Granddad on the Tail of the Plane
Through the big glass windows, they watched the Alaska Air jet arrive and taxi towards the terminal. It looked big on the skinny runway.
Taggart Williamson opened a plastic food container. Inside were some dark brown squares of meat, soaking in a dark brown gravy. Steam rose, and filled the air with a meaty aroma. He put the open container on on the stone bench in front of the big window.
From a sheath on his hip he drew a huge Bowie knife. Two tourists nearby started and gawked at him, but he ignored them. With the tip of the knife he skewered a chunk of meat, and raised it towards his mouth, then stopped suddenly, and looked sheepish, as if caught in a lax of etiquette. He held the meat towards Duncan MacAlpin, his friend. “Hungry?” he asked.
Duncan tried to keep the distaste from showing in his face. In fact, Duncan liked many Coastal Alaskan native foods. He loved octopus, herring row, twice-fried hooligan, seaweed, and Chicken Adobo: a Filipino dish the Tlingit had adopted and made their own. But he had never developed a taste for the greasy foods that natives really loved: seal meat, beaver tail, and muktuk
He shook his head. “No thanks... Is that seal-meat?”
“Yup. You should have some. It's really good for you.”
Duncan's stared at the big chunks of dark brown meat, some of them almost black, soaking in that dark, greasy gravy. His stomach roiled and rumbled a bit. “No thanks, I had breakfast already,” he lied.
Taggart shrugged, popped the chunk of dark meat into his mouth, and tried to pretend he had not heard Duncan's stomach rumbling. “Suit yourself,” He mumbled, while chewing, “perhaps my Uncle is bringing some good muktuk from up north. We can have some of that.”
Duncan remembered the one time he had tried whale blubber, forcing down the big chunk Taggart had offered him, trying to be polite. It had slithered down his throat, and then sat heavy in his stomach for hours. His stomach roiled again with the memory of it. Taggart pretended not to hear.
“Tag, has your uncle ever been to Halibut before?” asked Duncan.
Taggart nodded. “Oh yes. He grew up here. But he went back to Kaktovik with my Grandfather. But you can't fly here from Kaktovik, you have to fly from Barrow.”
Duncan grinned. “Surely, you must mean Utqiaġvik, don't you?” He pronounced it slowly and carefully, “oot-kee-a-vik.”
Taggart scowled at him. “Yeah, 'cause you know all the Inupiaq names for places! Bet you don't know how to spell it!”
Duncan laughed. “Aye, well, you got me there. What's your uncle's name, by the way?”
“Jimmie. Jimmie Kayuktuk. I think it means “Fox,” or maybe “Wolf,” in Inupiaq.”
“Good name. I like that. How come your uncle is Inupiaq, and you and your dad are Tlingit?”
“He's half Inupiaq, half Tlingit. His father, my granddad, came to Halibut to work in a cannery. The canneries used to recruit Eskimos in Barrow, because they knew how to filet fish really fast. He met my grandma at the cannery, a Tlingit woman. They lived here for a long time, and had a son and a daughter, Uncle Jimmie and my mother. They grew up here. My mother met my dad, George Williamson, and married him, so I am three-quarters Tlingit, one quarter Inupiaq. But the cannery closed, and then my grandmother died, and granddad got to missing Kaktovik. So he went home. My mum was married to my dad, so she stayed, but my grandad took Uncle Jimmie home with him.”
“Is your granddad still alive?”
“Naw, he died 14 years ago. He was a great guy. Total Eskimo, if you know what I mean. Ran a trap line up to the week he died. Looked the part too... fur-lined parka and all. I swear that's a picture of him right there. They must have got an old picture of him somewhere, and painted it up there.” He nodded forwards, towards the big glass windows.
Duncan looked around, confused, looking at the pictures on the back wall of the airport lounge, that were reflecting in the big glass windows. They were all portraits of middle aged white men in suits, airline executives or perhaps Alaska politicians, he guessed. None of them looked Eskimo. “Your Grandpa? Where? Where is a picture of your Granddad?”
“Right there!” said Taggart, pointing. “Right there on the tail of that plane. They have his picture on all the planes.”
Duncan looked out the big window at the Alaska Air passenger jet. “What? The Alaska Air Eskimo? No, Taggart, that's their logo... well not their logo... their... I don't know... their image. The have it on all their planes.”
“I know. I just said that. That's my Granddad they have on all those planes. And I'll bet they found his photo somewhere, and never payed him a penny for using his face. Probably never even asked him!”
“Taggart, I read an article that explained all about it, in that magazine they put on the planes. That's no one's face. They took a whole bunch of pictures of Alaska Eskimo people, then they used a computer program to pull out little bits of each face and join them together. They say they used a big survey of people, showing them only little bits at a time, and got them to say which eye, or ear, or nose, or... nose-hair for all I know, and say which bit they liked better... No wait... I remember, they asked them which face bits they found less threatening, or aggressive, and which bits were most friendly and welcoming, and made them feel all safe about flying on an airplane.
“Then they used a computer to patch all those bits together and sort of blend them into each other. It's called a 'composite image' of a face. It's not one guy from Kaktovik, it's every guy from Kaktovik, and Anaktuvuk, and Barrow, and and every place else in the North.”
Taggart gave him a skeptical look. “Oh, yeah, well then how come it looks just like my Granddad?”
“That's what everybody says, Tag, everyone thinks it looks like their Granddad.”
Taggart looked triumphant. “See? That's exactly what everyone said about my Granddad -- everyone said he looked just like their own Granddad!”
Duncan stammered. He was not even sure if Taggart was serious, or just having a laugh at his expense. “But... No... Listen...”
“Never mind... here's Uncle Jimmie now!”
A short swarthy Eskimo man was coming out the jet way exit. He was dressed in camouflage field clothes, and he sort of shuffled as he walked, never lifting his feet up higher than an inch or so, as if he had spent his life on snowshoes. He carried a big green duffel bag. Duncan was sure that it would never fit in an overhead bin, but perhaps the Alaska Airlines people in Barrow were a bit easier on airline regulations. When The man saw Taggart, he dropped the bag spread his arms wide. They both they hugged, and slapped each other on the back, putting up clouds of dust.
Finaly, Taggart disentangled and turned to introduce Duncan, but before he could speak, his Uncle, excitement in his voice, said: “Heh Taggart, I swear that is a picture of my dad up on the back of that plane!”
Taggart turned and looked at Duncan with an “See - I told you so!” look.
Duncan closed his eyes, shook his head, and threw up his arms in exasperation. “Fine, let's go get your other bags, they'll be downstairs.” He snatched up Uncle Jimmie's duffel bag and headed for the exit.
Jimmie looked at Taggart quizzically. “What's up with him?” He asked.
Taggart grinned. “Indigestion I think. White people get it often. It's all that store-bought beef they eat.”
His uncle nodded. “Yeah, I've seen that. The white teacher at Kaktovik school gets that too. I tried to give him some seal meat, but he would not eat it.”
Taggart and his uncle followed Duncan towards the exit, both shaking their heads in sympathy.
A Note on the face of the Eskimo: Owning-up time!
OK, so before people start shouting at me that they know the real story, I thought that I had better give an alternate history of the Face on the Tail. Or two, or three.
Artist Vic Warran claims that he designed the original image in 1973 while working as creative director for Alaska Airlines’ ad agency. He claims he copied the image from a photograph of the stern, proud face of Chester Spivik. He says: “ When I designed the Eskimo, an elderly Eskimo gentleman in Kotzebue was working as a greeter for the airline on its Arctic Tours. You got off the plane in Kotzebue and he was one of the folks who came up and helped you into a fur-trimmed parka to protect you from the cold. It was sort of an Eskimo version of the Hawaiian lei.”
He goes on to say how the image was modified in later years: “When I first designed him I copied the stern, proud look on his face. A few years later, the airline wanted him to be a little friendlier, and I hired an illustrator in Seattle to make minor modifications to his mouth and eyes to give him the smile he has today.”
Vic Warran tells a convincing story, but the Alaska Airlines blog used to have an article that said this:
“While residents of Kotzebue and many of Alaska’s customers and employees firmly believe that Seveck’s face adorns Alaska’s jets, many others believe it is Oliver Amouak, an Inupiat Eskimo who was hired by Alaska in the late 1950s to perform in a traveling stage show called “It’s Alaska!” “
The article was accompanied by a picture of Amouak from a flier for the "It's Alaska' show, that showed that the original, stern, proud faced image was an obvious copy of the picture of Amouak down to details in the wolf fur ruff of the parka around his face. Since I first published this piece in 20018 though, the Alaska Airlines blog has removed that article, and the picture. This plot thickens. I will try to find another copy of that flyer, and put the picture up here (the last bit of real proof of who the Eskimo really is).
By the way, that page also had a lively discussion which included a number of other theories about the origin of the image, a number of people claiming a family relationship with the person depicted, and some argument as to whether it is insulting to call the person an “Eskimo” (see note about the term Eskimo below).
Whatever the case, the image has obviously evolved and become less stern over the years. When the image was digitized there were further touch-ups and adjustments made. Most sources agree, though, that a remarkable number of native Alaskan people say that the person: “looks just like my grandfather!”
Perhaps the first face on the Alaska Air planes
On using the word “Eskimo”:
A number of people, especially in Canada, avoid using the word “Eskimo” because it was once thought to derive from a Montagnais (Cree) derogatory term that meant "eaters of raw meat". Now most authorities agree that the term actually evolved from a term that means “snow-shoe weaver”, and was not derogatory after all. It is commonly used in Alaska to mean northern native-Alaskans, the people who speak Eskimo–Aleut languages. Although to ethnologists Eskimo and Aleut are separate cultures and language groups, most southern Alaskans lump both cultures together under “Eskimo” eg: Any Native-Alaskan north of Tlingit speakers.