THE WAKE OF THE UNSEEN OBJECT

Among the Native Cultures of Bush Alaska

By Tom Kizzia

Henry Holt. 275 pp. $19.95

Anyone inclined to lump together as Eskimos all the indigenous peoples of rural Alaska will know better after reading Tom Kizzia. He distinguishes among that state's arctic and coastal Eskimos (who style themselves Inuit and Yup'ik, respectively), northern and southern Athabaskan Indians, Aleuts and other Indian groups, all of whom found themselves officially classified together for the first time as "Alaska Natives" in the 1971 land-claims settlement law that paved the way for the Alaska pipeline. In the course of a two-year odyssey on behalf of his newspaper, the Anchorage Daily News, Kizzia visited numerous native settlements, interviewed leaders and followers, and wrote the feature articles that make up this charming, informative book.

The charm lies in the author's occasional attacks of bashfulness. Obliged to cover issues that might discomfit his native hosts, keenly aware that previous contacts with Anglos have brought misery to some groups, in awe before the Stone-Age traditions incarnated in some of his interviewees, he can almost be heard gulping before he asks a pointed question about, say, subsistence hunters who kill a walrus and use nothing but its tusks. (By law, Alaska's subsistence hunters -- those who live off the land -- take precedence over commercial and sport hunters.)

At the same time, his self-consciousness sharpens his eye for eccentrics who fit in as tentatively as he does. In Wales, the Seward Peninsula hamlet just across the Bering Strait from the Soviet Union, he collects stories about madmen: the missionary who planned to cross the strait and cut a swath of converts all the way to Moscow; and the letter written by "a man introducing himself quite bluntly as a paranoid-schizophrenic who had just been released from a mental institution. He had seen Wales on a map and thought it looked like just the place for him to recuperate. He wanted hotel and restaurant information."

The most intriguing oddball in "The Wake of the Unseen Object" is Tonashay, the charismatic young Apache man who gravitated to the peninsula by way of Lapland, where he had become adept at reindeer herding. Trying to pass his skills on to the local people for application to their reindeer, he had secured funding from the University of Alaska and managed to import ponies from Iceland as mounts for tundra cowpokes. By the time Kizzia catches up with him, however, Tonashay's project is starting to fizzle out. His zeal has been tempered by the recognition that it will take a fired-up local leader to put the scheme across, and he admits to getting "along better with the older people here than the younger ones."

Alaskans who live in the bush (as the outback is called there) justifiably pride themselves on their resilience, but neighbors sometimes step up to smash an icon when the mythmaking gets out of hand. One of Kizzia's informants had this to say about the incessant poetry readings given by a woman whose family spent their first Alaskan winter huddled in a canvas tent. "At that time, people just said Dick was too lazy to build his family a cabin ... Now she's written a book and Paul Harvey even talked on national radio about the tent at Sixty-nine Below. If we'd known we could be famous, we all could have lived in tents."

Kizzia writes a clear, unobtrusive prose that crystallizes in memorable images from time to time. "A light rain began to fall," he writes of a landscape near Bristol Bay, "and the lake became a plaza of round tiles." Watching a colony of walruses jammed into an island sanctuary, he describes the battles for male dominance that precede the formation of harems: "The tusks clacked like baseball bats when the big bulls clashed." He also has a keen ear for the quote that sums up a way of life. "This country is rocky, mountainous, barren, windy, and cold," explains an Anglo merchant, "but it doesn't weigh on me. When it's nice weather, I think the scenery is beautiful. When it's bad, you can't see anything anyway."

I wish Kizzia had tied in his pages on King Island with Berton Roueche's gripping New Yorker piece on his sojourn there in 1966 ("First Boat to King Island," reprinted in his recent book, "Sea to Shining Sea"), but that is merely a quibble. On a grander scale, it would have been helpful to get more of Kizzia's perspective on the efficacy of the corporations established to manage native assets by the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act -- not to mention his recipe for the proper mix of old ways and new technology to be maintained by villages wishing to enjoy 20th-century prosperity without forfeiting aboriginal identity. Yet if Tom Kizzia had been the sort of chap given to making such magisterial pronouncements, would the people of rural Alaska have spoken with him as freely as they appear to have done in this admirable tapestry of their viewpoints?

The reviewer is a Washington writer and editor.