“You can feel the berries in there,” said Timm, my husband, touching the black bear’s stomach after he pulled the organs from the body. Our young son and I felt the hard round balls through the bear’s fleshy pink stomach. We were curious, so Timm cut the stomach open. Quarts and quarts of crowberries spilled out, and we all stood in awe of how many berries it takes to sustain such an animal.

As Timm pulled heavy handfuls of viscera fat, pink and pretty, from the belly of the bear, my own belly bubbled with thanks. After seeing the berries, the little bits of green leaves mixed in, and the fat those plants created, along with a few transparent, hair-thin worms slithering through, I recognized the connection between the offerings of the earth and the nourishing and growth of this great creature. The old people always told us animals give themselves to you. But the animal isn’t yours: It’s an offering. A blessing. This animal, which offered itself to us that day, could nourish multiple families in our community. And then I wondered, Will Timm give this bear away, or does he think he’ll keep it? 

Timm is white. He grew up in a farming town north of Seattle. After graduating from a university in Chicago, he moved to Alaska to work at a small college. Later, he worked as a dog handler for an Iditarod musher, commercial fished for salmon off Kodiak and in Bristol Bay, and then got his teaching license and a job teaching social studies in Noatak, an Inupiat community north of the Arctic Circle. A place he eventually came to call home.

“They raised him well,” I tell people with a smile, when I speak of Timm’s friends who became his family for those nine years, while he was a Napaaqtugmiu, a person from the trees. And while I say those words with a smile, and some people laugh at the thought, I mean it. In our communities, we live differently. And some of us are proud of it. We have different values from dominant Western society. We have our own “village English” and way of speaking. We live simply and with intention, and we love it. 

No one goes hungry. 
The bear isn’t a possession.
It’s a gift.

So, I give thanks, all the time, for the people in Noatak who instilled their values and mindset in the white teacher who made their home his home. And while Timm is a pastor’s kid, I give thanks that he’s not another white savior Christian, hellbent on “fixing” us or teaching us how we’re supposed to live. Nor is he the kind of American man who brings his ego to exploit a place so he can shoot animals and hang their heads on his wall. I love that he is capable of seeing goodness in another way of living and honor another value system and society through learning, growing and loving those around him. He saw that, living in relationship with the Earth and all it provides, we know how to live a good life. In the end, it’s why I married him. 

I am forever indebted to the Napaaqtugmiut. 

A black bear in the Kanuti National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska.
A black bear in the Kanuti National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska. Credit: Seth Adams

IN NOATAK, one of Timm’s best friends worked in maintenance at the school. They visited every day, and Mike would invite him out hunting or fishing. Timm also had various elder friends who invited him over for birthday celebrations or Saturday morning sourdough hotcakes. He listened to the men tell stories of being stuck out in the country because of a bum motor, or hunting caribou in the fall when the herd heads south and crosses the Noatak River. He picked up Inupiaq phrases and words and later wooed me with his use of our language on the nights when we’d pigaaq, texting on the phone, well after bedtime. 

And then I read an email, and my heart and belly told me to go ahead and marry this guy. While we were still getting to know one another — how many siblings each of us had, our middle names, that type of thing — I asked him a question that would tell me what type of white guy he was and is, and, frankly, if he was worth my time. I asked him why he loves where he lives. He wrote back that he likes the atmosphere and pace of village life, visiting neighbors without calling ahead and being “just in time,” or walking around town and finding someone who needs a hand. “I get to ask questions and learn a lot of stuff from knowledgeable people and learning is cool,” he wrote. “And the friendship grows. And sometimes there is an Instagram picture.” 

He didn’t know it, but he had me with this email. Fully. He’s humble, in the best way. 

But, still, the night he shot the bear, even with knowing all this earthy goodness, I wondered. Would he want to give the bear away, because that’s what we do? Or did he think this bear was his? And, honestly, a part of me wanted him to be that entitled white hunter; that bear was fat, and I love bear fat more than most any Native here. But the bigger, more whole part of me wanted him to want to give that meat and fat away. Because that’s what we do. When you harvest your first of anything, you share all of it with elders or single mothers, those who can’t harvest for themselves. This tradition teaches young people to give and be gracious. Because, really, the bear isn’t the hunter’s. And because when we have plenty, we share and take care of the larger community. No one goes hungry. The bear isn’t a possession. It’s a gift.

In our communities, we live differently. We have different values from dominant Western society. We live simply and with intention, and we love it. 

“I’LL GIVE IT away, ah?” he whispered to me while lying in bed that night. And my heart expanded. My face softened. I was thankful. More thankful for this question than I was proud of him for harvesting the bear. I was thankful he wasn’t greedy. I was proud of him for setting an example for our son, Henning. For setting precedent for Henning and others who hunt and live here. Because most white men who fly to Alaska wear camo outfits while sitting in the passenger seat, drinking beer, and then return home with “trophies.” The nourishing bones of the animals sometimes left in dumpsters. They see the animal as not only a possession, but something to dominate. Sure, it’s fine. It’s whatever. It’s white men being white men. 

But knowing Timm would give away his first catch, I softened and remembered all the people in Noatak who taught him well. I gave thanks that Timm is someone who is able to appreciate and acknowledge the Inupiaq mindset and way of being. That he’s able to see that our lifestyle is far more sustainable, community-minded, and loving than the dominant white society’s way of being. He takes it on as his own, and the values as his own. And I agreed, with a happy pain in my throat, “Yes, you’ll give it away.”  

Laureli Ivanoff is an Inupiaq writer and journalist based in Uŋalaqłiq (Unalakleet), on the west coast of what’s now called Alaska. Her column “The Seasons of Uŋalaqłiq” explores the seasonality of living in direct relationship with the land, water, plants and animals in and around Uŋalaqłiq. 

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This article appeared in the print edition of the magazine with the headline Timm’s first bear hunt.

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