June 1975 | Volume 26, Issue 4
Kivetoruk Moses spent his youth and middle years zestfully hunting seal, reindeer, and polar bear through the Alaskan snows. He became rich trading in furs and sled dogs in Siberia and his native Cape Espenberg on the Seward Peninsula. In 1954, when injuries from an airplane crash ended his hunting days, Moses started a new career by teaching himself to paint—as a means of keeping green his memories of those best of times. Moses, now in his seventies, and his wife live in a small cabin in raffish Nome, next door to the Golden Goose Saloon and across the road from the Bering Sea. Recently, in grief over the death of a son, he stopped painting. Although not well known outside of Alaska, his prize-winning art hangs there in galleries and private collections. One devoted collector is Dr. Sergei Bogojavlensky, who met Moses while doing anthropology research in Alaska. He not only suggested this piece but provided much of the information for it.
These paintings present a rare glimpse of the Eskimo life of fifty or so years ago, when modern technology was just beginning to encroach upon tradition. With pen, ink, water color, and a passion for accuracy, the artist makes his untutored report of those days’ events. Such details as the thickness of a chunk of ice, the height of a hunter’s boots, or the character of the light in the sky pinpoint the season, the day, even the hour. Moses’ paintings are filled with references to Siberia, his spiritual home. That land, too remote for the white man’s culture to have influenced it in the nineteenth century, was further isolated in the ig4o’s by the Iron Curtain. When Moses recalls “how good it was to listen to the Siberians,” he reveals his longing for the old ways, believirtg, for example, that the magic rites of the shaman, dying in Alaska, still flourish on the other side of the Bering Strait.
These paintings are direct and optimistic, the icy expanses warmed by the artist’s sunny grace. Yet the central fact of Eskimo life remains a ceaseless struggle against one of the grimmest and most demanding environments ever inhabited by man. Explorer Peter Freuchen neatly sums up the paradox in his Book of the Eskimos : “The Eskimos are themselves unaware of the difficulty of their existence, they always enjoy life with an enviable intensity, and they believe themselves to be the happiest people on earth living in the most beautiful country there is.”