WINTER WARRIOR is based on the legends of the Yup' ik Eskimo people of Western Alaska. It is about an Eskimo warrior, Apanuugpak, who lived in the mid-seventeenth century on what is now called Nelson Island. The story is told in flashbacks from a community gathering in Toksook Bay during the war in the 1940's. The two story-tellers are Billy, the village patriarch and keeper of the legends, and Mzrtina, an adolescent girl who whispers parts of the story to some younger girls.
The peace that the Yup' iks had enjoyed for centuries is endangered as the people begin quarreling over territorial and hunting rights. Narauq, a rival chieftain, and his people have come to a conciliatory winter ceremonial in Apanuugpak's village, Nel'umuit. There is a duel of shamans in which Angarvak, Apanuugpak's grandmother, outdoes the rival shamans. Kumaq, Narauq's hot-headed younger brother, insults the grandmother. In the fight which ensues, Kumak is inadvertently killed by Apanuugpak. Nurauq and his people depart in anger.
In the spring while hunting, Apanuugpak falls into the lair of the Nameless Woman, a seductive and dangerous night spirit. Close to death, he is rescued by Kanachar and her mute sister who have fled to the mountains to avoid the impending wars. The two women return with Apanuugpak to his village, Kanachar as his wife. He takes with him a strange caribou mask, a malignant gift of the Nameless Woman.
Apanuugpak, his best friend Pangal, and Pangal's adolescent nephew, Ukin, go on a peaceful seal hunt, traveling by kayak. They are drawn into an ambush by Narauq and his men. Through Apnuugpak's cunning they escape, but more blood is shed. Fearing for her grandson's life, Angarvak gives him two mussel shells to wear beneath his coat. Later, in a second ambush, Apanuugpak is shot full of arrow—but finds that the shells have spread to cover and protect his body.
Most of the men of Nel-umuit are hideously massacred by Nurauq's growing band, sending Apanuugpak and Pangal on a spree of vengeance. In his caribou mask and mussel shell armor, Apanuugpak, seemingly invincible, becomes known and feared among all of the Eskimos. Nurauq's shamans prepare a magic arrow to kill Apanuugpak, but mistakenly slay his friend Pangal. Apanuugpak becomes even more excessive and appears to be losing his soul—he has become a hunter of human beings.
Kanachar and sister return to their exile on the mountain. The grandmother, Angarvak, fears that her powers are responsible for the evil events. She takes the boy, Ukin, with her on a spirit quest. Narauq's men trap the remaining people of Nel'umuit in their dance house and kill them with fire. Angarvak and Apanuugpak meet at this scene of destruction. He pursues the army despite her warning that the power in the mussel shells is gone.
Through the night, Angarvak summons her remaining magical powers. Apanuugpak tracks Nurauq's army through a storm into the mountains where he is seen by Nurauq and wounded. The men are moving in for the kill when behind him appears a strange army—images of animal/man spirits, and dead warriors, all familiars of Angarvak. Narauq alone charges Apanuugpak with his spear and is struck and killed by a single arrow. The spirit warriors vanish. It is the boy Ukin who has slain Nurauq. He has never killed a man and is devastated by what he has done. Apanuugpak sees his innocence and grief, and disbands Nurauq's men. He orders them to leave their weapons in the snow, to return home and make new tools for hunting animals, not human beings. Peace is restored.
The final scene returns to the 1940's where we learn that some of the young men are off fighting the Japanese in the Aleutians—the wars have returned to Alaska and the Yup' ik people.
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