time Oogoon was born, his parents were already old and living all alone far up along the Kobuk River. Oogoon had many brothers, but they had all left home as soon as they had reached manhood, and none of them had ever returned.
Oogoon’s parents would never know if their boys had met untimely deaths and, if they had, whether their souls might be wandering around lost. They feared the same fate might befall their youngest son.
So, to avoid such a fate for Oogoon, his parents catered to their son’s every whim in the hope that he would never leave them. His mother fed him au-goo-took, an Inuit version of ice cream, and his father made him a furry crown of ermine to wear on his head. “This will be your spirit-protector,” he said to his young son. “Amulets like this hold magical power and will keep you safe.”
In summer, Oogoon chased squirrels among the thick spruce trees that grew along the river, and in winter he hunted for white fox, wolverines, and lynx with his father out on the frozen tundra.
As the years went by, Oogoon grew tall and strong. But his father could not tell if he had reached manhood. One day in early summer, Oogoon’s father gave his son a strong new hunting spear made for a man. “It is time for you to hunt alone,” said Oogoon’s father.
Oogoon rubbed his fingers along the finely polished wooden spear-handle and then against the sharp stone blade his father had attached to the end. “It is a fine weapon,” said Oogoon to his father. “I will make you proud.”
Oogoon rose early the next morning and bounded down the path through the spruce trees in search of game. Even though he had traveled this way many times before with his father, it was the first time he had carried a spear and had been all alone. That evening, Oogoon returned home wearing a big smile and dragging a bird, a young ptarmigan.
When Oogoon’s father saw the bird he heaved a sigh of relief. Oogoon had snared the ptarmigan, but it was obvious that he had not used his new spear. Even young children could snare birds, but it took the confidence and skill of a mature man to use a spear. The old man thanked the earth that his son was still a boy and would be likely to remain at home.
Before long, Oogoon’s father inquired if he would like to go hunting again. “Yes,” said Oogoon, “I had great success once before.”
That evening Oogoon returned home with a small rabbit. He had snared the animal again, but had not used his new spear. Once more, the old man sighed, and thanked the earth that his son was still a boy.
Winter passed, and in spring Oogoon announced that it was time for him to go hunting again. When he returned home that evening, he dragged behind him a large caribou.
This time it was clear that the animal had been felled by Oogoon’s new spear, and this time his father did not give thanks to the earth. Instead, he made plans to kill his son before he could leave home.
The following morning, after Oogoon had left to go hunting, his father buried sharp spears beneath the snow along the trail Oogoon followed home. Then he hid behind a tall spruce tree and waited. At last, Oogoon came down the trail dragging two caribou.
But when he saw the piles of disturbed snow along the trail, he swished his feet back and forth in the snow and uncovered the sharp spears his father had planted. Oogoon pulled up the spears, threw them aside, and continued on his way home as if nothing had happened. He did not mention the incident when the family ate together that evening.
The next morning Oogoon’s father set a noose, a loop of rope used to hang people, above the door and waited to drop it on his son when he entered the house. But Oogoon’s father did not hear his son approaching, and when the young man opened the door, the noose fell on the floor too soon. Oogoon stepped over the noose, and sat down to eat.
“Have you forgotten, father?” said Oogoon. “You can never succeed in killing me as long as I wear my ermine crown.”
The old man hung his head in shame. “You are right,” he said. “I will stop trying.” So, Oogoon’s parents forgot their fear of losing their son, and the family lived happily together for two more winters. Then, one cold spring morning Oogoon approached his father with a request: “I would like very much to have a kayak of my own. Will you make one for me?”
Oogoon’s father knew that if he made his son a kayak, he would leave. Nevertheless, the old man made Oogoon a sturdy little craft and a long wooden paddle. When he had finished, he showed his son the sleek little boat and said, “Many of our people live far away where the river meets the sea. Perhaps you will find your brothers there.”
When Oogoon was ready to leave, he placed the ermine crown on his head and tucked a bag of au-goo-took into the kayak. “Take a taste of au-goo-took whenever you sense danger,” said his mother. “It will warn you if there is trouble.”
Oogoon thanked his parents, stepped into his sleek new kayak, and disappeared down the swift waters of the Kobuk River. He paddled for many hours, content with the sound of water splashing softly against his shiny new paddle.
Before long, Oogoon saw an old woman on shore, but she ran into the house when she saw him approaching. Oogoon remembered his bag of au-goo-took and quickly stuck his finger into the bag to take a taste. “There is danger here,” said a low voice.
Oogoon got out of his kayak, stroked his ermine crown, and walked toward the old woman’s house. As soon as he entered the tunnel leading to the house, its entrance sealed up behind him.
It was too dark inside for Oogoon to see, so he felt around the walls until his finger sank into a small opening. The opening was just large enough for an ermine to squeeze through, so Oogoon took off his crown, turned himself into an ermine, and squirmed through the hole.
Once outside, Oogoon became a man again. He put the ermine crown back on his head, climbed into his kayak, and paddled away.
The following evening Oogoon saw another house along the river. Quickly, he reached into his bag and tasted the au-goo-took. Again he heard a voice warning, “There is danger here.”
Prepared for another uncomfortable experience, Oogoon walked toward the entrance of the house. An old woman came out and invited him to spend the night in her home. Tired and hungry, Oogoon accepted.
The old woman introduced him to her young daughter who sat sewing. After they had eaten, the old lady made a place on the platform for Oogoon to sleep. Oogoon waited until he heard the old lady and her daughter snoring before he stepped quietly onto the floor.
He crept over to where the young girl slept, cut off her hair, and replaced it with his ermine crown. After he had settled back on the platform, Oogoon piled the girl’s hair on his own head and went to sleep.
The following morning, Oogoon peeked from under his caribou-skin blanket and saw the old lady get up and reach for her carving knife. She crept over to the ermine crown and cut off the head beneath it, mistaking it for the head of the stranger. Then she crawled back underneath her warm caribou-skin blankets and went back to sleep.
Oogoon waited until the old lady was snoring. Then he got up, took back his ermine crown, and ran out the passageway. But he had underestimated the old woman: the entrance was tightly sealed and he could not get out. Oogoon searched frantically until he found a small hole in the doorway.
Again, he turned into an ermine and squeezed out through the hole. Once safe outside, he turned back into Oogoon, and ran toward the river. A huge black bear came roaring out of the house, calling in the voice of the old woman, “You have tricked me. I gave you food and a bed, and you tricked me!”
Oogoon jumped into his kayak and paddled away as fast as possible.
Oogoon traveled for several more days without seeing another house. Then early one afternoon he came upon Kotzebue Sound, where the river meets the sea. He crossed the bay and paddled until he saw houses. This time when he tasted his mother’s au-goo-took, he heard no warning, so he went ashore. “Is there anyone here?” he called.
An old couple came forward from behind the house and greeted him. “Please,” said the woman, “Come in and meet our daughter. We seldom have visitors.”
Oogoon followed the couple inside. Standing beside a small oil lamp was the most beautiful girl Oogoon had ever seen. When she turned her head, strings of shiny cooper beads hanging from her ears picked up the light from the seal oil lamp and threw it like tiny sparks around the room.
Her black hair was twisted into two long shiny braids that fell far down her back, and three fine black tattoo lines ran from underneath her lower lip to her chin. Oogoon smiled for the first time since he had left home.
The family welcomed Oogoon into their lives. The old man taught him to hunt seals and walruses along the coast and took him inland to hunt caribou. Before long, Oogoon married the couple’s beautiful daughter.
But Oogoon and the old couple did not always understand each other because they spoke different dialects. Only the daughter understood both her husband and her parents, so she acted as a translator.
One day, when Oogoon was on his way out of the house, his father-in-law said something Oogoon did not understand. He said, “Do not go up on the mountain with two peaks. There are two ferocious dogs up there who will attack you!”
Oogoon turned to ask his wife what her father had said, but she had gone out.
Since he did not understand what his father-in-law had said, Oogoon went to the mountain with two peaks. That evening when he returned from hunting, he told the family about his encounter with two fierce dogs, which he had killed to save himself.
Quickly the old man hung his head in sorrow. “You have killed my sons! They were my hunters.” The old man brooded for a long time. Then his sadness turned to anger, and Oogoon began to fear that the old man would seek revenge.
Over the weeks that passed, Oogoon became very eager to please. Early one morning when the old man was leaving the house, he asked his son-in-law to make him a kayak.
“But there is no wood here,” replied Oogoon. “I cannot make a kayak frame without wood.”
“Go down to the shore where the waves bring forth wood from the sea. There you will find what you are looking for,” answered the old man.
So Oogoon did what his father-in-law instructed and found a large log lying on the beach. He began to chop it up, but it was not dead wood, and it sprang back at him and almost killed him.
Angry with his father-in-law for trying to trick him, Oogoon pounded at the log until it was too weak to spring back at him. The old man was surprised when Oogoon came home with enough wood to frame a kayak.
The following day, when Oogoon was resting in a small hunting shelter, his father-in-law poured oil down a hole in the roof and set the house on fire. Oogoon fought desperately to get out of the little house, but his father-in-law had sealed up the door.
At last, Oogoon took off his ermine crown, turned himself into an ermine, and escaped through a tiny hole in the wall of the house. Once outside, he turned back into a man and sat down to rest.
Later, when Oogoon’s father-in-law returned to view the young man’s ashes, he found his son-in-law sitting calmly beside the burnt debris of the shelter. Neither man spoke as they walked home.
By the time summer arrived, Oogoon was a father. He was eager to take his wife and son to visit his parents far up the Kobuk River. So he packed his family into a small umiak, bade goodbye to his in-laws, and paddled across the bay.
However, just as Oogoon and his family approached the mouth of the river, a ferocious storm began to blow them in all directions. Their little boat bobbed up and down, rising and falling with great angry waves.
Oogoon tried to turn back, but he could not steer the little boat. First his supplies flew overboard, then his baby son flew out of his wife’s arms, and moments later the kayak tipped sideways and his beautiful wife disappeared into the water.
Oogoon held himself in the boat and fought desperately to stay afloat. After many hours, he managed to make his way back to the home of his in-laws. When he entered his old house, his beautiful wife sat sewing, and his young son lay sleeping beside her.
Oogoon’s father-in-law, surprised to see that he still had not succeeded in killing Oogoon, feared for his life and ran from the house.
The next day, Oogoon found his father-in-law resting in a hunting shelter. Oogoon sealed up the door with a huge boulder and poured oil inside through the roof, just as the old man had done to him. Then he set the shelter on fire.
Later, when Oogoon returned and found the charred bones of his father-in-law lying in the ashes, he knew he would not have to worry about his father-in-law’s evil tricks any longer.
Oogoon took his wife and little son far up the Kobuk River to live with his parents. Oogoon’s parents were delighted that at least one of their sons had returned home, and they would not have to worry that his soul might become lost.
Oogoon’s parents doted on their lovely daughter-in-law and spoiled their handsome young grandson, and they never tired of listening to their son’s exciting adventures on the Kobuk River.