In the summer of 1977, I was living with Andrew Tommy’s
family on the Southern Bering Sea Coast of Alaska in the village of Newtok. In
early July, I traveled by boat with Andrew, his wife, children, and
grandchildren to their traditional fish camp at a place called Chilugan, about
two hours away. We put up a large tent and stowed supplies to last us several
days. That first evening, using a kayak he’d brought along, Andrew set out his
nets for fishing in the Chilugan bay.
I photographed Andrew as he checked his nets by kayak every morning and evening. But mosquitoes were swarming and no one stayed outside the tent longer than absolutely necessary. At home in Newtok, Andrew was a practical joker. Once he pretended to breast-feed his great granddaughter and kept at it until every member of the family had roared with laughter. Inside the Chilugan tent, Andrew told stories for hours. Though I couldn’t understand much of what he said, I was as captivated as his family, who must have heard these same stories many times over. Andrew’s storytelling reminded me of Eskimo dancers in other southern Bering Sea villages, where men and women would act out stories chanted by Eskimos beating seal skin drums. Inside the tent - like the dancers - Andrew took on the characteristics of different characters or animals as he told his stories, and mimicked the sounds of creatures, some real and some imaginary.