Given the name Siku at his birth in a small village a few miles south of Barrow (Utqiagvik) fifteen years ago, Raffie Torngarsuk was educated in a small St. Germaine, a small missionary school in Wainwright, Alaska where he learned to read and write English and worship a God that had not come to save his people.
Since his teachers had difficulty saying his name, with permission from his parents Ida and Petuwaq, they changed his name to Raffie Skye. Since Torngarsuk was the Inuit god of the sky, Sister Yolinda told him as he was processing to enroll in St. Germaine Mission School in Wainwright, “Our God is the God of all that is.”
He frowned as she told him this, but the school was filled with children from the villages north of the Arctic Circle where sometimes the world did not make sense. While most people knew of the division of night and day, up here that division came to a halt at the end of November when the sunset and didn’t come up over the horizon until late February.
According to his Uncle Apaata, his father’s oldest brother and the unofficial shaman of the small fishing village, “Do not trouble yourself with the ways of white skinned people. To most of them, this land is nothing but ice and Eskimos. But to me, it is a step away from heaven. They do not hear the chorus of voices when the Aurora Borealis is floating overhead. ”
Eskimo was the name given to the Inuit. They had been tagged with this name like Christopher Columbus' misunderstanding of where he was in the world, calling the indigenous people he saw, Indians. Speaking Inuktitut, the Inuit translation of this name meant “the people.” Instead Eskimo, a mistranslation from the fur trappers, was the name they had been stuck with for nearly two hundred years.
The important thing, his uncle told him, was to show reverence and respect to all who called this land home. He would have special rituals and ceremonies to commemorate all the creatures who lived in the ice and snow including Brother Polar Bear and Brother Arctic Fox. He loved his uncle, because he would call Raffie by his Inuit name of Siku and let him assist with the rituals.
“Your uncle is not a well man.” His mother Ida would tell him as she filet the seal his father had hunted on the ice floes. “He tells stories about gods that do not exist. He fills your head with things that just aren’t true.”
Yes and that is why I love spending time with him, Raffie thinks to himself.
“Siku, listen to what the ice is saying.” His uncle sat by the frozen river.
“The ice? Ice doesn’t speak, uncle.” He chuckled.
“Shhh, listen, Siku.” He shushed his nephew.
Siku did as he was told and was silent.
“What did you hear?” His uncle asked him.
“Nothing.” Siku was perplexed.
“You must be very still. The ice does not speak in a big voice. You must be very still. Those who came to take the fur of the small animals of the ice, never heard when the ice would talk to them.” He closed his eyes and drew in a deep breath. “Listen.”
Siku did the same and then he heard it. Warm winds blew across the Tundra and the ice began to groan. It was an indiscernible sound, but as he sat there next to his uncle he heard it. He actually heard it.
“What is he saying uncle?” Siku asked.
“He speaks of the coming of the summer when he will disappear and the waters will flow free once again.” His uncle spoke without opening his eyes.
“Where does the voice come from?” He asked.
“From the god of frozen things.” His uncle’s answer came. “You see that light from the east when the sun broke over the horizon?”
“Yes.” He nodded.
“He lives in his ice castle allowing our people to survive and flourish where life is hard.” His uncle opened his eyes. The deep black color of his eyes seemed to sparkle and dance as he spoke.
His uncle told him of the ritual the people used to do in celebration of the short summer that would be coming. Siku raptly listened to him as he described the dance.
“Around the fire they would dance.” He waved his hand in a circle to illustrate, “Everyone would have bells and feathers. And they would sing a song in one voice.”
Siku closed his eyes trying his best to imagine what this festive celebration must’ve looked like. Then in his small voice, he asked his uncle, “Why don’t we do that dance anymore.”
“I heard they made it illegal.” He coughed.
“Illegal?” Siku echoed.
“Against the law, like our Inuktitut language our ancestors used to speak.” He sighed.
“Yeah, one of the girls at our school had to spend the day in the secluded room.” Siku said this as if it was accepted practice.
“Secluded room?” His uncle shrugged.
“It’s where you are put when you say something wrong.” Siku answered.
“There is nothing wrong with speaking the language of our ancestors.” His face darkened a bit as it did on the rare occasion when he got angry or impatient. “Never be ashamed of speaking Inuktitut.”
“If I do, they will put me in that room.” Siku shook his head.
“What did you tell your uncle about the school?” His father Petuwaq asked when Raffie came home from school one afternoon. It was rare that Petuwaq would be home when he walked in the front door after school.
“Nothing.” He did not remember telling his uncle about the secluded room.
“He was quite upset with me when we went hunting on the river this morning.” His father had dark and heavy facial features unlike his older brother who resembled their mother. “He said that no student should be punished for speaking Inuktitut.”
The lightbulb went off in his head. Raffie did not want to tell his father who was already cross about what he had told his uncle.
“He told me about this ceremony of the ice. I swear if I did not know him better, I’d swear he was drinking again.” Petuwaq shook his head, “Last time he went on a binge, he fell on the ice and nearly froze to death. It was over fifty degrees below zero.”
“Calm down, Pete.” Ida said as she wiped her hands on her apron.
“Ida, I am upset with him because he tells Raffie all these things that are not true.” Petuwaq snapped.
“They are true. I heard it. I heard the ice speak.” Raffie shot back.
“Do you see? Do you see what I’m talking about?” He pointed as Raffie went running into his room and slammed the door.
When he started high school at St. Germaine’s when he turned fourteen, there was a birthday celebration. His uncle was invited, which was rare since the rift had formed between Apaata and Petuwaq when they were younger. Raffie had never heard the exact reason for the fallout, but accepted his parents’ reasons for not inviting Apaata to the house very often.
Apaata lived out in the marshy lands beyond the village where caribou herds would run during the coldest part of the winter when the area seemed like a tomb with constant night enveloping the land. Armed with a Springfield rifle and snowshoes strapped to his mukluks, Apaata would build a small shelter out of ice and snow and wait for the herd to migrate on the ice.
He would usually bag one or two young males. Using the knives from his knapsack, he would butcher the animal where it lay in the snow. It was a time consuming process, but he was adept at the task after many years of practice. He promised Siku that one day he would take him, but Ida and Petuwaq forbade it. He would also take his sled dogs by the village and leave his younger brother some of the spoils of his hunt. Petuwaq loved fresh caribou meat as did Raffie.
When he walked into math class on his first day of high school, he insisted on being called Siku, but his teacher, Sarah O’Connell would not, insisting on using Raffie instead.
“Hey there Eskimo boy.” One of his classmates teased him, “Let’s go out and hunt us some meat.”
The laughter from the other students made him want to run out of the classroom, but he bit his lip and did not say anything else for the rest of the class.
“Hey.” Ahnah said as she approached his table at lunch. Raffie was sitting by himself avoiding looking at any of his classmates.
“Hey.” He sighed.
“Are you alright?” She was pretty with her olive skin and her long black hair.
“I’m not convinced.” She put her tray down next to his. “I heard about what happened in math. Miss O’Connell will never get us. She’s from back east where they take this religious stuff seriously.”
“I just get tired of no one taking me seriously.” He drummed his fingers on the table.
“I understand.” She said as she sipped on the straw of her soda. “We get into arguments about our culture at our house.”
“We don’t. It’s taboo in our home.” He was on the verge of tears.
“We will always be who we are.” She put her hand on his. His heartbeat accelerated a bit.
Just before Christmas break, Raffie got the news that Uncle Apaata had passed away.
“My brother had cancer.” Petuwaq explained to Raffie. “He was given the option to go to Anchorage for treatment, but he refused. I’m sorry.”
The embrace seemed fake to Suki as if his father was trying to placate him. It did not.
“Call me Suki.” He asked his father with his eyes glistening with tears.
“No, your name is Raffie.” His father shook his head.
“I want to be called by my Inuit name.” He said with a little more force.
“No, no, it would be too much trouble. We’d have to go to Barrow and have them legally change it.” He continued to shake his head.
“Why? That was my name. It was my name before I started school. It’s what he called me.” Raffie protested.
“Yes, I know, but my brother was a sick man. When he was a boy there was an accident when he fell off the roof of our house. He was in a coma for several days. My parents thought he’d never recover, but he did. When he started talking about being native and having ceremonies, everyone thought he was crazy. Maybe he was. He would talk to things that weren’t there and saying all kinds of crazy stuff.”
Like listening to the ice?
“We got into a big fight when I graduated from the mission school about going off and living like our ancestors.” He folded his hands on the table as Ida stroked his hair. “I am sorry he passed away. He loved you very much. He left you his rifle and his snowshoes.”
“Call me by my name.” He said in a controlled tone with an angry undertone like a polar bear growl.
“Raffie.” Ida said putting her hand on his like Ahnah had done, but he pulled it away.
“Suki…my name is Suki.” He turned his head away from his parents.
“We have a lot to be thankful for.” Ida said.
“Like what? A school that insists we give up our heritage? A town that does not accept our ancient ways. Makes us into good Christians instead of the savages we once were?” Raffie stood up and walked to his room.
“What are we going to do with him, Pete?” Ida put her head on her husband’s shoulder.
“Pray things will turn out for the best.” He put his hands around his coffee cup.
“We are gathered here to honor the life of Adam Shiffareff.” Reverend Tomanzick spoke to the half empty chapel with Apaata’s simple pine coffin resting on supports in the front of the tiny chapel.
“His name was Apaata.” Raffie mumbled as both of his parents tried to ignore him.
“In his life he helped build this church and the docks down at the shore. He was a good man and it is the opinion of most who knew him that he is with Jesus today.” Reverend Tomanzick Continued. “While the ground is too frozen to dig on this day, we will wait for the spring winds to come this way so we can properly intern his body to the earth. In the meantime we will keep his remains in an outdoor shelter. May the lord receive the soul of his faithful servant on this day, amen.”
Everyone mumbled, “Amen.”
“Let us go in peace.” Reverend Tomanzick raised the Bible and made the sign of the cross.
The two police officers were called by Reverend Tomanzick when the coffin with the body of Adam Shiffareff was removed from the shelter where it had been stored. They followed the tracks in the ice and snow until the trail ended abruptly.
Officer Kjalama looked at his partner Officer Rzcanamanche and both shrugged in unison.
“What do you suppose happened?” Officer Kjalama asked his partner.
“I don’t have the foggiest.” Officer Rzcanamanche responded.
“How are we going to put this in our report?” Officer Kjalama scratched his head.
“Guess we’ll just say it’s a mystery.” Officer Rzcanamanche answered.
“Suppose whoever done this fell below the ice?” Officer Kjalama proposed.
“Yeah, but we won’t know that until spring.” Officer Rzcanamanche pointed to the frozen over lake.
What did happen was Suki stole his father’s snowmobile, attached his uncle's coffin to the hitch and drove out to his uncle’s house. Placing the coffin in the living room, Suki doused the outside with gasoline. With a match his lit the gasoline soaked cloth which acted like a fuse snaking its way to the house which exploded into flames. Tears ran down Suki’s face as he took the bells and fathers from the pockets of his parka and began to dance.
Speaking out in Inuktitut his uncle had taught him, he said, (and I translate), “Come speak to me the god of frozen things. Speak to me of the things you hold in the palm of your hands. I offer you my uncle Apaata who taught me the ways of my people.”
He raised his bells and feathers into the pitch black sky as the flames illuminated the frozen earth surrounding his uncle’s blazing home.
“I come to you as one of the people, the Inuit who lived in this harsh land of the ice and heard you speak to us in the quiet moments of our lives. I speak to you now and ask you to take him with you. He did not believe in Jesus. He did not enter the chapel until the day he died. He knew how to hunt the caribou and give thanks to the spirit for feeding him while he was here. I wish to thank you, too. I, Suki Torngarsuk, wish him a safe journey.”
As the fire continued to burn, Suki danced around the pyre as a final ritual to his Uncle Apaata whom he loved very much.