Excerpt from Guidebook to Relative Strangers: Journeys into Race, Motherhood, and History

by Camille Dungy

In Anchorage, the director of 49 Writers lent me a hat she’d gotten in Nome. It would keep me warm as I traveled farther north. Sealskin on the outside plus a beaver-pelt lining meant hardly any cold got in. Ropes of stiff yarn ending in fur pom-poms brought the earflaps nearly to my chin. When we finally do get to the AC, an Iñupiaq woman selling colorful handmade parkas (at six hundred dollars, I won’t buy one, though I will be sorely tempted) will ask to look at the hat. Upon inspecting its craftsmanship, she will compliment the maker. I won’t admit it is just mine on loan. I like the idea of someone thinking such a fine, warm hat belongs to me. Wearing the right hat for Barrow helps me feel less out of place.

Ms. Ida, too, makes me feel like less of an outsider. Our quickly constructed friendship builds for us a bridge. She tells me she met her husband at a bar in San Francisco’s Mission District. I gasp and ask which one. Turns out the restaurant where I first met Ray is just four blocks from the bar where Ms. Ida met her husband. She was attending secretarial school across the bridge in Oakland at the time, she tells us. Sean and I have both lived in Oakland, too. We each know the area where Ms. Ida shared an apartment with two other women, though Sean and, later, Ray and I walked those streets years after Ms. Ida and her husband moved back to Barrow.

“I don’t live in California anymore,” I tell her. “My husband and I were both offered jobs at the same university. My family moved to Colorado this summer,” I said.

“Colorado? Near Denver?” she asks. “My husband was sent to the BIA school in Denver when he was a boy.” I have to work that out in my head and am ashamed when I realize I was too dense to immediately recognize the abbreviation for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. “He says they treated him well there.” She is quiet for a moment, and I imagine she is considering the alternative treatment her husband might have suffered. I’ve heard reports. “He has good memories of the place,” she says.

In one version of a story told in Sean’s partner’s family, they say her grandfather’s mother ran an Indian school in Denver. Perhaps it was the very school where Ms. Ida’s husband was sent as a boy. The Earth is small.

We get back in the truck and Ms. Ida drives slowly past particular houses, looking in the yards. The polar bear hunter doesn’t have anything. The body at the Heritage Center is the only seal we see. “I’m going to take you to my house,” she says.

Sean says nothing, just slightly nods and looks toward Ms. Ida and also out the window. Later, he will tell me he had been afraid to climb into the truck when we’d met Ms. Ida at the church. Where he’s from in Georgia, black men would be wise not to jump into strange women’s cars.

Outside the truck window, I can see the lagoon stretch on either side of the causeway we are crossing. I am beginning to understand where we are in relationship to where we have been. Soon we’ll pass the jawbone arch again.

* * * * *

When we pull into Ms. Ida’s driveway, there are three caribou gut piles in the yard where her sons dressed the animals. At the top of the stairs that lead to the house, her husband smiles quietly, holding open the door to welcome us. Inside, Ms. Ida walks directly to her kitchen. Sean and I linger in the living room looking at family pictures. Ms. Ida with her children. Ms. Ida as a child. I carry my phone to the kitchen and show off the photo Ray sent of my girl at the breakfast table that morning, her cereal bowl just inside the frame.

“I’m so happy I married a Native man,” Ms. Ida says of her husband. As she speaks, she chops hunks of caribou with an ulu, a wood-handled knife with a curved metal blade. “We never have to argue about what’s for dinner. This is what’s for dinner.” She walks out to the back porch, returning the caribou, which she’s wrapped in butcher paper, to a bench and retrieving some similarly wrapped salmon filets. She also brings in a big hunk of meat that turns out to be bowhead whale. The salmon goes into a skillet, and the whale lands on a piece of cardboard at the head of the table. Her husband puts more cardboard at each of our places. This, I learn later, is a typical way to serve muktuk, one of the local foods Ms. Ida will offer us this afternoon. “Give them plates!” Ms. Ida chides and, without a word, he removes the cardboard and replaces it with Corelle dishes.

Her husband leaves the kitchen and comes back with two lapel pins that announce we’ve been to Barrow. “I was mayor for about thirty years,” he tells us. “Now I’m emeritus.”

Sean and I can’t quite believe our luck. We’ve stumbled into a first-class adventure, when all we’d planned was to kill some morning hours. We hadn’t asked for any of it, but we’re enjoying everything.

Soon Ms. Ida has finished cooking the caribou and salmon, and we gather at the table. She uses her ulu to slice small pieces off the frozen hunk of whale. This is muktuk. It looks like the miniature slices of watermelon I find in my daughter’s toy kitchen, a wedge of greenish black skin on a triangle of pinkish blubber. The pink is flecked with bits of black that broke off the skin as the ulu sliced through.

Because Ms. Ida’s husband was the whaling captain until he grew too old and one of his sons inherited the position, he and Ms. Ida get the best cuts, including flipper, which is thin and not as difficult to chew as other muktuk. We eat it all raw, like whale sashimi. The skin is the texture of tough calamari, and the blubber melts on my tongue as I chew. Ms. Ida gives us more slices of meat—this time with no skin or blubber. She cuts these from a frozen block of whale steak. Small bites, thin and red like carpaccio, rich with the taste of protein and iron.

I understand this is an experience I shouldn’t be having. Or, to borrow an overused word, I understand how unsustainable it would be if a bunch of outsiders, like me, had ready access to the meal I am enjoying.

You can’t just walk into a restaurant in America and find whale on the menu. People are trying to make sure you can’t walk into a restaurant anywhere in the world and find whale on the menu. For good reason. Whales need our protection, not our appetites.

They are threatened. The ways of life of people whose traditions rely on the animals are threatened as well. I accept the food Ms. Ida offers because I am curious, and because I don’t want to be rude, but also because it tastes good, and because I appreciate that my window of permission is small.


Excerpted with permission of W. W. Norton and Company from Guidebook to Relative Strangers, Camille Dungy, 2017. Review available here.