Museum

FROM THE FIRST PEOPLE

by Sarah Elder and Leonard Kamerling, color, 45 min, 1977


This is a film about change and contemporary life in Shungnak, a village on the Kobuk River in northwestern Alaska, 75 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Life in this inland community is dominated by the seasons and the river. In October, when the film begins, the Kobuk becomes filled with ice, which slowly thickens until freeze-up is complete. Traditional subsistence activities still continue: women net fish under the ice, and a man and his wife construct a cottonwood mudshark trap that is carefully placed in the river ice. The combination of old and new technology is pervasive. Some people hitch their teams of huskies to a sled, others travel by snowmobile.

Old people reflect upon these changes. "In the old days," George Cleveland laughs, "you knew your good dogs would get you home. Today, if your snowmachine breaks down, you have to walk! On the other hand," he says, "most things these days are easier than in the past, when people had to be tough in order to survive. Today, you just plug in the bubbling coffee pot, pull the string for light, and turn the stove's knob when you are cold." Indeed, popcorn is cooking on the stove as children don masks for Halloween trick-or-treating.

The film reveals that life along the Kobuk River is still inextricably linked to the harsh and starkly beautiful land, where the December sun rises at 11 a.m. and sets three hours later. An old man shares his feelings about the changes he has seen: "Long ago, forest fires put themselves out. Today, even when men fight them, they burn. I think our earth is getting old, and when things get old and dry they burn. Our earth is the same way," he adds. "It's ready to burn. I think it's coming close to the time when we will have a new one."

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