Every year since he was three years old, Tommy Tipana had gone into the wilderness with his grandfather, Utak, for a short period of time to learn the old ways of his people. Tommy’s father, however, was a modern Eskimo who lived in a sturdy wooden house and had a snowmobile. He did not approve of the old ways, but he allowed Tommy to learn what he could from Utak.
The year Tommy was ten, Grandfather Utak invited him to go on a trip through Anaktuvuk Pass by dogsled. So, early one morning Tommy waved good-bye to his parents, then snuggled down under a bearskin robe on his grandfather’s sled. Utak cracked the long whip that sent the dogs bounding toward the snow-covered tundra, and the journey began.
At the end of the day, Utak and Tommy stopped the dog team and fed them strips of caribou meat. Afterward Utak tapped on the snow with his ayoutak (long stick used for probing), and they listened for a deep, resounding squeak. “A good spot,” Tommy said, pointing.
His grandfather smiled and nodded. “Yes, the snowdrift is firm and deep here, Grandson. It will make a good igloo. You learn well.”
Together they cut out blocks of snow and stacked them. Then they packed the joints and cracks with loose snow, leaving only a small doorway for them to enter. They built a fire, and all was warm and cozy for the night. Next they cut a hole in the ice and fished for arctic charr. As Tommy and Utak ate their meal, Utak smiled in the light of the fire, for he was pleased with his grandson. “It is good that you learn the ways of our people,” Utak said encouragingly. “Soon there will be few who remember, and the new ways are wrong.”
“Father lives the new ways,” Tommy said, bewildered. “How can they be wrong?”
“Your parents go to the store to buy their food and clothes. They have forgotten how to fish and hunt and tan hides and sew. They have no dogsled, but ride on a snowmobile. All that we need is outside our igloo, Tommy, if we know how to use it.”
Utak slept, and Tommy sat curled in his bearskin, watching the fire. Outside, he could hear the whistling snow as it covered everything with a white blanket. He wondered which way was best—the old way or the new way. Tommy liked them both.
Early in the morning, Tommy and Utak ate and dressed quickly, for the fire was low. Tommy coiled thongs of caribou skin around his boots to make them skid proof. Pulling the hood of his fur coat closely around his face, he crawled out into the blazing whiteness of the new day. The dogs, shaking the snow from their coats, barked and strained at their tethers while Tommy threw them strips of frozen whale blubber. When they were through eating, Tommy helped them into their traces and waited for Utak. But Utak did not come out of the igloo.
“Grandfather!” Tommy called, kneeling at the doorway. “The dogs are ready.”
“Tommy, come here,” came his grandfather’s faint answer.
Tommy crawled back into the igloo. His grandfather sat leaning against the wall amid their belongings. His hand was massaging his chest.
“Grandfather,” Tommy whispered, “are you ill?”
Utak motioned for Tommy to come closer. “You must leave me here, Tommy. I am a sick old man, and it is the old way to deal with sickness.”
“I cannot leave you!” Tommy cried. “You are my grandfather.”
“Adjornarmat (that is life),” Grandfather said, shaking his head slowly. “Now do as I say! Leave me here. Take the sled and return to your parents … but do not forget the old ways.”
“I will not leave you, Grandfather,” Tommy replied. “There is much I do not know yet, and you are the only one who can teach me.”
Tommy hurried outside to get a wide strip of baleen (whalebone) from the sled and bring it into the igloo.
“Here, Grandfather, let me help you.”
Tommy helped Utak onto the baleen, then pulled his grandfather to the sled. Slowly Utak climbed onto the sled, and Tommy wrapped him in bearskins. Then Tommy packed their few belongings and turned the dogs toward home. His grandfather slept.
The dogs knew Utak was not driving them, and they growled, refusing to pull. Finally, Tommy lifted the heavy whip and commanded them as his grandfather had done so many times before. The whip cracked sharply in the frozen morning air; the lead dog growled one more time, then began to pull. They had a new master now, but he had learned much from their old master.
Back along the frozen tundra the sled raced, mile after mile, without Grandfather to guide it. Nevertheless, the boy remembered all he had learned and drove the sled in a straight line. Late that night, they arrived home.
The next morning Utak awoke in a hospital bed with white sheets. There were curtains at the windows. A nurse was leaning over him.
“Your grandson saved your life, Mr. Tipana,” she said, smiling. “Would you like to see him?”
Utak nodded, and Tommy walked into the hospital room, followed by his parents. He bent and hugged his grandfather gently. “Thank you, Grandfather,” he whispered.
“You saved my life and yet you thank me?” Utak was puzzled.
“For the old ways,” Tommy said and smiled. “If I had not known them, I would not have been able to bring you to the new ways that have saved your life.”
Tommy’s father frowned. “Utak! You must give up the old ways—the new ways are better and safer.”
Tommy simply smiled to himself as his father and grandfather argued about the old and new ways. He wondered why they did not understand as he did that both ways were good. Tommy knew he would live somewhere between them, for he had learned to love them both.