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Meet the People of St. Lawrence Island

The most enjoyable part of this business has been meeting and interacting with all the wonderful people of St. Lawrence Island. Here are a few:


Virginia Soonagrook - Quavangauk

Virginia was William's wife, she passed away in 2004.  In 2002, a few weeks before I was planning to go to St. Lawrence Island Virginia called and said when I come there she had an Eskimo name for me.  She wouldn't say it over the phone because it has to be said in person.  When I arrived in Gambell she was very excited and planned an Eskimo dinner featuring Gray Whale, Bowhead Whale, walrus and seal meat.  She told me to try a little of each and I probably wouldn't like it but try it anyway and then you can tell all your friends you ate whale meat.  I tried it and sure enough I didn't really care for it. It didn't taste like chicken.  The whale meat had a very pleasing texture but it coated my pallet with a thick greasy coating and it tasted like rancid lard, but I did eat some and I felt truly honored to partake.  After dinner she gave me a card with my Eskimo name which is "Quavangauk".  I asked her about it.  She said when I talked to you a few weeks ago I had a name picked out.  But, in the meantime her grandson had a dream about me and told it to her.  She started crying because her grandson had never met me and he was describing me.  So she gave me a new name which is "Quavangauk" which in the Siberian Yupik language means "one who is known from the dream".  Needless to say I was very proud and excited with my new Eskimo name!

Moses Soonagrook

Moses Soonagrook and I are good friends and William Soonagrook's second eldest son.  He is an excellent whalebone and walrus ivory carver. In 2000 Moses broke his leg in a snow machine accident and went to the Native hospital in Anchorage. His leg healed well but he had a very difficult time being cooped up in the hospital.  On a number of occasions I wheeled him into a freight elevator and sort of snuck him out of the hospital back door and drove him down the Kenai sightseeing which he loved because like many of the Native people they do not drive, they drive snow machines and 4-wheelers, not automobiles.  The nurse was very adamant that he couldn't leave the hospital, but she did indicate if we took the freight elevator no one would know and we had to promise to be careful.  Moses appreciated me driving him and when he got a Polar Bear a year later he wanted me to have the hide.  I knew the laws on Polar Bear hides are very strict so I called the Law Enforcement branch of the US Fish and Wildlife Service in Anchorage and asked them.  They said that would be against the law as the hide must be significantly altered into works of art, the key words being "significantly altered".  I declined and explained it to Moses who was very disappointed.  Moses incorporated the claws into some beautiful carvings and traded some of the hide to Carson.  That summer Moses took me by boat to his "fish camp" (photo below) so all was well.  Their "Fish Camp" is located on the North coast of the island, about 25 miles from Gambell.  William and his family spend a lot of time there in the summer catching and drying salmon and their favorite pastime, beach combing. 

Photo below of Robert Soonagrook, Moses' son.

Beulah Oittilliah

I first met Beulah in 1992 while I was in Gambell with some avid birding friends.  I was returning to Nome shortly and she offered to sell me one of her beautiful handmade Eskimo Dolls.  I was just about broke and she wanted more than money than I had. I showed her how much I had and opened my wallet and pulled out my pockets and she said mail me the balance, which I did a few days later when I returned to Anchorage.  I'm always impressed at how trusting the folks are.  The next time I saw her she had just returned from Anchorage and was fuming mad because she saw her dolls for sale at a gift shop in Anchorage for over $1,000 each, she was getting $150.00 so she decided then and there she was doubling her price and maybe even higher.  I was her first buyer and I sort of walked into a hornets nest!  I explained to her that I wasn't getting $1,000+ for her dolls, not even half that price.  Nevertheless she was increasing her price.  Photo of Beulah.

Beulah has made Yupik Eskimo Dolls for many years and is a master doll maker. Beulah’s work is featured in a book titled “Eskimo Carvers of the Bering Sea” by Dale Kessler. Each doll is unique and one of a kind.  They have maintained their uniqueness because of the isolated nature of the island.  Her dolls are made from a wide variety of native materials.  The face, hands are ivory from the tusk of a walrus.  The eyes are inlaid baleen, a fibrous material found in the mouth of Bowhead Whales, they strain food through it.  The headdress is Polar bear, beaver or otter fur.  The rain coat is traditional walrus gut or Spotted Fur Seal.  The walrus gut coat is trimmed with gray-silver spotted fur seal, the trousers are also spotted fur seal. The moccasins are shaved spotted fur seal, you can feel the stubble on them.  They are mounted on old walrus vertebrate found buried in the old Village of Gambell or on an "ooziva", which is a backbone disk from a bowhead whale, equivalent to our backbone disk.  It was found in the old village of Gambell.  Traditionally these were carved into dishes, seal oil lamps and spirit masks.