Irma Mae Telivaqaaq Wright was born in spring 1938 on the Kobuk River in the village of Kiana. She was the second born of four children to John Bernhardt Wright and Ella Wood Wright both of Inupiaq descent. John from the village of Shungnak and Ella from Kiana lived with their 4 children in a ivrulik (sod house) on a hill that overlooked the Kobuk River (Kuuvuk) and on top of the ivrulik lived an arctic fox. A fox that sat there, watching the coming and goings of a small girl running back and forth from the house to the outhouse all by herself in the middle of the night to go pee.
She shared a bed with her older sissy Helen, where they giggled late into the night being told by their mom and dad to shush and go to sleep or they would have to go outside and sleep with the fox. And not only was the fox overlooking and watching out for this small child, there was her own personal ik-lee-uk next to her bed, sometimes watching over her too. Irma had a gift and that gift was to see the unseeable by others. She said ik-lee-uk is the Inupiaq word for little people or elf. She would wake up and see it sitting on a stool watching her and then hide under the covers hoping he would go away only to peek out from under her covers and he would still be there. She was not afraid of it, because it never did her any harm but only watched over her. She would also see groups of ik-lee-uks around fires along the river when she boated with her mom Ella to fish camp.
She shared what it was like as a child to live next to the Kobuk river, one of the largest rivers in northwest Alaska that runs through low, rolling mountains, plains and lowlands. During the spring breakup the river would awaken itself from its long cold winter sleep and come to life. It would creak, snap, rumble and groan as it melted pushing ice chunks the size of houses up and out making the sounds as loud as thunder she said. During that time, her mother and father would tell her to stay away from the river otherwise it would reach out and grab her and take her away! As she was telling me these stories, she would softly chuckle and smile because she knew it was them keeping her safe from the river as a small child.
They lived a subsistence lifestyle then harvesting sheefish, caribou, and berries; 5-gallon buckets of blueberries, salmon berries and cranberries. I remember later berry picking berries with my grandfather here in Fairbanks and him filling 5 gallons buckets of berries without a second thought to sustain him through the winter months until next season. This is what it must have been like for my mom too.
She would share remembering harvesting sheefish which would spawn on the Kobuk river and reach up to 50 lbs in weight. It is this fish that was frozen or smoked that would sustain them through winter months. In addition to the sheefish, her father would hunt caribou in the herds that traveled through the Arctic region. These foods harvested in bounty would be traded with coastal villages for other traditional Inupiaq foods such as seal oil and muktuk. When I was a child my grandfather would come over and share these foods with my mom and her children. We would feast on thinly shaved frozen raw caribou, fresh frozen muktuk, and sheefish dipped in seal oil. Traditional Native Arctic foods now considered delicacies that are high in fat and nutrients necessary to sustain an Arctic people.
This was her life in Kiana until she was seven years old when her mother contracted Tuberculosis (TB) and they were forced to move to the highway system to be closer to my grandmother when she went to a sanitorium to heal. From seven to fourteen she lived in Livengood on the Dalton highway, Wrangell in southeast Alaska in a BIA boarding school and eventually Fairbanks. It was a tough transition for the entire family to be forced into a modern western lifestyle from a true subsistence lifestyle, but she prevailed due to the childhood foundation she had.
One thing Irma learned as a child of the Arctic was community will sustain you and keep you alive in any condition. As a very young woman, my mom started to build her Native sisterhood at a young age and it is this sisterhood that would sustain her and her family for the rest of her life. Her Native sisterhood came from tribes of Alaska–Gwich’in, Tanaina, Koyukon, Yupik, Chupik, Tlingit, and Aleut. She gathered these strong woman of color and said–Come, come over here, join my tribe, live life with me, let us laugh, marry our lovers, have children, play games, cry together, honor each other, share our burdens, share our food, pray together and hold each other up when we fall and cannot stand on our own. We will have each other to withstand any adversity that comes our way. Come, we will do it with style and laughter. She would giggle and say, they were the Alaskan version of Liz Taylor, Sophia Loren, and Raquel Welch.
That is why we are here today, to celebrate Irma’s Inupiaq tenacity, resilience, determination, and sense of community. That is why we have here in our midst, a few of her tribal sisters from the past 70 years, her children, her children’s children and great grandchildren. We have come together to celebrate her giving us life physically, spiritually and emotionally. We are here to say thank you and goodbye to this strong Inupiaq woman. In the end, she said with pride, “I am Inupiaq, I am a warrior.”