Ernest “Tiger” Burch Jr., AM’63, PhD’66 (left)

Burch (left) and Kivalina villagers pose with the spoils of a fishing trip. Even after injuries in a 1964 fire limited his participation in village life, Burch still hunted and fished with the men when he could. (Photography by Deanne Burch)

Northern light

From his first trip north as the youngest hand on a two-masted schooner, anthropologist Ernest “Tiger” Burch Jr., AM’63, PhD’66, was driven to learn about the Arctic and its peoples.

In the spring of 1964, Ernest “Tiger” Burch Jr., AM’63, PhD’66, arrived with his wife in a tiny Inupiat village on the edge of Chukchi Sea in northwest Alaska. It was Burch’s second visit to Kivalina—a remote, windswept place, two dozen small sod or wood-frame houses strung out on a low barrier island just off the coast. Here, 80 miles above the Arctic Circle, Burch did what any aspiring anthropologist might have done: he drove a sled dog team, hunted for caribou and seals, and fished for salmon and char, following the seasonal round of hunting, fishing, and gathering that governed life in Kivalina. In short, he tried to live like an Inupiat.

“He didn’t just ask questions to learn about our lifestyle,” says Joseph Swan, who is 82 and has lived in Kivalina all his life. “He wanted to experience everything.” Burch was a leading figure in the great flowering of Arctic studies that began in the mid-1950s, when universities swelled, the social sciences flourished, and researchers streamed north to remote outposts like Baffin Island, the McKenzie River delta, and Arctic Alaska. Few enjoyed it more than Tiger Burch, whose sojourns in northwest Alaska helped transform the modern understanding of Arctic peoples and their distant past. 

“He loved it,” says his wife, Deanne Burch. “He loved every single thing about it. He loved the people. He loved the land. It had a very stark beauty.” It also had perils. By December the weather in Kivalina turns bitterly cold. Day shrinks quickly to just a few hours of midday twilight. In every direction lies white: snow-covered tundra or the blank ice-covered sea. 

Burch and his wife lived in a small wood-frame house. On the evening of December 6, he set a kerosene lantern on the floor to light, igniting residual fumes in the air. The couple fled outside, but Burch, remembering six months of field notes on his desk, went back in. There he was overcome by smoke. His Inupiat neighbors, alerted by his wife’s cries, eventually broke into the cabin and carried him out. 

Burch was in bad shape. The flames had burnt away his ears, the tip of his nose, and the skin on his face and hands. They had seared his lungs. Winona Hawley, an Inupiat woman, tended him as he lay in a nearby cabin. “His eyes were open,” she recalls. “I thought he was awake, but he wasn’t.”

It took until the next day before a bush plane could come and carry Burch off. After 10 days at a hospital in Anchorage, he was flown to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where he had grown up. There he developed pneumonia and wasn’t expected to live. But Burch recovered, and soon he was making plans to return to Alaska. “He was driven,” recalled one of his advisers, the late UChicago anthropologist Paul Friedrich. 

The next spring, though weakened and scarred, Burch returned to Kivalina with his wife. Until then he had learned mainly by doing. “Participant observation” was a standard anthropological tactic. But the damage to his lungs made exertion difficult. He still hunted and fished when he could, the village men taking care that he didn’t get overtired on the long trips to hunt caribou or on the bright spring days creeping out on the ice, dressed in a homemade white anorak, to hunt ugruk, the bearded seal.

Now that it was harder to live like the Inupiat, his research method came to focus on oral histories. He conducted long interviews at a table set up in a walled canvas tent, a reel-to-reel tape recorder turning beside him.  In time these conversations led him to new and unexpected insights.

Burch’s interviews informed his UChicago dissertation on Inupiat kinship and provided data for a later work on Inupiat subsistence. They also turned his thoughts to the Inupiat past—and things did not add up. Elders had told him of a time when the Inupiat were divided into separate “nations.” They had described long-ago rivalries, even warfare. Anthropologists thought Arctic peoples had lived in homogeneous and highly mobile groups with little social or political differentiation, their relations mostly friendly. The mild, cheerful Eskimo, face rimmed in fur, was a stock image of the Western imagination.

Burch’s informants suggested a more complicated history. Four years later, after graduating from UChicago and taking a teaching job at the University of Manitoba, he returned to Alaska with his family, determined to learn more about it. He traveled to different villages, hunting down the most knowledgeable elders. He laid out topographic maps, four or six of them taped together to show a whole district, and asked them about their parents and grandparents. Where had they lived? What had they done?

Burch was not the first to take an interest in the Inupiat oral tradition. But no one before him had mined it so deeply and rigorously, or attempted such a broad synthesis. Historians had relied on written documents. Oral history, recorded only in people’s memories, was considered unreliable. Even Burch was skeptical at first. “I did not think it was possible, although I wanted to try anyway,” he wrote.

He talked to as many elders as he could, especially those regarded by the Inupiat themselves as experts on the past. What he learned changed his thinking about Inupiat history and the value of oral tradition to illuminate the deep past. On most crucial points the elders agreed. In most cases, too, the historical record, though sparse on the subject of the native people, confirmed what the elders told him. Those born in the late 19th century could talk in precise detail about events two generations earlier. “Some were truly brilliant, scholars and intellectuals in the most genuine sense of those words,” he later wrote.

This exercise in what Burch called  “ethnographic reconstruction” showed the Inupiat in a profoundly new light. By taking seriously the “treasures of knowledge” that previous researchers “had ignored, and actually even scorned,” as his colleague Yvon Csonka has written, Burch extended recorded Inupiat history by almost a century and challenged many assumptions about traditional Inupiat society, including his own. He revealed for the first time, and in great detail, how the Inupiat had lived in the early 1800s, before disease, famine, and an influx of outsiders transformed their lives.

Burch’s findings showed that what he and most other scholars had considered to be traditional Inupiat society was in fact something new and recent. The Inupiat had indeed once been divided into many nations, as the elders called them, some as small as a few hundred people, that were as defensive of their territories as modern states. At times these groups gathered for huge trading fairs; at other times they fought, using military tactics that included raids, ambushes, and pitched battles. Dogged research enabled Burch to reconstruct this vanished world, of which many contemporary Inupiat were unaware.

“He illustrated how complex their life was, socially, spiritually, culturally, historically,” says Igor Krupnik, curator of the Arctic Studies Center at the Smithsonian Institution and one of Burch’s closest friends and colleagues.

Burch fell in love with the Arctic early. While still in high school, he heard a talk by the Arctic explorer and lecturer Donald MacMillan, and that summer shipped out as the youngest hand on MacMillan’s two-masted schooner, the Bowdoin, as it sailed up the west coast of Greenland. He brought home a narwhal tusk and an enthusiasm for the people and landscapes of the north. After graduating from Princeton in 1960, he grabbed the chance to spend a year in Kivalina working as a research assistant on a study by University of Alaska Fairbanks researcher Doris Saario, EX’58. Burch lived among the villagers and collected data on their hunting and daily activities. “He had to learn to hunt, fish, drive his own dog sled, and process his catch for himself,” according to Krupnik.

He acquitted himself well. One day in March he was traveling by dog sled from Kivalina to Noatak, a village 45 miles away, when a rabid wolf attacked his team. Springing to his dogs’ defense, he strangled the wolf with his hands and carried the carcass into Noatak. In a culture that esteems hunting prowess, Burch’s feat did not go unremarked. Years later, whenever he visited a new village, he found that people already knew him. “After a few questions they would say, ‘Oh, you’re the guy who fought the wolf,’ and I was more or less accepted,” he told an interviewer.

Burch began his studies at UChicago the next year. It was a time of high interest in hunter-gatherers—the first ever Man the Hunter symposium was held at UChicago in 1966—and Cold War anxieties helped funnel money to research on the continent’s northern frontiers. Four anthropologists who graduated from UChicago in the 1960s went on to distinguished careers in what was once widely known as Eskimology: Burch; David Damas, AM’60, PhD’62; Lee Guemple, AB’59, AM’61, PhD’66; and Nelson Graburn, PhD’63.

Unlike the others, Burch did not stay long in academia. After teaching for eight  years in Manitoba, he moved his family back to Pennsylvania and took up the life of an independent scholar. Out of a basement office packed with his books and files, his narwhal tusk hanging on the wall, he worked hard, juggling multiple projects, flying off to conferences, serving as an unpaid research associate with the Smithsonian Institution, and making trips north when he could.

“He was a person of great personal strength of character,” says Thomas Correll, a friend and research partner from the University of Manitoba who worked closely with Burch in the late 1960s and early ’70s. “He knew who he was, and he lived that out.”

Burch died in 2010. In later years he no longer got up to Alaska very often. The elders who had taught him so much were gone, and with them the chance to continue learning about the distant Inupiat past. Meanwhile, life in northwest Alaska was changing in ways he did not altogether like. The Inupiat still hunted and fished, but snowmobiles, three-wheelers, and powerboats had replaced dog teams and skin boats. Electricity, oil furnaces, and television now helped relieve the harshness of village life. And Kivalina, which seemed to be dying away in the 1960s, was thriving, with new houses, new schools, and a growing population.

“I don’t enjoy the contemporary villages the way I used to appreciate the old-fashioned kind,” Burch wrote to Correll. “No peace and quiet, just noise and confusion. No dogs, just machines. All of my old friends are dead, so it is kind of lonely. No crazy characters, so it is not as much fun. I miss the country, though.”

Still more changes were on the way, further threatening the old life that Burch loved. Temperatures in Alaska and the Arctic in recent years have been warming twice as fast as elsewhere, melting permafrost, altering vegetation, and thinning the sea ice. It’s become harder to hunt seals, belugas, and bowhead whales in the spring, and coastal communities like Kivalina are exposed to more severe erosion. Indeed, the village’s residents, cramped and battling the sea, have been trying without success to relocate from their barrier island to the mainland. “We wanted our kids to have more room,” says Joseph Swan. “But right now we have no money, no help.”

Among anthropologists, Burch is remembered for his determined and meticulous scholarship, his innovative use of oral narrative, and his groundbreaking forays into early Inupiat history, notably his revelations about Inupiat warfare. His many writings include three major books on Inupiat history, as well as a series of reports done for the Inupiat themselves. These works have an encyclopedic range; Burch not only explored big issues, such as the relations between nations in precontact Inupiat society, but also chronicled the small details of everyday life. “He was interested in everything about the Inupiat,” says an old friend, anthropologist Ann Fienup-Riordan, PhD’80. 

In the Inupiat place he knew best, Burch is still remembered, not so much for the accident that left him scarred, or for his scholarly contributions, as for his abiding curiosity about the villagers’ way of life. “He was always willing to learn,” says Swan—how to walk on sea ice, how to behave in a boat, how to stalk a sleeping walrus.

“He was Inupiat,” Swan adds. “I would say he was Eskimo. He learned to live like an Eskimo.”

Richard Mertens is a writer in Chicago.