SHI publishes book of rare photos documenting Inupiat life in the early 1900s

Sealaska Heritage Institute has published a book of old, rare and priceless photographs of Inupiat life in the early twentieth century made by an Inupiat photographer and teacher.


The book, “Menadelook: An Inupiat Teacher’s Photographs of Alaska Village Life, 1907-1932,” showcases nearly one hundred photographs by Inupiat Charles Menadelook that document life in Kingigin (Wales) in the Bering Strait between Alaska and Russia. The book, which was compiled and written by Menadelook’s granddaughter, provides a singular view into the Inupiat world during the early twentieth century and gives both a pictorial and Native perspective on Inupiat traditions and historical events, said SHI President Rosita Worl, noting the book stems from SHI’s advocacy program, which is part of SHI’s effort to promote Alaska Native arts, cultures, history and education statewide.

“Photographs of Inupiat life in the early twentieth century are rare and photographs taken by an indigenous person are nearly nonexistent,” Worl said. “This book provides a unique glimpse into the world as lived by the Inupiat during that time.”

Charles Menadelook was born in Wales, Alaska, in 1892. One of the first Alaskan Natives to become a teacher, he taught in Diomede, Shishmaref, Shaktoolik, Kotzebue, Noatak, Sinuk, Nome, Gambell, and Unalaska. He also became an avid photographer, capturing a time of Inupiat history and activities that, up to that time, had been passed down through elders’ fond memories.

The book was compiled and written by Menadelook’s granddaughter, Eileen Norbert.The text is based on interviews with Menadelook’s children, his sister, other relatives, former students and elders, as well as school reports, correspondence and other materials.

“Our family knew that our grandfather, Charles Menadelook, was an exceptional man, but it wasn’t until his life stories and photographs were compiled that we realized and understood the extent of his legacy to his people,” Nobert said. “This book is a tribute to him.”

Menadelook photographed a wide range of activities, including numerous subsistence scenes. One photo shows a hunter catching birds with a long-handled net while another shows men and children looking over a harvest of murre eggs. One photo shows an umiaq filled with seals while another shows people building a new sod shelter.

Many of the photographs are portraits of people that show the clothing residents wore in daily life and while hunting, and they document traditional and Western wear, said Norbert.

The book also shares Inupiat lore. One photo shows seal hunters on ice dividing their catch with a tall rocky area in the background. The caption reads “According to local legend, the dark area behind…the hunters is a cave where ghosts danced and that had tighursrigs (creatures with pretty colors). Legend also has it that some people disappeared in this area.”

The book was published in association with the University of Washington Press. It includes a foreword by Worl and features photo restoration by Brian Wallace. The book will be carried in stores and also may be purchased through the Sealaska Heritage Store in Juneau.


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