The Life of Alfred Hopson, Sr.
Father of Eben Hopson
This statement was prepared in November 1970. Mr. Hopson was testifying on behalf of the Arctic Slope Native Association at Barrow, but the document does not say before whom. Regardless of for whom the statement was prepared, the information contained therein is remarkably informative regarding the history of the Arctic slope from 1898 to 1970, and the interaction between the local residents and various visitors from Outside during that period. It also provides a hint as to the origins of son Eben’s social and political involvement.
So that you may know who I am, here is a brief history of my life. My name is Alfred Hopson.
I was born at Point Barrow December 23, 1898. In another month my age will be 72 years. My father was a white man from England who had sailed out of Liverpool and finally came to Point Barrow in an American whaling ship and landed in Point Barrow. He visited his folks only once, lived and died here in Barrow.
My mother was born at Point Hope and had two husbands before my father took her as a wife “Eskimo Way” and when missionaries and the Government came into this area my mother and father with another couple, Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Gordon (one of the group that settled), were married by Captain Tilton on the whaling ship the “Bowhead” in 1903.
In 1901, from my mother’s back inside her parka and looking with my head through her hood, I saw for the first time the messengers inviting the Barrow people to the Colville River on a trading invitation which later in my testimony will be mentioned as part of the communication system throughout the Eskimo nation.
This was a time when great whaling fleets came into the Arctic and took hundreds of bowhead whales to get the baleen and left the carcasses floating on the ocean.
In about 1906, I saw Mr. Vilhjalmur Stefansson, the great explorer pass through Barrow in the winter and he measured the heads of all the people of Barrow in the Presbyterian Church. His name thereafter was “Head Measure.”
He came again in 1914 in a two mast steamer, the “Karluk”, commanding the American and Canadian expedition. The ship was frozen in the Arctic off Colville River and was taken away by the ice pack after he had landed at Oliktok with three other white men and two Eskimos. He came to Barrow and outfitted for traveling and started for Collision Point, about two hundred fifty miles east of Barrow.
It was there that he had located another man, Mr. Anderson, to whom he had given the responsibility of commanding what was called the Southern Party of the same expedition.
I was hired as an interpreter for one of the three white men, a scientist, to spend four months with two Eskimo families. I earned my first dollar from the expedition. In 1916, I was taken to the reindeer herds as an apprentice and in four years received my certificate as a qualified reindeer herder from the Bureau of Education, now called BIA.
In 1924, with five others, we rescued the crew of a Canadian Hudson’s Bay ship that was taken away in the ice pack and we received a bronze medal plus $50.00 in currency from the Hudson’s Bay Company.;
In 1923, I worked for a geological survey party that was one of three parties each to survey the Chip River, Meade River and Otokok (Utokuk) River. Our party on the Meade River was commanded by Mr. Sidney Page who was also in charge of all three parties. It was with this party I met the chief topographer, Mr. E.C. Guerin, who was the brother of the man that surveyed the Boundary Line between Alaska and Canada. One of the younger topographers offered to do the last few miles around the actual Point Barrow, but he said, “My brother surveyed one corner of Alaska and I will survey the other corner,” and he did.
The ship “Arctic” freighting supplies to the traders east of Barrow arrived. I first heard music by radio from San Francisco but we had to use earphones and barely heard it. Also at this time the first tract of land was surveyed for Mr. Charles D. Brower who acquired a deed to it. No one knew except the white people that the Navy was going to take a large portion of the Arctic Slope for a Naval Reserve. I saw different oil companies stampede to stake oil land a year or two before it was declared the Navy Oil Reserve. How they fared we were not informed.
In 1930, I took census by dog team from Point Lay, about 200 miles south, and to the Canadian Border and also up the Colville River — a 2,000 mile drive. I worked as a carpenter out of the Fairbanks local and worked in the interior when early warning site at Clear, Alaska, was built.
In 1963, and 64, I moved one hundred houses in Barrow and dug about twenty underground cellars, that fell in the right-of-way when we were given the first surveyed town site. A year later was the first time we were allowed to have natural gas for fuel after the Navy, the contractors for the Air Force and the Navy, and also the Bureau of Indian Affairs enjoyed the clean fuel for about twenty years.
My people the Eskimos would like to have me tell how the Arctic Slope was occupied by the Eskimos. On the Arctic Coast there were permanent villages that have been occupied south of Barrow such as Point Hope, Icy Cape, Wainwright and Point Barrow. From Point Barrow to the east there did not seem to be permanent villages due to the fact that the Arctic ice pack did not open and close for hunting seals in the winter. The hair seal seemed to be the life saver of the Eskimo people. The reason being the oil from it contained the necessary vitamins to keep them from getting scurvy. As a result the mountain people had to have it with the meats and fish to keep them strong. From Point Barrow towards the south the currents flowing north kept the ice pack moving and caused it to make leads for good seal hunting. Other sea animals were as good as the seal but were available only at certain times of the year but the seal is available at all times when there is water.
The people of the coast did not depend entirely on the inland man for furs and sinews and the inland people were also quite independent. But there was a communication system that was used to trade their merchandise and to keep each other supplied with their goods. The inland people were the ones on the move at all times depending mainly on the location of the caribou and fish. AT times the caribou moved away and caused the people to follow them. So when they were not available many starved and at times old people would request a little shelter and bid their sons and grandchildren goodbye and died to save them.
The most important trade moves were made by invitation — each individual family inviting another and there was no confusion as to lodging and food. The guests were taken care of by the family who invited them. They also gave the enough provisions to get them home.
Some people used to go up the rivers, after whaling in June, traveling as far as they could up river and then continuing with packs and pack dogs going as meats. They saved all the leg sinews and slab sinews off the back of the caribou for sewing their clothing.
Others spread out along the coast to get seals and Ogrooks (bearded seals) for mukluk bottoms and covers for “Umiak”, skin covered boats. Those that did not go away from the village waited till the ice was off the beach went out in the Umiaks to get the walrus. They used paddles as there was no motors to be had.
In winter, some inland people made trips to Cape Prince of Wales to buy leaf tobacco that was bought from the Siberians and took them back. They bought with furs and caribou hides, wolverine and wolf pelts and also large quantities of sinews.
In 1901, one of the first things in my life I saw, was two messengers who brought the message inviting many families to go east of Colville River. Much preparation was required for such a trip. People had been hunting for months ahead as they know where the invitation would be coming from.
This movement of 1901 turned out to be disastrous. They contacted the German measles (which they called the “Red Disease”) and many died on the way. Many of the mountain or the inland people died also.
These moves were used for trade every year throughout the Eskimo tribes even down to Point Hope. To show how the Eskimo can move, I will describe the move of 1920 by individual families.
Up to about 1915, the whaling was the business that changed the life of the Eskimo. Many whaling ships came in the summer and passed Point Barrow to go into the Canadian Arctic and whaled from Hershal Island and also Bailey Island (across the Amundsen Gulf). Some had provisions to stay one, two or three years, but most of them made catches and returned the same fall. Many Eskimos were taken aboard from Siberia, St. Lawrence Island, King Island, Diomede Island and Cape Prince of Wales before they came into the Arctic through the Bering Strait. Some whaling companies established whaling stations at Point Hope and Point Barrow.
At one time there were two companies in Barrow and many people came from along the coast and also some from the inland. The whalers supplied food and clothing for the families year around just to have them man their boats in April and May and also in the fall, September and October. The average estimate price of baleen from one whale was $10,000.00 Some Eskimos had their own boats and whaled independently. Three Eskimos had three crews each and caught whales but the traders usually got the baleen.
After time the whalers wanted too much for the baleen and manufacturers offered a prize of $25,000.00 to anyone making a suitable substitute. So about 1910, it was produced. When the price of baleen dropped the waling companies gave their men an allowance and all Eskimos went into debt. So this move of the people that I am describing was caused by the reduced price of baleen. The whalers did not come anymore and the Eskimos had to find a living elsewhere. The price of fur increased about this time which again caused many families to move. They used whale boats and Umiaks and the whole North Coast was populated in one summer from Point Barrow to the boundary line of Canada, some even going to the McKenzie River.
In 1930, the fur prices went down and the people moved back and by 1950 only the traders with a small number of Eskimo settled at Barter Island which now is part of the DEW Line. A few stayed along the Colville River where fish were plentiful and about this time the Eskimos became conscious of education. This was another cause to come to Barrow and other places to the south where there were schools.
In 1944, the Navy came with the Seabees to start oil exploration and that was the beginning of an era whereby people began to look at jobs for a living. Now the question is asked, “Why do you claim a land you have abandoned?” I visualize the use of the Arctic Slope as the white man uses a bank. We go out and get what we need such as caribou and fish and go out for more when we need to as a white man would write a check for what he needs more. I have, among many others, traveled by boat with sail (no power) and dog team with my family trying to make a living all the way to the Canadian border. Many times in blizzards using snow shelters.
Myself having married, our honeymoon was spent with the reindeer herds, there having our first child, with only an Eskimo midwife to help. We were one hundred fifty miles away from Barrow. When the child was two weeks old, I took two sleds and harnessed four reindeer and made a trip to Point Barrow — the mother caring for the child out in 30 degree below zero until I made a snow house for her when we camped. Under those conditions, my family was raised except that my third son, Eben, was the first child born in a new Presbyterian Mission Hospital. I took the doctor on a hundred mile trip for delivering the child and he gave me $5.00 a day for my eleven dogs and outfit.
Now research has found through digging our old villages, that Barrow was inhabited one thousand six hundred years ago and a nearby village called “Birnik” was inhabited one thousand nine hundred years ago.
At “Walapac”, twelve miles south from Barrow where the Post-Rogers Monument now stands, they found evidence from the old village to prove it as inhabited during the “Punic” age five thousand years ago. Our forefathers tell of traveling far and wide among settlements, how they fought Indians, suffering many massacres, but were able to keep the land. Many now living say the oil derricks on the Arctic Slope stand where their grandfathers fought and starved to keep their land.
Even now our hunters are hunting and trapping around the vicinity of the oil derricks. Many go along the Colville River hunting for wolverines and wolf. Now, you make laws whereby I must have something to show that I own my house and the ground it stands on — but only the surface. If there should be oil under my house, you would sell it to someone else because you act like you do not believe I was born and raised there or maybe I should pay you for being born there. Many of our older people feel this way.
Back during the 1950s, the First Alaskan Investment Company sold much stock. I bought on the installment plan 300 shares which cost me over $2,000. It never paid off and many Eskimos lost their money. The remaining monies were used to develop a Life Insurance Company which was run by one of the original operators of the investment company. He refused my life insurance due to my age and according to him my health was not good enough.
One day after the Land Claims started, this life insurance man mistook me for my brother and greeted me. As a result we got in an argument and he got mad at me and told me we (the Eskimos) were barking up the wrong tree. He said they (white man) will keep putting you off so that after they have drained our land of oil they will give it back to us. Even now we are told by the white man that our testimonies will not do any good but say they are just a waste of time and to “forget it.”
I say you steal and sell our land. It has been ours for over 5000 years. Just visualize a little boy with a nice big slice of bread with butter and jam on it and then some big man comes along and takes it away. The boy begs to keep it and finally says — just give me one small bit — but he is told — it is ours now and you can’t have it. Is that American? If you have a conscience you know the world will always say that you stole that piece of bread from the little boy.