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Lela Oman and the Epic of Qayak

By Charles Wohlforth

All Rights Reserved

Originally Published in the Anchorage Daily News WeAlaskans section.

April 20, 1997

It was late at night. In the log house he had built in the new village of Noorvik, Jim Kiana drew his children to him. What he would tell them, he said, must stay in the family. It must be known and passed down to his children's children, and their children after them -- but they must not tell others in the village what they spoke of that night.

Their family, all knew, was descendant of the powerful shamans and Umialiks who had owned all of the Kobuk Valley. If not for the new missionaries and their powerful Christian religion, Jim Kiana, who was born in a snow cave and named Aqsiivaaggruk Agsiataaq Kuugnaq, would have followed his forefathers. He, too, was spiritually gifted and respected by the people in the village. Instead, he gathered his children in secret to tell them ancient myths and legends the missionaries had forbidden to be told -- stories that explained the world his family had always lived in.

Lela Kiana Oman was the seventh child, born in 1915 in the house her father was speeding to finish -- it still had no door when she came into the world. He'd chosen the new village so his children could attend the missionaries' school. But he would not succumb to all their rules. At night, he told the stories. Lela listened and remembered. Although she would never see Native dancing -- which the missionaries also frowned on -- until she reached 18, she grew with respect for the traditional ways of her Inupiat people and belief in her family's powerful legacy.

Her aunt, Susie Kiana Lockhart, also told Lela the stories as she grew into a teenager. Lockhart had come from outside this world and had lived in the forms of animals before finding her mother and taking human form. But that genealogy didn't fit with the theology of the Baptist family that, with federal help, now ran the village.

''They made people believe that telling stories was sin,'' Oman recalls. ''But my father did not see it that way. When other people stopped telling stories, he did not, because he didn't believe it was a sin. He would tell us, 'If we tell you the stories tonight, don't spread them around, don't tell people about them, because then you will be known as children of sin.' And some of those strong Christian people did think we were evil.''

Sitting with Oman today, almost 50 years after she began setting down the traditional stories on paper, her life of preserving what came before seems almost as mythic as the tales themselves. We're sitting behind a card table under a basketball hoop in the National Guard Armory in Nome. It's a craft fair, and the tables are piled with furs and ivory carvings. Oman's table contains books -- copies of her version of ''The Epic of Qayaq: The Longest Story Ever Told By My People,'' which arrived just in time for the sale from Carlton University Press, in Ottawa, where the luxuriously illustrated and designed volume was published. (The book is distributed in the United States by Washington University Press.)

Oman is serious about selling her books, and for each potential buyer at the fair she changes faces with the dexterity of one who has spent a long life constantly jumping between two worlds. For young whites like me, she wears an air of solemn mystery fitting for a cultural resource with her own scholarly publication. For older friends, she uses her Inupiaq language and a lot of laughter. Is the clown another selection from the storyteller's bag of masks, or is that the real Lela? I suppose it's all real. I ask if she believes the book's stories of magic and supernatural heroism are true, if they really happened. She pauses, then very quietly says, ''Yes.'' And I have to believe that's the real Lela Oman, too.

Qayaq was the 12th son of a man and woman near the beginning of the world who lived at the mouth of the Selawik River. Each of his 11 older brothers had paddled up the river, never to return. His parents grieved for their sons and didn't want Qayaq (pronounced KI-ak) to follow; his father tried to kill his son rather than lose him that way, but couldn't because of Qayaq's supernatural gifts. So instead, they armed their last son with their spiritual strength. And he ventured off into the world for a series of adventures among people and animals, people who were animals and animals who were people. Along the way, he set right many wrongs and established many ancient Eskimo traditions.

Like Homer's ''Odyssey,'' the Greek epic, Qayaq is a series of episodes in which a traveling hero overcomes the challenges of a hostile, sometimes magical world. Both epics lasted many nights in the telling in their original, oral version. Also like the ''Odyssey,'' Qayaq is an ancient tradition -- no one knows how old. Forms of the tale are found all over the North, including published versions from an Athabaskan tradition and another Inupiat version. Linguist Lawrence Kaplan has found the story in eastern Canada, where it must have arrived 1,000 years ago or more. Author Chad Thompson has documented versions of the story from Siberia and, with weaker similarities, in Greenland.

''This story spans Native Arctic peoples,'' Kaplan says. ''There are too many similarities.''

Lela Oman says all those people think the story came from their cultures, but it started in her Kobuk River area some 40,000 years ago. But her eyes smile in a way that leaves me wondering if this is the serious Lela or the funny Lela. Anyway, she knows where she got the story: Eight people told her portions of it. Her father and aunt; the people she met in the 1940s at the roadhouse she and her husband owned in the now-abandoned village of Candle; Daniel Foster of Kotzebue, who summoned her to set down his version on cassette tapes shortly before his death in the 1970s. She put it all together in a gracefully formal writing style perfect for the awe and grandeur of the tale.

''I got it from eight different people, and they're all gone,'' she says, ''and I'm so glad I put them all down, just as reported, because before I put them down they had never been written. These stories have to stay authentic, because these books go right into schoolrooms for the children to learn about their culture.''

Lela overcame a lifetime of adversity to publish the stories. She was fighting to save her culture, first from the missionaries, and now from an even more powerful adversary: the white television and radio that hold more interest for young people in the villages today. The stories were meant to be told, not written, but after all these generations they would be lost forever if not set down on paper. Qayaq, she points out, never forgot who he was, despite hundreds of years adventuring among other peoples and animals in human form -- an example for Inupiat people now struggling to keep their unique identity within a dominant electronic culture.

Is that her favorite part of the story? She pauses long, and it takes me a moment to realize she has started to weep. ''That's a hard question to answer. I don't think I could have a preference of a certain part, because when I read it, it just brings back the memories of the people who told it to me.''

She begins to recall again how her father told her of the end of Qayaq's journey, when the adventurer finally returned to his parents' home. After a lifetime spent grieving over 12 sons who never came back, they would see that the youngest did return. True to his word, Qayaq finally made it. But on arriving, he found only an empty river bank where his parents' house had stood. No trace remained of them except for a small stump. Out of his sorrow, Qayaq became a sparrow hawk and sat there on the stump grieving.

''It made him so sad, and I'll never forget the way my dad explained it -- there he sat on a little stump, this little sparrow hawk, and it was so sad, with his little red beak on his chest,'' she says.

In her tears, I wonder whose sorrow Oman refers to: Qayaq's, her father's or her own? Nearing the end of her own journey, like a chalice of culture passed down from her father, she has remained true through a series of tests in a hostile culture, just as Qayaq did. But will anyone be there to pick up the cup when she arrives?

Her smile relights as she catches the eye of another potential customer and shows off a copy of the book. The journey continues.