Protecting the Body Fire
In the traditions of Koyukon Indian people—who live near the Arctic Circle in Alaska's interior—cold is not just an element of the physical environment; it is a powerful, conscious, and sensitive spiritual being. If someone offends this temperamental spirit, it can cause dangerously cold weather.
Village elders warn: "You should never brag about how tough you are, like saying the cold could never get the best of you." If someone does that, they advise, "The cold might teach them a lesson." And in the wilds of the far north, it could be a fatal one.
Inupiaq Eskimos on the arctic coast, and Athabascan Indians in the interior have thrived for thousands of years through the extremes of high latitude winters. They are among the world's greatest experts in dealing with deep cold. Long before the arrival of Euro-Americans, these people had perfected some of the world's warmest clothing and ingenious shelters; they learned the best ways to behave in extreme cold; and they mastered the art of using cold for their own benefit.
Traditional skin clothing allowed Inuit people to thrive in the earth’s most challenging environment. This 1965 photo shows the late Andrew Ekak on the sea ice far offshore from the village of Wainwright. Photo credits: Richard Nelson