was fairly far off. “Generally, it’s given to you by an elder,” he said of the Inuit name. “These days, it’s not necessarily at birth. It used to be, at birth, the elder would look at you, study you and give you an Eskimo name. A lot of times now, the parent will decide who they want to give the child an Eskimo name and wait until that person sees the child to give them the name.”
Lambert said that it is extremely important in Inuit culture to respect the elders.
“They’ve lived a long life. They know a lot, and you should respect them. We have a dish, when we have potlucks — a community or family gathering — we make a fish head stew. That’s a delicacy, because the fish heads have a lot of nutrients that our bodies need, and the elders always get first dibs. They take what they need or want, and then everyone can eat.”
Some traditional Inuit cuisine includes whale meat and seal oil, as well as various kinds of fish.
“A lot of what we eat is dried or frozen. It’s generally not cooked fish. We do boil fish and make fish stew. We eat whale, which we call ‘muktuk,’ One called ‘black meat,’ which is seal meat, and ‘white muktuk’ is beluga. We eat both with seal oil,” he said.
“Back in the day, we didn’t have salt, but now we do and we like to dip it in seal oil and then sprinkle with salt. We also eat a lot of dried and smoked fish, lots of berries. That was probably our only vegetarian intake, really.
“Growing up a lot with my grandparents, I don’t remember eating seal oil and all that stuff. We did eat a lot of Alaska game — moose, bear, caribou — all kinds of fish. I remember going back to Kotzebue, not having had a lot of the Eskimo food for a while, and because it had been so long, I was hesitant to try that again. I definitely enjoy it now, I can tell you that.”
He noted that muktuk is eaten raw and frozen, with the meat having an almost crispy texture.
“It’s just so different, you can’t equate it to anything, really.”
One Inuit dish, “stink flipper,” is something Lambert said he has never tried but has seen it consumed.
“They take the flipper of a seal, put it in plastic bags and burry it for up to several months. They let it rot and ferment, and when it’s ready, they take it out and then boil the flipper to sanitize it and then they eat it,” he said. “I’ve seen people eat it right out of the pot. It didn’t smell very good.”
Lambert said the winters in Delaware are mild compared to back home.
“It’s not really that cold. Really, the most it gets is a little chilly around here. It gets cold in Alaska, but with the wind chill it gets crazy cold. I’d probably say it starts getting cold around 0… Anything -20 to -40, to -50 is pretty darn cold. But there’s not always snow… We do have summer. But, still, even in the summer, the water is pretty cold. We’d go swimming, but you wouldn’t go for very long.”
That being said, Lambert said the summers in Delaware are a lot more extreme than those in Alaska.
“The first thing I remember was how hot it was,” he said with a laugh. “My god, it was so freaking hot that first day. I did not think I was going to make it living here that long.”
While local students may look forward to the potential impacts of snow in Delaware, when he was little, Lambert said school was not canceled very often in Alaska due to snow.
“In Anchorage, there were some. It depended on how much snow we got. If we got more than 6 to 8 inches, it was possible. Obviously, on days when we got 2 feet, it was pretty much guaranteed that school was going to close,” he said. “In Kotzebue, not so much, because most of the kids walked to school and it doesn’t snow as much there. A lot of the snow Kotzebue gets is blown in. It’s so windy that when it snows out on the ice, it blows right in.”
Lambert recalled living in Kotzebue during the winter and having enough snow to reach the roof of a two-story building.
“We had a two-story building next to us when we were in grade school that was a fish processing plant. In the winter, you could walk up a snowdrift and get on the roof of it. We’d go to the side of it, and there would always be a snowdrift, and we jump into it and be waist-deep in snow. That was always fun.”
When snowy roads were plowed on highways, according to Lambert, it offered Alaskans the perfect opportunity to go sledding.
“We used to go sledding on the Taylor Highway, and in order to get to the thing to walk up the side of the mountain, you’d have to get on top on the van to get under the snow burrow. There would be a 9- or 10-foot berm of snow on either side of the road.”
Lambert said he was used to the cold, having grown up in Alaska — doing everything from walking to school to ice fishing in freezing temperatures.
“It’s not much different than regular fishing, other than it’s pretty darn cold out. Basically, you cut or chop a hole into the ice. Most people just use a stick — you don’t have to use a rod and reel, but you can. Attach some fishing line, hook bait and you just bob it up and down, and you’ll feel when a fish is biting.”
Another thing Lambert said is unique about his home state are the summer and winter solstices, which cause months of near-24-hour daylight or darkness, respectively.
“Depending on where you are, the sun in the summer will dip down and, even at its highest point, it goes down below the horizon for an hour or two. It’s still light enough you can see, like dusk, and then it comes right back up. You can see pretty well all night,” he explained.
“In a place like Kotzebue, the sun will never really set during the summer months. You can see the sun for at least several months, at least there. It’s exactly the opposite in the winter. The sun might come up over the horizon for a bit, but it goes down really quick.”
When he was 18, Lambert moved to Hawaii for seven months, after having traveled there during high school. He then returned to Alaska for five years before moving to Delaware in 2001.
“My stepfather was born and raised up near Dover, and when us kids graduated high school, he and my mom moved here. Ever since they moved here, they tried to get me to move here. It took them two years, but they got me here.”
During his years in Delaware, Lambert and his stepfather had, Key of DE, a magazine that covered live bands in Delaware’s lower two counties. He later moved on to work for the Delaware Coast Press and now works at the Coastal Point, as technical director, in charge of technological issues and web design, as well as creating ads and page design.
Having been back home only twice since relocating to Delaware, Lambert said he really misses Alaska and hopes to return soon.
“Probably the thing I miss absolutely the most are the mountains. Waking up and seeing mountains — there’s just something about that. At night, you can see the mountains, the moon shining on them… It’s my home.
“In my opinion, it’s one of the most beautiful places on earth,” he said. “Having lived in Alaska most of my life, going other places is really cool. You’re in awe of how different it is. When I first moved here, I was in awe. But I also realized how special Alaska is.
“There were moments where I’d say, ‘Wow, this is where I live. This is awesome.’ Like the moon rising up over the mountains and them lit up almost like it’s daytime — just from the moon… You don’t really realize until you’re away from it just how special a place is.”