Robert Sakkaaluk Aiken Sr. died last week. I first met him when he worked in maintenance at the Indian Health Service Hospital in Barrow in 1972. Most people are more familiar with his son, Big Bob Aiken, who has been a central part of the Eskimo Indian Olympics since the days when he could carry what seemed like a dozen men around the gym without getting winded. Big Bob came by his strength, both physical and spiritual, from his mother and father.
Robert Aiken Sr. was simply the biggest man in Barrow in both the physical and spiritual sense. Although Big Bob eventually reached the point when he could beat his dad at the finger pull, Robert Sr. never stopped being anything but a big man. And he did it quietly, without running for office or holding some important title in a corporation or demanding that people recognize him in some special way. No, Sakkaaluk did it the Inupiat way. He lived a good life, he loved his family, he revered his God, he provided for his community, and he was a good neighbor to anyone in need.
I can remember many a night in the emergency room in Barrow when someone intoxicated would come in. They’d need to be sewn up because of some mishap. Sometimes these people were so intoxicated that they didn’t want to lie still while we worked on them. That’s when Sakkaaluk would come to the door of the ER and make sure he caught the recalcitrant patient’s eye. Then he’d quietly suggest that the patient calm down. That usually did it for 95% of the patients who were fighting us. For the other 5%, Sakkaaluk would come into the room and gently lay his hand on their shoulder. The effect was miraculous. I often thought we could have sewn those people up without anesthetic at that point and they would never have moved.
Sakkaaluk inspired such respect in others that even intoxication didn’t change people’s response to him. The fact that he could have flattened them with one hand probably helped a little too.
The one time I ran afoul of Sakkaaluk was the first spring I spent in Barrow. A young lady who would go on to become one of my best friends asked if I’d like to go out to whale camp. I said yes. We bundled up, she borrowed her dad’s ski doo and took off across the ocean ice. We arrived at whaling camp only to find that nothing much was going on. At that point, one of us suggested walking to the next whaling camp about a mile north. Neither of us will admit today who made that suggestion and it’s probably best not to push the issue.
So we started out, walking along the edge of the ice, marveling that the new ice was so thin we could see the water moving under it. As we approached the next whaling camp, Sakkaaluk came out to meet us and there was no evidence of that famous Inupiat smile on his face.
I’m not sure of all he said since most of it was in Inupiat. But I don’t think it was flattering. My friend bore the brunt of his anger since I was the new nurse from the hospital and it was generally assumed I had no idea what I was doing outside of the hospital compound. Apparently he was concerned about some little things that might have endangered our stroll like polar bears and breaking ice.
The last time I saw Sakkaaluk was at AFN this year. His group danced. His beloved wife Martha was ill at the time and immediately after the dance, he left to return to her side. But he took a moment to greet an old nurse from the hospital and tell her he missed seeing her in Barrow.
Sakkaaluk had one of the greatest smiles in the world. His whole face smiled when he did – even his eyebrows, hairline, cheekbones and nose got in on it. His smile reflected a man at peace with himself and his world. You couldn’t help but respond by smiling back.
I’ll miss Sakkaaluk. Knowing he was in the world made it seem a better place.