By Guy Genin and Barbara Keer
When Deanne Burch landed in the Inuit village of Kivalina, Alaska, it was not yet in the middle of debate and lawsuits about global warming, but it was certainly in the middle of nowhere. Situated on a barrier island 83 miles above the Arctic Circle, Kivalina and its way of life had been insulated from global events and outside influence for at least a millennium. However, by the time Deanne arrived in the 1960s, even this remote corner was being encroached upon by Western culture and vices.
Deanne accompanied her new husband, the legendary social anthropologist Ernest “Tiger” Burch, as he traveled to Kivalina to document this society before its lore and customs were lost. They immersed themselves in Inuit life as Tiger assembled doctoral research work that is now classic literature in the field of social anthropology.
The other side of the story has never been told, until now. What was it like to be a naïve, 23-year-old newlywed from the city, suddenly sitting above the Arctic Circle with her husband’s first seal carcass on the ground in front of her, waiting to be sliced up and cleaned? Deanne Burch steps us through the beauty, isolation, terror, depth, and occasional gross-outs of life in a remote Inuit village in her new book, “Journey Through Fire and Ice: Shattered Dreams Above the Arctic Circle.”
This is an engrossing read, with Burch placing us right into the shoes and mukluks of her 23-year-old self, for whom marriage and relationships are as new and foreign as rendering of blubber into seal oil. She found herself, somewhat reluctantly and fully unprepared, skinning seals, cleaning and drying fish, riding dog sleds, butchering beluga, and sipping seal oil, with no good way to take a bath afterwards. She also found herself stranded outdoors in an arctic winter, and, later, standing over the body of her badly burnt, unconscious husband following a lantern accident. Her story of growth and survival, set against the backdrop of the struggle for survival of the people and culture of Kivalina, is one that is well worth reading.
Author Deanne Burch was born and raised in Canada and attended the University of Toronto, obtaining B.A. degrees in liberal arts and social work. After the Alaska journey, she and her husband eventually settled in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, where they lived until his death. Deanne spent 30 years as a professional international photographer who taught and lectured in the U.S. and Canada. She published several articles in photography magazines and journals. Since retiring in 2014, she devoted herself to writing short stories and children’s stories. Journey Through Fire and Ice: Shattered Dreams Above the Arctic Circle was published in March 2021. We had the pleasure of reading this book, and sharing our somewhat different take aways – Barbara relating more to Deanne’s role as a wife dealing with unexpected issues and Guy curious and interested in the way things worked. Deanne generously agreed to answer our questions. Our fascinating interaction follows below.
Seal oil seems to have played a central role in your diet, and you report enjoying it with dried fish, preserved fruit, and straight on its own. Could you describe what it was like to drink it, and the warming feeling it gave you?
Seal oil was definitely an important part of our diet. It was easy to take along on camping trips and in the winter, I found that it did in fact warm the body quickly and knew it was essential for winter camping trips. I found that seal oil was something I didn’t particularly enjoy but knew that it had all sorts of important nutrients in it. It has a different taste from olive oil but almost the same consistency so in a way it was like drinking olive oil. I never preserved the blueberries or the greens in seal oil. The thought of blueberries in seal oil was not palatable to me.
A memorable quote from the book from Tiger came when your friends in Kivalina reminded him, post-accident, that it’s a bad idea to light a lantern inside the house: “I guess I had to learn the hard way.” This seems to sum up a great many of your adventures up north. Looking back, could you two have learned as much about this important society you documented without doing it the hard way?
Looking back, we could have documented their lives by taking oral histories. This is what we did the second time we went up. Tiger was bound and determined to live the way the natives did. We could have had a generator for electricity but then we wouldn’t be the like the rest of the village. I think in order to document a culture, you have to live with the people and see how the people operate. You can’t learn by reading what others have written. Tiger was able to document the history of the Inupiaqs and the only way this was possible was by participating and taking oral histories. We or rather he did learn the hard way both by his accident and by the camping trip which we were lucky to have survived. Tiger knew he shouldn’t bring the Coleman lantern in to light it and he took a chance that resulted in his accident.
A compelling aspect of your story was how it captured the way that you found a part of yourself through Tiger’s famous accident. To what extent did your experiences in the village lead you to discover a part of yourself that you might not otherwise have found?
I realized that I was a stronger person than I thought I was. My husband survived a horrible accident, and I knew that to preserve his mental health, I had to return to Alaska with him, and perhaps even spend another winter there. Returning, the women welcomed me back and in a way I became part of the fabric of village life. I had matured because of his accident and felt I could survive other things in my life as well. Unfortunately, “other things” did happen.
A beautiful image in your book was the airstrip, which was punctuated by both stark relief with the natural environment, and by endless litter. Did you and residents of Kivalina worry about long-term environmental issues?
I don’t think any of us thought about what would happen to the litter back then. Unless it was plastic, we thought it would become part of the environment. I think a lot of the litter was dumped into the ocean. However long term environmental issues were a problem even then. The village was starting to erode and now of course it will be under water in 2025.
Tiger and the residents all trusted the skin boats over any modern contrivance for hunting. What was it about these that made them safer than other choices?
The skin boats could move faster than wooden ones. They could get into areas where other boats couldn’t and they could carry a heavy load. I remember one time the natives shouting killer whales. They obviously thought they were safe in the skin boat.
Did the older people in the village worry about change to their culture and environment?
Not at the time. I don’t think any of them realized what was going to happen to their culture and environment. The government wanted them to relocate and assimilate into another village a few years ago. Fortunately, this didn’t happen the village is being relocated 12 miles upriver. The schoolhouse is already built. I think it will be very hard for the elders who are about my age to relocate. They have grown up in Kivalina and that’s all they know. I am not even sure if they will keep the name Kivalina.
Even after a half century, we hate to bring this up, but could we ask about keeping clean in Kivalina? In the absence of a bathroom, a bucket was used, which thankfully froze in your anteroom. Something that you kindly spared your readers was describing what happened when that bucket got full. How did it get empty again?
We had a huge hole in the ground where our honey bucket was. I believe that when the weather was warm, it just went right into the ground. As for the others, I never asked but it was probably dumped into the ocean. There is from what I have heard, still no running water in Kivalina and they people still use honey buckets. They do have a big water tank but I guess it is too difficult to dig under the permafrost so that the residents have running water. However, one third of the villages have tanks that provide running water to their homes.
Thank you, Deanne
Photos are by Deanne Burch