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How the Formerly Ubiquitous Pumpkin Became a Thanksgiving Treat

Smithsonian Magazine

With its spice-infused creamy, orange filling and crisp crust, there’s nothing quite like pumpkin pie to herald the arrival of the Thanksgiving holiday (though some might argue in favor of its other forms, from pumpkin bread to pumpkin ale). The pumpkin features uniquely in this fall holiday and the autumn weeks generally, remaining absent from other celebrations like the Fourth of July or Christmas. But at one point, the squash was as ubiquitous as bread—and sometimes even more so, as American colonists would rely on it to make bread when their harvest of wheat fell short. How did the pumpkin go from everyday produce to seasonal treat? It’s a story more than 10,000 years in the making.

To understand the surprising trajectory of the orange pumpkin, it’s important to know something of its life history. The cheerful pumpkin is known by the species name Cucurbita pepo—a species that also includes acorn squash, ornamental gourds and even zucchini. All these different forms of Cucurbita pepo are cultivars, varieties of the same species that are selected in certain forms by human farmers. And yes, they are technically fruits, though many refer to them colloquially as vegetables.

Before humans arrived in the Americas, wild forms of these squashes grew in natural abundance around floodplains and other disrupted habitats, with the help of enormous mammalian herbivores. Creatures like giant ground sloths, mastodons and gomphotheres (elephant-like animals) created the perfect environment for wild squashes, and when humans arrived and hunted the massive herbivores to extinction, many of the wild squashes and gourds went extinct as well. Those that survived managed to do so because humans continued growing them, making squashes (including in the pumpkin form) the first domesticated plant in the Americas. Archaeologists unearthed the oldest example of orange field pumpkin seeds in Oaxaca, Mexico and dated them to an astonishing 10,000 years—millennia before the appearance of domesticated corn or beans.

Initially, indigenous people used the squashes for their seeds and as containers, but by 2500 B.C. Native Americans in the Southwest were cultivating corn, beans and squash on farms. The crop spread across the Americas, with communities from the Haudenosaunee in the northeast (also known as the Iroquois Confederacy) to the Cherokee of the southeast planting and sometimes venerating the squash.

When Europeans arrived, they encountered the endemic crop everywhere. “Columbus mentioned them on his first voyage, Jacques Cartier records their growing in Canada in the 1530s, Cabeza de Vaca saw them in Florida in the 1540s, as did Hernando de Soto in the 1550s,” writes historian Mary Miley Theobald. Native Americans cooked the squashes in all manner of ways: roasting them in the fire, cutting them into stews, pounding the dried flesh into a powder, or drying strips of it into something like vegetable jerky. (At one point George Washington had his farm manager attempt the same preparation with Mount Vernon pumpkins, only for the man to report, “I tried the mode you directed of slicing and drying them, but it did not appear to lengthen their preservation.”)

For these colonists, the squashes provided an abundant source of nutrition, and they rarely distinguished one form of Cucurbita pepo from another. “Through the colonial era they used the words interchangeable for pumpkin or squash,” says Cindy Ott, the author of Pumpkin: The Curious History of an American Icon. As to whether the Pilgrims ate pumpkin at their iconic meal with Native Americans, Ott says there’s no mention of it in the written records, but people “probably ate it that day, the day before, and the day after.”

It wasn’t until the early-19th century that Americans began to distinguish between the different forms of Cucurbita pepo, when masses of people moved from the rural countryside to urban areas during the Industrial Revolution. Zucchini and other summer squashes were sold as cultivars in city markets; the pumpkin, however, remained on farms, used as livestock feed. City-dwellers, meanwhile, ached with nostalgia for their connection to the land, Ott says. By the middle of the century, popular songs pined for happy childhoods spent on the farm. The pumpkin served as a symbol of that farming tradition, even for people who no longer actually worked on farms. “The pumpkin has no economic value in this new industrial economy,” Ott says. “The other squashes are associated with daily life, but the pumpkin represents abundance and pure agrarian ideals.”

Pumpkin pie first appeared as a recipe in the 1796 cookbook American Cookery, published by New England writer Amelia Simmons, and was sold mainly in that region. When the dessert gained popularity, it was billed as a New England specialty. That connection to the North translated to the pumpkin being appropriated by abolitionists leading up to and during the Civil War, Ott says. Women who championed the anti-slavery cause also wrote poetry and short stories about pumpkins, praising them as a symbol of the resilient, northern family farmer. The status of the squash rose to national prominence in 1863, when President Lincoln, at the behest of numerous women abolitionists, named the fourth Thursday in November as a national holiday.

“The women who [helped create] Thanksgiving as a holiday were strong abolitionists, so they associated pumpkin farms with northern virtue and very consciously compared it to Southern immoral plantation life,” Ott says. “That feeds into how Thanksgiving became a national holiday in the midst of the Civil War, when the pumpkin was a pivotal player in the northern harvest.”

The link between Thanksgiving and pumpkin pie has continued to this day, with American farmers growing more than a billion pounds of pumpkin annually, the vast majority for Halloween and Thanksgiving. Urbanites travel out to family farms to buy their jack-o-lantern pumpkins, and visit the grocery store for canned pumpkin before the big holiday. For Ott, learning the history of the pumpkin was a lesson in how every-day objects can tell deeper stories.

“These very romantic ideas are about farm life and how Americans like to imagine themselves, because farming is hard work and most people wanted to leave the farm as soon as they could,” Ott says. “But [the pumpkin shows] how we think about nature, ourselves and our past. A humble vegetable can tell all these stories.”

Why Florida’s Lower Suwannee Is an Outdoor Lover's Paradise

Smithsonian Magazine

Set along Florida’s Gulf Coast in an elbow-nook region called the Big Bend, the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge is a nature-lover’s playground. An hour’s drive south-southwest from Gainesville, the 53,000-acre refuge is one of the largest undeveloped estuaries in the United States, encompassing 20 miles of the Suwannee River delta and coastal marshland as it spills into the Gulf. The region’s confluence of freshwater and saltwater and wetlands and uplands supports an astounding diversity of migratory birds and wildlife—and for the humankind among us, its languid tributaries provide the ideal backdrop for natural diversions. Located an equidistance of around 135 miles from Tampa, Tallahassee, Orlando and Jacksonville, the area is also every bit as accessible as it feels remote. Here are eight of the many reasons you should experience the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge for yourself.

Observe an array of native and endangered species

Encasing 80 square miles of coastline, inland forest and swampland, Lower Suwannee is home to a mix of protected habitats. Marine mammals, including bottlenose dolphin and endangered West Indian manatee, glide beneath the surface of the Suwannee Sound, otters play along the banks, and alligators and box turtles sun themselves on fallen logs. In the floodplain wetlands, wading shorebirds and endangered salt marsh vole peek out from the brush, while pine flatwoods hide gopher tortoises, whitetail deer, foxes, and black bears. On the water, you may see a prehistoric Gulf sturgeon, a primitive fish group dating to the dinosaur era 200 million years ago. Dusk and dawn afford the best opportunity to spot wildlife, but keep an eye on the clock: The refuge closes each day at dark.

Pick your paddles and jump in

The 246-mile Suwannee River winds from southern Georgia through northern Florida, with the final 20 miles flowing through the protected lands of the refuge and culminating in the brackish river delta that feeds the Gulf. Coupled with its 30-mile coastline and host of other water bodies within its bounds, the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge offers miles of unspoiled waterways that are ideal for a quiet paddle by kayak, canoe or standup paddleboard. You’ll find several areas throughout the park to put in, including Shired Island, Weeks Landing and Shell Mound. Twelve well-marked water trails of various lengths guide paddlers through the wetlands. Maps can be downloaded from the Friends of the Lower Suwannee & Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuges site or picked up at the refuge headquarters.

Hit the trails and explore Lower Suwannee on foot

For those who prefer to experience nature from dry land, the refuge offers a variety of short trails that traverse its diverse landscapes. At the main public facility, situated southwest of Chiefland along CR-347, visitors can throw on comfortable walking shoes and get right to it just 200 yards from the Suwannee River. This locale offers easy access to both a 6/10-mile river trail, as well as a quarter-mile boardwalk that winds a bit deeper into the swamps that fringe the river bank. Other popular trails include: Dennis Creek, a mile loop at Shell Mound that reveals a range of coastal habitats; and the Dixie Mainline Trail, which was created to house a railroad in the 1920s, and is today considered among the state’s most remote scenic trails. And should weather or blisters put a damper on your hiking aspirations, the Lower Suwannee Nature Drive provides ample opportunities to take in the panoramic scenery from the comfort of your vehicle.

Grab the binoculars and track local bird life

An astounding 250 species of birds have been identified within the refuge, and while seasonal migration patterns make some months more bountiful birdwatching times than others, visitors can expect to see nesting bald eagles, osprey, sandpipers, white ibis, and several species of egret and heron. Visitors might even catch a glimpse of endangered wood storks and limpkins, or crying birds. And thanks to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, you can be part of a greater initiative to help keep track these refuge residents. In partnership with the Audubon Society, the organizations launched the eBird Trail Tracker in 2002 to help birders record what they’re seeing in real time, along with where, when and how they went out into the field on each occasion. Setting up an account is free, and participants can share their bird sightings with an international community of enthusiasts, all with the goal of amassing detailed information about bird species and their footprint in this refuge and around the world.

Cast a line and see what bites

Whether by boat or by pier, the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge offers abundant opportunities to fish. And because of its unique confluence of ecosystems, you don’t have to choose between a freshwater or saltwater catch. Cast a line for largemouth bass, Suwannee bass, bluegill, redear sunfish and channel catfish, among others. Fishing here requires a permit through the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and most of these are available as 3- or 7-day options, or annually for Floridians or those who plan to stay a while. Charter a boat, or simply fish from the dock or bank—Shell Mound and Shired Island both offer permitted spots to cast a line from dry land.

Bring the whole house along

Kayaking, canoeing and motor-boating afford what is arguably the best vantage for exploring the sprawling refuge by day, but for those who don’t want to relinquish the view at sunset, a houseboat rental can be a surprising lodging alternative. The 44-foot vessels are true to their name, accommodating between six and eight guests and providing all the creature comforts of a real house, such as a full working kitchen, shower—and even a flush toilet. As part of the rental, the marina will teach you how to captain it and getting you licensed. Rent yours from the town of Suwannee, and you’ll be on your way through the area's water mazes in no time.

Experience ancient history at Shell Mound

Dating several millennia to around 2,500 BCE, Florida’s indigenous people once lived along the Gulf, hunting and fishing for sustenance. As they gathered oysters, clams, whelks and other native bivalve mollusks, they discarded the shells in specific areas of waterfront “kitchens” known as middens, and over time, these mounds covered several acres. Such prehistoric Native American sites are located across the state, but Shell Mound just outside Cedar Key is believed to be the largest on the central Gulf Coast, spanning five acres and reaching a height of nearly 28 feet. Visitors to the refuge can observe the impressive, ancient formation from the 1/3-mile Shell Mound trail, or for a closer look that also includes sweeping coastal vistas, head to the observation deck—and bring your camera.

Explore the quirky charm of nearby Cedar Key

The tiny island town of Cedar Key, while technically an archipelago, is one of the best-kept secrets of the Big Bend, and arguably the entire state. With an Old Florida charm and a plucky, artsy attitude, the population-700 town feels both suspended in time and entirely of the moment. In the historic marina, houses, stores, and colorful mom-and-pop restaurants are perched on stilts over the Gulf of Mexico, offering sweeping views of open seas and incoming fishing vessels. Follow hand-painted signs to the "Dock,” a block-long hub of activity that includes an array of shops and restaurants, and be sure to sample Tony's world championship-winning clam chowder. Art galleries brim with work from local artists and pelicans hop out of the way on webbed toes. The Island Hotel’s Neptune bar offers cold drinks and a chance to recharge before the next adventure, and local-run accommodations abound. The brightly painted Cedar Key Bed and Breakfast is a popular choice, offering charming, pet-friendly rooms and a bottomless cookie jar available to guests at any hour.

Disappearing Puffins Bring an Icelandic Hunting Tradition Under Scrutiny

Smithsonian Magazine

A wheel of wings spins around Grímsey Island, Iceland’s northernmost outpost. This eyebrow of land 40 kilometers above the mainland crosses the Arctic Circle. It’s home to some 70 residents, with one street, a tiny grocery store, a slash of airstrip roughly a third the length of the island, and a signpost pointing to the 66°33’ N parallel, across which tourists drive golf balls into the Arctic. In the brief high North summer, the island belongs to seabirds.

Thousands and thousands of kittiwakes, puffins, Arctic terns and more transform Grímsey into a bird nursery bustling under the constant light of the midnight Sun. Birds nestle in sea cliffs, brood in wildflower-filled meadows, patrol rocky burrows and raft on the cold North Atlantic waters. And they cluster on the tarmac, erupting in clouds when planes ferrying day-trippers circle in.

It’s balmy for the Arctic on this July day, and Árni Hilmarsson relaxes outside in jeans and a wool sweater. Hilmarsson, a fisherman from the other end of the country, is on a seabird quest. He and a half-dozen other men have traveled to Iceland’s far north from the Westman Island of Heimæy (population around 4,500), about 10 kilometers off Iceland’s south coast. They’ve made two boat crossings and have driven more than 500 kilometers—a long day’s journey—in pursuit of black-and-white birds with enormous red-and-yellow-striped bills: Atlantic puffins. They’re here for the age-old Nordic tradition they call lundaveiðar [LOON-da-veyth-ar]: the summer puffin hunt.

“Since I was a little boy, I was always catching puffins,” says Hilmarsson, who’s in his 50s and grew up hunting seabirds in the Westman Islands. “Each year, I would catch 5,000, 6,000. I was raised up on bird meat.”

We’re sitting near the Arctic Circle signpost outside the two-story yellow house that serves as Grímsey Island’s hotel. Hilmarsson unwinds with a smoke after hours crouched on a wet, tick-loaded hillside, sweeping birds from the sky with a long-handled net. His party of fathers and sons, neighbors and friends, has come to catch puffins with a triangular net, or háfur [HOW-verr]; the older ones teaching the youngsters, like their elders taught them. And the group—all members of the same Westman Islands hunting club, a hub of island social life—has a mission: to fetch birds for the puffin-hungry folks at home.

Árni Hilmarsson uses decoys to lure puffins close to waiting hunters. (Photo by Carsten Egevang/

For centuries, seabirds have been crucial to the coastal peoples of the North Atlantic. Viking Age explorers followed ocean foragers such as guillemots and gannets to new shores. Vast colonies of kittiwakes and puffins sustained the settlements they established on the harsh seaboards of Iceland, eastern Greenland and the Faroe Islands. For the settlers, seabird hunting and egg gathering meant the difference between life and starvation. For their descendants, the tradition lives on as the heart of community identity.

The seabird harvest is a test of nerve: Men dangle on ropes dozens of meters above the sea, plucking eggs from cliff-side nests. It’s a test of skills: Gauging flight paths and timing the háfur swing just right to snag a bird mid-air. For some, it’s a small source of income. For most, it’s the essence of a cherished cuisine. And above all, it’s a tie between generations, a link to their maritime past, a bit of a taste of the sea.

But North Atlantic seabirds and the way of life surrounding them are now disappearing. Seabird populations have plunged up to 60 percent in parts of the region over the past decade due to climate change and other human activity. Breeding failures in the once-prolific nesting colonies are widespread. Five species native to Iceland, including the iconic Atlantic puffin, are now on the BirdLife International/International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List as near-threatened or vulnerable.

Hilmarsson tells me his home in the Westmans used to be prime puffin territory. The volcanic archipelago hosts a mega colony that’s the largest Atlantic puffin breeding site in the world. But the ecosystem has gone awry. Warming coastal waters have decimated chick production for more than a decade. The picture is similar around most of Iceland and extends south to the Faroe Islands and throughout the northeast Atlantic.

“We cannot catch puffins on Westman Islands,” Hilmarsson says. His sharp, weathered features crease up. After the long run of breeding catastrophes, Westman authorities limited the local hunting season to three days in 2016, down from five the year before. Only a couple hundred puffins can now be taken there.

Outsiders may bristle at the thought of eating this endearing—and often anthropomorphized—bird with the clownish honker. But it’s almost a ritual for the 332,000-odd residents of Iceland. Puffin cuisine stars in family gatherings, community events, holidays, and feasts that fortify north folk as winter approaches.

“We have to eat puffin once or twice a year,” Hilmarsson says. He squints at the snow-capped peaks glinting on the mainland. “Especially on Thjóðhátíð.”

He’s talking about a huge festival held in the Westman Islands every summer. The event began in 1874, when bad weather prevented Westman Islanders from traveling to the mainland for the nation’s 1,000th anniversary celebration, so they decided to hold their own. The party is legendary—a multi-day bacchanalia drawing revelers from all over Iceland and beyond. The Thjóðhátíð [THYOTH-how-teeth] is only a few weeks away. And Hilmarsson’s club is supposed to provide the birds.

With climate change and other ecological stressors, seabird numbers in the North Atlantic are declining and bringing the fate of the annual puffin hunt into question. (Photo by Carsten Egevang/

Millennium-Old Culture on the Edge

“It’s difficult for Westerners to grasp the importance of harvesting seabirds to the Nordic people,” says Danish biologist Carsten Egevang. “There’s a strong sense of pride in doing things like your father. I’ve seen it in the Faroe Islands, Greenland, all the Nordics.”

Egevang, a researcher for the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources in Nuuk, Greenland, is traveling around the North Atlantic studying Old Norse traditions that are now declining along with the seabirds. The project, planned to culminate in a book, combines science, anthropology, and art. A keen photographer, Egevang has gone out in boats with seabird hunters in Greenland, and hung from cliffs with Faroe Island egg harvesters to capture images of a fading culture. He’s now on Grímsey Island with Icelandic ornithologist Aevar Petersen to record what may be one of the last vestiges of lundaveiðar.

We’re walking on a rutted dirt road along Grímsey’s west coast, on our way to watch the Westman Island hunters in action. Egevang totes a gear-filled backpack nearly twice his girth. It’s early morning, but the midsummer Sun hovers near the same high piece of sky as at dinnertime last night. Birds soar and swoop around us. Plunging snipes whirr like badminton shuttlecocks. Arctic terns give a bandsaw screech as they dive for our heads. And rows upon rows of puffins line the clifftops, like tuxedo-clad sentries at their posts.

Egevang has spent the past two decades monitoring Greenland’s seabirds and watching their numbers drop. Over time, being around hunters and their communities, he became aware of the societal consequences as well.

“There are so many cultural traditions bound to harvesting seabirds,” Egevang says. “In the old days, it was a matter of survival. And of course it’s not like that anymore, but the tradition still carries on.”

The extensive use of seabirds has long been a distinctive feature of Nordic coastal culture. Seabirds are mentioned in Norse sagas as early as the 9th century, and their bones have been found in the middens of Viking settlements. Landowners’ hunting rights, along with regulations restricting hunting near colonies where eggs are collected, are laid out in a 13th-century Icelandic law book. A land register makes note of good puffin cliffs in the early 1700s. Hunting and egg gathering prowess bestowed personal fame, community pride. It’s a millennium-long thread between generations.

“People really care for these traditions,” Egevang says. “They will literally set their life at risk to get, say, fulmar eggs, when they could easily go to the store and buy chicken eggs. … They are doing this because they like it, because they feel that it’s part of their heritage.”

We reach the spot where the Westman Islanders are hunting. Streams of bird shit streak the hillside like vats of whitewash overturned. A brisk sea breeze broadcasts the acrid, fish-tinged funk. Clutching a rope, we ride the guano slip-and-slide down the long, steep slope to the hunters’ blinds. A galaxy of puffins swirls around us, circling between ocean and land.

Tucked behind rocks, the hunters wait for an off-course straggler or a burst of wind to push a bird within reach of the háfur hidden at their sides. Suddenly, a net arcs across the sky, then swoops back to ground with an angry puffin tangled in its web.

“It reminds me of back home when I was a kid,” says Ragnar Jónsson, an orthopedic surgeon who grew up in the Westman Islands and has come to Grímsey for a taste of the past. As a youngster, he tells me, he spent summers climbing all over the bird cliffs with a pole and net. He speaks of the nature and the bird life and the freedom. “There were no restrictions,” he says wistfully.

Like many Icelanders, Jónsson seems reticent about discussing his people’s seabird harvest traditions, aware that outsiders may find them controversial. “A lot of people think it’s disgusting that we eat seabirds,” he says, “but it’s part of our culture.”

But the environment is changing, Jónsson acknowledges. The rapacious Viking spirit must find a way to adapt. For him, seabird hunting has become a way to relax and enjoy the outdoors. And while his companions scoop up puffin after puffin, he sits with just one stashed in a hollow behind him.

“It’s beautiful here,” Jónsson says, gazing at the flocks drifting over sparkling water. “I like to sit and watch. It’s not just about catching as many as you can. Been there, done that.”

Atlantic puffins stand guard on a Grímsey Island nesting cliff overlooking the North Atlantic Ocean. (Photo by Carsten Egevang/

In Our Blood

Culture. Heritage. Tradition. I hear those words a lot as I stroll around Grímsey Island, passing small clusters of hunters every kilometer or so.

“This is in our blood,” says Hilmar Valur Jensson, a Heimæy tour guide hunting with the Westman Islanders on the steep cliffs of Grímsey’s northwest coast.

“Today we [hunt] mainly for the heritage,” says Ingólfur Bjarni Svafarsson, a teenaged Grímsey native, whom I encounter on the road to the lighthouse at the island’s southern tip. Svafarsson has hunted seabirds on Grímsey as long as he can remember—going out with his father before he was big enough to hold the net. He hopes to teach his own kids someday.

What about women, I ask Guðrún Inga Hannesdóttir, who is having a picnic with her young son, Hannes, on the high path over the island’s grassy spine. Do Icelandic women see hunting and egging as just a macho thing? Even kind of old school?

“I think it is cool that they still do that. … It’s not old school at all,” says Hannesdóttir, a teacher at the island’s seven-student primary school. Even though the actual harvest is mainly a male activity, she says, everyone enjoys the outcome.

Life on Grímsey is intertwined with seabirds. The small rocky island has been inhabited since the first Norse settlers arrived in the early 900s. The abundance of birds was one of the main draws, and eggs were a key source of income before fishing became king. The island’s sole restaurant is named Krían—Icelandic for the Arctic tern, a striking white creature so abundant and aggressive that people wave poles over their heads to fend off its attacks when they walk outside. Murre and razorbill eggs from the island’s cliffs sit next to cookies in the cafe’s bakery case.

But it’s puffins that rule. In summer, háfurs are as ubiquitous here as surfboards in Hawai‘isticking out of car windows, leaning against bicycles, propped against practically every house. Young and old share this passion, from former sheriff Bjarni Magnusson, who, at 86, bagged around 40 puffins this hunting season, to 14-year-old twins Ásbjörn and Thórólfur Guðlaugsson, who together caught 86 puffins in one day. It was their first time.

“Our brother taught us,” says Ásbjörn, cleaning his catch in a shed by the harbor. “It’s fun, and we have money,” Thórólfur adds. They plan to sell part of their haul to people craving a taste of puffin in Reykjavik and the Westman Islands.

The háfur looks something like a car-length lacrosse stick and is a fairly recent adaptation. Imported from the Faroe Islands, it arrived in Iceland around 140 years ago, supplanting more strenuous—and more destructive—old methods, such as pulling chicks from burrows with hooked sticks. The long-handled nets catch mostly juvenile birds that are too young to breed—flying around like bored teenagers with no responsibilities and little else to do. By centering on the nonbreeders, hunters maintain they are not harming the overall population. As a further safeguard, they avoid capturing birds with food in their bills: a sign of parents rearing chicks.

These days, however, few young puffins are even around to catch outside of Grímsey Island and other colonies in the north. So far, these places continue to produce offspring, but the marine ecosystem is changing fast, especially in the Arctic.

Puffin hunters on Iceland’s Grímsey Island gather the day’s catch. (Photo by Carsten Egevang/

Sobering Statistics

While Egevang photographs the hunters, Petersen counts the birds. Treading carefully across slippery rock beaches, stepping gingerly over burrows potholing the hillsides, he scans the cliffs for kittiwake and fulmar nests.

Red-faced from the driving wind, Petersen is a real Icelander, outside in shirtsleeves despite the cold. But the graduate of universities in England and Scotland speaks English with a slight Scottish lilt. The former researcher for the Icelandic Institute of Natural History has been surveying Iceland’s seabird colonies for more than 40 years. Now retired, he continues to travel around the country keeping track of its avian populations.

“The kittiwakes are doing terribly,” Petersen says, as we encounter yet another dead white bird with wing tips that look like they were dipped in black ink. When he last surveyed this part of the island, in 1994, he counted more than 3,300 active kittiwake nests. This year, there are only about a quarter as many. He’s seen the same trend at his study sites in western Iceland, where he’s also found sharp drops in Arctic terns, puffins, and other seabirds. Similar trends are being noted in colonies from Scotland to Norway, and beyond.

The statistics are sobering. The North Atlantic basin is a crucial habitat for many of the world’s marine birds. More than two dozen species breed in the region’s cold, food-rich waters. Iceland alone hosts some 22 species, including a substantial portion of the northern hemisphere’s Atlantic puffins, common murres, northern fulmars, razorbills, black-legged kittiwakes, and Arctic terns. All of these species are now in trouble.

A host of factors is behind the North Atlantic’s seabird declines, including introduced predators, large-scale fisheries vacuuming up their prey, by-catch, excessive harvesting, and more, with differences depending on species and location. One force, however, is common throughout the region: profound ocean disturbances driven by climate change.

“Something seems to be happening to the food supply of seabirds over a large area of the northeast Atlantic,” says Morten Frederiksen, a seabird ecologist with Denmark’s Aarhus University, “and climate change is the most obvious explanation.”

The waters of the North Atlantic have been warming at an alarming rate, particularly in the coastal regions where breeding seabirds forage. Along south and west Iceland, ocean temperatures rose 1 to 2 °C since 1996.

Warmer waters are disrupting the ocean’s food web and driving away the fish that seabirds such as puffins need to feed their young. Puffins in the Westman Islands and many other colonies in the region rely on a pencil-shaped fish known as sand lance or sand eel. As these fish vanish, puffin parents have a hard time getting enough food for their young. According to biologist Erpur Snaer Hansen, of the relatively few chicks born in the Westman Islands last summer, nearly all starved to death. The same thing happened the three previous summers. In fact, this crucial colony has failed to produce a new generation of puffins for more than a decade.

Hansen, based at the South Iceland Nature Research Centre in the Westman Islands, is Iceland’s puffin specialist. Every summer, he circumnavigates the nation twice on a breakneck tour he calls the “puffin rally”—each time traveling more than 2,500 kilometers by car, boat, and airplane to visit 12 colonies in two weeks. On the first trip, early in the season, he surveys occupied burrows and snakes an infrared camera inside to look for eggs. On the second, he uses the burrow camera to count chicks.

His latest counts do reveal good news. North and west Iceland had their best seasons in several years, he tells me in an email. Even so, over the long term, Hansen’s studies show none of Iceland’s puffin colonies are really doing well. Populations in the south and west have plunged, and the eastern colonies are shrinking. Even here in the north, where puffins appear to be flourishing, they’re basically just treading water.

Should puffin hunting continue? Hansen is well aware of the cultural charge surrounding this question and the likely fallout from hunters riled by his response. I can almost hear a resigned sigh as he writes, “My professional advice is absolutely no hunting until after the population has recovered and produced chicks for several years.”

An Atlantic puffin holds its catch of sand eel. (Photo by Carsten Egevang/

Nowhere to Go

The wind has risen to a near gale when Petersen, Egevang, and I meet at the Krían for an afternoon beer. Raising glasses embossed with long-bearded brutes in horned helmets—headgear the real Vikings probably never actually wore—we dive into a discussion of the changing North Atlantic ecosystem.

“In the last 10 years or so, I’ve heard so many stories about species appearing where they didn’t used to,” says Egevang. In Greenland, “all of a sudden tuna have started to appear.”

“A lot of new species are now coming into our waters too,” says Petersen, speaking of Iceland. “Fish, invertebrates, whales. Local species are moving north.”

As the North Atlantic region heats up, some residents—most notably humans—have the means to adapt. Others, such as cod, whose breeding output rises as waters warm, could find new opportunities in the emergent conditions. But for stalwart native birds—such as the Arctic tern, which endures a grueling pole-to-pole migration twice a year, and the plucky puffin, which dives up to 60 meters deep in frigid waters in pursuit of prey—the potential gains are far outweighed by the losses.

“It’s not the temperature increase that’s harming the birds,” Petersen points out. “It’s all the things that could be coming along with that.” Things like disease, shrinking food supplies, invasive species, increased storms, and off-kilter seasons.

The birds can try to move farther north. But the lack of suitable nesting sites at higher latitudes and the extra kilometers that would be added to their annual migrations severely constrain their options. They’re already near their northern habitat limit.

Says Petersen: “There’s nowhere for them to go.”

Faced with declining seabird populations, a report by the Nordic Council of Ministers states, this coastal culture’s distinctive traditions are fast becoming history. Many North Atlantic nations, including Norway, Sweden, and Scotland, have already halted most seabird hunting. And though it’s been curtailed in Iceland, Greenland, and the Faroe Islands, the report concludes, current harvest levels may still be unsustainable.

A Very Native Dinner

The night before they leave Grímsey, the Westman Islanders cook a puffin dinner for Petersen, Egevang, and me. A huge pot bubbles on the stove at the yellow guest house for hours, filling the air with the cloying redolence of burning tires.

Finally a platter piled with what looks like chocolate-colored Cornish hens is served, along with a lecture on how to eat them. You must crack the chest, I’m told. Suck the flesh off the wings and neck. Make sure to eat the insides too. Nearly every bit of the puffin is eaten.

Heimæy tour guide Hilmar Valur Jensson and Westman Island hunters prepare to enjoy a puffin dinner. (Photo by Carsten Egevang/

This is a very native dinner, the men announce. They’ve worked hard to prepare this meal and they’re clearly proud of their effort. Tonight’s recipe is a time-honored dish called “puffin in his tuxedo,” a traditional Christmas dinner in the olden days.

I take a bite. The scorched-rubber bouquet carries through in the taste, with a lingering fish-oil finish. I try to eat it all, but I can’t. Despite their small appearance, these birds have an amazing amount of meat. And for me, a little taste is plenty.

I give up, and pass mine to Andri Fannar Valgeirsson, the young man sitting next to me. He eats it with gusto, recalling memories of holidays past. The taste of puffin, he says, “makes me feel like a little boy again.”

Valgeirsson is a Westman Islands fisherman like his father. They’ve both come here to hunt. It’s his first time, and he shows me the cuts on his hands where the puffins scratched and bit him as he removed them from the net. Still, he enjoyed it.

“I didn’t know it was so much fun,” he says, rubbing his sore hands. “I want to do it again.” The best part was getting to learn from his dad—something he can no longer do in his own part of the country.

“It’s kind of sad,” Valgeirsson says. “I really want to do what my father does. Hunting, it’s connected us.”

Tomorrow Valgeirsson, Hilmarsson, and the others will hunt again. They’ll catch their quota of around 120 birds per person, and start on the long trek home. The Thjóðhátíð celebration will once more be able to offer a taste of the sea.

But someday, perhaps soon, the storied Norse seabird legacy will likely come to an end, another casualty of the changing climate and changing times.

Or maybe a new generation of these hardy wayfarers will write a new chapter for the old Viking saga.

Young Hjalti Trostan Arnheidarson, the innkeeper’s 11-year-old son, has been listening to the conversation. He says he wants to carry on the traditions. Go down the cliffs, swing the háfur, learn the old ways. With one important change, he says:

“The only part that I don’t like is the killing. I don’t like seeing animals die.”

Related Stories from Hakai Magazine:

A Westman Island hunter snags an Atlantic puffin using a traditional háfur. (Photo by Carsten Egevang/

Hunting Hat

NMNH - Anthropology Dept.
From card: "Wooden hat used formerly in Bidarkas [kayaks]."

Source of the information below: Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center Alaska Native Collections: Sharing Knowledge website, by Aron Crowell, entry on this artifact, retrieved 7-17-2013: Hunting hat. Hunting hats were symbols of accomplishment and prestige in classical Unangan society. Glass trade beads, an ivory seam plate, and the whiskers of large, old sea lions decorate this hat. Fine lines and rosettes were painted on the hat with traditional pigments. From Elders' discussions of the hat in 2003 (see web page cited above for the full entries) with Mary N. Bourdukofsky, Vlass Shabolin, Maria Turnpaugh and Daria Dirks (Tanadgusix Foundation) at the National Museum of Natural History and National Museum of the American Indian, 4/07/2003-4/11/2003. Also participating: Aron Crowell and Bill Fitzhugh (NMNH) and Suzi Jones (AMHA). Mary Bourdukofsky: Unangam saleeg^uu. (Aleut hat.) According to Mary Bourdukofsky and Vlass Shabolin, this type of highly decorated hat is also called an angnakg^um saleeg^uu [chief's hat] or tuukg^uum saleeg^uu [head-man’s hat]. Saleeg^uu means "hat" of any kind, including a hunting hat, hunting visor, stocking hat or baseball cap. Angnakg^ux^ means "chief, leader, head man." Tuukg^uu originally meant "government agent" and later came to mean "head man, chief, leader, boss." Maria Turnpaugh: Those are the hunting hats. Only the hunters that caught the most could wear them. They had visors that the others wore, but these were special for the best hunters. The ones that were mostly decorated were for the best hunters. Mary Bourdukofsky: It's so fancy. I think after the hunting is done, when they start their ceremonial dances, maybe that's when he puts this on. All that rough sea with these fancy things - wonder if they still wore them like that [such decorated ones when they were on the water]. Maybe they did. Maria Turnpaugh: Yes, they did. Vlass Shabolin: Mm-hmm. Aron Crowell: Was there any sense that these hats actually helped the hunters to be more successful? Maria Turnpaugh: Well, it could make them see better, because it cut the glare from off the water. Daria Dirks: I think someone told me they painted inside red, so it would help with the reflection problem. What's this on the side? Mary Bourdukofsky: A string for where they tie it under their chin.

Decorations Vlass Shabolin: Inglakuun athog^kaluu. (Long whiskers.) Daria Dirks: Is that seal [whisker]? Vlass Shabolin: Yes, each whisker indicates how many seals he got at the seal hunt. Mary Bourdukofsky: They decorated it with feather too or hair. Vlass Shabolin: Fox hair or reindeer. Mary Bourdukofsky: These are Russian beads. Vlass Shabolin: We still have those blue ones on St. Paul, too. By the hospital, when we were building, we dug some out. Maria Turnpaugh: This is ivory [down seam at back]. Mary Bourdukofsky: Yes, those hats always have ivory, either on the back or the sides, as decoration. This one has it in the back. And always decorated with sea lion whiskers and beads. Daria Dirks: No [volute] on this one. One of my cousins at home found a volute in a dig. It’s an ivory piece that they put in the back or the side I think. Mary Bourdukofsky: Usually you have it on the side. That must have had it, something fancy, but it's gone. Maria Turnpaugh: It was probably a special thing that they were allowed to use, because some of them don't have that. Mary Bourdukofsky: Maybe they earned it.

Paints Mary Bourdukofsky: That's the Aleut colors-red, black and there used to be yellow too. Maybe it was yellow someplace but it faded. Daria Dirks: Did your dad ever say anything about how they made the colors? Maria Turnpaugh: They'd use plants and- Vlass Shabolin: Berries, salmon berries, anything that- Mary Bourdukofsky: Blueberries. Vlass Shabolin: Anything that they could get color out of they used. Maria Turnpaugh: A lot of the flowers, irises. Vlass Shabolin: Yes, a lot of the flowers, they boil them. Mary Bourdukofsky: You know that volcano ash, it's reddish-brown. I think they used that. I bet they used quite a bit of that on there. Vlass Shabolin: Grind it, make it like paste, and then use it for paint. Aron Crowell: Are you talking about red ocher? Mary Bourdukofsky: Yes.

Making Aron Crowell: How about the process of making them-how are they shaped? Maria Turnpaugh: I'll tell you. I make them. You get a piece of wood about that thick [approximately half an inch], and you wet them, steam them-they're really soaking. Then you lay them down, and you have a pattern, the whole pattern flat, and then you saw that out. Then you get the chisel and start chiseling, and you get it down to that thin [quarter of an inch]. You have to be really careful when you get it that thin, because my daughter bumped one like that, and it just split. It happened before it was painted, it’s really fragile. Daria Dirks: Before they paint it, I remember seeing them putting it in boiling water, how long do you- Maria Turnpaugh: They do put them in boiling water and steam it. Daria Dirks: For how long? Mary Bourdukofsky: Overnight. Maria Turnpaugh: No, you do it for about an hour or so. Mary Bourdukofsky: In Fairbanks they did it overnight. They said if you don't soak it enough, it cracks. Maria Turnpaugh: But if you've got it thin enough, you don't have to soak it that long. It has to be wet when you start, but when you get it done it's about that thin, and you put it back in the water and steam it and then we have these forms, it takes two people to put them on there. Daria Dirks: It has to be done fast too, I remember. Maria Turnpaugh: Fast and clamp it. You let that dry overnight. Mary Bourdukofsky: In Fairbanks they use a bowl [as a mold], a stainless steel bowl and clamps.

Maria Turnpaugh: We had just wooden molds that Andrew Gronholdt made. Mary Bourdukofsky: You drill a hole in the back and you lace it up to hold it like that after you bend it. How did you put yours together in the back? Do you glue it? Maria Turnpaugh: We didn't lace ours together, we just overlapped them and glued them like that. But there's another band. You put on the inside where you put it together, and then the seam is really tight. And then you could put this [ivory brace on seam at back]. Aron Crowell: So the seam is underneath that ivory plate. Mary Bourdukofsky: Yes. Maria Turnpaugh: And then this one, there's a little piece that goes around the edge there [of bill] on the inside, probably to keep its shape. Aron Crowell: A reinforcing piece on the inside? Maria Turnpaugh: In the front rim. Daria Dirks: After they dried it then they put the colors on right after? Mary Bourdukofsky: Yes, it has to be dry. Aron Crowell: The hats that people are making now, that's just come back in recent years? Mary Bourdukofsky: Yes. Aron Crowell: Do you recall seeing any of the really old hats in the villages? Mary Bourdukofsky: I can't recall.

Maria Turnpaugh: This man that made them, he studied for a long time trying to figure out how to do it. He'd read and read. Andrew Gronholdt. He’s not living now. He made just beautiful hats. Aron Crowell: Was he the first person to bring back this tradition? Mary Bourdukofsky: No, I don't think so. They started in Chignik and Fairbanks. Maria Turnpaugh: Andrew Gronholdt started a long, long time ago, before he started teaching. He made his own, he'd experiment. He really studied a long time. He had given them to the Unalaska people, but there's certain people that keep them. Daria Dirks: Ann May Corker, she learned from my cousin in Unalaska how to do this, and she teaches kids. Usually the higher grades like sixth, seventh and up. Maria Turnpaugh: That's where I took my class, when she was teaching.

Finding Lessons on Culture and Conservation at the End of the Road in Kauai

Smithsonian Magazine

Our feet squish in the mud of the taro patch and water is halfway up to our knees. Around us the heart-shaped leaves of the gorgeous plants swirl with a rich green that looks more like it belongs in an oil painting. The sun rises, casting a morning light against the great pyramid shape of Makana mountain above us. 

We are pulling weeds in the recently restored taro pond fields, called loʻi, that are now tended by the Hui Maka‘ainana o Makana, a non-profit group comprised of the Native Hawaiians, descendants of those who once resided in this land known as Ha‘ena, and a group of their supporters. “We define community as ‘whoever shows up to do the work,’” explains one of our hosts.

Here at the end of the road on the island of Kaua‘i—as in many other small places around the islands—the community is reasserting Hawaiian stewardship of the land and sea.

I first came to work here in 2000, researching for a start-up project called “Pacific Worlds.” The idea, based on the “Geografía Indígena” (Indigenous Geography) project I had worked on at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian a year before, was to create community profiles of place-based indigenous cultural heritage, in which all the content came from members of the community. 

I had a tiny seed grant from the Hawai‘i Council for the Humanities, and with my Native Hawaiian colleague Carlos Andrade, we did a handful of interviews that produced my first such profile. The project itself was web-based, and was accompanied by curriculum for teaching Pacific Island cultures from Pacific-Islander points of view. Now here I am, 16 years later, back to redo that project on a larger scale.

“In the mid-'60s the state condemned the land, evicted all the families, and then did very little except to make a couple of small parking areas and limited “comfort station” for visitors,” recounts Andrade. Born and raised on the island, Andrade spent many years working, living, and raising his family in Hāʻena. His book, Hāʻena, Through the Eyes of the Ancestors, is based on his life experiences there. “Consequently,” he says, “without any real commitment of labor to take care of the area’s resources, what was once an area of homes and cultivated pond fields of taro became a dumping ground and jungle of trees and shrubs, all invasive species.”


Ha'ena: Through the Eyes of the Ancestors

~ Carlos Andrade (author) More about this product
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The descendants of Hāʻena families and their supporters grew tired of the government’s inability to care for the place, he says. The area was once sacred to their ancestors and it was filled with storied places of gods and the Hawaiian people. Ha‘ena is also one of the most famous centers for the art of hula dance and music.

“So we set about to find a way to intervene,” says Andrade.

Hāʻena is a special place. Except for the privately owned island of Ni‘ihau, Kaua‘i is the most geographically remote of the main Hawaiian islands; and Hāʻena is literally at the end of the road on the island’s lush north shore. It lies about 7 miles past the town of Hanalei, made famous for its mispronounced appearance in the song “Puff the Magic Dragon.” The beauty is so spectacular that scenes in the movies South Pacific and Jurassic Park were filmed in this area. If you want remote tropical paradise, this is the place.

But we are here for a different reason: to document the efforts at restoration—both environmental and cultural—that are taking place on these gorgeous tracts.

As the most remote landfall on Earth, the Hawaiian Islands are replete with unique species. The few plants and animals that managed to make it out here spread out and diversified into multitudinous new species to take advantage of diverse ecological niches.

“The vast majority—90 percent—of the plant species in Hawai‘i are endemic,” says Vicki Funk, senior research botanist at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. “They may have cousins elsewhere, but the Hawaiian species are unique.” Since Captain Cook put the islands on the map in 1778, introduced species have wreaked havoc on the less aggressive native flora and fauna.

The onslaught has been devastating. As the Hawaii State Division of Forests and Wildlife states: “Today Hawaiʻi is often referred to as the ‘Endangered Species Capital of the World.’ More than one hundred plant taxa have already gone extinct, and over 200 are considered to have 50 or fewer individuals remaining in the wild. Officially, 366 of the Hawaiian plant taxa are listed as Endangered or Threatened by Federal and State governments, and an additional 48 species are Proposed as Endangered.” While only comprising less than one percent of the United States land mass, Hawaiʻi contains 44 percent of the nation’s Endangered and Threatened plant species.”

One of the many rare species, a hibiscus, that is being preserved at Limahuli Gardens. (Doug Herman)

The unique birdlife has also been devastated. “Before human arrival in Hawaii, I estimate there were at least 107 endemic species of birds living in the islands,” says Helen James, also from the Natural History Museum and a world expert on Hawaiian birds. “Only 55 of those species were found alive in the 1800s. By the end of 2004, only 31 endemic species still survived. Today, there are very few endemic Hawaiian birds that are not considered threatened or endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.”

The Native Hawaiian way of life has been devastated. Statistically, they are among the most challenged “minorities,” and in their own homeland. Many are afflicted by chronic health problems. They make up a high percentage of the prison population, and appear in the lower rungs of educational, economic and other statistics, indicating a population under stress.

Enlightened Hawaiian chiefs as far back as the 14th century instituted what is called the moku-ahupua‘a system of management throughout the islands. The concept is simple: divide each island like a pie into big sections running from the mountaintops to the sea, then subdivide each of those into smaller slices. The bigger sections, called moku, are intended to be self-sustaining in natural resources. Most everything one could need should be available there. Then the smaller slices, or ahupua‘a (AH-hoo-poo-AH-ah) are administrative divisions within the moku. All of these were administered by the ali‘i, the traditional leaders of their society.

In traditional Hawai‘i, each ahupua‘a would have a land manager, or konohiki, appointed by the chief to ensure the fruitfulness of the land. The konohiki had to know what was in the forest, where the best agricultural lands were, and what was going on in the sea, for the ahupua‘a extended out to the edge of the reef (or, if there was no reef, a certain distance out into the sea).

When certain species became scarce, or during spawning seasons, the konohiki would place a kapu (taboo) on harvesting, to ensure that the species regenerated. Fruitfulness is not a one-time thing, after all, but requires sustainable practices. The konohiki also ensured that the maka‘ainana—the people of the land—were cared for.

Recognition was accorded to them for their skills, and the resources were managed effectively for all who lived on the land. Thus when the paramount chief and his representatives made their yearly circuit of the island, offerings for continued peace and prosperity as well as gifts to honor the elevated genealogies would be placed on the pig’s-head altar (ahu pua‘a) that marked the boundary of each of these land divisions. If the bounty was deemed not sufficient, it indicated that the management of that ahupua‘a was not up to par, and a shakeup of governance would ensue.

All that changed starting in 1848 when King Kamehameha III, under incredible pressure from outsiders, divided the land of the kingdom and created private property.

This move is known as the 1848 Mahele (“division). For the average Hawaiians, this mostly meant they lost much or all of their lands. The clash of two systems was incomprehensible, the surveying techniques rudimentary, and the culture shock enormous.

Sugar plantations blanketed the islands and eradicated much of the landscape Hawaiians had known for centuries. Under U.S. law since 1900, the traditional ahupuaʻa fisheries were condemned and opened to the general public and the traditional place-based management regimes discarded and replaced by central government controls essentially leading to a classic “tragedy of the commons,” where self-interest trumped the common good.

But here in Ha‘ena, something very different took place. The people formed a group (hui) and managed the land collectively. In 1858, the chief who owned the ahupua‘a, Abner Paki, deeded his land to a surveyor, who later deeded it to William Kinney. In 1875, Kinney was approached by a group of Ha‘ena residents seeking to establish a collective landholding arrangement that would keep the remainder of the ahupua‘a intact and in use by the community. Consequently, Kinney deeded the land to "Kenoi D. Kaukaha and thirty-eight others." These people formed an organization called the Hui Ku‘ai ‘Aina—“the group that bought the land.”

The Hui allowed for a more traditional land-holding relationship in which shareholders owned the land in common. Interests were undivided unless agreed upon by the shareholders who were able to identify their own house lots and cultivated grounds. Each shareholder could graze designated animals and gather from the other resources on the common lands. This was much more in keeping with traditional Hawaiian land tenure than the privatized system spurred on by the Mahele.

But over the next century, changes that were affecting the rest of the Hawaiian Islands gradually reached Ha‘ena—wealthy individuals—non-Hawaiians, who had purchased shares in the Hui—successfully sued the remaining shareholders, resulting in the partitioning of the lands that had once been held in common. After Statehood in 1959, the Hawaii state government created a state park at Ha‘ena, evicting all of the remaining Hawaiian residents from their homes and farmlands. A group of young people from the mainland, and part of the “flower power” movement, built and occupied what became known as “Taylor Camp,” leaving the productive and well tended taro lands of Ha‘ena to become an overgrown forest of invasive trees, shrubs, abandoned automobiles, and other detritus.

But over the past few decades, three major changes have taken place—the most recent being in the past year. First is forest conservation: the Wichman family, who came to own almost the entire valley portion of Ha‘ena, turned it into Limahuli Gardens, now part of the National Tropical Botanical Gardens. The land is in conservation, and the staff is working against the onslaught of invasive species.

Image by Doug Herman. Dramatic peaks rise above Limahuli valley. (original image)

Image by Doug Herman. Taro ponds, a traditional Hawaiian structure, and splendid peaks at Limahuli Gardens. (original image)

Image by Doug Herman. Limahuli valley (original image)

Image by Doug Herman. The taro field (lo‘ i) at Ha‘ ena beneath Makana mountain (original image)

Limahuli Gardens’ director, Kawika Winter, points out three restoration scenarios they are trying to implement: “The first is ‘pre-rat,’” he says. “We now know that introduced rats, not humans, were the major drivers in the change of forest structure and composition. Forests went from being dominated with large-seeded species dispersed, by flightless birds, to smaller-seeded species that rats do not eat or prefer. 

“Second we call ‘20th-Century Optimal,’” says Kawika. “This is the crumbling forest community that was witnessed by 20th-century botanists, and mistakenly labeled as ‘pristine.’ Both of these are the aims of many conservationists, but they are impractical and financially unsustainable for us to restore.”

“Third we call ‘future resilient.’ This is a native-dominant forest of a structure and composition that may have never before existed, but is most likely to survive the onslaught of invasive species and global climate change.” He adds, “We are working towards each of these scenarios, the first two on a small scale, and the last one on a more large-scale.”

The second initiative is manifesting on the kula—the gently-slooping agricultural land between the mouth of the valley and the seashore. Here a group of mostly former residents, who had farmed the fertile lands between the valley and sea, approached the State regarding the semi-abandoned State Park.

“A few of us sat around the table in Grandma Juliet’s house,” recalls Makaala Kaaumoana, “and we decided that we would form Hui Maka‘āinana o Makana as a non-profit. And the ultimate purpose was for the families of Ha‘ena to take care of that place.”  The Hui Maka‘āinana o Makana—“People of Makana Mountain”—is a 501(c)3 non-profit, the mission of which is to work in the park, to improve the recreational and cultural resources there, “and most importantly, at least from our perspective, to fulfill our traditional responsibility to care for our elder sibling, the ʻāina (land),” says Andrade.

Makaala Kaaumoana of the Hanalei Watersheds Hui with posters encouraging proper use of water resources. (Doug Herman)

“After building trust by assisting state park archeologists in documenting significant resources, and working with state personnel to get much needed work done, the Hui entered into a curatorship agreement with the Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) State Parks division, whereby we are able to augment the efforts of that agency to fulfill its mission,” Andrade says, “and we are also able to fulfill our kuleana (responsibility) to our ancestors.”

Taro (or kalo), the staple food of Hawaiians, grows in terraced pond fields similar in construction to rice paddies. The steamed starchy corm was pounded with water into a creamy paste called poi.

Poi and the cooked green leaves, stalks and flowers of the taro was central to most traditional Hawaiian meals. And in the time since the Hui was founded, more than two acres of taro fields have been cleared of forest and restored to production and now present a beautiful and well-tended landscape. 

“We could sustain ourselves throughout our whole life,” recalls Kelii Alapai, who grew up in Ha‘ena. “Anything happens, we don’t need to worry—hey, we did it. Before, we had only two stores. We never had Foodland, Safeway—we never needed all that. We raised our own beef, we raised our own poultry, and we raised our own pork. We got our poi, we had our fish in the ocean. We had our limu (seaweed) in the ocean. So, simple life, man, simple life.”

Image by Doug Herman. Merlin Edmonds, a conservation worker at Limahuli Gardens, stands by the entrance to an area fenced to keep out feral pigs. (original image)

Image by Doug Herman. A bowl of poi—made from taro grown by the Hui—at the workday picnic. (original image)

Image by Doug Herman. Tom Hashimoto displays his throw net. “Uncle Tom” was the last person to farm taro before the residents at Ha‘ ena were evicted for the State Park. He is looked up to as the resident elder, knowledgeable about fishing the reefs of Ha‘ ena. (original image)

Image by Doug Herman. Work day in Ha‘ena, weeding the taro patch: the author (left) works with Nalani Hashimoto (right) and the new ranger for the state park (center). (original image)

Image by Doug Herman. A potluck assembled by the workers and their families (original image)

But finally overexploitation started to affect the fishing grounds of Ha‘ena, spurring the last and most recent initiative: The Ha‘ena Community Based Subsistence Fishing Management Area. The first of its kind in the Hawaiian Islands, if not in the U.S.A., this area offshore of Ha‘ena is designated for subsistence fishing only—no commercial fishing. And the rules for subsistence fishing are based on the traditions passed down by the elders. 

“It was the dream and the vision of several of the kupuna (elders) from Ha‘ena,” says Presley Wann, head of the Hui Maka‘ainana o Makana. “They had the vision. They felt that it was starting to get overfished and they wanted to pass on to the next generation the same area that fed us so well.”

The traditional code is simple: take only what you need. 

But it also involves knowing the spawning and growth cycles of the different fish. “Uhu (a type of parrotfish that can change its sex) is a fish that our divers love to catch, they love to show off the fact that they have an uhu,” notes Makaala. “And I explained to them that if you caught the blue uhu, then they can’t have any babies until one of the red (female) uhu turns into a blue uhu and becomes the male. It just takes time.”

“Why do they come to fish in Ha‘ena?” Alapai asks. “Because we have fish. And why do we have fish? Because we take care of fishing. So now let everybody see what we’re doing with our fishing boats. Hopefully they can pass the word on to their community, where they come from. Anybody can come fish at Ha‘ena, but when you guys come fish in Ha‘ena, you just got to follow our rules, respect our place. Simple, and then that’s how it was back then, simple. You take what you need, that’s all.”

Image by Doug Herman. The reef off Ke‘e Beach at Ha‘ena is a popular tourist destination. (original image)

Image by Dawn Niederhauser. A sign at Ha‘ena Beach Park encourages fishers to throw back the larger fish. Large fish produce many times more eggs than smaller ones, and the eggs are healthier. (original image)

Image by Doug Herman. Makana mountain stands out from the landscape of Ha‘ena. In traditional times, a fire-throwing ceremony was occasionally held at the summit. (original image)

Image by Dawn Niederhauser. A sign reminds fishers of the importance of conservation. (original image)

Education about the rules is extended to the broader community by the members of the Hui and other volunteers from the Hāʻena community. Enforcement comes through a solid relationship with the DLNR.  “Makai (beach) Watch is basically you have no enforcement powers,” Presley explains. “It’s like a neighborhood watch. And it trains the community, people are involved and want to be a volunteer. They’re taught how to approach people that are behaving inappropriately.” 

“It teaches them non-confrontational communication skills to assist in caring for ocean resources,” Andrade adds. “And, if rule-breakers aren’t responsive, watchers are taught the proper way to document irresponsible activities to assist enforcement personnel in their efforts to adjudicate the offenders.”

“I’d like to see it where we wouldn’t have to have much enforcement,” Presley continues. “It would work on its own and everybody would be on the honor system. Deterrence is key: once the word gets out that people are going to be watching, you’d better not do anything stupid down there, just follow the rules, right? So ideally that would be the situation in 20 or 30 years.”

All of this is part of the larger trend of conservation biology that the U.S. Forest Service is exploring. “Conservation biology is continually evolving—from protecting nature for nature’s sake to today supporting socio-ecological systems,” says Christian Giardina, research ecologist for the U.S. Forest Service’s Institute of Pacific Islands Forestry, who is funding our research. “It’s moved from focusing on biodiversity and protected-areas management, to focusing on natural-human systems, and managing for landscape-scale resilience and adaptability.”

“It is logical then that natural resources professionals would turn to indigenous cultures for guidance and collaboration, as these cultures have focused on socio-ecological systems for millennia,” Giardina says. “Here in Hawai‘i, Native Hawaiian communities are leading a transformation in how conservation views and interacts with the natural world. For the USDA Forest Service’s Institute of Pacific Islands Forestry, being a part of this transformation is essential to being an effective land-management focused organization today and into the future. We are embracing this change by immersing ourselves in partnerships that operate from this bio-cultural foundation.”

In the busy rush of contemporary life, it takes commitment and hard work to care for the ʻāina.  In a community where homes now sell for multi-millions of dollars, most descendants of the original Hāʻena Native Hawaiian families no longer can afford to reside there due to skyrocketing land prices and extremely high property taxes. 

Subsequently, many have moved to less expensive parts of the island and but still commute back to plant and fish. “We hear the name ‘community’ all the time,” points out Andrade. “Who is the community? We have Native Hawaiians, we also have people descended from the immigrant workers that lived here. We now have people who are absentee landlords, we have movie stars’ and rock stars who own lands in Ha‘ena. We have transient people, just in and out for vacations, and people just driving through—there are literally thousands of them every day. And so who is the community? We, the ones who clear the invasives, restore the taro fields to production, maintain the ancient water systems and do the daily and weekly work of maintenance of this ʻāina feel that the community are the people that show up on work day, and do the work that needs to be done. That’s the community.”

Here at the end of the road at the end of the Hawaiian Islands, such an integrated approach to integrating environmental management and traditional culture is setting a model for the rest of us.  

Coat "Kukhlanka"

NMNH - Anthropology Dept.
From card: "Reindeer skin." Coat has two cloth-lined pockets in front.

Anthropology catalogue card and ledger book identify native name for this coat as "kuklanka." This is a misspelling for the Russian Siberian word for a heavy fur coat, kukhlanka. According to Dr.Zinaida Ivanova-Unarova (Arctic Institute of Culture and Arts, Yakutsk, Russia), the fur coat has none of the typical features of traditional Sakha, Evenk, or Even clothing and most closely resembles the Koryak garments from Russian Pacific coast. It is a man's winter working coat with a hood, in relatively good shape, made of doubled reindeer skins and commonly known under Russian Siberian name kukhlanka. It is also remarkably large (105 cm long) for a common Siberian Native man. Since a Koryak man’s winter coat normally reaches slightly below a person's knee, it was obviously made for a tall man. An inscription in Roman letters is scratched on the inside of the fur collar (apron): "Lt. G.B. Harber USN." Coat appears to have been made for Giles Bates Harber's use.

Information on coat E153523 was mistakenly entered into the remarks on the catalogue card for E153533: "Yakut. Coat with hood; head of coat of reindeer head skin with ears remaining, with chin flap to protect the coat from runny nose during cold weather. Typical of Koryak and Yakut. Relatively modern.: Data provided 15 Dec. '82 by Dr. Ilja S. Gurvich, Head of Northern and Siberian Peoples Dept., Institute of Ethnography, U.S.S.R. Academy of Sciences, Moscow. Recorded by Wm. C. Sturtevant."

Reference: Ivanova-Unarova, Zinaida, 2017. Siberian Collections in the U.S. Museums. Yakutsk. Object is identified there: Coat. Kuklanda. Sangyjakh. 1882 Reindeer hide, hide, sinew. Sewing, applique. L.: 105. A double fur coat with a hood. Combination of white and brown reindeer hide make the coat look festive. The style and character of sewing resemble a Koryak fur garment: the presence of a hood and an apron, loose wide cut, double-layer fur, an opuvan wide leather bar on the hem. Sewn in North Yakutia. There is a piece of leather on the lapel of a breast collar with an inscription that reads 'Lt. G.B. HarberUSN', explained by I.I. Krupnik to mean 'Lieutenant of the United States Navy Giles Bates Harber'.

Birds Nest: A Photo Essay of Bourj Hammoud

Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage

Click on the image above to view full slideshow

The Bourj Hammoud district in Lebanon is the geographical extension of Beirut City along the Mediterranean coastline. It’s the suburb immediately east of the capital, separated by the Beirut River. Housing roughly 100,000 people in less than one square mile, it is a dense working-class district .

Until the early twentieth century, Bourj Hammoud was characterized by its small, scattered settlements, predominantly known for its agriculture and marshlands. After 1928, Armenian refugees who survived the Ottoman persecutions began migrating to the area, settling in compact quarters organized into regular gridiron patterns. Each quarter was populated by natives from a different village in Anatolia (modern-day Turkey), resulting in Nor Marash, Nor Adana, and Nor Sis (nor means “new” in Armenian). It became a safe haven for Armenians who were forced to create a home away from home.

My parents, both survivors of the 1915 Armenian genocide, met and wed in Damascus, Syria, and then relocated to Bourj Hammoud in 1949. It is there that I was born and lived for twenty years before permanently moving away at the start of the Lebanese Civil War in 1975.

My childhood was full of many happy memories. I was carefree, as all children should be. In school and on the streets, I learned and played in my native tongue. The first generation of refugees hardly ventured outside the quarter, for all the living essentials were available nearby. Their command of the Arabic language was rudimentary, even for a basic conversation. Most of the stores’ signage was written in Armenian. I didn’t know what it meant then, but I lived entirely in a diaspora.

Bourj Hammoud
A bold declaration of Bourj Hammoud’s characteristic, the tricolor flag of Armenia hangs among the wash lines in a typical residential side street.
Photo by Ara Madzounian
Bourj Hammoud
It is not uncommon to come across pastirma or basturma (salted meat) shops at every corner of Bourj Hammoud. Armenians are known throughout the Levant to be the most skilled makers of basturma, a seasoned, air-dried, cured beef.
Photo by Ara Madzounian

In this quarter, the wisdom and tolerance of ancient civilizations prevailed. Bourj Hammoud was an amalgamation of diverse ethnicities and convictions, with local Arabs and Armenian refugees respectfully living side by side. The sound of Sunday church bells and the call of the muezzin at dawn sounded like a lullaby to my innocent ears. It was only after middle school that I learned about the significance of maintaining my national identity and culture, that I was not indigenous to this land, that my parents had been subjected to violence and exile, shattering their dreams of blossoming in their ancestral homeland.

My family hardly spoke of their anguished past. Instead, they granted me the prospect of a more promising future. My connection to this catastrophe was my grandmother. She lived in eternal grief. Nene (as I called her) was left a widower with two infant daughters on the day her young barrister husband did not return home at sundown. She stubbornly covered herself in black from head to toe until her death as a mark of reverence for the deceased.

Despite this, my mother was an optimist. Only on solemn occasions did she break down and reflect on the past through song. She sang about a lost paradise. Before she passed away, she had the good fortune of witnessing Armenia’s independence in 1990, right after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Growing up, my older siblings were captivated by the arts, and it spread to me too. The theater became my faithful sanctuary, a space to reimagine myself. In the early 1970s, the cultural scene reached its pinnacle. Bourj Hammoud buzzed with theater associations, plays, and homegrown rock bands. The cinemas, all sixteen of them, offered spectacles from American westerns to European avant-garde and Asian martial arts films.

Bourj Hammoud
A major crossroad in the town center. This motorway is named after Father Boghos (Paul) Aris, a Catholic priest who was the founding father and first mayor of Bourj Hammoud.
Photo by Ara Madzounian

The hustle and bustle of shoppers in dizzying traffic, with roaming vegetable vendors screaming at the top of their lungs, radios blaring in Arabic, Greek, Italian, and Armenian, and cobblers hammering away to Turkish tunes was a transcendental experience, much like Fellini’s Roma. Bourj Hammoud was my Roma.

Armenians in Bourj Hammoud erected schools, churches, and cultural centers. We resurrected a national identity to hold onto what was violently taken away in the homeland. From 1935 to 1985, this tiny enclave served as the cultural, intellectual, and political beacon of the Armenian Diaspora.

In the mid-1940s, part of the Armenian population migrated to Soviet Armenia, followed by another influx of migrants from Southern Lebanon—mainly Shiites and some Palestinians—who settled throughout the southeastern edges of the district. In the 1960s, an influx of Syrian Armenians, primarily from Aleppo, evaded political turmoil by settling in nearby Bourj Hammoud.

As a result of the Lebanese Civil War from 1975 to 1990, Bourj Hammoud sustained drastic population shifts: displaced peoples from conflict zones and hostile areas, immigrants from rural areas, Armenians from Beirut, displaced Christians, and displaced Shiites. The community’s population continued to diversify.

During the fifteen-year conflict, most Armenian inhabitants of the quarter fled the country. Others moved out to ameliorate their social ranking. Today, like many dwindling Christian communities across the Middle East, Bourj Hammoud struggles to retain its Armenian character against a tide of political uncertainty engulfing the region.

Bourj Hammoud
A resident proudly displays the photos of his young mother and aunts who were among the first settlers of Bourj Hammoud. The young were taught to value and to protect their national identity, sometimes by any means necessary.
Photo by Ara Madzounian

For more than fifty years, Bourj Hammoud played a pivotal role in the preservation of Armenian national identity. Often called “Little Armenia,” this important colony is the last bastion in the Armenian collective memory—a consequence of a crime against humanity perpetrated over a hundred years ago against the Armenian population living in their homeland.

I returned to my hometown twice to be with my terminally ill older brother. As an amateur photographer, he gave me my first serious toy at the age of fourteen: his Agfa Super Silette Rangefinder camera. He became my mentor. I learned about the narrative power of the image and the significance of preserving a collective memory and cultural identity of the displaced through it. He left behind a legacy of deep empathy.

Over the years, my birthplace has gone through dramatic changes. It has become an important commercial hub. It is badly deteriorated environmentally. The central government treats it as the backyard of the capital, and the surrounding parts constitute a public risk. As the major artery connecting Beirut to the northern coastal cities, it is only a matter of time before Bourj Hammoud revamps itself into a modern municipality, possibly eradicating itself from the collective Armenian memory—the very reason it came into existence.

Each resident of this suburb can offer interesting and enchanting stories. In my book, Birds Nest, are only some of the many images captured during my visit to this special place. My intimate relationships with its narrow streets, its sights and sounds, and its peculiar characters have been an important source of inspiration all my life.

It took me several years to make the emotional journey to complete Birds Nest, an allegorical narrative to those who, more than a century ago, were forced to leave behind their habitat in for a search for a safer nest. It is homage to their tenacity to survive and the benevolence they show to modern-day refugees escaping war in Syria to reach the safety of Bourj Hammoud—making them feel at home, away from home.

This book is my story, a tribute to all unsung heroes of Bourj Hammoud.

Bourj Hammoud
Pigeon hovering throughout the skies at daybreak or twilight are part of Bourj Hammoud’s culture. The domesticated pigeons arrived in the Middle East some 5,000 years ago.
Photo by Ara Madzounian

Ara Madzounian is an independent producer, director and cinematographer based in Los Angeles. He has collaborated with the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage on My Armenia, a project that harnesses the power of storytelling to strengthen cultural heritage sustainability.

The Year in National Parks

Smithsonian Magazine

The past year was full of news and stories from our National Park System. Here’s are some of the biggest stories about “America’s Best Idea.”

1. New Monuments for 2016

The last year of the Obama administration was a big one for the National Park System and federal land conservation in general. In February, the president declared three new national monuments in Southern California, including the 1.6 million-acre Mojave Trails, the 154,000-acre Sand to Snow and 20,920-acre Castle Mountains National Monuments. The new parks fill in gaps between Joshua Tree National Park and Mojave National Preserve, protecting fossil beds, petroglyphs and a rare desert plant species.

In August, the administration announced the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, an 87,500-acre swath of North Woods along Maine’s Penobscot River. With its status as a national monument secured, many conservationists now hope to eventually upgrade the area to full National Park Status.

And just days ago, the administration declared two more national monuments, Gold Butte in Nevada and Bears Ears in Utah, though those two areas will be administered by the Bureau of Land Management. The administration also declared the first national monument in the Atlantic Ocean, the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument in September, and in August it expanded the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument near Hawaii into the world’s largest marine conservation area. (Soon after, scientists named a new species of fish native to the monument after Obama).

2. Parks for Everyone

In recent years, new national monuments and parks have been created to celebrate the history of all sorts of Americans: the Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument celebrates black cavalry soldiers, the Cesar Chavez National Monument celebrates the legacy of the Latino labor leader, The Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historic Park celebrates the abolitionist icon and the Pullman National Monument tells the story of the labor conflict that led to Labor Day. In the last year, two new sites were added to that list. In April, the NPS added the Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument to its rolls. The large home in Washington, D.C., is the former headquarters of the National Women’s Party, led by Alice Paul. That organization, and others, worked through the early 20th century to secure women the right to vote.

The Stonewall National Monument includes the site of the former Stonewall Inn in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. The building and an eight-acre park will tells the story of the American LGBTQ community's struggle for civil rights and acceptance throughout American history.

3. Animals In the News

One of the reasons many people visit National Parks is to get a glimpse of critters. This year has been mixed bag for animals in the parks. In May, Scarface, Yellowstone’s most famous grizzly bear, was shot and killed by an unknown poacher. Yellowstone also took a hit in August when tens of thousands of whitefish and trout in the Yellowstone River went belly up, victims of a fish parasite called Tetracapsuloides bryosalmonae. But there were a few bright spots for animals in the parks. After inbreeding reduced the number of wolves on isolated Isle Royale to just two animals, the NPS recently announced it will introduce more wolves to the island in Lake Superior in the next three years. And foxes on Channel Islands National Park made history after a huge, multi-agency effort helped them mount the fastest recovery of any endangered mammal in history.

4. Jurassic Parks

Furry modern day mammals may get all the love in National Parks, but there is another animal that parks protect: dinosaurs. Over the summer, paleontologists in Alaska’s Denali National Park were excited to find the first dinosaur remains discovered in the area. Researchers previously thought acidic soil conditions prevented fossils from forming in the park, but the new find means the remote area could be the next big destination for dino-hunters. Paleontologists and archaeologists already knew that the West Bijou site and its band of sedimentary rock marking the time when the dinosaurs came to an end was important. That’s why in November the 7,600-acre area was declared a national natural landmark and will be administered by the Park Service.

And at Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park, researchers are making discoveries about dinosaurs that are completely upending what we know about the Jurassic era.

5. A New Climate

One of the biggest trends in National Parks news this year was how the impacts of climate change are slowly changing our favorite spots. For instance, a study from August suggests that Joshua trees, Yucca brevifolia, the namesake of Joshua Tree National Park will lose 90 percent of their habitat in the next century. In fact, it’s not just the unique Joshua tree. According to another story, the cute, high-altitude pika is imperiled by temperature changes at National Parks, which has led the NPS to completely rethink its conservation strategies for many plants and animals as it faces shifting habitats over the next century.

According to another story from this year, fighting climate change would not only help plants and animals in the parks, it would also help the view. Air pollution is impacting some iconic views in National Parks, and it will take until 2064 for even a small fraction of parks to return to their pre-pollutions vistas.

6. Visitors Behaving Badly

A perennial problem in National Parks is, well, the visitors. This year was no different. Not only were poachers ripping up Smoky Mountains National Park looking for ginseng to send to China, one father and son put a baby bison in the back of their SUV in Yellowstone National Park, trying to “save” it. Sadly, the little guy had to be put down. It wasn’t the only tragedy in Yellowstone: in June a man slipped into a hotspring after leaving the boardwalk. He was not recovered and his body dissolved in the acidic water.

But at least in one park there is a way to make up for past misdeeds. At Petrified Forest, rangers place chunks of glittering quartz returned by guilt-ridden guests in an area dubbed the “Conscience Pile.”

7. Controversies

Last March, Yosemite National Park began renaming some iconic landmarks within the park. That’s because, over a 25-year-period the company operating the hotels and concessions within the park slyly secured the trademarked names for places like Badger Pass and Wawona Hotels and even some uses of the term “Yosemite National Park.” After the company lost its contract with the park, it revealed it had taken control of the trademarks.

An even larger controversy erupted in May when the NPS announced proposed revisions to its philanthropic partnerships. The new rules would allow the corporate logos of some donors to appear on banners, vehicles, signs and other materials within parks. While some proponents felt it was a minor concession to reward donors, other groups felt it was a slippery slope to privatization of the parks.  

8. Super Spectacular

Not everything in 2016 was about how people are ruining the parks. There were also plenty of moments celebrating why we love our natural areas. For instance, a rare super-bloom in Death Valley showed just why the desert deserves protection. A massive flare up of fireflies in the Smoky Mountains was equally enthralling. The Grand Canyon formalized its status as one of the best spots on earth for stargazers by officially becoming a Dark Sky Park. Then there are the annual spectacles, like the ponies swimming at Chincoteague or watching Elk at Rocky Mountain National Park or spoonbills flying over the Everglades that reward visitors year after year.

9. iParks

Like with everything else, technology is transforming the National Parks. One of the most innovative uses? Virtual reality, which allows people to visit parks they may never reach IRL. Teaming up with Google, the NPS released immersive 360-degree videos of Carlsbad Caverns, the Dry Tortugas and other parks in August. Other recent innovations include bearcams, Google Streetviews of the parks, cell phone tours and podcasts produced by the parks.

10. Take a Gander

For over a century, the next best thing to hiking through a National Park is taking a good look at them through photographs. In celebration of the NPS centenial, there was plenty of iconic photography on display this year, including a gallery of some iconic nature photography, an exhibition of Ansel Adams photos and a celebration of Carleton Watkins, the photographer who first brought Yosemite to the general public.

Halibut Hook

NMNH - Anthropology Dept.
This object is on loan to the Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center, from 2010 through 2022.

From card: ""V" shaped halibut hook, of two pieces of wood fastened with iron nails as well as cord lashing. Interior point of iron lashed on. Line remains on side opposite hook. This specimen was found (1960) in the old office of Dr. Paul Bartsch, Curator of Mollusks. It appears to have been collected by [William Healey] Dall, because the label is the same as other specimens known to have been collected by him between 1865 and 1890."

Source of the information below: Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center Alaska Native Collections: Sharing Knowledge website, by Aron Crowell, entry on this artifact, retrieved 5-8-2014: Halibut hook Halibut are one of the most important wild foods in the Aleutian Islands. Traditional wooden hooks like this were tied to long lines made of seaweed. Stone weights held them near the ocean floor where halibut swim and feed. The line was connected on the surface to a float made from the stomach of a seal or the bladder of a sea lion. When the float went under it was a signal that a fish was on the other end of the line. "Likewise we catch fish: halibut, cod, sculpins, pogies, great sculpins, flounder, black bass. The implement for catching the halibut is called yarus [Russian, 'fishing tackle']. At the end of its line there is an inflated bladder. That's its float. When the bait has been tied onto the yarus, the float is thrown into the sea. When the halibut takes the yarus in its mouth, the float dives. Thus the halibut that has taken the yarus in its mouth is choked and dies." - Arseniy Kryukov (Nikolski, Umnak Island, 1909-10). The Pacific halibut (Hippoglossus stenolepis), which can grow to over 400 pounds, has always been a key food species on the islands of the Aleutian chain. The large fish were traditionally eaten raw, cut up and cooked on flat stones, or dried and stored for the winter in thatch-roofed fish sheds. Captain James Cook was present in 1778 when the chief of Unalaska dined on delicate "cheeks" from the head of a fresh-caught fish, prepared raw and served to him on a bed of grass. As Unangan Elders described in 2003, a chuumlagii [eating raw halibut] feast of halibut "sushi" served on grass was still a special occasion when they were children. Arseniy Kryukov's description of halibut fishing (above) was recorded in the Unangan language on a wax cylinder recorder by anthropologist Waldemar Jochelson in 1909 or 1910. In the old method, the fisherman placed his bait on the bone or iron point of a large wooden hook which was called yarus [Russian, 'fishing tackle'] or cha}am u{ta{ [halibut hook]. He tied the hook to a stone weight and dropped it to the sea bottom on a long line made of oiled, stretched, and dried seaweed (kelp). The baited hook floated just above the sea floor, where halibut feed. The line was connected to a float made from the stomach of a seal or the bladder of a sea lion. When the float went under it was a signal that a fish was on the other end of the line. As Henry Elliott's painting shows, fishermen pulled the halibut up by hand and killed it with a wooden club. They fished up to ten miles out to sea above the deep channels where the fish congregate. Halibut that were too large to be put inside the kayak were towed home. A later method, described in 2003 by Maria Turnpaugh and Vlass Shabolin of St. Paul, was to jig for halibut from a dory (open wooden boat), moving the hook up and down to attract the fish (see Elders’ comments). Wooden hooks were eventually replaced by iron ones. Long lines with hundreds of steel hooks are used in modern commercial halibut fishing. Elder Bill Tcheripanoff (born in Akutan, 1902) described how to make a wooden hook. Two pieces of yellow cedar - available only as driftwood on the treeless Aleutian Islands - are carved into shape and pegged together at the base. The bone point is then added. Before using the hook, fisherman rubbed it with the leaves of wild celery (Heraculum lanatum), also known as putchki (Russian). Wild celery has a strong smell and covers human scent. This "Aleut perfume", as Father Ishmael Gromoff (born St. Paul, 1924) called it, was also used to erase human scent when setting fox traps.

From Elders' discussions of the hook in 2003 (see web page cited above for the full entries) with Mary N. Bourdukofsky, Vlass Shabolin, Maria Turnpaugh and Daria Dirks (Tanadgusix Foundation) at the National Museum of Natural History and National Museum of the American Indian, 4/07/2003-4/11/2003. Also participating: Aron Crowell and Bill Fitzhugh (NMNH) and Suzi Jones (AMHA). Vlass Shabolin: Homemade halibut hooks at Unalaska, all the way down the Aleutian chain, they were all similar, because the men were actually from the Aleutian chain. They went to the Pribilofs for the fur seal with the Russians. Then a year later when they went back, they found a way of building some homes, and then they brought some of their families back to the Pribilofs. When they [Russians] looked over from St. George from the highest cliff, they saw another island, so they got to St. Paul Island. When they went there, they found that people were already there, because they found a bonfire there that was warm yet, a broken piece of pipe and some other items. So, the Aleuts with the baidarkas [kayaks] were there before the Russians discovered St. Paul. Daria Dirks: What are we going to call this in Aleut then? Maria Turnpaugh: Chag^am . . . (Halibut . . .) Mary Bourdukofsky: Chag^am . . . x^umxig^ain. (Halibut . . . fishing gear.) Aron Crowell: Were there different size hooks to catch a larger halibut? Vlass Shabolin: That'll catch any size you want. From a chicken halibut to an eight-footer will get on that. Maria Turnpaugh: There’s one like this in my son’s cabin. He’s making all these old things like that. Daria Dirks: What kind of wood? Vlass Shabolin: It's got to be redwood, because a lot of redwood was used in early days. Mary Bourdukofsky: The only way they found the wood is from the beach, driftwood. Aron Crowell: How were they used? Maria Turnpaugh: Well you just put the line on-

Mary Bourdukofsky: See, right here [middle of side opposite hook]. Maria Turnpaugh: You have the weights on it, big weights. I'd see my father make them. He'd have a mound of big lead weights. Most of them were like that [approximately baseball-sized]. Vlass Shabolin: About three pounds, five pounds. Aron Crowell: How would you put the weight on? Vlass Shabolin: The weight will be on your extended line [on lead attached to same point as main line at middle of side opposite hook], so it will come down with the sinker. And you've got a lead about that far [approximately two feet long], so your sinker is at the bottom and your hook is above the bottom of the ocean floating. It'll float like this, on the side [horizontally], moving up and down, back and forth. It's floating, and you've got bait on the hook. The halibut will come in there and close his mouth [on bait] and hook himself on there, and then you pull it up. They do it that way, or you keep your lead above too, and then you play with your sinker. You're jigging, so you're bobbing it up and down on the bottom there, and the halibut will come over there and grab it. Aron Crowell: Did certain families have fishing spots that were theirs? Vlass Shabolin: No, everybody went to the spot where they knew there was halibut. You have to know where the halibut is in the channel. In other words, you're out there fishing maybe a mile out, then you hit a channel that comes down at least fifty feet and then back up. In the channel, you'll find the halibut going with the current. So you fish where the channel is, and you fish with the current so you don’t have to go too far from the island, because in those days they didn’t have outboards [motors], so they were oaring their boats in and out. Aron Crowell: And when did people stop doing the jigging? Vlass Shabolin: They're still doing jigging. Maria Turnpaugh: But it's on a machine, and one line has how many hooks? And they're all baited and put down. Mary Bourdukofsky: Yes, from the big boats, but the dories are just jigging. Vlass Shabolin: Now you get a whole set of three-hundred foot skate with maybe 200 to 300 hooks on it. You set it and let it soak over night, then you go back the next day. If you're lucky, you'll bring in ninety halibuts off one line. So that's the new way of doing it. But for subsistence, some of us go out only in a skiff, a nineteen-foot skiff or something like that, and go jigging the old way. I like to go jigging. Aron Crowell: What time of the year do you do the most halibut fishing?

Vlass Shabolin: With the weather on St. Paul and down the Aleutian chain, from May until about the middle of August. If we do have good weather, then we go as much as we can, but the weather changes so fast nowadays. And then when we used to fish maybe a mile from the island, last year we had to go about twenty-five, thirty-five miles off the island to catch some halibut. Like some people say, the weather is getting too warm, and the halibut are staying in the deeper end where the water is cool. So it became a problem with our boats, because we only have thirty-two footers and going out that far, you have to watch with the weather, otherwise you get caught in a storm, and there's no bigger boat that will come out there and bring you in. Mary Bourdukofsky: Before the war [World War II] - we were just kids then - when they went jigging, they stayed out all day, maybe eight to ten hours, and even the women watched the water. And then they would see from far away two men walking with a long stick and something hanging, and they called for us children to come get clean green grass and that’s what we do. They had an oilcloth, and they laid it on the grassy spot, and then they laid the halibut on the clean grass. On the side there are two containers, one with plain water and one water with salt. The women are the ones that butcher the halibut to eat raw as soon as they bring it, like sushi they call it nowadays. Vlass Shabolin: Womenfolk would gather together when we bring in the fresh halibut and cut it up, and then they eat some of that raw halibut. Chuumlag^ii [eating raw halibut] we call it. They'd all sit there and eat that halibut, then after they're done, they'd go back in the house and drink tea. Mary Bourdukofsky: But if the weather is bad outside, they bring the oilcloth with grass and portions of halibut in the house. There's salt and knives all over. The men go first and have a feast, what they call chuumlag^ii. Our father didn't go out fishing because he was the storekeeper, so our mother gave us a plate, "Go there and just ask for a couple of pieces, so dad and I could have some." Of course they filled our plate for us and sent us home. Aron Crowell: And is halibut an important food now? Maria Turnpaugh: Oh, yes. Daria Dirks: It's hard to get enough to keep for the winter. Vlass Shabolin: Always was and still is very important, because down on the Aleutian chain we don't get too much salmon. And where I'm from, it's halibut and cod, that's what we fish. After halibut season comes black cod. The fish that we grew up on was halibut. Come summer, we fish for halibut, and then we fillet them or cut them in steak sizes and fish pie and then freeze them in Ziploc bags nowadays. In the early days, we used to just put them inside a coffee can or a five-gallon container and put some water in there so it would stay fresh and then freeze it. We didn't have freezer and stuff like that, we just got what we were going to eat for a couple days, maybe three days. And if the weather's good, then you go out almost every day, catch enough and bring it in. But if there was a storm coming, then you take an extra halibut with you and bring it home. Of course everybody provided for the whole village anyway. All the fishermen, we were just like one big happy family where everybody helped each other. If an elderly person couldn't go fishing, then somebody used to bring an extra halibut and give it to them. We still do it to this day. When our first halibut season comes in, the halibut that they catch on the first day are given to senior citizens that need it, and then we divide it among the families after that. So, halibut is very important in the Pribilofs. Aron Crowell: Is there anything you do or sayings about fishing, halibut especially, that might bring you bad luck or good luck? Vlass Shabolin: I fished with my uncle, John Kozloff, who had eleven-foot wooden dory - people on St. Paul made their own dories then. The first halibut I caught, we cut it up, and he gave me the heart. It's a tradition that the first halibut you catch, if you want to be a good fisherman, you have to eat the heart. That was a big heart, still thumping. He gave that to me and he said, "You eat that." I just took it and swallowed it. I didn’t even chew it [laughs]. That’s a good luck charm. Also, in the early days you never could take a woman out on the water in a fishing boat, they called that bad luck.

Mary Bourdukofsky: And another story I have is about the umbilical cord of a baby. When the first child is born, they [women] save that and when it dries up make a little pouch, drop it in there and tie it. When the men are going out fishing or hunting, they put it around their husband's neck for good luck. Maria Turnpaugh: A good luck charm. My father had an icon, it was porcelain. Mary Bourdukofsky: Yes, I've seen those. St. Nicholas? Maria Turnpaugh: Yes. My mother stuffed it with some kind of cotton to keep it from breaking, and then she got [animal] gut and made a little pouch around it, sewed it around really tight. And I know she used to take it out every time he was going out hunting or fishing. Mary Bourdukofsky: Yes, they wore it around their necks. They believed St. Nicholas helped them on the sea. Maria Turnpaugh: Well, he's the saint for all travelers. Vlass Shabolin: Almost every boat that's on St. Paul has St. Nicholas inside. It's to protect you when you're out fishing. Another thing is after they cleaned the halibut, the bones and that stuff were not thrown into a garbage can. You put it out in the green grass, someplace where it's cleaner. If you didn't take care of the catch you got that day, sometimes your luck would change for fishing halibut, so you have to take care of what you got. Notes: Baidarka [kayak] comes from the Russian word bajdarka "kayak." According to Mary Bourdukofsky and Vlass Shabolin, x^umxig^ain [fishing gear] refers to a fish hook, sinker, line, and rod. Mary Bourdukofsky later identified the word for hook as ux^tax^ [fish hook] or cheripuchka [hook], a Russian loanword.

Bringing the Migration Walkway to Life

Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage

We bring our traditions with us as we move through life, and those traditions change on our path—sometimes in surprising ways. At the 2017 Folklife Festival’s On the Move program, the transformation implied in movement was represented by the Migration Walkway, a curving wooden path with high-vaulting portals that crossed through the Festival grounds.

The walkway twisted under your feet and above your head, simultaneously conveying a sense of motion and stasis. The raised platform offered an unparalleled view of On the Move: a two-week series of performances exploring and celebrating the way people and their cultures move to and within the United States. Many people worked together to bring the Migration Walkway to life: over the course of several months, carpenters, painters, lighting designers, dancers, artists, and visitors all added their stories and made the walkway their own. 

Envisioning the Walkway

When technical director Tyler Nelson started thinking about walkways to incorporate into On the Move.

“I was looking for inspiration in architectural structures that allow people to pass rather than creating a barrier,” he said. He knew he wanted a pathway or bridge that conveyed a sense of movement within the structure itself—a work of art as well as a functional piece of architecture. He found examples of this in the High Trestle Trail Bridge of Madrid, Iowa, and the Lachiku bamboo bridge in Tokyo, Japan. Both use square frames in a rotating pattern to cover a raised path, capturing the feeling of continuing movement.  

Tyler also found an infographic illustrating population movement among countries over a twenty-year period. Using swooping, colored lines that vary in thickness to reflect the volume of people, the graph emphasizes that people and cultures move in multiple directions at once and rarely in straight lines.

Festival carpenter Anna Kann had a week and a half to turn these example images into a functional design. She left large spaces between each portal, creating multiple entry and exit points for visitors. This evoked the theme but also made the bridge more accessible as a seating area and easier to install.

AutoCAD designs for the Migration Walkway
AutoCAD designs for the Migration Walkway.
Design by Tyler Nelson and Anna Kann

“Paths lead all directions, and people come on and off at different points,” Anna explained. “It’s all fluid.”

As Anna and the rest of the technical team moved her design from paper to reality, it continued to evolve. Lighting designer Charlie Marcus added panels of multicolored LED lights under each of the portals. He wanted to attract people to the structure by day and allow them to enjoy it by night. The On the Move theme resonated with Charlie personally.

“I’m Jewish, and all my family is in New York and Florida, and there’s a still a bridge even after generations,” he said. “Whether it’s a bridge or I-95, it still connects us together.”

Scenic painter Carolyn Hampton added her own perspective, designing a series of paths on the walkway floor to evoke the themes of movement and migration. She looked at the graphic Tyler used for his initial inspiration and realized that “any linear thing wouldn’t work.” Initially the plan was to draw swoops of color, like the ones on the infographic.

“Then I had a crazy idea,” she reflected. “Wouldn’t it be really cool if we could make the bands actual pathways that are ways that people travel from one place to the other? That’s the idea behind it: people travel by ocean, or on the dirt road, or they fly.”

Carolyn’s design created a series of paths within the path, evoking roadways, railways, waterways, and skyways.

Animating the Walkway

During the first week of the Festival, Mestre João Grande and Mestre Jelon Vieira, two renowned capoeira teachers, created a new communal atmosphere on the walkway, inviting interaction and physical dialogue among vibrant traditions. Capoeira is a dance-like martial art with a long and complex history, starting as self-defense among Brazilian slaves and continuing as a significant expression of a broader sense of Brazilian tradition and identity.

Capoeira on the Migration Walkway
Capoeiristas practice in time to the music during an open class on the Migration Walkway.
Photo by Daniel Martinez, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

João Grande and Vieira offered open classes on the Migration Walkway, encouraging people of all backgrounds and experience levels to interact. They each took one side of the walkway to demonstrate their styles of capoeira—Angola and regional, respectively—allowing the two styles to share space while retaining their distinct characteristics.

The second week, Viajeros de las Américas activated the walkway in a different manner. Group director Ubaldo Sánchez has been helping create alfombras de aserrín, or carpet murals, since he was five years old. Ubaldo is a member of the Mam people, an indigenous community in Guatemala of Mayan descent: Mam is his native language, while Spanish is his second and English his third.

For Ubaldo and others, the alfombra connects present-day traditions to Mayan history. Pre-Colombian Mayans created carpet murals of rose petals for royalty to walk on, and the Catholic Church later adopted the tradition for religious ceremonies and changed the ingredients to sawdust. Ubaldo and other Central American artists in the D.C. area have designed countless alfombras to create a sense of community and educate people of all backgrounds about Mam and Mayan traditions.

Once the artists began working on the walkway, they added new elements to their original design. First of all, the shape of the walkway surprised them.

“We thought that it was all going to be squared off,” Ubaldo said. “But when we saw it wasn’t like that, it came out really pretty with the angles it had.”

To accommodate the winding walkway, they added a slight curve to the murals. After forgetting one of the pattern molds, they created a new border design using ears of corn. Explaining the changes, Ubaldo emphasized the importance of improvisation and resourcefulness in the art of the alfombra. The final piece, synthesizing the original design and the place and time in which it was created, became part of the living art that people of all backgrounds walked across in a ceremonial procession to close the Festival.

The Migration Walkway is a representation of what people and cultures look like when they are on the move. As they moved across its surface, the builders, artists, athletes, visitors, and educators each took ownership of the structure, recreating it with their own experiences and vision. This ownership provided satisfaction, but the people responsible for the walkway were still surprised by it. Visitors interacted on the walkway with each other, even coming back at night to take pictures; capoeiristas and alfombra artists made the structure an unexpectedly integral part of their performances and teaching.

When the structure was taken down, its parts were saved, to be reassembled and used again in a future Festival. The Migration Walkway, and the people who helped build it, are still on the move.

Jessie Riddle is an intern with the 2017 On the Move program and a PhD student in the Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology at Indiana University. Her areas of focus include Latino and Latin American Studies, stories about place, and belief studies.

Life Aboard a Renovated World War II Tugboat

Smithsonian Magazine

The morning of our departure I woke in the dark, Rachel and the baby breathing softly beside me. An oval of light worked its way over the knotty pine of the Adak’s stateroom, cast by the sodium floodlights of a herring seiner passing in the channel.

Lying there I could see my upcoming trip projected on the ceiling above: Our World War II tugboat plying Peril Strait, coasting down Chatham, hooking around Point Gardner, then east, past Petersburg, into Wrangell Narrows. And there at the bottom, scattered like diamonds at the foot of the mountain, the lights of Wrangell—and the only boat lift in Southeast Alaska burly enough to haul our floating home from the sea.

It was time. Since buying the Adak in 2011, I had sealed the decks, ripped out a rotten corner of the galley, installed berths, and convinced the engine, a 1928 Fairbanks-Morse, to turn over. But the planks beneath the waterline—these were the mystery that could make or break our young family. Surely the bottom needed to be scraped and painted. I just hoped the teredos, those invasive worms that keep shipwrights in business, hadn’t been having too much of a feast in the ten years since the boat had been out.

I slipped out of bed, made coffee in the galley, and rousted Colorado, our husky-lab mix, for his walk. Frost glinted on the docks. A sea lion, known around the harbor as Earl (my guess is there are about a hundred “Earls”) eyed us warily. Soon the herring would spawn, orange and purple salmonberries would cluster above the riverbanks, and Chinook salmon would return to their native grounds. Pickling sea-asparagus, jarring fish, scraping black seaweed from rocks—all these rites of spring would begin again, rites I’d first come to love when I arrived in Sitka at the age of 19, when I spent nine months living in the woods, independent, self-reliant, and lost. In those months Alaska had planted a seed in me that, despite my efforts to quash it, had only grown.

In 2011 I finally gave in, sold my construction company, back in my hometown of Philadelphia, along with the row home I had been renovating over the previous five years, loaded the dog into the truck and returned to Sitka-by-the-Sea, an island fishing village on the North Pacific horseshoed by mountains, known for its Russian heritage and its remoteness. I took on small carpentry jobs, commercial-fished, and wrangled with a novel I was writing over the long winter nights. A couple of years after moving onto the boat, while moonlighting as a salsa instructor in town, I met eyes in the mirror with a student, Italian on both sides, originally from New Jersey. On a rainy day in that same classroom, I proposed, and we married soon after.

Today we raise our 11-month-old daughter, Haley Marie, aboard the boat. My novel, The Alaskan Laundry (in which the Adak plays a starring role), has just been published. The tug has been good to us, providing waterfront living for the price of moorage; 2,000 square feet of space, much more than we could ever afford on the island; and an office for Rachel, which doubles as a baby nook. But it has also presented challenges, catching fire twice, almost sinking twice, and setting my hair prematurely gray. I still love it—and so does Rachel—its varnished oak interior, Army certifications emblazoned on the timbers, how it scents our clothes with that particular salt-oil odor. Haley, whose stuffed animal of choice is Scruffy the Huffy Chuffy tugboat, falls asleep immediately in the rock of the swell. 


The Alaskan Laundry

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This trip to Wrangell would determine the boat’s future. Either we could or couldn’t afford the fixes, simple as that. Rachel and I agreed on a circuit breaker of a number, and the math wouldn’t be difficult, estimating about a thousand dollars a plank. We’d know the moment the boat emerged from the water. And this would only happen if the harbormaster in Wrangell accepted the Adak, not a done deal by any means, considering that the dry dock in Sitka had refused us for being too heavy and for the unknown state of our hull.

I whistled for the dog, and we doubled back. At the boat Steve Hamilton, in his logging suspenders and Greek fishermen’s cap, climbed out from the hatch. I knew his arthritis woke him in the early hours. He had agreed to accompany us on the voyage, along with his son Leroy, 40, who had grown up on the boat, leaving his name etched into the planking, and his grandson Laddy, short for Aladdin, 22. They had all come down on the Ahi, a 40-foot “shadow-tug” that in an emergency would keep us from running aground.

Raised in Alaska logging camps, Steve had owned the Adak in the 1980s, bringing up four children on board. I had done what I could to prepare in advance of his arrival—filling the cylinder water jackets with freshwater to preheat the engine, hosing enough water into the forward tank for doing dishes. But when Steve came in three days before our departure, the serious work began: rebuilding the salt water pump, changing the compressor valves, switching out injectors for the three-phase generator. We’d be joined by Alexander (Xander) Allison, a Sitka seventh-grade language arts teacher who lived on his own 42-foot boat, and former competitive powerlifter Steve Gavin (who I’ll call Gavin to keep it simple), who now clerked for a judge in town while studying to become a magistrate.

“She’s ready,” Steve said across the deck.  

I threw on my coveralls, pulled on XtraTufs—milk-chocolate rubber work boots ubiquitous in Southeast Alaska—and dropped through the hatch to lend a hand.   


The sun broke cleanly over Mount Arrowhead that morning, so rare in these 17 million acres of hemlock and spruce and cedar, where what islanders call liquid sunshine thuds into the carpet of moss and needles on average 233 days a year. The only frost remaining on the docks was protected in the shadows of the steel posts.

Rachel and Haley stood on the docks as we untied the Adak and prepared to fire the engine. I knew Rachel wanted to come, but she was recently pregnant with our second child, and we had both agreed it would be too risky.

The afternoon before we left, Eric Jordan, a third-generation Alaskan fisherman, and about as salty as they come, reviewed the route with me at his home.

“Of course you’ll hit Sergius Narrows, not with the tide change but with the currents … same with Wrangell Narrows; take it slow in there. Scow Bay is a good anchorage south of Petersburg; you can also drop the hook at the end of the narrows.… Do you have running lights?”

I looked up from the map. “We’re not sailing at night.”

“Look at me, Brendan. This is no joke. Tell me you’ll put running lights on the boat.” I told him I’d put running lights on the boat.

Steve kicked air to the engine and it rumbled to life. (“It’ll rattle the fillings out of your teeth,” a friend once said.) Built in 1928 by Fairbanks-Morse, which specialized in locomotive engines, the beast requires air—without a good 90 pounds per square inch, compression won’t start and the prop won’t turn. Quick story to drive home this point: A previous owner had run out of air while docking the boat in Gig Harbor, Washington. He destroyed eight other boats, and then the dock. Boom.

But the problem we were discovering as we sailed the 500 yards down the channel to the town gas dock was oil. “We’ve got it pooling in the crankcase,” Steve said, watching as Gavin and Xander threw lines to the dock, the workers seemingly paralyzed by this pirate ship drifting toward them. Xander hopped off and made a clean anchor bend on the bull rail, a penchant for neatness I’d come to appreciate, while Gavin, headlamp affixed to his forehead, set to work lugging five-gallon oil buckets onto the deck.  

“We could run her at the dock a bit,” Steve said.

“Or we could just go,” I said tentatively.

“We could do that.”

And that’s what we did, gassing up, untying again, and punching her along past the breakwater. Past Middle Island, the farthest the tug had gone since I owned her, past beds of kelp, bullet-shaped otter heads bouncing in our wake. Despite feeling that same cowboy excitement as when leaving on a fishing boat—that zeal for danger and blood and money—now I wished Rachel and HMJ could be here in the wheelhouse, gripping the knobs of the oak wheel, smelling the tang of herring and spruce tips on the water. Steve’s copper wallet chain jangled as he came up the ladder, snapping me from my thoughts. He ran a rag through his fingers. “Crankcase is filling up. Something’s got to be done.”

Friday, I thought. It was because we were leaving on a Friday—terrible luck for a boat. We also had bananas in the galley, a plant on deck, any one of these enough to sink a ship according to the pickled old-timers in their early morning kaffeeklatsches at the grocery store. We were barely out of town and already in trouble.

Leroy tied the Ahi alongside, and Steve detached the air hose from the compressor, screwed on a section of copper pipe, and blew air into the crank pits. The oil pressure didn’t drop.

We decided to stop early, with plans to troubleshoot in the morning. It drizzled as we dropped anchor in Schulze Cove, a quiet, protected bight just south of the rip of Sergius Narrows. Gavin showed me a video he had taken earlier that afternoon from deck of humpback whales bubble-net feeding. Magnificent. I checked the GPS. We had gone 20 out of 200 miles.

I fell asleep with a dog-eared manual from 1928, using a fingernail to trace the path of oil through the engine on the diagrams of its thick-stock pages, knowing if we couldn’t figure out the oil situation, we’d have to go home.

Day Two

The next morning we took apart the oil pump.

Let me revise that. Steve and Leroy bantered while one held a pipe wrench and the other unscrewed, breaking down the oil pump while I held a light and furnished tools. When the engine ran in forward gear, the pump stalled. When it ran in reverse, things worked fine. Leroy, worrying an ever present stick of black licorice, suggested we just go backward every 20 miles. Funny.

Frustrated, I went to the bow to make sure the generator, powering the electrical system on the boat, had enough diesel. A few minutes later Leroy held something in the air. “Check it out. Old gasket caught in the valve.” Back at the pump Steve was smiling. “Too early to tell,” he shouted over the engine, “but I think we might have ourselves an engine.”

We lined up the boat to go through Sergius Narrows, a dangerous bottleneck of water where the tide rips. About 50 otters floated on their backs, fooling with mussel shells as gulls floated nearby for scraps. Cormorants on a red buoy appeared incredulous as we coasted by. “Well I’m just tickled,” Steve said after checking the oil reservoir. “We’re back in business.”

Our second night we anchored in Hoonah Sound, a stone’s throw from Deadman’s Reach—a section of the coast where, as the story goes, Russians and Aleuts died from eating tainted shellfish. Fucus seaweed glistened in the white light of our headlamps. Driftwood bleached bone white was scattered along the beach. Xander pointed out where he had shot his first deer, at the top of the slide, just above the tree line.

We needed a light so other boats could see us in the dark. I went out in the spitting rain and used a role of plastic wrap to tie a headlamp to the mast, then pushed the button. Voilà! A mast light. Eric would be proud. Kind of.

In the salon we lit a fire in the woodstove and dumped fresh vegetables Rachel had sealed and frozen into a cast-iron pan, along with burger, taco seasoning, and cormorant we had shot earlier in the season. Water darkened with wind as we ate, the seabird tough and fishy. The anchor groaned, and we all went out on deck into the blowing rain.

We were stuck in a williwaw, the wind whipping off the mountain, bulldozing us toward deep water, the anchor unable to hook into the sandy bottom. We were—and this is one of the few sayings at sea that is literal—dragging anchor.

I woke continually that night, watching our path on the GPS, imagining contours of the bottom, praying for the anchor to snag on a rock, going outside to check our distance from the beach, and talking with Xander, who knew more about such things than I and reinforced my fretting.

None of us slept well at Deadman’s Reach.  

Day Three

Katie Orlinsky and I had a plan. The Smithsonian Journeys photographer would fly into Sitka, board a floatplane, and we’d coordinate over VHF radio to find a rendezvous point where she could drop out of the sky, land on the water, and climb aboard the tug. Easy. Like all things in Alaska.   

That Sunday morning, with the wind blowing 25 knots at our back and the sun lighting our way, we gloried in a sleigh ride down Chatham Strait, just as I had imagined. Gavin and Xander glassed a pod of orcas, the boomerang curve of their dorsals slicing through the waves. I cleaned oil screens in the engine room, enjoying how the brass gleamed after being dunked in diesel.

Then the pump bringing in seawater to cool the engine broke. The sheave, a grooved piece of metal connecting it to the engine, had tumbled into the bilge. The boat drifted dangerously, the Ahi not powerful enough to guide us in the heavy winds.

We (meaning Steve) rigged up a gas pump, using a rusted sprocket to weigh down the pickup hose in the ocean. “Time to go pearl diving,” he announced. I followed, confused.

In the engine room, a yellow steel wheel the size of a café table spinning inches from our heads, Steve and I laid on our stomachs, dragging a magnet through the dark bilge. Nails, wire clamps, and a favorite flathead screwdriver came up. Then the sheave. He tapped in a new core (salvaged from the sprocket) and re-attached the belts.

Katie—Xander hadn’t heard from her pilot on the radio. I checked my phone, shocked to find reception. Twelve missed calls from her. No way her floatplane could land in six-foot waves. Instead, after doing a few flyover shots, the pilot dropped her about ten miles south, in cheerily named Murder Cove.

A few hours later, after rounding Point Gardner, I untied the skiff and set off in the open ocean, eyes peeled for Murder Cove. And there she was, a small figure on the beach, flanked by a couple of carpenters living there. She threw her equipment into the skiff and we were off. Within minutes she picked out the Adak on the horizon.

Back on the tug the weather turned worse. We hobbyhorsed in and out of wave troughs, my bookcase toppling, a favorite mug crashing in the galley, exploding on the floor. I tried to wire running lights as spray came over the gunwales, but my hands were growing cold, fingers slowing. And then, after a desperate squeeze of the lineman pliers, the starboard light glowed green, the moon broke through the clouds, and the wind died down—as if the gods said, OK, enough.

We were sailing by moonlight over a streaky calm sea, a crosscurrent breeze threading through the open windows of the wheelhouse. Steve told tales, including one about a Norwegian tradition of fathers sinking boats, which they’d built for their sons, deep beneath the ocean to pressure-cure the wood. Years later their sons raised the boats, then repeated the process for their own sons. I nearly wept.

A splash off the bow. We gathered by the windlass, and Gavin shined his headlamp as Katie snapped photos of Dall’s porpoises, the white on their flanks and bellies reflecting back the light of the moon as they dodged the bow stem. We threaded into Portage Bay, working by that pale luminescence and instruments to find an anchorage. Just after 2 a.m. I went into the engine room to shut down the generator. There was an unfamiliar gushing, a rivulet somewhere in the bow. That chilling sound of water finding its way into the boat—nauseating.

Leroy, Steve, and I removed floor planks, shining light into the dark bilge. And there it was, a dime-size hole in a pipe allowing in an unhealthy dose of ocean. We repaired it with a section of blue hose, belt clamp, and epoxy. That night as we slept, it held.
Day Four

The following morning, about 20 miles north of Petersburg, our freshwater pump burned out. “Not built to work on,” Steve said, poking the shell of the beetle black plastic pump with a boot tip. The only material he hated more than iron was plastic.

This was my fault. Before leaving Sitka I had hesitated to fill up the forward tank with freshwater, afraid of going “ass over teakettle” as they say so charmingly in the industry. (The boat nearly did this one early morning in 2013.) What I didn’t understand was that the pump needed water from the forward tank not just for doing dishes, but also to fill jackets around the engine that serve as insulation. Without the water, the pump overheated. Without the pump, the engine wouldn’t cool.

One of the things I love about Steve, that I will always love, is that he skips blame. If you want to feel like a jackass (right then, I did) that was your problem. His time was spent on solutions—just so long as iron and plastic weren’t involved.

We fed our remaining drinking water into the tank. “Might be able to take in the skiff, fill up at a ‘crick,’” Steve suggested, considering the quarter inch on the sight gauge. “But don’t dillydally.”

What he meant was, you’re going to an island where bears outnumber humans, and meanwhile we’ll be pushing ahead for Petersburg until we run out of water. Don’t take your time.

Gavin, Katie, and I snapped on our life vests. I filled a backpack with flares, a sleeping bag, peanut butter and jelly, and a Glock 20. Xander released the skiff, and the tugboat receded from view. I studied the GPS, trying to locate said “crick.” When the water grew too shallow I raised the outboard, and we paddled the rest of the way to the beach, tossing the five-gallon jugs into the flattened tidal grass. Farther up the tideland, surrounded by bear tracks, we found a stream and filled the tanks. Gavin’s powerlifting strength was particularly welcome now as we hauled the jugs back to the skiff.  

Aboard the Adak again, the three of us watched proudly as the level in the sight gauge rose. Gavin and I reboarded the skiff to go into Petersburg for a new pump. After tying up, I stopped by the harbor office to say we’d just be a minute.

“You guys coming in from a boat?”

“The Adak.”

Her eyes lit up. “I thought so. We’ve been waiting for you. Coast Guard’s got an all-boats alert.” I called the Coast Guard to tell them we were fine. There was no pump in town.

With 20 gallons of water for insurance—and a couple more of beer—Gavin slalomed us down Wrangell Narrows until we saw the blue exhaust of the Adak in the distance. We boarded, climbing to the wheelhouse as we worked our way through the passage.

And then, as we came around the corner—there they were. The lights of Wrangell.

And then the engine went dead.  

This time, after four days at sea and as many breakdowns, no one panicked. We changed two filters, Steve blew through the fuel line to clear rust—spitting out a healthy mouthful of diesel—and we were moving again.

Through the darkness we picked out a green light that blinked every six seconds, and a red light that didn’t. Heritage Harbor. I lined up the bow stem with the lights. A harbor assistant flashed his truck lights to further guide us, and we eased the boat up to the rain-slicked dock. Resting a hand against the planking of the tug, I swear I could feel the boat exhale.

That night we cooked a dinner of venison burgers, sausage, and steak, all of us squished around the galley table, a film of sea salt and oil over our skin that cracked when we laughed—at how Gavin couldn’t stop eating candlefish, the oily smelt a friend gave us upon arrival; how Leroy lasted less than 24 hours as a cook because his preferred spice was cream of corn; how Steve liked to go hunting because the unexpected falls “knocked” the arthritis from his bones. Everything was hilarious that night.

A day behind schedule, and the Coast Guard alerted, but we had made it. When I called Rachel, she squealed. Tomorrow we’d know about the hull.
Day Five

The next morning, I discovered that the lift operator was not amused by our late arrival; we might have to wait up to four days to be pulled. Then, at quarter to noon, he grumbled that he had a window if we could make it over by 1 p.m.

We raced to our posts, powered up, and maneuvered the tug into the pullout. The Ascom hoist, big as a city building, motored toward us like some creature out of Star Wars. The machine groaned and the tug shifted in its straps. The harbormaster checked numbers on a control panel. “She’s heavy,” he said, “5,000 more pounds and we’re maxed out on the stern strap.” The lift exhaled and the boat dropped back down.

A crowd had gathered, watching the harbormaster, who looked down at the Adak, chin in one hand. This wasn’t happening, not after all we had been through. My mind raced. If the boat didn’t come up, our only other option was Port Townsend. That was a good 800 miles. Laughable.
Up the hull came. I held my breath. Back down. Oh God.  

The fourth time, the propeller emerged from the water. I could make out the keel. Please keep coming. The lift stopped, the harbormaster checked the numbers and approached me, his face dour. Then he broke into a smile. “We’ll lift her.”

Streams of water poured off the keel stem as she rose, like a whale in the straps, hovering in the air, the bulk of her preposterous. “Three hundred and eleven tons,” he pronounced.

Eleven tons over capacity, but I didn’t ask questions.

That afternoon the thick grain of large-diameter Douglas fir emerged as we pressure-washed the bottom. I knew it before he said it, but how that tightness deep in my chest released when our shipwright, his head bent back as he looked up at the planks, shielding his eyes from the drips, said, “The bottom looks sweet.” The wood had been pickled, and stood up to the spray with no splintering. There was a rotten plank at the waterline, some gribble damage that would require replacing—but otherwise the boat was solid.

I called Rachel. “It’s gonna work. The boat’s okay.”

“Oh my God. I haven’t been able to sleep.”


That first night in the boatyard I woke just after midnight and went outside in my slippers, fingering the gray canvas straps still holding us aloft. I thought of the weeks ahead, zipping off through-hulls, charring the planks, spinning oakum, using a beetle and horsing iron to re-cork. I thought about being alone in my hut in the woods, at the age of 19, with nothing to fear. And now, this boat, keeping me up into the early hours. My life had been braided into the Adak’s, just as it had been braided into Rachel’s life, and then Haley’s, and now someone else’s, ripening in Rachel’s belly.

Back in bed, the stateroom awash in the sodium yard lights, I thought of Xander and Steve, Gavin, Katie, Leroy, and Laddy, all the folks who had helped us get to Wrangell; the joy in their eyes when the boat emerged from the water; and back in Sitka, Rachel holding our child close, trusting so hard that this would work.

It was odd to be so still, floating here in the air, no rock of the hull from boats passing in the channel. And odd to finally understand after so long what the boat had been telling me all along: Trust me. I’m not going anywhere.

The Short, Frantic, Rags-to-Riches Life of Jack London

Smithsonian Magazine

An extremist, radical and searcher, Jack London was never destined to grow old. On November 22, 1916, London, author of The Call of the Wild, died at age 40. His short life was controversial and contradictory.

Born in 1876, the year of Little Bighorn and Custer’s Last Stand, the prolific writer would die in the year John T. Thompson invented the submachine gun. London's life embodied the frenzied modernization of America between the Civil War and World War I. With his thirst for adventure, his rags-to-riches success story, and his progressive political ideas, London’s stories mirrored the passing of the American frontier and the nation’s transformation into an urban-industrial global power. 

With a keen eye and an innate sense, London recognized that the country’s growing readership was ready for a different kind of writing. The style needed to be direct and robust and vivid. And he had the ace setting of the “Last Frontier” in Alaska and the Klondike—a strong draw for American readers, who were prone to creative nostalgia. Notably, London's stories endorsed reciprocation, cooperation, adaptability and grit.

In his fictional universe, lone wolves die and abusive alpha males never win out in the end.  

The 1,400-acre Jack London State Historic Park lies in the heart of Sonoma Valley wine country, some 60 miles north of San Francisco in Glen Ellen, California. Originally, the land was the site of Jack London’s Beauty Ranch, where the author earnestly pursued his interests in scientific farming and animal husbandry.

“I ride out of my beautiful ranch,” London wrote. “Between my legs is a beautiful horse. The air is wine. The grapes on a score of rolling hills are red with autumn flame. Across Sonoma Mountain wisps of sea fog are stealing. The afternoon sun smolders in the drowsy sky. I have everything to make me glad I am alive.”

The park’s varied bucolic landscape still exudes this same captivating vibe. The grounds offer 29 miles of trails, redwood groves, meadowlands, wine vineyards, stunning scenery, a museum, London’s restored cottage, ranch exhibits and the austere ruins of the writer’s Wolf House. An idyllic bounty of pristine northern California scenery is on full display. For a traveler in search of a distinctly pastoral escape fortified with a rustic dose of California cultural history, Jack London State Historic Park is pay-dirt. (It also doesn’t hurt that the park is surrounded by a myriad of the world’s premier wineries.)

A 9-year-old Jack London with his dog Rollo, 1885 (Wikimedia Commons)

London grew up on the grungier streets of San Francisco and Oakland in a working class household. His mother was a spiritualist, who eked out a living conducting séances and teaching music. His stepfather was a disabled Civil War veteran who scraped by, working variously as a farmer, a grocer and a night watchman. (London’s probable biological father, a traveling astrologer, had abruptly exited the scene prior to the future author’s arrival.)

As a child, London labored as a farm hand, hawked newspapers, delivered ice and set up pins in a bowling alley. By the age of 14, he was making ten cents an hour as a factory worker at Hickmott’s Cannery. The scrimping and tedium of the “work-beast” life proved stifling for a tough, but imaginative kid, who had discovered the treasure trove of books in the Oakland Free Library.

Works by Herman Melville, Robert Louis Stevenson and Washington Irving fortified him for the dangerous delights of the Oakland waterfront, where he ventured at the age of 15.

Using his small sailboat, the Razzle-Dazzle, to poach oysters and sell them to local restaurants and saloons, he could make more money in a one night than he could working a full month at the cannery. Here on the seedy waterfront among an underworld of vagabonds and delinquents, he quickly fell in with a roguish crew of hard drinking sailors and wastrels. His fellow ne’er-do-wells tagged him as “The Prince of the Oyster Pirates,” and he declared that it was better “to reign among booze fighters, a prince than to toil twelve hours a day at a machine for ten cents an hour.”

Jack London, 1903 (Wikimedia Commons)

The pilfering, debauchery and comradeship were totally exhilarating—at least for a while. But London wanted to see more of the world.

So he shipped out on a seal hunting expedition aboard the schooner Sophia Sutherland and voyaged across the Pacific to Japan and the Bonin Islands. He returned to San Francisco, worked in a jute mill, as a coal heaver, then took off to ride the rails and hobo across America and served time for vagrancy. All before the age of 20.

“I had been born in the working-class,” he recalled, “and I was now, at the age of eighteen, beneath the point at which I had started. I was down in the cellar of society, down in the subterranean depths of misery . . . I was in the pit, the abyss, the human cesspool, the shambles and the charnel house of our civilization. . . . I was scared into thinking.” He resolved to stop depending on his brawn, get an education, and become a “brain merchant.”

Back in California, London enrolled in high school and joined the Socialist Labor Party. By 1896, he had entered the University of California at Berkeley, where he lasted one semester before his money ran out. He then took a lackluster crack at the writing game for a few months, but bolted to the Klondike when he got the chance to join the Gold Rush in July of 1897. He spent 11 months soaking in the sublime vibe of the Northland and its unique cast of prospectors and wayfarers.

The frozen wilds provided the foreboding landscape that ignited his creative energies. “It was in the Klondike,” London said, “that I found myself. There nobody talks. Everybody thinks. There you get your perspective. I got mine.” 

Jack London with daughters Bess (left) and Joan (right), 1905 (The Book of Jack London by Charmian London, 1921. Wikimedia Commons)

By 1899, he had honed his craft and major magazines began snapping up his vigorous stories. When it came to evoking elemental sensations, he was a literary maven. If you want to know what it feels like to freeze to death, read his short story, “To Build a Fire.” If you want to know what it feels like for a factory worker to devolve into a machine, read “The Apostate.” If you want to know what it feels like to have the raw ecstasy of life surging through your body, read The Call of the Wild. And if want to know what it feels like to live free or die, read “Koolau the Leper.”

The publication of his early Klondike stories granted him a secure middle class life. In 1900, he married his former math tutor, Bess Maddern, and they had two daughters. The appearance of The Call of the Wild in 1903 made the 27-year-old author a huge celebrity. Magazines and newspapers frequently published photographs showcasing his rugged good looks that exuded an air of youthful vitality. His travels, political activism and personal exploits made ample fodder for political reporters and gossip columnists.

London was suddenly an icon of masculinity and a leading public intellectual. Still, writing remained the dominant activity of his life. Novelist E. L. Doctorow aptly described him as “a great gobbler-up of the world, physically and intellectually, the kind of writer who went to a place and wrote his dreams into it, the kind of writer who found an Idea and spun his psyche around it.”

In his stories, London simultaneously occupies opposing perspectives. At times, for instance, social Darwinism will seem to overtake his professed egalitarianism, but in another work (or later in the same one) his political idealism will reassert itself, only to be challenged again later on. London fluctuates and contradicts himself, providing a series of dialectically shifting viewpoints that resist easy resolution. He was one of the first writers to seriously, though not always successfully, confront the multiplicities unique to modernism. Race remains an acutely vexing topic in London studies. Distressingly, like other leading intellectuals of the period, his racial views were shaped by the prevailing theories of scientific racism that falsely propagated a racial hierarchy and valorized Anglo-Saxons.

Jack London and his second wife Charmian, c. 1916 (Wikimedia Commons)

At the same time, he wrote many stories that were antiracist and anticolonial, and which showcased exceptionally capable non-white characters. Longtime London scholar and biographer Earle Labor describes the author’s racial views as “a bundle of contradictions,” and his inconsistences on race certainly demand close scrutiny.

An insatiable curiosity impelled London to investigate and write about a wide range of topics and issues. Much of his lesser known work remains highly readable and intellectually engaging. The Iron Heel (1908) is a pioneering dystopian novel that foresees the rise of fascism, born out of capitalism’s income inequality. The author’s most explicitly political novel, it was a crucial precursor for George Orwell’s 1984 and Sinclar Lewis’s It Can't Happen Here.

Given the economic hurly-burly of recent years, readers of The Iron Heel will readily grasp London’s depiction of a totalitarian oligarchy that makes up “nine-tenths of one per cent” of the U. S. population, owns 70 percent of the nation’s total wealth, and rules with an “Iron Heel.” His fellow socialists slammed the book when it came out because the novel’s collectivistic utopia takes 300 years to emerge—not exactly the jiffy revolution London’s radical compatriots envisioned. A political realist in this instance, he recognized how entrenched, cunning and venal the capitalist masters really were.

Jack London in Hawaii (Wikimedia Commons)

He also produced an exposé of the literary marketplace in his 1909 novel Martin Eden which castigates the folly of modern celebrity. Closely modelled on his own rise to stardom, the story traces the ascent of an aspiring author who, after writing his way out of the working class and achieving renown, discovers how a slick public image and marketing gimmickry trump artistic talent and aesthetic complexity in a world bent on glitz and profit. Thematically, the novel anticipates Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and it has always been something of an underground classic among writers, including Vladimir Nabokov, Jack Kerouac and Susan Sontag.

London became even more personal in his confessional 1913 memoir John Barleycorn, where he recounts the heavy significance that alcohol—personified as John Barleycorn—plays in his life. London seems aware that he abuses alcohol too frequently, but he also proclaims that he will continue to drink and dial down John Barleycorn when necessary.

For many, the book is a classic case study in denial, while others see it as an honest existential descent toward the pith of self-awareness. The problem with John Barleycorn for London (and the rest of us) is that he both giveth and taketh away. Drink paves the way for comradery, offers an antidote to life’s monotony, and enhances the “purple passages” of exalted being. But the price is debility, dependence, and a nihilistic despondency he calls the “white logic.” Remarkably unguarded and frank, London discloses how the pervasive availably of drink creates a culture of addiction.

As a journalist, London’s articles on politics, sports and war frequently appeared in major newspapers. A skilled documentary photographer and photojournalist, he took thousands of pictures over the years from the slums of London’s East side to the islands of the South Pacific.

In 1904, he traveled as war correspondent to Korea to report on the Russo-Japanese War but was threatened with a court marital for punching out a Japanese officer’s thieving stable groom. President Theodore Roosevelt had to intervene to secure his release. The next year, London purchased the first piece of land in Glen Ellen, California, which would eventually become the 1,400-acre “Beauty Ranch.” He also embarked on a nation-wide socialist lecture tour that same year.

After his marriage collapsed in 1904, London married Charmian Kittrege, the epitome of the progressive “New Woman”—gregarious, athletic and independent—and with whom he had an affair during his first marriage. They would remain together until London’s death. 

Following the publication of two more immensely successful novels that would became classics, The Sea-Wolf and White Fang, London began designing his own 45-foot sailboat, the Snark, and in 1907 he set sail to Hawaii and the South Seas with his wife and a small crew. A host of tropical ailments would land him in an Australian hospital, and he was forced to end the voyage the following December. Though he projected enormous personal energy and charisma, London had frequent health issues over the years, and his hard drinking, chain smoking and a bad diet only worsened matters.

London was well ahead in the real estate game in 1905 when he began buying up what was then exhausted farmland around Glen Ellen. His intention was to restore the land by using innovative farming methods such as terracing and organic fertilizers. Today, docents lead tours showcasing London’s progressive ranching and sustainable agricultural practices.

The author’s tidy ranch cottage has been painstakingly restored, and London’s workspace, writing desk, and much of the home’s original furniture, art and accoutrements are on display. Visitors can learn much about London’s action-packed life and agrarian vision. “I see my farm,” he declared, “in terms of the world and the world in terms of my farm.”

But London took time out from his farm for extended excursions. In 1911, he and his wife drove a four-horse wagon on 1,500-mile trip through Oregon, and in 1912 they sailed from Baltimore around Cape Horn to Seattle as passengers aboard the square-rigged sailing bark Dirigo.

The next year London underwent an appendectomy, and doctors discovered his seriously diseased kidneys. Weeks later, disaster hit when the London’s 15,000 square-foot ranch home, dubbed Wolf House, burned down shortly before its construction was completed. Built out of native volcanic rock and unstripped redwoods, it was to be the rustic capstone of Beauty Ranch and architectural avatar Jack London himself. He was devastated over the fire but vowed to rebuild. He would never get the chance.

Late photographs show London as drawn and noticeably puffy—the effects of his failing kidneys. Despite his deteriorating health, he remained productive, penning innovative fiction like his 1913 The Valley of the Moon, his 1915 “back to the land” novel, The Star Rover, a prison novel about astral projection, as well as a medley of distinctive stories set in Hawaii and the South Seas.

He also remained politically engaged. “If, just by wishing I could change America and Americans in one way,” London wrote in a 1914 letter, “I would change the economic organization of America so that true equality of opportunity would obtain; and service, instead of profits, would be the idea, the ideal and the ambition animating every citizen.”

This remark is probably the most succinct expression of London’s sensible brand of political idealism.

In the last two years of his life, he endured bouts of dysentery, gastric disorders and rheumatism. He and his wife made two extended recuperative trips to Hawaii, but London died on Beauty Ranch on November 22, 1916 of uremic poisoning and a probable stroke. In 18 years, he had written 50 books, 20 of them novels.

The stony ruins of Wolf House still stand today with eerie dignity on the grounds of the Jack London State Historic Park. They are there and will remain simply because Jack London lived.

A scenic six-mile trail leads to the top of Sonoma Mountain and visitors can also explore trails on horseback or by bike. The park has a museum in “The House of Happy Walls,” where displays of London’s books along with paraphernalia unique to the author’s adventures and writing career help reveal his life story. Particularly fascinating are the artifacts London and his second wife, Charmain, collected on their travels in the South Pacific, which include an array of masks, spears and carvings.   

A major attraction are the ruins of London’s Wolf House, which is a short hike from the museum. Wolf House was London’s dream home, a rugged Arts and Crafts style residence constructed of native volcanic rock and unstriped redwood timbers.

In 1963, the Wolf House site was designated a National Landmark, and its craggy remains emit a special energy—simultaneously ghostly and restorative. Perhaps this eeriness has something to do with the fact that London’s cremated remains lie a few hundred yards away from the ruins under a rock rejected as too large by the builders.

London wrote of his Beauty Ranch, “All I wanted was a quiet place in the country to write and loaf in, and get out of nature that something which we all need, only the most of us don't know it.” For the hiker, nature lover, reader, historian and environmentalist—for everyone—“that something” endures at the Jack London State Historic Park. It’s worth the drive. 

Kenneth K. Brandt is a professor of English at the Savannah College of Art and Design and the executive coordinator of the Jack London Society.

Editor's Note, December 14, 2016: This story has been updated to include new information about visiting and touring Jack London State Historic Park in Glen Ellen, California. 

Hand-Drum; Drum-Stick

NMNH - Anthropology Dept.
From card: "Hand-drum Cha-yakh (i); Drum stick Tum-ga-shikh (r). From U.S. Govt. Ex. to Commander Island. ... Of the Unungan family. Shell an oval hoop with joints overlapping and nailed; handle notched to fit over the joint; head, the bladder of a fur seal stretched over the hoop and held in the groove on the outsifde of the hoop by a line. A sinew cord is passed four times across the hoop, acting as a snare. Unangan is not a family name, but merely the Aleutian name for themselves. - Dr. L. Black 1/4/1982."

This object is on loan to the Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center, from 2010 through 2022. Drum includes drum-stick on loan.

Source of the information below: Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center Alaska Native Collections: Sharing Knowledge website, by Aron Crowell, entry on this artifact, retrieved 5-8-2014: Drum There was a man called Ugdigdang who always had celebrations . . . . He used to say to his people, 'Even when I am dead I shall have celebrations. So when I die, you shall lay me in the cave of my observation hill, putting with me my drum and paints.' - From the story "Ugdigdang" told by Ivan Suvorov of Nikolski in 1910. Drumming accompanied dance and song during the traditional ceremonial season, which extended from December through April. Young men drummed, striking their instruments with wooden sticks, while the women and older men danced. Drums with handles, like this one, were the most common, although in the 1760s Tolstykh saw another type that was held by cross-cords. Dancers dressed in festival hats and clothing, wore masks, and carried rattles made from inflated seal stomachs. It was reported in the 18th century that drums, like masks, were broken after the ceremonial season or placed in caves, never to be used again. As told in the story of Ugdigdang, drums were placed in burial caves with the mummified bodies of chiefs, for use in the afterlife. Shamans beat drums during séances held to communicate with spirits, heal the sick, and foretell the future. Drums were used in war, sounding loudly as raiders attacked a village. Bill Tcheripanoff of Akutan (1902-1991) demonstrated how to make wood-framed drums for the Unalaska City School District, using fox and caribou skin for the covers. He told how men used to compose drumming songs when they were hunting and trapping, returning to perform them in the village. Drums were also traditionally covered with thin seal skin or whale bladder.

From Elders' discussions of the drum in 2003 (see web page cited above for the full entries) with Mary N. Bourdukofsky, Vlass Shabolin, Maria Turnpaugh and Daria Dirks (Tanadgusix Foundation) at the National Museum of Natural History and National Museum of the American Indian, 4/07/2003-4/11/2003. Also participating: Aron Crowell and Bill Fitzhugh (NMNH) and Suzi Jones (AMHA). Mary Bourdukofsky: It's a beautiful drum. Daria Dirks: On the top it says "cha-yakh" [in museum catalog record]. Chaiyax^ means "music." Aron Crowell: Do you remember seeing or hearing any drums? Maria Turnpaugh: They used to have them when I was growing up. Mary Bourdukofsky: They hardly used them. They just hung like a souvenir. Maria Turnpaugh: They did at parties. Mary Bourdukofsky: Yes, once in a while they'd take it down and play it, with somebody playing guitar in the house. Aron Crowell: But not with dances or old songs? Mary Bourdukofsky: No. Maria Turnpaugh: Yes, in our town they did, like during Russian Christmas they did. They'd have a program, and they'd have dancing and drums. There'd be old Jenny Galuktinoff, John Goldovoff, Walter Gardayoff, and they'd dance Aleut dances. Aron Crowell: And did they have old songs? Maria Turnpaugh: Yes, they did. Mary Bourdukofsky: What kind of seal bladder is this?

Daria Dirks: It says fur seal [in museum catalog record]. Mary Bourdukofsky: Fur seal bladders don't get this big, unless it's a very big fur seal. Vlass Shabolin: Attog^a sanx^o. (Bull fur seal stomach.) Mary Bourdukofsky: Yes, maybe. Daria Dirks: Not like the canvas ones nowadays. Mary Bourdukofsky: In school we were making them out of airplane material. I have one that's made out of reindeer skin. Karen and I made it, and we used reindeer antler for the handle. Put screws through the antler and then just tied it to the stick. Mary Bourdukofsky: They always kept string there [across center]? Aron Crowell: I think it would have made a rattling noise for a snare drum. Vlass Shabolin: Mm-hmm. Mary Bourdukofsky: I've never seen a drum stick like that. Daria Dirks: It's almost as long as the drum itself. It's very thin too. Maria Turnpaugh: That's a different stick than I've ever seen. Vlass Shabolin: It must be a strong piece of wood because look at how thin the handle is. This one is springy where you just tap on it. This backside looks like it'd fit in the palm and with two fingers you just tap it onto the drum. Mary Bourdukofsky: Maybe they used it to make different sounds for each song.

Vlass Shabolin: When you tap it right at the end of the stick, you make a loud sound. If you tap it sideways, then you lay it flat and you can make a little light sound.

A.S. Gatschet Vocabularies and Other Linguistic Notes ca. 1881-1886

National Anthropological Archives
17 word Pamunkey vocabulary collected by Rev Dalrymple in 1844 at King William County, Virginia negative microfilm on file: reel 69.

Contains vocabularies and other linguistic notes on a variety of American Indian languages. Mainly transcripts by Gatschet from other sources; includes some material recorded by Gatschet, and a few original manuscripts sent to him by others.

Contents: Alaska: Ms Vocabulary 1449, pages 49-52. Petroff, Ivan. "Aliaskan Names, Ivan Petroff." 2 pages, in A. S. Gatschet's handwriting. List of Alaskan place and tribal names with notes on each. Apalachee: Ms Vocabulary 1449, pages 103-104. [Gatschet, A. S.] Apalachee [vocabulary], with Pl[easant] Porter [Creek inft.]." 2 pages, in Gatschet's handwriting. Comparison of Apalachee words with Creek. Gatschet indicates: "(Copied in Apal. book, July 1889)." Beothuk: Ms. Vocabulary 1449, pages 27-41. [Gatschet, A. S.] Beothuk vocabularies, notes, and bibliographic references. 14 1/2 pages, mostly in Gatschet's handwriting. (pages 27-28 and 35-36 are in R. G. Latham's hand.) Working notes for Gatschet's published article on Beothuk -- comment by M. R. Haas, 11/58. California (Yuman ?): Ms Vocabulary 1449, pages 122-123; 124 (?) Brown, J. Ross Extract from "J. Ross Brown. Sketch of the exploration of lower Cal. San Franc[isco ?], 1869. H. H. Bancroft & Co., 177 pp." 2 pages, in A. S. Gatschet's handwriting. Miscellaneous notes on lower California tribes and languages, with list of some of the tribes in the area and their approximate locations. California: Ms Vocabulary 1449, page 148. [Gatschet, A. S.] Bibliographic references relating to California. 1 page, in A. S. Gatschet's handwriting. Furman, McDonald Ms Vocabulary 1449 file: Catawba. Page 159 "An Indian's Petition." No date. Newsclipping. 1 slip. Ms Vocabulary 1449 Woccon and Catawba comparative vocabulary No date. Autograph document. 6 pages. Pages 87-89 and 93-94. Ms Vocabulary 1449, page 186a and ff. Eells, M. Comparison of numerals in Chemakum, Quileute, and Hoh, 1 page and accompanying letter to A. S. Gatschet, August 24, 1883, from M. Eells, Skokomish, Mason Co., Wash., 2 pages, handwritten. Ms Vocabulary pages 108-110. [Gatschet, A. S.] "Mtn. Cherokee's names (topographical). Nimrod Tom Smith [inft ?], 1/2 breed, in Swain Co., North Car., P. O. Quallatown...April 18, '82." 3 pages, in Gatschet's handwriting. List of Cherokee place names and locations. Chippewa: Ms Vocabulary 1449, pages 178-80. [Gatschet, A. S.] "Odjibwe - Local and tribal names. Ign. Tomazin [inft.], Jan. 31, '83." 3 pages, in Gatschet's handwriting. Also (page 180) short extract from Dorman, Primitive Superstitions, page 148, on Ojibwa cannibalism, in Gatschet's handwriting.

Chitimacha: Ms Vocabulary 1449, page 85 (top). [Gatschet, A. S.] "Shetimasha" vocabulary of 8 words, translated into French. 1/2 page, in A. S. Gatschet's handwriting. Eskimo: Ms Vocabulary 1449, page 45. Hoffman, Dr W. J. "Eskimo text obtained by Dr W. J. Hoffman, at San Francisco, Cal., from Naumoff, an Eskimo from Kadiak..." No date. 1 page in A. S. Gatschet's handwriting. Includes text and inter-linear translation, plus translation of same story from sign language. Note by Gatschet indicates that text is not in Kodiak dialect. Eskimo (Chugach) Ms Vocabulary 1449, pages 53-66. Petroff, Ivan "Vocabulary of Tchugatch-Inuit. Taken by Ivan Petroff, in June, 1881, at various places, chiefly at Nu'tchik or Port Etches, abt. 60 1/2 N. Lat. From full bloods. 14 pages, in A. S. Gatschet's handwriting. Also contains comparison with "Tchiglit" (Kopagmiut), in Gatschet's handwriting. "Partly entered in Mscr. vocab. Vol. 3." Eskimo (Kuskwogmiut): Ms Vocabulary 1449, pages 76-84; 85-86; 95-96. [Petroff, Ivan ?] "Kuskokvog-miut (Inuit) [vocabulary], from Nicolai Kamilkoishin [?] native of the tribe educated at the Russian Mission, Yukon R., at Ikomiut." 13 pages, in A. S. Gatschet's handwriting. Partly entered in Mscr. vocabulary, Volume IIId (note in Gatschet's handwriting.) Eskimo: Ms Vocabulary 1449, page 249. W--, H. D. "A curious race. The Mutes of northern Alaska. Their manner of living. Peculiar family relations - superstitions and queer customs." From the San Francisco Chronicle, Sunday November 14, 1886. 1 page, newsclipping. Hitchiti: Ms Vocabulary 1449, page 203 (bottom), 204 (bottom), 205. Robertson, Mrs A. E. "Acts. VIV, ii in Hitchiti" (page 203); "Hitchiti words from Mrs Robertson" (204); "Hitchiti verbs, by Mrs Robertson" (205). 3 pages, in A. S. Gatschet's handwriting. Kiowa: Ms Vocabulary 1449, page 26. Gatschet, A. S. "Phonetics of the Kayowe Language, by Albert S. Gatschet. Read before the A.A.A.S., Cincinnati, 1881." 1 page, clipping from published article. Note in margin in Gatschet's handwriting reads: "Science of Sept. 17, 1881. By John Michels, New York."

Klamath: Ms Vocabulary 1449, pages 133-136; 143-147. [Gatschet, A. S.] Queries relating to the Klamath language by Gatschet, with answers written in by various Indians from the Klamath Agency, Oregon (cf. letter of J. G. Dennison, page 142 of this manuscript). 9 pages, partially in Gatschet's handwriting. Klamath: Ms 1449, pages 137-142. Denison, James D. "Story of the birth of Aisis," a Klamath legend, and accompanying letter from J. G. Dennison to A. S. Gatschet, August 29, 1880, Klamath Agency, Oregon. 6 pages, handwritten. Klamath: Ms Vocabulary 1449, pages 149-152. McCain, Frank Letter to A. S. Gatschet, January 30, 1880, from Frank McCain, Klamath Indian Agency, Lake Co., Oregon, containing 22 word Klamath vocabulary. 4 pages, handwritten. Koasati: Ms Vocabulary 1449, pages 102; 204. Robertson, Mrs A. E. [and A. S. Gatschet] "Koassadi. Supplement to words by Mrs A. E. Robertson, copied in Vocab. No. 2, obtained from [---illeg.]"; short vocabulary of verbs "from vocab. Vol 2, Koassati of Mrs Robertson"; and passage from "Actorum XIV, 11, in Koasata." 2 pages, in A S. Gatschet's handwriting. Page 102 contains a short list of Koasati words (probably from Mrs Robertson) with corresponding Choctaw equivalents (supplied by Gatschet [?] from the "Ch. grammar"; passage from Acts XIV, ii in Koasati with inter-linear translation, presumably by Gatschet; and list of Koasati verbs, no source mentioned. Page 204 contains the same bible passage in Koasati, with slightly different English translation, and list of same verbs, identified as being from "vocab. Vol 2...of Mrs Robertson." Pamunkey: Ms Vocabulary 1449, page 46. Dalrymple, Rev Mr 17 word Pamunkey vocabulary collected by Rev Dalrymple in 1844 at King William County, Virginia. (Hist Mag., N. Y. II, page 182) and short note from J. G. Shea. 1 page, in A. S. Gatschet's handwriting. See National Anthropological Archives Manuscript 4069, referring to the original of the Dalrymple Manuscript in Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore.

Seminole: Ms Vocabulary 1449, page 182. [Buckingham-Smith, etc. ?] "Seminole Local Names. Buck. Smith, Beach, p. 125 (with Stidham)." 1 page, in A. S. Gatschet's handwriting. South America (Mojo): Ms Vocabulary 1449, page 187. Marban, M. P. P. Pedro "Moxo 6 Mojo. M.P.P. Pedro Marban, de la Compania de Jesus, Superior [ ]. Arte de la Lengua Moxa, con su vacabulario y cathecismo. Colegio de San Pablo (Lima), 1701. pages 664, etc." 1 page, in Gatschet's handwriting. Notes on Mojo language. South America (Miscellaneous): Ms Vocabulary 1449, page 128. Rohde, [ ] "Rohde on Sudamerika"...(1883-84)." 1 page, in A. S. Gatschet's handwriting. Miscellaneous extracts relating to South American Indian tribes. South America (Miscellaneous): Ms Vocabulary 1449, page 97-101. Miscellaneous notes on South America copied by Gatschet from various published sources. 5 pages, in Gatschet's handwriting. South America Peru: (Quechua): Ms Vocabulary 1449, page 239. Bruhl, -- "Inquiries by Bruhl on Kechua. Oct. 1885." 1 page, in A. S. Gatschet's handwriting. 9 word Quechua vocabulary. Yokuts (Cholovone): Ms Vocabulary 1449, pages 231-236. Pinart, Alph. L. "Yatchikumne [Cholovone, in Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 30], near Stockton, Cal. Alp. L. Pinart, 1880." 6 pages, in A. S. Gatschet's handwriting. Notes (written in French) on the various Cholovone dialects, and vocabulary with some words translated into English and some into Spanish. Yuchi and Natchez: Ms Vocabulary 1449, page 106 Pike, Gen Albert "Elements of Inflection [of the verb to have]. Yuchi (Pike, p.--) & Naktche." 1 page, in A. S. Gatschet's handwriting. Yuchi and Natchez: Ms Vocabulary 1449, page 107 Pike, Gen. Albert "Albert Pike's Vocabularies, 18.... Yuchi & Naktche." 1 page, in A. S. Gatschet's handwriting. Comparison of 33 words in Yuchi and Natchez. Yuchi: Ms Vocabulary 1449, pages 201-203. Robertson, Mrs A. E. "Yutchi [vocabulary] transliterated from mscr. of Mrs. Robertson, 1873 ?." 3 pages, in Gatschet's handwriting. Also contains passage from bible (Acts XIV, ii) apparently in Yuchi, with interlinear translation.

Large Carved Chest

NMNH - Anthropology Dept.
From card: "Wood; carved in relief; painted black, red, and blue; corners dovetailed (perhaps by a Chinese carpenter). Bought by James G. Swan from Captain Skedance [a.k.a. Skedans], Chief of Cumshewa, October 9, 1883. Illus.: P. 43, Pl. 240b, Celebrations catalogue, Smithsonian Press, 1982." Note: object has multiple catalogue cards with slight variations of above; see scanned cards.

Provenience note: Swan's original list identifies this chest as bought from Skedans, chief of Cumshewa. Skedans was often used as the name for both the hereditary chief and the town of Skedans (Haida names for this town include Qoona, K'uuna, Koona, Q'una, Koona LLnaagay, K'uuna Llnagaay, Q!o'na Inaga'-I, and Q:o'na). Skedans the town is located on the Cumshewa inlet, so perhaps that is what Swan is indicating when he lists the locality as Cumshewa, rather than the town of Cumshewa?

Source of the information below: Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center Alaska Native Collections: Sharing Knowledge website, by Aron Crowell, entry on this artifact , retrieved 4-28-2011: Chest This chest for storing ceremonial regalia belonged to Gida'nsta [Gidansta], chief of Skedans. The front panel shows Raven grasping two human figures dressed in rod armor. The image on the side panels is probably Xyuu, Southeast Wind, whose ten brothers were clouds. One of them, Cirrus Clouds, may be represented here by eyes and feathers on either side of Raven. Cirrus clouds were the potlatch attire of Tangghwan Llaana (Sea Dweller), the supreme ocean spirit, who belonged to the Raven moiety, and were also thought to represent bird-skin clothing that Shining Heavens, a sky deity, put on to bring fair weather.

This object is on loan to the Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center, from 2010 through 2022.

A Firsthand Account of What It Takes to Pilot a Voyaging Canoe Across the Ocean

Smithsonian Magazine

It’s nighttime. The winds are blowing at 27 knots, with gusts of 35 to 40, and the seas are heaving at 15 feet. It’s close to midnight and we are out in the middle of the ‘Alenuihaha channel between the islands of Maui and Hawai‘i, aboard the 72-foot modern voyaging canoe Hikianalia.

It’s been a pretty smooth ride up to this point. In fact, we were towed all the way to the end of Maui from Honolulu Harbor, because the winds were dead against us. Entering this channel feels like the beginning of a true voyage. Now we have the sails up and the twin hulls of the canoe are gracefully stable despite the large waves.

I am at the helm with a young trainee, Ka‘anohiokala Pe‘a, and we are guiding the canoe by Mars over the starboard boom. Half of our crew of 12 is asleep below, in bunks inside the hulls, while the captain and navigator sleep in a little hut on deck.

What brought me here is the same thing that brought all the rest of the crew members here: an enchantment with oceanic voyaging, spurred by that great icon of cultural pride: the Hōkūleʻa. And for those of us who are trainees, a hope to crew on a leg of Hōkūleʻa’s Worldwide Voyage.

I first learned about the vessel in about 1986, two years or so into my move to Hawai‘i to study geography in graduate school. One of the founders of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, Ben Finney, was a professor of anthropology on the next floor down. He came up and gave us a talk one day about Hōkūleʻa, and I was immediately hooked. As years went by, I would meet the great navigator Pius Mau Piailug not once but twice, interview navigators and voyagers, and I have written and lectured about how the voyaging canoe teaches us not only how to live on small islands, but how to live on our island Earth. And in 2013, I built my own outrigger canoe.

The 72-foot modern voyaging canoe Hikianalia was on a training mission with Smithsonian geographer Doug Herman aboard: "The red line was our actual route, the white line was the intended route," he says of the difficult trip. (Doug Herman)

Now, there was just one thing left to be done: go voyaging.

“Okay, it’s time to tack,” announces our watch captain, Nahaku Kalei, a vibrant young woman who has been setting our course. We prepare to tack—to turn the bow of the canoe from one side of the oncoming wind to the other, which would change our direction by maybe 45 degrees. We try to tack. The canoe starts to turn, then slides back to its previous course. We try again. It doesn’t work.

Now all the crew is up, including the captain and navigator, and we try all kinds of tricks. We take down one of the sails to try to leverage the wind’s push on the boat. Not only does it not work, but also the sail jams as we try to raise it back up, and we spend an hour (or so it seemed) in 15-foot seas hoisting people up the mast to try to fix it.

The name of this channel, ‘Alenuihaha, means something like “big waves, feel your way through.” The giant mountains of Haleakala (10,000 feet) and Mauna Kea (13,700 feet) on either side not only force the ocean roughly through this pass, but the wind as well. We are all wearing foul weather gear. Some are or have been seasick, and I will be soon. 

Hōkūleʻa is currently in Key West after a historic crossing of the Atlantic. It will spend roughly May 15 to June 1, 2016, in the Washington, D.C. area. (Polynesian Voyaging Society)

But at this moment—indeed at all moments of this short voyage—spirits are high. Everyone is trying to help, attending eagerly to what needs to be done, or pitching in wherever they can. There is no sense of fear or danger—many on this canoe have seen much worse. I am thinking about when Hōkūleʻa flipped over in 25-foot seas, back in 1978, and the crew was left clinging to the hulls overnight. Famed surfer and lifeguard Eddie Aikau, who was among the crew, was lost at sea going for help. But Hikianalia, besides heaving up and down and a little bit side to side, feels so stable I might as well be standing on a dock.

In ancient times—or, for that matter, contemporary parts of Micronesia—voyaging was a way of life. On small Pacific islands, most males grew up with the sea, whether fishing near shore or traveling between islands or making the long journeys to other island groups. One “learns the ropes” from very early. School-age boys make model canoes, sometimes even racing them in the shallow areas. They would float on their backs in the ocean to learn to feel and differentiate the different swells. They would also have to learn the many skills for carving, weaving, making rope, lashing and so forth that apply to land-based arts as well as canoe building and maintenance.

Few of us today, including most Native Hawaiians, have this traditional upbringing to prepare us for voyaging. When the late, great Micronesian navigator Pius “Mau” Piailug joined Hōkūleʻa in 1975, the crew saw in him a living ancestor, for their own culture had largely lost the skills and knowledge he possessed. I heard the story that Hawaiians in their 20s said: “We want you to teach us how to navigate.” Mau shook his head, and said: “You? You are too old. Give me your children, I will teach them.”

Image by Doug Herman. We were towed all the way to the end of Maui from Honolulu Harbor, because the winds were dead against us. (original image)

Image by Doug Herman. What brought me here is the same thing that brought all the rest of the crew members here: an enchantment with Oceanic voyaging. (original image)

Image by Doug Herman. Navigator Chadd 'Onohi Paisshon, right, with Captain Bob Perkins in the bow, as the crew gets under sail off West Maui. (original image)

Image by Doug Herman. Long-time voyager Dennis Chun looks out on the south coast of Maui. We had seen a lot of humpback whales that day. (original image)

Image by Doug Herman. As we head for Kawaihae, Desmond Haumea breaks out a ‘ukulele, Nakahu Kalei is at the steering paddle. (original image)

After 40 years of voyaging, Hōkūleʻa has had many crews, and its current Worldwide Voyage has required more than 165 different crew members for different legs. At this writing, it is in Key West after a historic crossing of the Atlantic. It will spend roughly May 15 to June 1, 2016, in the Washington, D.C. area and then sail on up the East Coast before continuing its journey back to the Pacific.

How does one get chosen to crew this, the most famous progenitor of all modern voyaging canoes?

First, one must show a commitment, and one of the best ways people do this is by coming to work on the canoes when they are in dry-dock. The older voyagers watch the efforts the industry and the interactions of these volunteers, looking to see how people mesh together, because on a voyage, working together is everything. “If you watch the crew, you’ll see that without words they make way for each other. Nobody says ‘Coming through! Make way!’ It’s a tiny space, but nobody gets into each other’s way. You learn to live that way. It’s almost poetic; it’s like a dance.”

Indeed, I am seeing—and participating in—that dance right now, as we crew members quietly move past each other, help each other, diligently attending to what needs to be done and looking for ways to help whatever requires it.

But not everyone who works at dry-dock is voyager material. “You can have a tremendous number of people that want to go on the canoe,” says Jay Dowsett, one of the canoe builders, “but in reality it’s a much smaller group that can actually do it. How do you know you’ve made it through to be crew?”

“If the dock is getting smaller, you’re ready to be on the canoe,” replies Billy. “But if the boat is getting smaller, you’re staying on the dock.” In other words, you’re not ready to spend time at sea in a limited space.

Beyond that, there’s training. The Polynesian Voyaging Society and other voyaging groups in Hawai‘i coordinate a series of training programs including safety training, working of ropes, protocols for arriving at new places, and some basic principles of navigation. A five-day program called ‘Imi Na‘auao (“seeking knowledge”) is held periodically as a basic training program hosted by the organization ʻOhana Waʻa (family of the canoes). I attended one in 2013. And then there are training sails, like the one I am on now. 

The 72-foot modern voyaging canoe Hikianalia, docked at the Marine Education Training Center on Sand Island, Honolulu Harbor, is used to train crew members for the Hōkūleʻa. (Doug Herman)

Sometime before midnight the captain, Bob Perkins, decides that we will have to tow again to get up to where we need to be to sail around the top of Hawai‘i Island towards the town of Hilo. My turn is over, but the other shift is short two people due to seasickness and a minor injury, so I will be awakened at 3:30 a.m. for a half-hour stint back on deck. Towing means that we are banging against the waves, instead of riding them smoothly, so seasickness soon catches up to me and when I get up at 6 a.m. for my shift, I have to make a beeline for the rail for some retching before I can help at all.

Our progress during the wee hours of the morning had been poor; the winds are still strong against us and the sea is still churning at 15 feet. 

But the sun is out and it's a beautiful day. The giant blue waves sweep gently under the canoe and their beauty mesmerizes me. Everyone seems content. Sure, the stove has broken, so there is no coffee or hot breakfast. The toilet is broken, too. 

“More things have gone wrong on this trip than on our entire trip to Aotearoa [New Zealand]!” pipes Nahaku cheerfully. This was a trip of mishaps, and we’re still a long ways from our destination, making very little progress. We are behind schedule. 

But everyone is happy. We are on the canoe.

“That’s it,” says the captain, after a short discussion with Pwo navigator Chadd ‘Onohi Paishon, “We’re heading for Kawaihae,” a much closer port, on the wrong side of the island from our destination. There is a sense of relief as we turn the canoe downwind and are finally sailing again, using only the jib because the wind is so strong. Kawaihae comes into view, and soon we are mooring, cleaning off the boat, and loading onto the towboat to go ashore.

Friends and family, some of whom have driven over from Hilo, meet us at the dock. An elder comes out onto the narrow dock to meet us, and soon his chanting booms out from behind me. From the shore a response is chanted, and the goosebumps rise up on my skin and my eyes well up with tears. 

It feels like we’ve been at sea for a week or more. It was only three days, and yet I don’t want it to be over, and don’t want to leave this instant family, this wonderful crew that has embraced me, and this craft that has carried me securely on its back.

On shore there is food for us—tons of hot food, Hawaiian food. Crew instructor Pomai Bertelmann, who helped me find my way to this training sail, is there. “So,” she says, “would you do it again?”

When do we leave?

The Hōkūleʻa arrives in the Washington, D.C. area on Sunday, May 15, to the Old Town Waterfront Park Pier, 1A on Prince Street, in Alexandria, Virginia, from noon to 5:00 p.m. The Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian celebrates the arrival with a number of programs and film screenings.

Sugar Masters in a New World

Smithsonian Magazine

Until the discovery of the New World in the late 15th century, Europeans hungered for sugar. So precious was the commodity that a medieval burgher could only afford to consume one teaspoon of the sweet granules per year. And even in Europe’s early Renaissance courts, the wealthy and powerful regarded the refined sweetener as a delicious extravagance. When Queen Isabella of Castile sought a Christmas present for her daughters, she chose a small box brimming with sugar.

The commodity’s preciousness came, of course, from its relative scarcity during this period. Sugar cane—the sole source of the sweetener—only really flourished in hot, humid regions where temperatures remained above 80 degrees Fahrenheit and where rain fell steadily or farmers had ample irrigation. This ruled out most of Europe. Moreover, sugar-mill owners required huge quantities of wood to fuel the boiling vats for transforming cane into sugar cones. By the early 16th century, sugar masters along the southern Mediterranean, from Italy to Spain, struggled to find enough cheap timber.

So European merchants and bankers were delighted by reports they received from Spanish mariners exploring the Caribbean. Jamaica possessed superb growing conditions for sugar cane, and by 1513, Spanish farmers in the island’s earliest European settlement, Sevilla la Nueva, tended fields bristling with the green stalks. But until very recently, historians and archaeologists largely overlooked the story of these early would-be sugar barons. Now a Canadian and Jamaican research team led by Robyn Woodward, an archaeologist at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, has studied Sevilla la Nueva’s fledgling sugar industry and excavated its mill. “It’s the earliest known sugar mill in the New World,” says Woodward.

Woodward first walked the site in 1981 while searching for traces of Christopher Columbus and his fourth expedition: the mariner had spent nearly a year in the immediate region after beaching two of his ships in St. Ann’s Bay on Jamaica’s north coast. Columbus possessed a detailed knowledge of the eastern Atlantic’s Madeira Island sugar industry—he had married the daughter of a wealthy Madeira sugar grower—and he clearly recognized Jamaica’s rich potential for growing the crop. Moreover, at least 60,000 indigenous Taino farmers and fishers lived on the island, a potential pool of forced laborers. But Columbus died before he could exploit this knowledge. Instead, it was his son Diego who dispatched some 80 Spanish colonists to the north coast of Jamaica in 1509. There the colonists subjugated the Taino, planted sugar cane and corn, and founded Sevilla la Nueva, the island’s first European settlement that, in spite of its relatively brief history, tells a crucial story about the colonization of the Caribbean.

Image by Robyn Woodward. According to archaeologist Robyn Woodward, Sevilla la Nueva is the earliest known sugar mill in the New world. (original image)

Image by Lebrecht Music and Arts Photo Library / Alamy. Jamaica possessed superb growing conditions for sugar cane, and by 1513, Spanish farmers in the island’s earliest European settlement, Sevilla la Nueva, tended fields bristling with the green stalks. (original image)

Image by Robyn Woodward. Woodward’s team uncovered the ruins of Francesco de Garay's large, water-powered sugar mill, complete with a brick-lined tank for holding cane-sugar juice and an ax and a stone block that workers had used for chopping cane. (original image)

Image by Robyn Woodward. Woodward first walked the Sevilla la Nueva site in 1981 while searching for traces of Christopher Columbus and his fourth expedition. (original image)

Image by Robyn Woodward. Archaeologist unearthed a massive sculptor's workshop littered with nearly 1,000 carved limestone blocks of archangels, griffons and demons. (original image)

Image by Robyn Woodward. The carved limestone blocks are the largest collection of Renaissance sculpture ever discovered in the Americas. (original image)

Image by Robyn Woodward. The large carved limestone blocks were destined for the altar of a magnificent stone abbey the settlers planned to build. (original image)

Image by Robyn Woodward. According to David Burley, historical archaeologist at Simon Fraser University, Sevilla la Nueva "is one of the best preserved early Spanish colonial settlements by a long measure." (original image)

Image by Robyn Woodward. Sugar's preciousness came from its relative scarcity during the late 15th century. Sugar cane only flourished in hot, humid regions (map of Sevilla la Nueva) where temperatures remained above 80 degrees Fahrenheit and where rain fell steadily or irrigation was available. (original image)

According to surviving records, the inhabitants of Seville la Nueva did not begin milling sugar until the arrival of their second governor, Francesco de Garay, in 1515. Garay, a former slave trader in the Bahamas, had made his fortune in Caribbean gold fields. He devoted part of this wealth to constructing a mill in Sevilla la Nueva capable of churning out 150 tons of sugar a year for European markets. He was in the process of building a second mill at the time of his departure for Mexico in 1523.

Troweling into the sediments, Woodward’s team uncovered the ruins of Garay’s large, water-powered sugar mill, complete with a brick-lined tank for holding cane-sugar juice and an ax and a stone block that workers had used for chopping cane. Almost certainly, says Woodward, Garay chose to house all the heavy equipment in simple, open-sided thatched sheds, as opposed to more permanent brick or stone buildings. “This is all very expedient,” she says. If Garay had been unable to make a go of it at the site, he could have moved the expensive equipment elsewhere.

Documents strongly suggest that Garay brought 11 enslaved Africans to Seville la Nueva, but excavators found no trace of their existence in the industrial quarter. Instead, Garay relied heavily on coerced Taino laborers. Woodward and her colleagues recovered pieces of Taino stone blades littering the ground near the mill, suggesting that the Taino were cutting and processing the tough cane stalks and doing heavy manual labor. In addition, the Spanish colonists compelled Taino women to prepare traditional indigenous foods, such as cassava bread, on stone griddles.

But while Garay and the colonists worked closely with Taino villagers and dined on native fare, they determinedly kept up Spanish appearances in public. They made a point, for example, of dining from fine imported Majolica bowls—rather than local Taino pottery—in the industrial quarter. “These were Spanish people wanting to show off their Spanishness,” explains Woodward.

The excavations also reveal much about the grand ambitions of the early Spanish entrepreneurs. In Sevilla la Nueva’s industrial quarter, the archaeologists unearthed a massive sculptor’s workshop littered with nearly 1,000 carved limestone blocks of archangels, griffons and demons—the largest collection of Renaissance sculpture ever discovered in the Americas. These were destined for the altar of a magnificent stone abbey the settlers planned to build. Sevilla la Nueva, says David Burley, a historical archaeologist at Simon Fraser University, “is one of the best preserved early Spanish colonial settlements by a long measure.”

But the town never lived up to its founders’ great expectations. Its colonists failed to reap sufficiently large profits, and most abandoned the site in 1534, settling instead on the island’s south coast. Moreover, the sugar industry they founded in Jamaica took a tragic toll on human life. European germs and exploitation virtually extinguished Jamaica’s Taino in just one century. Without this large coerced workforce, Jamaica’s sugar economy faltered until the British seized the island in 1655 and set up a full-scale plantation system, importing tens of thousands of enslaved Africans. By the end of the 18th century, African-American slaves outnumbered Europeans in Jamaica by a ratio of ten to one.

Despite its short history, says Woodward, the Spanish colony at Sevilla la Nueva tells us much about the birth of the sugar industry in the New World, a global trade that ultimately had an immense long-term impact on the Americas. The growing and milling of sugar cane, she points out, “was the primary reason for bringing ten million Africans to the New World.”

Why Religious Freedom and Diversity Flourished in Early America

Smithsonian Magazine

In theory, Reverend John Eliot’s 1663 scripture was the perfect proselytizing tool. Entitled Holy Bible Containing the Old Testament and the New; Translated into the Indian Language, the text was adapted for an indigenous audience and, ostensibly, had an advantage over opaque English sermons.

Eliot learned Algonquian in order to translate the Bible, but unfortunately for both parties, the oral language had no written form. The reverend had to transcribe his oral translation—and teach his audience how to read the text. The Algonquian Bible is a touchstone of American religious history: It was the first Bible published in English North America, predating by 80 years its earliest successor, a German text used mainly in Pennsylvania churches.

Religion in Early America,” a new exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, displays Eliot’s holy book alongside artifacts including Thomas Jefferson’s personalized Bible, a 17th-century iron cross made by the first Catholic community in North America and a 19th-century manuscript written by an enslaved Muslim. The exhibition marks the museum’s first exploration of spirituality during America’s formative years and traces religious diversity, freedom and growth between the colonial period and the 1840s.

One of the show’s recurring themes is the evolution of European-born religions in a New World setting. A 1640 edition of the Bay Psalm Book, a Puritan hymnal, was one of the first texts published in North America. In a clear embrace of their new religious context, the colonists chose to translate the hymnal from its original Hebrew text instead of reprinting an English edition. Joseph Smith’s Book of Mormon, published in 1830, incorporates indigenous Native American groups into the European Biblical narrative.

The religious landscape of early America encompassed more than competing Christian denominations, and these smaller communities are also represented. Groups including enslaved Muslims, Jewish refugees, and adherents of Gai-wiio, a blend of Quaker and Iroquois beliefs, existed at the margins of the dominant Christian population. The presence of such groups was once common knowledge, but as faiths evolved, elements of their history were forgotten.

For Peter Manseau, the museum’s new curator of religious history, the exhibition is an inaugural event in a five-year program designed to integrate faith into the collections through scholarship, exhibitions, events and performances.

“You can’t tell the story of American history without engaging with religion in some way,” Manseau explains.

Eliot’s Algonquian Bible, for example, reveals a key motivation for colonization: the spread of Christianity. Hoping to extend his translated text’s reach, the reverend created an accompanying guide to the written word and offered to visit “wigwams, and teach them, their wives and children, which they seemed very glad of.” Although the Algonquian Bible was a difficult read for its intended audience, the text grew popular across the Atlantic—in an ironic twist, English Christians saw the Bible as a symbol of colonists’ evangelical success.

Soon after the first settlers’ arrival, new communities and dissenting religious beliefs began to spread across the continent. Early religious activist Anne Hutchinson championed the right to question Puritan tenets in 1636, while fellow reformer Roger Williams founded the settlement of Rhode Island, known for its religious tolerance and separation of church and state, that same year. Pacifist Quakers, ecstatic Shakers and fiery evangelicals built their own communities in places like Pennsylvania, New York and New England. Adherents of religions outside of the Christian tradition—including the Jewish families that arrived in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1658—did the same.

This outpouring of faith established a connection between religious diversity, freedom and growth. “If they didn’t find a way to live together, they would never create a society that would function as one,” Manseau says. “And, contrary to the fears of many in early America, this creation of religious freedom did not lead to the decline of religion as a cultural or moral force, but rather led to explosive growth of religious denominations.”

The items chosen to represent diverse faiths in America run the gamut from George Washington’s christening robe and a 17th-century Torah scroll to unexpected objects such as a compass owned by Roger Williams. The religious reformer, who was exiled from Massachusetts due to his “great contempt of authority,” used the compass on his journey to Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island. There, he created a new colony built on the premise of religious liberty for all.  

“He literally finds his way there with this compass,” Manseau says. “It’s not an obviously religious object, but it becomes part of this significant story of religion in early America.”

One of the Smithsonian’s newest acquisitions—an 800-pound bronze bell commissioned in 1802 for a Maine Congregational church—reveals the chapter of Paul Revere’s life following his famous midnight ride. The Revolutionary War hero was a talented metalsmith, and in 1792, he expanded his business with the family-run foundry Revere and Son.

The first bells produced by Revere’s foundry were met with mixed reviews. Reverend William Bentley of the Second Congregational Church in Salem, Massachusetts, commented, “Mr. Revere has not yet learned to give sweetness and clearness to the tone of his bells. He has no ear and perhaps knows nothing of the laws of sound.” Despite this critique, the reverend purchased a Revere and Son bell, maintaining that he had done so out of patriotism.

The metalsmith turned bell maker soon honed his craft and moved on to cannons and rolled copper. He continued working with the foundry, however, and by his death in 1818, had cast more than 100 bells. The foundry remained operational after its patriarch’s death but shut down in 1828 after producing a total of 398 bells.

The Bilali Document is a reminder of a history all but forgotten. Written by a man named Bilali Muhammad, the 13-page document is the only known Islamic text written by an enslaved Muslim in America. Historians estimate that about 20 percent of the men and women seized from Africa were Muslim, and the Bilali Document represents their struggle to keep Islamic traditions alive.

Omar ibn Said, a Senegalese man taken from his homeland in 1807, converted to Christianity after several years of slavery. His autobiography, The Life of Omar ibn Said, Written by Himself, reveals that Said blended elements of Christianity and Islam and hints that he converted out of situational necessity rather than spiritual conviction. Said’s tale sheds light on the plight of Bilali Muhammad and other Muslim slaves, whose stories have been lost over centuries of coercion, captivity and conversion.

“The place of religion in America has always been complex, and it’s always been a matter of negotiation,” says Manseau. “This simple fact of religious freedom has never guaranteed that there wouldn’t be tensions between religious traditions.”

“Religion in Early America” is on view at the National Museum of American History until June 3, 2018.

What Happens to Fiction When Our Worst Climate Nightmares Start Coming True?

Smithsonian Magazine

Fiction about the climate is ancient – nothing lends itself to mythology like the swell and ebb of a river, a drought that kills the crops, a great flood that washes the land clean. But fiction about man-made climate change is newish, gaining attention as its own genre only in the last few years. I first heard the term “cli-fi” after the 2011 publication of my first novel, America Pacifica, in which an ice age destroys North America. At that time the label, coined by the writer Dan Bloom, seemed obscure; now it is almost mainstream.

In my own writing, I thought of the end of the world as a crucible for my characters: What quicker way to make ordinary people into heroes and villains than to turn the weather against them and destroy everything they know?

Now the changes I once imagined are upon us: 2016 was the hottest year on record; before that, it was 2015; before that, 2014. This year, 16 states had their hottest February on record, according to Climate Central. Arctic sea ice hit record lows this winter. Permafrost in Russia and Alaska is thawing, creating sinkholes that can swallow caribou. Meanwhile, President Trump has announced the United States will withdraw from the Paris agreement and intends to slash federal funding for climate research. Art that once felt like speculation seems more realistic every day.

Writing and movies about the apocalypse used to seem like exciting breaks from real life.  As a writer, a dystopian setting was in part a way to avoid the mundane, to explore situations, problems and ideas outside the scope of everyday life. As a reader, I was both thrilled and disturbed by a world I barely recognized in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, a story that felt entirely new. And when I saw Danny Boyle’s film Sunshine, I watched in rapture — how beautiful, the Sydney Opera House surrounded by snow.

A short cli-fi reading list would include Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam Trilogy (Oryx and CrakeThe Year of the Flood and MaddAddam), which is about genetic engineering gone mad in a time of environmental upheaval; Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife, a thriller that centers on water rights in Phoenix; Claire Vaye Watkins’s “Gold Fame Citrus,” a tale of refugees from a drought-parched California that feels all too familiar given recent weather patterns; plus Marcel Theroux’s Far North, Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior and Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140. For a film complement, watch Sunshine (about a dying sun, not carbon emissions, but similar in look and tone to other cli-fi stories), The Day After Tomorrow or the brilliant Mad Max: Fury Road, about a wasted desert ruled by the ruthless and physically decaying Immortan Joe, who controls all the water.

As a term, cli-fi is a little narrow for my taste, because some of the most interesting climate writing I know isn’t fiction. One of the most moving responses to our climate crisis is Zadie Smith’s essay “Elegy for a Country’s Seasons,” in which she enumerates the small pleasures already lost as climate change transfigures English weather: “Forcing the spike of an unlit firework into the cold, dry ground. Admiring the frost on the holly berries, en route to school. Taking a long, restorative walk on Boxing Day in the winter glare. Whole football pitches crunching underfoot.”

More fiery in its approach is the Dark Mountain manifesto, published in 2009 by two English writers, Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine, which describes climate change as just one of many pernicious effects of a cross-cultural belief in human supremacy and perpetual technological advance. The antidote, for Kingsnorth and Hine, is “uncivilization,” a way of thinking and living that privileges the wild over the urban and situates humans “as one strand of a web rather than as the first palanquin in a glorious procession.” The best way to spread this perspective, they argue, is through art, specifically writing that “sets out to tug our attention away from ourselves and turn it outwards; to uncentre our minds.”

Kingsnorth and Hine mention the 20th-century poet Robinson Jeffers as a prime example of this kind of writing, and say that early in his career, the poet “was respected for the alternative he offered to the Modernist juggernaut.” But it’s a Modernist poet, T. S. Eliot, I think of when trying to trace the roots of climate fiction, or at least my relationship with the genre.

Eliot’s seminal poem “The Waste Land” anticipates human-caused climate change, especially in the final section that draws on the legend of the Fisher King, his lands laid waste by his impotence. It’s here we get “rock and no water and the sandy road,” the “dead mountain mouth of carious teeth that cannot spit,” the “dry sterile thunder without rain.” Eliot was not worrying about climate change — England’s climate was not yet changing noticeably in 1922 when the poem was published. But humans are not so different now from a hundred years ago: Drought has always brought despair, and thunder fear, and unusual weather a creeping sense that the world is out of joint. “The Waste Land” just seems more literal now.

Now that Eliot’s “dead mountain mouth” reads like a description of last year in California, and his “bats with baby faces in the violet light” feel like they might be right around the corner, is climate fiction going to rouse humans to action?

J. K. Ullrich in The Atlantic cites a study showing that people felt more concerned about climate change and more motivated to do something about it after watching the climate disaster movie The Day After Tomorrow. But fiction is, at best, an inefficient means of instigating political action — will the desiccated Los Angeles of Gold Fame Citrus, for instance, spur readers to conserve water, or just make them pour themselves a tall, cool glass before it’s all gone? Will the weird, lonely land of Oryx and Crake, full of genetically engineered animals and children, and almost devoid of ordinary humans, encourage support for renewable resources or only make readers lie down in despair? And will those most skeptical of climate change ever pick up a volume of climate fiction in the first place?

The primary function of climate fiction is not to convince us to do something about climate change – that remains a job primarily for activists, scientists and politicians. Rather, fiction can help us learn how to live in a world increasingly altered by our actions – and to imagine new ways of living that might reduce the harm we do. In Gold Fame Citrus, the dune sea essentially creates its own culture, its mysterious pull (whether physical, metaphysical or merely psychological is not entirely clear) collecting a band of outcasts with a charismatic leader who makes of desert life a kind of new religion. In Mad Max: Fury Road, a handful of female rebels, led by the heroic Imperator Furiosa, kill Immortan Joe and take over his water supply.

Neither is exactly a hopeful story. Levi Zabriskie, the desert cult leader in Gold Fame Citrus, is a liar and a manipulator, and the fate of his followers remains uncertain at the end of the novel. The conclusion of Fury Road is more triumphant, but even the benevolent Furiosa will have to rule over a blasted country, where her fabled “green place” has become a dark mudscape traversed by creepy beings on stilts. What the best of climate fiction offers is not reassurance but examples, stories of people continuing to live once life as we know it is over. Post-apocalyptic fiction takes place, by definition, after the worst has already happened; the apocalypse is the beginning, not the end, of the story.

There’s still time, I hope, to avert the worst of climate fiction’s nightmares. But even if we don’t find ourselves lost in the sand dunes in our lifetimes, we will surely need to rethink the way we live, perhaps radically so, and especially in the wealthy countries that consume most of what the earth provides. I don’t know if I agree with Kingsnorth and Hine that we will have to become “uncivilized.” But we will have to change what civilization means. Some of these changes may be painful; many will feel strange. As we make them, it is useful to be told that humans could live on a sand dune, in a wasteland, in a spaceship aimed at the sun. It might behoove us to make some modifications now, before we are forced into much more drastic transformations.

I wrote America Pacifica because I wanted to imagine a time when humans would be morally tested, when dire circumstances would make heroes or villains of us all. Now that time has come: We are being tested, every day. I, along with many readers, look to fiction to find ways we might pass that test.

Nine Women Whose Remarkable Lives Deserve the Biopic Treatment

Smithsonian Magazine

This year’s roster of Academy Award nominees is much like those of previous decades: predominantly male and white. Of the 20 men and women nominated for acting awards, only one—Harriet’s Cynthia Erivo—is a person of color. And despite strong offerings from the likes of Greta Gerwig, Lulu Wang and Lorene Scafaria, the list of Best Director contenders is all-male for the second year in a row.

The movies set to be honored at this weekend’s ceremony fare no better in the diversity department. 1917, widely predicted to win Best Picture, has just one female character. Anna Paquin says a single line in the more than three-and-a-half hour The Irishman, while Margot Robbie, who plays actress Sharon Tate in Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, is seen more often than heard. Because these and similarly biographical films take place in the past, which is assumed to be “overwhelmingly white and male” in and of itself, points out Aisha Harris for the New York Times, filmmakers have a ready excuse for centering their narratives on white men.

Hollywood creatives certainly have the artistic license to continue elevating stories dominated by white men, but as Harris writes, “[L]et’s not pretend that this isn’t also a choice—a choice dictated not by the past, but by an erroneous (and perhaps unconscious) belief that white men have done the most and lived the most interesting lives of us all.”

Though the movie industry is making some progress in rejecting this perception—biopics of such prominent women as Sally Ride, Rosa Parks and Aretha Franklin are currently in the works—gaps in the cinematic record remain. Harriet, for instance, is the very first biopic centered on the Underground Railroad conductor. Civil rights leaders Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, American Red Cross founder Clara Barton, and American flag creator Betsy Ross are among the famous women who are long overdue for either their very first biopics or new takes on decades-old productions.

To perhaps inspire Hollywood, Smithsonian magazine has curated a list of nine women—one for each of this year’s Best Picture nominees—who you may not have heard of but whose fascinating lives warrant the biopic treatment. All of these individuals, drawn from an array of countries and backgrounds, are now deceased.

Bessie Coleman

Bessie Coleman in 1923 (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

The Pitch: The daring aeronautics of The Right Stuff with the inspiring story beats of 42

The Backstory: Eleven years before Amelia Earhart piloted her first transatlantic flight, Bessie Coleman earned her international pilot’s license, becoming both the first African American and Native American woman to do so. “Queen Bess,” as the aviatrix became known, had saved up money to leave her sharecropper mother and some of her 12 siblings in Texas and join her brothers in Chicago. Her brother John, a WWI veteran, talked about the women overseas who piloted aircraft, and Bessie grew determined to take to the skies too. She swapped her job as a manicurist for a higher-wage gig as a restaurant manager and secured the financial backing of the Chicago Defender’s millionaire owner Robert Abbott, among others. Since stateside flight instructors refused to tutor a black woman, Coleman studied French and then sailed across the Atlantic to an esteemed flight school in northern France.

By 1921, Bessie was a licensed pilot. After a second round of training in Europe, as Doris L. Roch relates in Queen Bess: Daredevil Aviator, she took to the skies as a “barnstorming” pilot, who’d perform flashy and dangerous figure eights, walk on wings, and parachute down from the plane. She made a foray into showbiz, too, signing a contract to star in a feature film, but then left the project when she learned her character would arrive in New York City wearing tattered clothing. “No Uncle Tom stuff for me!,” Coleman told Billboard. Her commitment to the black community was apparent in other areas of her professional life too: Coleman refused to fly for segregated crowds, had ambitions to start an African American aviation school and once, when the Chicago Herald offered to interview her if she’d pass as white, brought her darker-skinned mother and niece with her to the newspaper’s offices, flat-out refusing to whitewash herself.

Stunt flying only 20 years after the Wright brothers’ first flight was a risky endeavor, and after surviving a California crash that took two years to recover from, Coleman died at the age of 34 in another crash. The plane flipped mid-air. Coleman hadn’t been wearing a seat belt—she was too short to peer out at the land below otherwise—so she fell out of the plane and plummeted 500 feet down. According to a New York Times obituary written just this past December (as part of a series that pays due respect to notable figures whose deaths were unreported at the time), 10,000 people attended the memorial services for the barrier-breaking pilot.

Frances Glessner Lee

Frances Glessner Lee, at work on one of the Nutshells in the early 1940s (Courtesy of Glessner House Museum)

The Pitch: Wes Anderson brings a Hereditary-inspired dollhouse aesthetic to a “Sherlock”-style whodunnit

The Backstory: The field of forensic science owes much to Frances Glessner Lee, a 20th-century American heiress who used her vast fortune—and crafting skills—to train a generation of criminal investigators. Introduced to forensics by her brother’s friend, a future medical examiner and pathologist named George Burgess Magrath, during the 1930s, Lee spent much of the following decade creating dollhouse-sized crime scenes she dubbed the “Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death.”

Numbering 20 in all, the dioramas draw on true-life crime files to present intricate domestic interiors populated by battered, bloodied figures and decomposing bodies. Each Nutshell—the roster runs the gamut from a farmer found hanging in his barn to a charred skeleton lying in a burned bed and a high school student murdered on her way home from the store—includes clues pointing to the case’s solution, but as Lee warned the students tasked with studying her macabre scenes, red herrings abound.

A magazine cover featuring Glessner Lee (Courtesy of Glessner House Museum)

The Nutshells’ goal, according to Lee, was to teach detectives-in-training the skills needed to “convict the guilty, clear the innocent, and find the truth in a nutshell.”

Speaking with Smithsonian magazine in 2017, Nora Atkinson, curator of the “Murder Is Her Hobby” exhibition then at the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Renwick Gallery, said the Nutshells’ subversive qualities reflect Lee’s unhappiness with domestic life. Married at age 19, she was unable to pursue her passion for forensic investigation until later in life, when she divorced her husband and inherited her family's fortune.

“When you look at these pieces, almost all of them take place in the home,” explained Atkinson. “There's no safety in the home that you expect there to be. It's really reflective of the unease she had with the domestic role that she was given.”

Artemisia Gentileschi

Artemisia Gentileschi, Self-Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandra, 1615-17 (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

The Pitch: Frida meets “The Borgias,” but Baroque, biblical, and—unlike Agnès Merlet’s 1997 French-German-Italian film Artemisia—not a complete reworking of the historical record

The Backstory: For centuries, European artists looked to the biblical story of Judith killing the Assyrian general Holofernes as an example of serene courage in the face of tyranny. But when 17th-century artist Artemisia Gentileschi put paint to canvas, what emerged was a scene art critic Jonathan Jones describes as "revenge in oil." Painted in the aftermath of a seven-month rape trial, the violent work casts Gentileschi as Judith and her rapist as Holofernes. Here, on the confines of the canvas, she emerges victorious, enjoying the vindication she never received in real life.

Born in Rome in 1593, Gentileschi received artistic training from her father, a successful Tuscan painter named Orazio. She worked in the tenebrism style pioneered by Caravaggio, completing commissions for nobles and producing large-scale history scenes at a time when most female artists were consigned to still lifes and portraiture. She became the first female artist admitted to Florence’s Accademia del Disegno and the toast of cultural hubs from Venice to Naples and London. Her religious scenes centered on powerful women; she casted herself in the roles of such figures as Saint Catherine of Alexandra and Judith, and didn’t shy away from the gorier aspects of history. But before finding success across Europe, Gentileschi endured a traumatic experience that would reverberate throughout the rest of her career.

Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Beheading Holofernes, c. 1612 (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

In 1612, Orazio accused his daughter’s art teacher, Agostino Tassi, of sexually assaulting her. (At the time, women were barred from pressing rape charges themselves, so Orazio acted on Gentileschi’s behalf, detailing the decline in “bartering value” inflicted by her loss of virginity.) During the months that followed, Gentileschi retraced Tassi’s actions in excruciating detail, even undergoing torture in hopes of proving her claim. Subjected to “moderate use of the sibille,” a torture device consisting of metal rings tightened around the fingers by strings, she declared, “It’s true, it’s true, it’s true.”

Despite being found guilty, Tassi—who evaded similar physical torment during the trial—was never actually punished.

Though Gentileschi’s reputation faded in the centuries following her death, she has since enjoyed a resurgence of critical acclaim—a trend evidenced by the London National Gallery’s upcoming “Artemisia” exhibition, which will feature the museum’s $4.7 million 2018 acquisition, her 1615-17 Self-Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandra.

Policarpa Salavarrieta

Policarpa Salavarrieta (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

The Pitch: The thrilling espionage-driven suspense of “The Lives of Others” meets the lush landscapes and revolutionary biography of “The Motorcycle Diaries

The Backstory: La Pola, as Policarpa (or Apolonia—her given name is disputed) Salavarrieta is affectionately known in Colombia, is a famous enough revolutionary within the country that her face graces the 10,000 peso bill. She’s also been the subject of an eponymous telenovela. The fifth of nine children, Salavarrieta was orphaned by smallpox at age 6 and grew up in the colony of New Granada (largely modern-day Colombia and Panama), which, by the time she reached her 20s, was rife with tension between the pro-Spanish-rule royalists and the independence-seeking patriots. La Pola became involved with the patriot movement starting in her hometown of Guadas, where she worked as a maid, and only escalated her anti-royalist activities once she moved to present-day Bogotá.

In the capital city, La Pola used her skills as a seamstress to ingratiate herself into wealthy households, learning about the movement of enemy troops. Along with other patriot women, many of whom came from aristocratic backgrounds, La Pola made uniforms, secured weapons, sussed out which impressed soldiers in the royalist forces could be persuaded to desert and join the patriot troops—she even, according to BBC Mundo, distilled illicit aguardiente (liquor) to bankroll the revolutionary efforts.

Soon enough, royalist forces arrested her. As historians James and Linda Henderson relate, La Pola’s lover, Alejo Sabaraín, and others were caught making their way to the plains to join the rebels, with signed evidence of La Pola’s counterintelligence efforts on them. She and eight other patriots, including Sabaraín, were sentenced to death by firing squad in November of 1817. To the end, La Pola remained unrepentant and sharp-tongued; she’s said to have argued with the priests sent to administer her last rites and cursed out the soldiers and government at her own execution so vehemently she competed with the noise of the drums and refused to comply with the executor's demands. “Although I am a woman and young, I have more than enough courage to suffer this death and a thousand more!” shouted La Pola, only in her early 20s, to the assembled onlookers.

Empress Dowager Cixi

Katharine Carl's 1904 painting of Empress Dowager Cixi, as seen at the Smithsonian Institution's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (Lumrs via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 4.0)

The Pitch: The political machinations of “Game of Thrones” meet the opulent costuming of Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette

The Backstory: China’s last empress, recently spotlighted in the exhibition “Empresses of China’s Forbidden City, 1644-1912” at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art, had an unusual rise to power. At 16 years old, she was selected in a nationwide search for consorts for the Xianfeng emperor. After initially coming to the Forbidden City as a concubine, she gave birth to the emperor’s only heir.

In 1861, when her son was five and Cixi herself was only 25, the Xianfeng emperor died, and the low-ranking consort became Dowager Empress Tzu Hsi, or Cixi. A cadre of ministers was initially supposed to help direct her son's rule, but Cixi and a former senior consort of Xianfeng’s ultimately shared power as regents. After her son died in 1875, the dowager empress consolidated power by breaking with succession tradition to adopt her three-year-old nephew, who was also too young to rule. All told, Cixi was China’s de facto leader for nearly half a century, ruling Qing China and holding imperial audiences from behind a screen in accordance with gender norms.

Was she a good leader? Historians have debated that point, as sensationalized Western accounts and modern Chinese schooling both maligned the “Dragon Lady,” who was said to have “the soul of a tiger in the body of a woman.” Theories have swirled that Cixi may have had a hand in the death (officially by suicide) of her son’s pregnant consort, or the arsenic poisoning of her nephew. In a recent biography, writer Jung Chang argues that Cixi helped China modernize, but it’s also true that she had a taste for opera and palatial extravagance and backed the anti-Western Boxer Rebellion, a string of attacks on missionaries and diplomats that resulted in thousands of Chinese deaths and a humiliating foreign occupation of Beijing. One thing’s certain: The complicated legacy and the palace intrigue of this contemporary of Queen Victoria would make for an engrossing biopic.

Victoria Claflin Woodhull and Tennessee Claflin

Victoria Claflin Woodhull (left) and Tennessee Claflin (right) (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

The Pitch: The infectious sisterhood of Thelma & Louise combined with the biting political satire of Election

The Backstory: Despite sharing a name with Britain’s then-monarch, Victoria Claflin Woodhull was far from a shining beacon of Victorian propriety. She was so controversial, in fact, that political cartoonist Thomas Nash dubbed her “Mrs. Satan,” while Susan B. Anthony described her as “lewd and indecent.”

During the 1870s, Woodhull and her younger sister, Tennessee “Tennie” Claflin, scandalized Gilded Age America with their outspoken embrace of free love, otherworldly spirituality and women’s rights. After starting a stock brokerage firm backed by Claflin’s rumored lover, railroad baron Cornelius Vanderbilt, the sisters earned enough money to launch a newspaper—and a presidential campaign centered on Woodhull, who became the first woman to run for the nation’s highest office.

An 1872 political cartoon by Thomas Nast satirized Woodhull as "Mrs. Satan." (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

When election day arrived in April 1872, Woodhull was unable to vote for herself, in part because many American women were still decades away from enfranchisement, but mainly because she and Claflin were being held in jail on charges of obscenity and libel. The pair had published a newspaper detailing the sordid stories of a New York orgy and, more controversially, an affair had by preacher, abolitionist and free love critic Henry Ward Beecher, whose reputation was irreparably damaged by the adultery trial that followed. (Beecher’s sister, Uncle Tom’s Cabin author Harriet Beecher Stowe, responded to the incident by labeling Woodhull a “vile jailbird” and “impudent witch.”)

In August 1877, the sisters left their home country for London. There, Claflin married a member of the English peerage and became Lady Cook, Viscountess of Montserrat. Woodhull, meanwhile, married a wealthy banker, became an automobile enthusiast, ran yet another newspaper, founded an agricultural school, volunteered with the Red Cross during World War I and worked to preserve the English home of George Washington’s ancestors. Claflin and Woodhull died in 1923 and 1927, respectively.

Carrie A. Nation

Carrie Nation in 1910 (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

The Pitch: A Paul Thomas Anderson-directed psycho-drama looking at how Nation’s religious zeal and personal hardship brought her to the brink of saloon-smashing. There Will Be Blood, but for booze instead of oil

The Backstory: It’s morning, and a nearly six-foot-tall, 53-year-old woman wearing spectacles and all black enters a Kansas saloon. Wielding a hatchet or newspaper-wrapped bricks, she lays waste to the place, shattering mirrors and bottles everywhere. Meet notorious Temperance crusader Carrie A. Nation, described as “another cyclone out in Kansas” and a “bulldog of Jesus.”

Nation’s anti-alcohol fervor stemmed, in part, from personal experience. Her first husband, a doctor, had died of an alcohol use disorder, and Nation attributed their daughter Charlien’s chronic mental and physical health issues to her father’s drinking and “the curse of rum.” She remarried an older lawyer, David Nation, but it was a loveless marriage. Carrie was deeply religious, although she was kicked out of her Kansas church due to her “strenuous personality,” and spent time as a jail evangelist, an experience that cemented her belief that booze was to blame for many societal problems. In 1899, after “a great anxiety at one time that threatened to take away my reason,” as she wrote in her autobiography, she received guidance from God: Go to nearby Kiowa and wreak havoc on its bars. In her first outing, she damaged three saloons, taking Kansas law (which had technically forbade such businesses starting in 1881) into her own hands and daring people to arrest her.

Though the state Women’s Christian Temperance Union did not endorse her vigilante-justice approach, Nation continued assailing drinking establishments, sometimes accompanied by fellow “Home Defenders,” as she called her followers, and making speeches. She was arrested dozens of times for her “hatchetations,” got into a full-blown fight with a saloon owner’s wife who attacked her with a horse whip, and became a turn-of-the-century celebrity: She once paid the fine for disturbing the Senate peace by selling hatchet souvenirs.

Nation died in 1911, eight years before nationwide Prohibition was enacted, after collapsing during a speech in Arkansas. The New York Times reported that she’d entered a sanitarium for “nervous disorders” (Nation’s mother and daughter both died in mental institutions) after the mid-speech collapse, but her doctor said she’d suffered heart failure. Her last public statement? “I have done what I could.”

Gladys Bentley

Gladys Bentley’s powerful voice, fiery energy on the piano and bold lyrics made her a star of New York City nightclubs. (NMAAHC)

The Pitch: Lady Sings the Blues meets Cabaret and Victor/Victoria

The Backstory: Even in an era defined by boundary pushing, Blues singer Gladys Bentley stood out. A regular at Harlem’s Clam House speakeasy, she won acclaim for performing raunchy reimaginings of Prohibition-era hits while decked out in a signature tuxedo and top hat. With her deep, throaty voice and unabashed display of sexuality, Bentley quickly became one of the Harlem Renaissance’s biggest stars; at the height of her fame, she headlined gigs at the Cotton Club and the Apollo, hosted her own weekly radio show, led a musical revue backed by a chorus of male dancers dressed in drag, and rented a Park Avenue apartment for the then-exorbitant sum of $300 a month (more than $5,000 today).

She was, in the words of contemporary Langston Hughes, “an amazing exhibition of musical energy … animated by her own rhythm.”

Gladys Bentley: America's Greatest Sepia Player—The Brown Bomber of Sophisticated Songs by an unidentified photographer, 1946-1949 (NMAAHC)

As American society grew more conservative with the repeal of Prohibition and dawning of the Great Depression, the openly lesbian Bentley found herself struggling to maintain a career on her own terms. During the late 1930s, she was forced to perform in skirts while living in the Bay Area, and in 1952, with the Red Scare in full swing, she penned an Ebony magazine essay claiming she’d undergone hormone treatments aimed at helping her identify as heterosexual. Eight years later, the 52-year-old Bentley died of complications from the flu while studying to become an ordained minister.

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture has several Bentley-related artifacts in its collections. A black-and-white photographic postcard of her is on view in the museum’s “Musical Crossroads” exhibition.

Wilma Mankiller

Wilma Mankiller, the first woman elected chief of the Cherokee Nation, poses in front of the tribal emblem at the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma on July 19, 1985. (Associated Press)

The Pitch: Milk meets the aspirations of community activism in HBO's “Show Me a Hero”

The Backstory: “Most feminists would love to have a name like Mankiller,” Wilma Mankiller, the first woman elected principal chief of a major Native American tribe, told the New York Times in 1987. “It fits my work real well, and I've broken new ground for women.” But the path that took Mankiller—her last name stems from a Cherokee title for a soldier or watchman—to the helm of the second-largest Native nation wasn’t straightforward. Mankiller was born in 1945 in rural Oklahoma to a full-Cherokee father and white mother, and at age 11, left her family’s land due to a government program that promised jobs in metropolitan areas. “My own little Trail of Tears,” as she’d refer to the move, took her to San Francisco.

It was the Bay Area in the ’60s, and particularly the one-and-a-half-year indigenous activist occupation of Alcatraz as a symbol of “our last lands,” that incited Mankiller to be a leader. “The occupation of Alcatraz excited me like nothing ever had before,” she wrote in her autobiography of the protest, in which four of her siblings participated. Her increased involvement with the local Native community and newfound independence brought her into conflict with her first husband, Ecuadorian-American businessman Hugo Olaya. “I could no longer remain content as a housewife,” Mankiller, who would go on to host famous feminist Gloria Steinem’s wedding, wrote.

In 1977, after divorcing Oyala, she and her two daughters returned full-time to her 160-acre property, Mankiller Flats, in Oklahoma. As Eve McSweeney reports in a Vogue writeup of the 2017 documentary that chronicles Mankiller’s life story, she became a community organizer who fought for improved medical facilities. (She herself faced a slew of medical setbacks throughout her life, including multiple bouts of cancer, life-threatening kidney failure and a head-on car crash.) In 1983, she partnered up with Cherokee Nation chief Ross Swimmer—the political opposite of Mankiller, who considered herself a liberal Democrat—and the bipartisan ticket, with Mankiller as deputy chief, won, despite resistance to a woman filling the tribal leadership position. When Swimmer took a federal government position in 1985, Mankiller succeeded him as chief, winning two subsequent elections in her own right before stepping down in 1995 due to health problems.

Remembering Mankiller after her death from pancreatic cancer in 2010, then-Principal Chief Chad Smith told the Washington Post, “She went to the mat many times, making it clear that the Cherokee Nation will not surrender one more acre as long as we live. Her marching orders were to rebuild the nation.”

A Whale’s Baleen Bristles Reveal the Story of Its Life

Smithsonian Magazine

Had he glanced over his shoulder just before the “great fish” swallowed him, biblical Jonah would have had an enviable view. Enviable, that is, if you’re Alex Werth, a landlocked biologist who studies the feeding anatomy of whales. “Ah, to be Jonah and watch baleen in action from a seat on a whale’s tongue,” he says.

Baleen is the apparatus toothless whales rely on to filter food from the sea. Hundreds of these flexible plates, made of the structural protein keratin, grow downward from a whale’s upper jaw, lined up like the slats of venetian blinds. Fitting the plates into the mouth requires a large upper jaw, giving baleen whales a sort of upside-down grin.

The feeding structure evolved stepwise some 30 million years ago when the oceans were full of toothed whales competing for limited food. Having developed a tool and taste for other kinds of prey, baleen whales—known collectively as mysticetes—eventually split off and diverged into 12 or more species including the blue whale, the largest animal ever to have lived, along with humpbacks, grays, and right whales. And, at least until American commercial whalers commenced heavy pursuit some 200 years ago, these relatively passive feeders gulping down little marine animals by the tonne did just fine.

 “Baleen changed everything,” Werth says. “And yet our understanding of aspects of this anatomy is still tissue thin.” Many scientists concur that filter feeding found footing in the Oligocene (33.9 to 23 million years ago) as changes in Southern Ocean currents brought massive plankton blooms—a ready new food source. (Interestingly, the animals didn’t start out as giants. A new report published in May 2017 suggests that their gigantism came later, perhaps three million years ago, as prey became more tightly packed but patchier—the result of intense nutrient upwellings. This dining style favored whales that could both binge feed and were bulky enough to travel far between patches—baleen whales grew to meet the challenge.)

The estimated time of baleen whales’ arrival is where common ground among scientists ends. Few agree, Werth says, on the steps by which the filtration system evolved in whales, how intermediate forms fed (likely by suction, according to the latest fossil find), “or even how [baleen] works with the forces and flows of the sea.”

But while some of whales’ deep past continues to perplex, scientists today have discovered an unexpected source of clarity, a detailed treasure map hidden inside baleen. Information associated with keratin, either in the protein or alongside it, holds chemical timestamps and data on whales’ health, movements, and reproduction. “It’s as if these animals have been keeping a daily journal, and suddenly we can see what they’ve been writing,” says endocrinologist Kathleen Hunt of Northern Arizona University. And the narrative unfolding from the baleen could inform whale conservation in whole new ways.

How did whales make the jump from using teeth to baleen? Researchers from Museums Victoria and Monash University in Australia, with help from Alfred, a 25-million-year-old fossil whale, bring you the latest science.

Werth’s lab at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia, where he studies the hydromechanics of baleen, smells a bit whaley. Baleen is everywhere: long, desiccated slats lie on shelves; a quiver of tall, narrow plates wrapped in plastic, their gummy ends dunked in preservative, leans in the corner. And then there’s the 160 kilograms of fresh baleen in tightly lidded barrels in the hall, just arrived from collaborators in Alaska.

Old baleen splits like fingernails, which reveals its structure: each curved plate is two flat keratin layers with rows of tubules, like miniature coils of tightly rolled luncheon meat, sandwiched between. The whale’s massive tongue and its prey washing in and out abrade the material, freeing up a sort of fringe at the edges—what Aristotle compared to “hog’s bristles.” The coarseness of those filaments, just as the size, shape, and number of baleen plates, depends on the species, and it is this hairy stuff that separates food from each mouthful of seawater.

Filter feeding may have given the mysticetes a way forward millions of years ago, but the oceans are undergoing rapid change today, especially in regions once chockablock with sea ice. Werth says this “could have dire effects on even the most adaptive marine animals.”

Consider the bowhead whale. The sleek black mammal with the white soul patch, native to Earth’s chilliest waters, is at the center of environmental change. It spends its entire life within the Arctic, moving seasonally with the edge of the pack ice as it forms and retreats. Feeding on almost two tonnes of fresh zooplankton daily, bowheads grow large, some to 18 meters, and live long, upwards of 100 years—possibly the longest of any modern mammal.

For a baleen researcher, the species is pure gold. It has more and longer baleen plates (up to 350 per side at four meters apiece) than any other whale, including the gargantuan blue. Many Indigenous Alaskans who legally hunt bowheads will share baleen with researchers, thus Werth’s barrels in the hall. Whale-stranding networks provide another source. Older samples, going back to whaling expeditions of the mid-1800s, gather dust in museum storage cabinets and private collections, ripe for study.

Kathleen Hunt, like Werth, is taking advantage of this resource. Ultimately she wants to know how bowheads are coping with the growing human impact on their environment. Melting ice is opening the Arctic to more ship traffic, seismic exploration, oil and gas development, and fishing. For marine mammals this translates to more ship strikes, more entanglements in fishing nets, and more noise. “Are they stressed out? Is human activity affecting their reproduction?” she asks. No one knows.

The researcher came by baleen as a data source in desperation. She knew hormones could answer many of her questions, but whales are notoriously difficult to study, much less sample. “You can never really get a hold of your animal,” Hunt says. “There’s no tranquilizing a whale or getting it back to the lab.”

Blue whales, the largest animals on Earth, use their baleen to feed on some of the ocean’s smallest animals. This feeding-in-action drone footage was captured by Oregon State University. Video by GEMM Lab, Oregon State University

One can, if extremely motivated and even more patient, collect feces, skin and blubber samples, and even respiratory vapor from a whale’s blowhole. But these offer only snapshots of a single point in time. Hunt wanted broader coverage. Earwax plugs lay down incremental data but it isn’t terribly precise, and the plugs are hard to extract intact from a skull, so supplies are limited.

After Hunt “[flailed] around with poop and blow” for about 13 years, a colleague suggested baleen. After all, hair, hooves, horns, nails, and other vertebrate structures that are also made of keratin, hold all kinds of information, including endocrine data from the many glands sending hormones through the body.

It turns out, baleen houses the same information, and it can be extracted from drilled-out, pulverized samples. Since the plates grow throughout an animal’s life, they continually capture hormonal signals—from the adrenal glands, gonads, and thyroid. “We can get data not just from the new part [of the baleen], but from the bit that’s been rattling around under the sea for a dozen or more years,” Hunt says. A plate erodes at one end as it grows at the other, so it represents a slice of life—sometimes 15 years worth.

Hunt gleaned a lot about whale reproduction studying baleen from two female North Atlantic right whales, Stumpy and Staccato, that scientists had been observing off New England since the 1970s. A good bit of the whales’ life histories, including calving successes, were well documented, letting Hunt create a timeline for each—all the way to death (both died of ship strikes, one of them pregnant at the time). Since scientists have calculated an approximate growth rate for baleen—so much time per centimeter—Hunt could line up hormonal data extracted from the baleen with the whale’s experiences at that time of its life, suggesting important correlations.

“Things like estrus cycles and age of sexual maturity, pregnancy rates, these are really a black box for researchers,” Hunt says, but now with baleen there may be potential to decipher them. She discovered clear patterns in progesterone (it is “screamingly high” during pregnancy) that partner with ups and downs in the stress hormone cortisol. Additionally, she says, thyroid hormones could reveal if an animal is starving (whales may “turn down” their metabolic rate to conserve energy) while a spike in aldosterone, used to conserve water, is shown in other animals to be a sign of stress so may signal the same in whales.

Hunt believes having such information, which can be overlaid with environmental data such as sea temperatures, will open a portal on more complex mysteries. “Why are females not breeding in this area but are in that one?” she asks as an example. “Is it a nutritional problem? Are females losing calves or just not getting pregnant?” The right combination of datapoints could provide answers.

Additionally, finding correlations between changes in stress hormones and reproductive success, for example, “could be really useful in policymaking,” she says. And in the big picture there are the effects of climate change. “That’s, of course, a burning question,” says Hunt, and so far, scientists have no idea what those effects will be for whales. Perhaps as whale prey shifts in response to rising ocean temperatures, biologists will see nutritional stresses in the whales related to a change in or reduced amount of food. Hunt hypothesizes such an effect could be teased out of thyroid and other data.

What Hunt has begun seems poised to pop the lids on many black boxes in the near future.

Meanwhile, hormones aren’t the only chemical treasure trapped in baleen. Like Hunt, Alyson Fleming of the Smithsonian Institution is extracting otherwise invisible data from the mouths of whales.

The biological oceanographer has handled hundreds of baleen samples in her studies of stable isotopes—elements including carbon and nitrogen with predictable “signatures” related to their mass. One form of carbon, for instance, has more neutrons than the other and thus is heavier and reacts differently in chemical and physical processes. What’s useful to Fleming is that these elements can act as tracers of different aspects of the environment, including, for a migrating whale, its geographic location and the trophic level (position in the food web) of what the whale has been eating.

Take bowheads. These whales migrate seasonally between the Beaufort and Bering Seas, and those oceans, and the animals living in them, are isotopically different from one another. That’s in part because the Beaufort gets fresh water from river systems, and fresh water has a particular isotopic signature that shows up in the euphausiids, such as krill, and copepods it supports.

Nourished by those prey species, the whales use oxygen, carbon, and nitrogen to build bone and baleen. And, helpfully, the ratios of those elements reflect the ocean the whales are feeding in at the time of growth. Sampling all along a baleen plate with mass spectrometry reveals the isotopic markers over time, including the transition from one ocean to another. Because researchers know the general timing of migrations between these oceans and can use that, along with isotope data, to gauge the baleen’s growth rate, the plates offer a sort of time-stamped map of a whale’s trip, including where it lingers to feed along the way.

More specifically, Fleming explains that carbon isotope ratios can be correlated to both the amount and growth rate of phytoplankton—the drifting photosynthetic life at the base of the marine food chain. “So this is one rough way to assess how much productivity there is”—which ultimately translates into energy available to filter-feeding whales.

Some of Fleming’s work could simply suggest which species are most threatened by environmental change, she says. “Previously we did a humpback project, using skin samples, looking at 20 years of foraging off California. What we found out is these animals were very flexible—they switched prey depending on what was abundant.” Humpbacks may be resourceful, she says, “but what about bowheads? The baleen can help answer that,” giving managers a tool in deciding where to focus their efforts.

Eventually, Fleming, Hunt, and other baleen researchers may be able to extend their timelines in both directions. At one end are fresh samples from stranded and legally hunted whales, offering a modern take on whales’ lives. The other end lies in baleen of old: the material was used as early as the 1500s in jewelry, boxes, combs, shoehorns, and other products. “We’re trying to use the least valuable samples before digging into the rare stuff, and we don’t yet know if hormones and other chemicals will have held up that long,” Hunt says. “But it is my hope to bring it all together, to observe trends in baleen over a very long period of time.”

Baleen-based research is in its early days. Other researchers have reported on the dietary overlap between species (it’s useful to know whether animals are competing for the same prey, especially if that prey declines) and mercury exposure, and the pool of information keeps expanding. It’s clear that collaboration with other data gatherers—overlaying personal, physical, and environmental data from a whale’s life—has massive potential for conservation. There’s a very big picture squeezed into this peculiar anatomy, the scientists say, including the complex connections between ecosystem productivity, stress, reproduction, and even the human footprint in these remote habitats.

Researchers hope that building timelines and finding links can ultimately inform wildlife managers and policymakers. It’s an uphill battle, as a number of whale species never recovered from commercial whaling’s historic slaughter—Antarctic blue whales, for one, are holding at just one percent of pre-exploitation levels. But species aren’t all in the same boat. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, although North Atlantic and North Pacific right whales are endangered, some populations of bowheads, southern right whales, and gray whales are considered of “least concern.”

For now, anyway. Today’s foes to whales are multiplying faster than the data about their lives can be assembled. Ship strikes and fishing gear entanglements are common enemy number one. Conservationists also worry about noise, warming temperatures and its many ramifications, exposure to polluted waters, and ocean acidification. These threats, especially combined, are extremely hard to quantify.

But as researchers drill further into baleen’s molecular treasury, they’ll doubtless find new ways to use data from the past and present to plan for the future. The peculiar grin of the baleen whale is turning out to be full of surprises.

Related Stories from Hakai Magazine:

Canoe Model

NMNH - Anthropology Dept.
From card: "Birch bark over frame of knees and strakes; ends heming sharply upward; head decked over. Paddle with acute point and spear with this model. One man hunting canoe 10 ft. L. Sometimes 2 man canoe 18 ft. L. Narrow and deeper than Hare Ind. Canoe. Paddle and muskrat spear model made at F. Good Hope when Loucheux trade, more however report to Ft. McPherson and Arctic Red R."

Source of the information below: Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center Alaska Native Collections: Sharing Knowledge website, by Aron Crowell, entry on this artifact, retrieved 7-8-2012: Canoe model Big traveling canoes made of birch bark were twenty feet (6.1m) or even thirty feet (9.1m) long, whereas hunting boats were much smaller. All were light, fast, and delicately balanced. Canoe makers first stitched the bark hull together inside a boat-shaped outline of stakes driven into the ground. The birch or willow frame of the boat was then constructed inside. Bark pieces were sewn together with split spruce roots and seam-sealed with hot spruce pitch. Canvas-covered "ratting canoes" for hunting muskrats became popular in the early twentieth century. Elders' disc'ssions of the canoe model in 2004 (see web page cited above for the full entries), with Phillip Arrow, Trimble Gilbert, Eliza Jones and Judy Woods, 5/17/2004-5/21/2004. Also participating: Aron Crowell (NMNH), Kate Duncan (Arizona State University) and Suzi Jones (AMHA). In this entry, the Elders speak in different Athabascan dialects: Phillip Arrow, Deg Xinag; Trimble Gilbert, Gwich’in; Eliza Jones, Central Koyukon; and Judy Woods, Upper Koyukon: Names: Eliza Jones: Kk'eeyh beedoye [birchbark canoe]. Trimble Gilbert: K'ii, k'ii tr'ih [birchbark, birchbark canoe]. Aron Crowell: That's the canoe itself? Trimble Gilbert: Yes, that means it's this part. And this is k'ii tr'ihtaa'aii [birchbark canoe paddle]. Eliza Jones: Tughu'oye [paddle]. How bout you? Phillip Arrow: Vaxa ghidiqal [paddle]. . . . Eliza Jones: Telkkuye [spear]? Trimble Gilbert: Yes. They use it for bear too. . . .

Aron Crowell: Would you ever use the spear from a canoe on caribou? Trimble Gilbert: Yes, that's what they do. When they are swimming, like moose or caribou are crossing that river, they use any kind of weapon like this. Use a kind of bone knife or this kind. Design & Making Aron Crowell: How about the canoe itself, does it really look Gwich'in style? Trimble Gilbert: Yukon River, I seen this kind, a lot of them. Long time ago, that's all they used. Eliza Jones: What about where you're from? Trimble Gilbert: Where I'm from, it’s not - this point [at stern] is missing. . . . And they use caribou skin or moose skin [boat siding]. Maybe two or three moose skin, sometimes four. And caribou skin too, maybe six, seven, eight. They sew it together. And they make a big canoe like this. Downriver they haul a lot of stuff in it. And when they sew it together, that skin, then they use that large grease, some kind of fat, put it on the sewing, so it don't leak. And birch bark, they use that like pitch, right? Eliza Jones: Yes. Phillip Arrow: I'm familiar with this because my mom made lots of this kind of model, and I think when I was really small I see this kind made out of birch. Now they make use wood. We use it lots, hunting muskrats and all that. Same model right there. Eliza Jones: With the points up on there [bow and stern]? Phillip Arrow: Right. . . . And this cross-piece, same way too. That’s where you sit. Eliza Jones: So what do you call that in your language? Phillip Arrow: Tr'eyh [canoe], tr'eyh. Trimble Gilbert: Well, in our area we make it different . . . And we use that willow or spruce tree. We bend it like this [triangular shape], flat bottom. That’s what we use in our area. Van kì' [end piece]. My language is van kì' [end piece]. That’s for the end. Jìi chan vakhoh rii giiyàhnyaa [they just call this the frame]. Vakhoh [frame].

Aron Crowell: So the frame is made out of bent willow? Trimble Gilbert: Willow or either young spruce tree. Aron Crowell: And what about the keel? Trimble Gilbert: We look for a dry stump and then we use it. . . . Jìi chan taa'aii, aii jìi chan [this is also a paddle that] we make it out of dry spruce. . . . Dry one is light one, so we use dry wood all the time, spruce. Eliza Jones: Would they use a rawhide to tie it [frame] on? Trimble Gilbert: We use the rawhide from caribou skin. . . . Eliza Jones: One year we recorded my husband's grandmother. And she said, when she was a child, her mother was a widow, and she said she had older brothers. They were in camp and it was in the spring, and she told her sons that they were going to make a canoe. So she said she followed her mom around. She took the boys out into the woods. She said they walked around about half a day until she found just the right kind of birch. And that was when she described the back, the front and then the horizontal lines at the eyes. And so she said she cut down the tree, and then she said they cut it down its belly. She used human anatomy to describe it. Cut down the belly, and then they peeled it [bark] off real slow. And when they got enough for the canoe, they rolled it up and kept it in a cool place. And then she said her and her mom spent a day walking around in the woods picking sap, spruce sap.And then also took roots, had to get all the roots ready. Then she said they were in the woods, and they got to a level place, and then she told them to make a mold, to shape it, to build the frame on. . . . They put in posts, just sort of the shape it, and then they - oh, I think, I don’t remember this part. But I think they went into the woods and got this spruce for the ribs. And then - Judy Woods: For the frames, for this end, they’re back to back, and then they bent the ribs to shape the keel. Eliza Jones: Yes, and it would be like this [upside down]. When the boys got the frame done, then they put the bark over it. And then she said her mom did the sewing. And where you need to patch, they overlap it. And they have the birch sap mixed with feathers and something else, and then they heat up this sap so that it's liquid, and then they use that as a glue. And then her mom sewed it. And then I think they also sewed a piece of bark here [stern] at both ends. And the ones - I don't know about this, but I know I heard stories that people who made canoes a long time ago spent a lot of time finding just the right big spruce root to shape into these k'enaat [keel]. Aron Crowell: How would people use the canoes? What time of year, and for traveling or hunting? Eliza Jones: Well, when I was a child - Judy Woods: That's all we had. Eliza Jones: Yes. Almost every able adult who could paddle, they made a canoe for them so that they could have muskrat and go hunting ducks and stuff in the spring. And if their canoe is big and there was a child, the mother would sit in the middle and have the child sitting in the back, facing not in the same direction as the mother, but facing the opposite direction. And the child would have to learn to stay still, you know, because canoes can be tippy.

Judy Woods: Some of them were tippy too. Eliza Jones: There's certain way that you step into the canoe, and when you get up, you carefully step out again Trimble Gilbert: You know muskrat is the way people make money a long time ago. So every spring, almost every family, they make their own canoe. Eliza Jones: Canoes and paddles. . . Suzi Jones: Were the canoes made different sizes for different people? Or were they all about the same size? Trimble Gilbert: Oh, yes, family size. Some people can't afford to buy a whole material, you know? Single people they don’t need big one. A family's got to carry a lot of stuff. They even go up stream too. Eliza Jones: My Auntie Bessie said when she was a child, she remembered traveling for two weeks up the Koyukuk River. And she said the canoe that they had was made of birchbark, and she said it was big enough that she remembers standing up in it. Trimble Gilbert: This kind of material we're talking about . . . kids been trained not to bother this kind of stuff. David Salmon, his father make one like this and just keep it by the water. And then . . . he went down to pack water, and he saw a lot of pitch on that. He broke off one little piece and he chew it - we used to chew that pitch. So next David's father found out, he went down and those little things are missing there. He come back and his told him, 'Don't ever do that again. There's something missing on the bark canoe. If you do that, when people use it for survival,' you know - Eliza Jones: They get in trouble. It'll leak. Trimble Gilbert: Anything it belongs to - tools - belong to us. It's not to play around with. And this is the way we've been trained. We have to be careful to use this, like the way we handle this. But today, our kids are different, just waste a lot of the material for nothing. Eliza Jones: Also, there was a lot of respect. Trimble Gilbert: Yes. Eliza Jones: We were taught, when we were very young, not to step over men's things and not even handle men's tools, us children, especially if you were a girl . . . because there was so much respect for the hunting.

Trimble Gilbert: . . . Before my time - it was a long time ago, we have a rule like that. Before 1930, we lost just about everything, just like we put everything together in a pot and we stir it up. And we lost a lot of traditional values. Before that they were really strict with us. We have to follow the rule. Eliza Jones: Yes. Judy Woods: That's true. Eliza Jones: I think the church had a lot to do with that. Trimble Gilbert: Yes. Eliza Jones: Because the church thought that was evil or something. And it's not. Trimble Gilbert: It's not. So I thought about it too for many years, but now since last year, I know that's very important to us - it belongs to us! It's a gift and we can't leave it behind. That's why we got problems today. We got to go back and teach about all these things and where we come from. Eliza Jones: How you respect everything. Trimble Gilbert: How you respect everything. Eliza Jones: Food. And I know in camps, where you work on fish and stuff, you always clean up. And where you work on game, you always clean up . . . and dispose of it properly. Trimble Gilbert: Nothing is wasted in what we do. Eliza Jones: Yes. Trimble Gilbert: Respect in whatever you get out there, and you have to bring everything back and respect the animal. Nowadays, this is the way we train too, respect for animals.

This object is on loan to the Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center, from 2010 through 2022. Paddle and spear both included with canoe model on loan.

The Top Five Ocean Stories of 2013

Smithsonian Magazine

Although we landlubbers may not realize it, it's been a big year for the ocean and the people who study it.

Researchers reported on how animals can live on wood that falls into the deep sea, what we can learn about pollution from blue whale earwax, and how remoras--fish that sport a suction cup on their head--evolved these strange headpieces that allow them to attach to larger animals such as sharks and whales. More than three percent of the ocean is now specifically protected, and 71 ships carved new shipping routes into the melting Arctic ice. And, sadly, Typhoon Haiyan, a likely beacon of climate change, killed thousands of people in the Phillippines in November.

But there were five big themes that kept coming up throughout the year. Let us know if you agree with our picks in the comments.

The Ocean Captured on Film

Maybe it's the advent of better underwater filming capabilities or maybe it's just pure luck, but in 2013 we got a glimpse of three amazing ocean creatures swimming in their natural habitats for the first time. In January, the Discovery Channel and Japanese broadcaster NHK released footage of a giant squid. Scientists captured the silvery-looking squid on film by submerging a flashing, faux-bioluminescent lure that lit up to replicate a jellyfish being attacked. The reaction of the scientists is priceless—we’re still watching the video almost a year later.

In August, another animal caught on film for the first time was aired by Discovery: a 16-foot megamouth shark, revealed during the annual Shark Week extravaganza. This species is typically found in the deep sea, but filmmakers found it in shallow water where it was feeding on krill that migrate to the ocean's surface at night.

The oarfish also made a name for itself this year, with two rare strandings off the coast of Southern California in October. The first known footage of this long fish (it can reach 27 feet) was released earlier in the year along with a scientific paper documenting the sightings from an ROV.

Acid Test

With the warming planet on our minds, it's easy to forget a less-obvious impact of climate change: ocean acidification, caused by carbon dioxide dissolving into the water from the air.

This year, it was brought to the forefront as researchers found that ocean acidity is rising faster now than it has ever the past 300 million years—so fast the ocean's acidity will likely be 170 percent higher than in the 1800s by 2100. Acidification will affect different organisms in different ways, but those that build shells from calcium carbonate, such as oysters, sea butterflies and corals, will be hit the hardest.

New research this year also found that acidic water may make fish more anxious, while sea urchins could adapt to the conditions. There's still a lot to learn, but 2013 saw more people talking about acidification than ever before.

Two orcas are dwarfed by an Antarctic iceberg.

Two orcas are dwarfed by an Antarctic iceberg. A proposal to protect part of the Ross Sea off of Antarctica was blocked by representatives from Russia and Ukraine. ©John Weller

No Protection for the Antarctic

“The third time's the charm,” the saying goes, but not in the case of protecting the Ross Sea off the coast of Antarctica.

This area of icy ocean habitat covers 1.9 million square miles and is home to penguins, orcas, seals, fish and other amazing species. It has been dubbed the “last ocean” because of its diversity and remote location. But as fishing vessels are moving farther afield and targeting even the abundant krill, scientists rallied, stressing the importance of protecting this area and calling for certain areas to be zoned off from commercial exploitation.

In a soap-worthy saga, the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), made up of 25 different country representatives and charged with managing the region’s living resources, met for a second and third time in 2013, after postponing a decision on the region's status in late 2012. But during the most recent attempt to restrict access to this fragile area in November of this year, the proposal to protect a small area of the last ocean from fishing was blocked by representatives from Russia and Ukraine. Steve Campbell, campaign director at the Arctic Ocean Alliance, tells Nature that there is always next year.

The World of Microplastics

The impact of our heavy use of plastics on the ocean is proving to be more than just beached trash. Small animals like barnacleszooplankton and lugworms ingest microscopic pieces of plastic and pass them on to their larger predators. The tiny microplastics are infiltrating the entire marine ecosystem and, because plastic absorbs chemical pollutants, the impact can be dire for both other ocean species and humans.

Mercury and other chemicals have long been an issue for certain larger fish species like swordfish and tuna, but scientists now know that often the chemicals found in the fish we eat are coming from plastic they have ingested. Late last year, Unilever announced that the company would phase out the use of tiny “microbeads” in their skin products by 2015. Here’s to a plastic-free diet for fish and for us.

3D blue crab

3D image of a blue crab from the Smithsonian X 3D website.

The Ocean…Now In 3D

This year, scientists and educators integrated 3D printing technology into ocean science like never before. Smithsonian launched a new 3D digital collection that lets you explore museum objects online and download files to print models on your own 3D printer. These include a blue crab, a killer whale hat from Alaska's Tlingit tribe, a fossil dolphin skull, and many other whale fossils—including one that was 3D-scanned from beneath a Chilean highway.

Researchers in Tasmania are printing in 3D electronic tags that can track large ocean animals by satellite, such as whale sharks, swordfish, and tuna. (You can follow the tagged fish here!) And in the Persian Gulf, coral reef conservationists are printing artificial reefs in 3D to reconstruct ecosystems in the area. The 3D printing generates intricate designs, like those found on real coral skeletons, to best replicate the natural habitat and create tiny niches for small, cryptic organisms.

 Learn more about the ocean from the Smithsonian's Ocean Portal.

Two Smithsonian Scientists Retrace the Mysterious Circumstances of an 1866 Death and Change History

Smithsonian Magazine

It all began with the opening of the cast iron coffin. Because it was an air-tight environment, the scientists hoped to find Robert Kennicott’s body in good condition, with well preserved clothing, soft body tissue, hair, fingernails and toenails. All of those things would allow for a variety of chemical tests to be done, and to answer questions that the skeleton alone could not.

Kennicott was born in 1835, and grew up on the prairie north of Chicago. While he was still a teenager, and the Smithsonian was only six years in the making, he was already sending extensive specimens to the Washington, D.C. institution.

By the time Kennicott was 21, he was one of the founders of the Chicago Academy of Sciences, and Spencer Baird, the Smithsonian’s assistant secretary, was training him and recruiting him to begin collecting specimens for the institution.

Kennicott’s skeleton, now held in the research collections of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, along with some of the many objects he collected, will go on view in the upcoming exhibition “Objects of Wonder,” opening March 10. The museum’s research collection is the most extensive in the world, and contains more than 145 million artifacts and specimens. Kennicott contributed hundreds of pieces during his short life, and the exhibition examines how scientists use the museum’s collections to illuminate understanding of nature and human culture. But Kennicott will be there also, in bones, if not in spirit, too.

In photos, Kennicott has flowing hair, piercing eyes and strong features. He stares intently into the camera, wearing what looks like trapping gear—or thoughtfully off to the side in his Western Union uniform.

Portraits of Robert Kennicott show him dressed (left) for his first expedition north through Canada to Fort Yukon, c. 1860 and in his Western Union uniform in San Francisco just before he departed for his final expedition in July 1865. (National Anthropological Archives, The Grove Archives, Glenview Park District, Glenview, Illinois)

If a movie were ever made about the life of the young swashbuckling scientist, the consensus around the physical anthropology department at the museum is that the moody and intense actor, Johnny Depp, should play his character.

“All of the women in our office believe that,” laughs Kari Bruwelheide, a physical and forensic anthropologist at the Natural History Museum. She sits in her office, surrounded by various skeletons laid out neatly on a long table, some still in labeled plastic bags. “Robert was a special person, and somewhat emblematic of curators at the Smithsonian even today, because he was so dedicated to his work. It was everything to him. It was not necessarily a job but a way of life that began when he was just a child, and continued until his death at the age of 30.”

Bruwelheide says the objects Kennicott collected are still used today to conduct research.

“It’s like everything comes full circle and it’s a wonderful story,” she muses.  Bruwelheide and her colleague, Doug Owsley, curator and the museum’s division head for physical anthropology, were tasked at the request of Kennicott’s family and the museum, with finding out how Kennicott died in 1866. Owsley and Bruwelheide’s work on the Kennicott case is being published this month in a volume by Cambridge University Press. 

“The skeleton itself was beautifully preserved. He had no fractures, no healed injuries in life. He was described as relatively frail, but he had excellent bone density and excellent muscle markings,” Bruwelheide says, but adds that it did not offer any clues to Kennicott's cause of death. (Smithsonian Institution )

There were rumors that he had committed suicide, but Kennicott’s family wasn’t so sure. In 2001, Owsley and Bruwelheide traveled to his boyhood home, The Grove in Glenview, Illinois, to open Kennicott’s casket and determine the cause of his death. The Grove is now a national landmark education and nature center. Owsley and Bruwelheide were excited to help solve a mystery involving a man who contributed so much to science in life—and in death.

“He epitomizes the young person who is enthralled with natural history and follows his passion and is mentored by scientists which is exactly what we do today,” Bruwelheide says. “His story took place at the very origins of the Smithsonian Institution.”

Kennicott came to the Smithsonian in 1858, and lived at the institution’s iconic red brick castle on the National Mall, the Smithsonian’s only building at the time. He lived with other naturalists and they formed a fraternity-like group called the Megatherium Club. Using the imaginary call, "How! How!" of their mascot, an extinct ground sloth, they played games at night among the collections, running three-legged sack races through the great hall, drinking ale in the cellar and sharing smoked oysters. The club's motto was "Never let your evening's amusement be the subject of your morning's reflections."

Kennicott, one club member recalled, was "always bubbling over with fun." 

Kennicott (top left) lived with other naturalists at the Smithsonian in 1858 and they formed a fraternity-like group called the Megatherium Club. (Smithsonian Institution Archives)

A year later, Baird sent Kennicott on a three-year mission through central British America (now Canada) that ended at Fort Yukon in western Russian America (now Alaska). He traveled by dogsled, canoe and on foot, and brought back hundreds of animal and plant specimens, as well as Native American clothing and weapons, and compiled some of the earliest dictionaries of tribal languages. Kennicott’s exploration and the papers he sent home after his final expedition played a major role in the United States’ eventual purchase of the Alaskan Territory.

“He collected everything that fascinated him, from mammals (230) to birds (282) to eggs to fossils. . . . He was just kind of the Renaissance naturalist of that time period,” says Bruwelheide, who calls the Kennicott case “the most complicated and interesting mystery we have ever encountered.”

The mystery begins with Kennicott’s death on May 13, 1866. He had been on another long mission to the Yukon—this time for the Western Union Telegraph. He was the only person who had lived in Russian America, and was to help that company find a route to lay a cable connecting the United States with Europe via the Bering Strait. Kennicott and two fellow naturalists also planned to collect rare specimens, but they arrived just below the Arctic Circle as winter began in 1865. They made a grueling trip to Fort Nulato on the Yukon River, 500 miles from any other fort, in temperatures as low as 60 below zero.

By spring, Kennicott intended to begin his own work as a naturalist. But he didn’t show up for breakfast that day, and his men found him dead by the bank of the river near the fort. Rumors began that he had committed suicide by swallowing the strychnine he often carried to preserve specimens. His friends spent eight months on a journey to bring Kennicott’s body back. He was buried in January 1867 at The Grove, in an airtight metal coffin.

Owsley and Bruwelheide, two of the world’s foremost experts in examining the contents of iron coffins, were the obvious choice for solving the mystery. Not only had the two already helped identify those killed in the Waco siege and in the terror attacks of 9/11, they’ve been involved with mummies, Civil War soldiers and are currently working on early Jamestown inhabitants.

“I think it is absolutely one of our most challenging cases because it required so much research. This continued tracking of all of these leads, pulling information out of letters, it has continued for years. It’s very methodical and very systematic,” Owsley says. “I can’t think of any investigation that has been so comprehensive. It is how we work. We don’t take on every project we’re asked to investigate as we do it so carefully and very methodically. But from my perspective, we look at it as to whether it is a good question.”

The scientists had Kennicott’s bones but they also had a huge trove of historical information thanks to Sandra Spatz Schlachtmeyer. The skilled archivist amassed so much historical information about Kennicott, from eyewitness accounts of his death to communications from his family and friends, that she was inspired to write a book, A Death Decoded: Robert Kennicott and the Alaska Telegraph. Her work gave the anthropologists an extraordinary tool in helping to decode the physical findings they had to work with.

“Her research was incredibly important to our final analysis,” Bruwelheide says.

“Strychnine was present, but it wasn’t the factor responsible for his death,” Owsley says with conviction, after an intensive study of the bones (above, Kennicott's skull) and the historical record. (Smithsonian Institution )

The faceplate on Kennicott’s airtight coffin unfortunately had been broken, and although his face could be seen, it had been partially filled with water.

“But when we first opened it, we did notice there was a lot preserved. All that fabulous hair. It’s hard to describe seeing something for the first time after 100 years,” Bruwelheide recalls. “In this case, the clothing that he was buried in was still mostly intact. You could see the gold that was in the buttons on his coat. The moment of opening it up was really an exciting moment with the hope that we could answer the question that the family wanted us to answer—what was his cause of death?”

Among the questions the forensic anthropologists and two pathologists on the case had to answer, were if Kennicott hadn’t committed suicide, what types of medical conditions might he suffer from?

Owsley notes that the two years of research uncovered information he calls “critical” to understanding Kennicott’s childhood history as well as evidence of fainting spells he had had that pointed to possible heart disease. Also, eyewitness accounts of the condition of Kennicott’s body when it was found by the river, discounted the rumors that he had poisoned himself with strychnine.

“The body was found 500 yards from the fort. His positioning—how the brim of his hat was resting against the top of the head—his arms were folded,” Owsley explains. “There was no comment on the disturbed movement of the earth around him. If you had purported strychnine poisoning, really strong muscle spasms would have been in evidence.”

It had been rumored that Kennicott had rheumatic fever, which could lead to the scarring of heart tissues. Bruwelheide says it is also a cause of death for young adults who suffered from that illness as children. She hoped that the tissues of Kennicott’s heart were preserved, but they were not. Then the scientists moved to chemical analysis.

“The skeleton itself was beautifully preserved. He had no fractures, no healed injuries in life. He was described as relatively frail, but he had excellent bone density and excellent muscle markings,” Bruwelheide says, but adds that it did not offer any clues to his cause of death. “We decided to do several tests looking at the composition of his bones, his hair, his fingernails and his toenails to see if we could identify any poisons that might correlate with the rumors of suicide or more importantly, the use of medications in his lifetime.”

Kennicott “collected everything that fascinated him, from mammals (230) to birds (282) to eggs to fossils. . . . He was just kind of the Renaissance naturalist of that time period,” says Bruwelheide, who calls the Kennicott case “the most complicated and interesting mystery we have ever encountered.” (Smithsonian Institution Archives)

Archival research of communications between Kennicott and his family indicated that he suffered from fatigue, heart conditions and depression. That meant he began taking mercury at a young age, which was a common treatment for depression at the time. Bruwelheide pointed out that President Abraham Lincoln also took mercury, which stimulated bodily organs and increased the heart rate though it is known today as a toxin. 

“A lot of the techniques we used in our forensic casework are the same ones that you would use to look at materials that are potentially hundreds of years old, things like analyzing the hair for certain drugs and heavy metals,” Bruwelheide explains, adding that they were looking not only for mercury but the strychnine Kennicott was known to carry on his collecting trips to get specimens of the animals. It was used as an insecticide to preserve the skins on the hides. At the time it was also used as a medical treatment in various forms to treat several of the conditions Kennicott said that he suffered from in his letters. Kennicott’s father was a medical doctor who had prescribed strychnine to other patients, and it was known that Kennicott carried a personal vial with him.

Lead was also a big health factor in the 1800s as it is today, and can be ingested accidentally or it enters the body through other ways. Bruwelheide says in addition, scientists looked at arsenic, a toxin that was not only common in medical use at the time, but more importantly was used by Kennicott and his men to preserve specimens. So the scientists had to decipher toxins he was exposed to during his life and discover whether they contributed to his death, as well as figure out whether they were used to preserve Kennicott’s body for a journey of thousands of miles back to Illinois.

“What we found was there was a high level of mercury—not enough to contribute to his death but he was ingesting mercury during his life. . . .You have few opportunities to evaluate medical use in the 19th century and this was a rare test where we could actually do that,” Bruwelheide says. “The lead contamination was post-mortem. He did have extremely high levels of lead but we believe that came in through the coffin environment.”

Not only were coffins at that time painted on the inside with a lead white paint, but the Western Union uniform Kennicott was wearing and such coats and blankets at the time were treated with lead acetate as a water proofing mechanism. The scientists also discovered that Kennicott had high levels of strychnine, particularly in his brain tissue, and found that he had ingested it during his lifetime. But the peaceful position of his body when it was found made it unlikely that he had used strychnine in a suicide.

“Strychnine was present, but it wasn’t the factor responsible for his death,” Owsley says with conviction.

The descriptions of Kennicott’s behavior prior to his death were very consistent with periodic evidence related to heart disease. Just before he left San Francisco for Alaska on his final expedition, Kennicott lost consciousness briefly. A colleague, William Dall wrote that: “while sitting on his bed, talking to one of his companions, the color suddenly left his cheeks and he fell back pulse less for several minutes on his bed.” That condition, Bruwelheide explains, is suffered by people with heart disease, and usually results in eventual death.

“So those historic incidents we were able to interpret and piece together . . . determine that it was heart conditions that eventually led to his death,” Bruwelheide says. “That’s not to say he didn’t ingest the toxins during his life, but he had no intention—we believe—of ending his life.”

“This is what I love about this work! It’s really a mystery that you are tasked to solve and you don’t know what types of analysis you are going to need to solve the case,” Bruwelheide explains. “You go down various avenues, not just looking strictly at bone studies or at chemical analysis, but you incorporate historic documents, historic research . . . even mortuary practices and you combine all of these different kinds of information to solve this mystery you are presented with.”

Owsley stresses that without the huge innovations in their field, some of the research they are doing now, including examinations of the 17th-century settlers in Jamestown, would be impossible.

“We’re able to figure out their diet, whether they were born and raised in Europe and came over here and promptly died, whether someone born over there came here and lived for 20 years. We can track people back to their homes by testing oxygen isotopes, determine their drinking water, how much wheat they ate versus corn,” Owsley says. “It’s just a wealth of knowledge we have today—the ability to image and different types of radiography—so unbelievable! It’s a world that when you really get into it – that’s fascinating.”

Objects of Wonder: From the Collections of the National Museum of Natural History” is on view March 10, 2017 through 2019.

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