Wise Words of the Yup'ik People: We Talk to You because We Love You

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The Yup'ik people of southwestern Alaska were some of the last Arctic peoples to come into contact with non-Natives, and as a result, Yup’ik language and many traditions remain vital into the twenty-first century. Wise Words of the Yup’ik People documents their qanruyutet (adages, words of wisdom, and oral instructions) regarding the proper living of life. Throughout history, these distinctive wise words have guided the relations between men and women, parents and children, siblings and cousins, fellow villagers, visitors, strangers, and even with non-Natives. Yup’ik elders have chosen to share these wise words during Calista Elders Council gatherings and conventions since 1998 for instrumental reasons—because of their continued relevance and power to change lives.
The Calista Elders Council, which represents some thirteen hundred Yup'ik elders, recently spearheaded efforts at cultural revitalization through gatherings with younger community members. In describing the content of traditional instruction as well as its central motivation—“We talk to you because we love you”—elders not only educate Yup’ik young people but also open a window into their view of the world for all of us.
Wise Words of the Yup’ik People will serve as a valuable resource for the Yup'ik people and those who wish to learn more about their lives and values.
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Editorial Reviews

Pacific Northwest Quarterly

"Fienup-Riordan's work is significant and timely."—Pacific Northwest Quarterly

— Andrea D. Robertson

Pacific Northwest Quarterly - Andrea D. Robertson

"Fienup-Riordan's work is significant and timely."—Pacific Northwest Quarterly
Pacific Northwest Quarterly

"Fienup-Riordan's work is significant and timely."

— Andrea D. Robertson, Pacific Northwest Quarterly

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780803220225
  • Publisher: University of Nebraska Press
  • Publication date: 6/28/2005
  • Pages: 348
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Ann Fienup-Riordan is an independent scholar who has lived, worked, and taught in Alaska since 1973. Her many books include Hunting Tradition in a Changing World: Yup'ik Lives in Alaska Today and Yup'ik Elders at the Ethnologisches Museum Berlin: Fieldwork Turned on Its Head. Alice Rearden is a Yup’ik speaker and leading translator for the Calista Elders Council.
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Read an Excerpt

Wise Words of the Yup'ik People

We Talk to You because We Love You
By Ann Fienup-Riordan

University of Nebraska Press

Copyright © 2005 University of Nebraska Press
All right reserved.


If our ancestors wrote what they knew in a book, I wonder how thick it would be. Wassilie Evan, November 2000:33

I never heard the word culture used in southwestern Alaska thirty years ago - today it is on everyone's lips. Conscious culture is the trademark of the new millennium in Alaska as elsewhere, requiring efforts to preserve and reproduce past practices and defend them against assimilative pressures. In this struggle, as Marshall Sahlins (2000:196) points out, "the continuity of indigenous cultures consists in the specific ways they change."

In 1998 Mark John, eldest son of regional leader Paul John and a leader in his own right, took a job as director of the Calista Elders Council (CEC). The council is a nonprofit organization representing the more than 1,300 Yup'ik elders sixty-five years of age and older in the Yup'ik homeland. Under Mark's leadership the CEC elected a nine-person board of elders and hired small, dedicated staffs in Anchorage and Bethel. The board developed a five-pronged plan of action to preserve and transmit Yup'ik values and traditions, including youth culture camps, regionwide dance festivals, a network of village representatives, a series of bilingual publications, and annual youth and elders conventions and gatherings.

Because of the potential of theCEC'S plan to contribute both locally to community health and globally to arctic social science, the council successfully obtained Administration for Native Americans (ANA) and National Science Foundation (nsf) support, and I work with the council as part of the nsf project. Ironically, though non-Native society worked vigorously to erase differences and assimilate indigenous others during most of the twentieth century, current federal and state efforts materially support the new emphasis on differences.

The CEC'S real power and authority rest with its board of elders. Many cases of cultural revival are spearheaded by younger men and women who champion "tradition" at odds with parents, who had "accommodated to the white man and internalized the latter's reproaches" (Sahlins 2000:198). Tradition-bearing elders in southwestern Alaska have truly led the charge, as they have retained both knowledge of their past and a passionate desire to communicate it. For them, as for indigenous leaders elsewhere, "culture is not only a heritage, it is a project," a demand for specific forms of modernity that can only be fulfilled if the next generation shares their view of the world, that is, their culture (Sahlins 2000:200).

The Yup'ik Homeland

We call ourselves Yupiit, "Real People." In our language yuk means "person" or "human being." Then we add pik, meaning "real" or "genuine." We are the real people. Paul John, November 1991

The Yukon-Kuskokwim region, a lowland delta the size of Kansas, is the traditional homeland of the Yupiit, or Yup'ik Eskimos. The region's current population of more than twenty-two thousand (the largest Native population in Alaska) lives scattered in fifty-six villages, ranging between two hundred and one thousand persons each, and in the regional center of Bethel (an hour's plane ride five hundred miles west of Anchorage), with a population of nearly six thousand. Today this huge area is crosscut by historical and administrative boundaries, including two dialect groups, three major Christian denominations, five school districts, two census areas, and three Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) regional corporations. Each village has both an elementary and a secondary school, city government or a traditional council, a health clinic, a church or churches, an airstrip, electricity, and, in some cases, running water.

The subarctic tundra environment of the Bering Sea coast supports rich flora and fauna. An impressive variety of plants and animals appears and disappears as part of an annual cycle of availability on which Yup'ik people focus both thought and deed. Millions of birds, including geese, ducks, and swans, nest and breed in the region's ample wetlands. Annual migrations of salmon and herring are major resources for both riverine and coastal hunters. Halibut, flounder, tom cod, whitefish, capelin, pike, needlefish, smelt, and blackfish seasonally appear in coastal waters and tundra lakes and sloughs, and seals, walrus, and beluga whales return each spring. Land animals abound, including moose, caribou, bear, fox, otter, Arctic hare, muskrat, and beaver, and edible greens and berries are plentiful during summer months.

The abundance of plants and animals in southwestern Alaska traditionally allowed for a more settled life than that in other parts of the Arctic. Hundreds of seasonal camps and dozens of winter settlements lined riverine highways that link communities to this day. Like the northern Inuit, the coastal Yupiit were nomadic, yet their rich environment allowed them to remain within a relatively fixed range. Each of at least a dozen regional groups demarcated a largely self-sufficient area, within which people moved freely throughout the year in their quest for food. Far from seeing their environment as the insentient provider of resources available for the taking, many Yupiit continue to view it as responsive to their own careful action and attention.

Interregional relations were not always friendly. Intermittent skirmishes regularly interrupted delta life prior to the arrival of the Russians in the early 1800s. Ironically, death itself brought this killing to an end. Diseases that accompanied contact with Euro-Americans decimated the population. Although few Russians settled in southwestern Alaska, the larger Russian trade network to the south introduced smallpox into the region, devastating the Native population. Entire villages disappeared. As much as 60 percent of the Yup'ik population with whom the Russians were familiar in Bristol Bay and along the Kuskokwim was dead by June 1838.

The smallpox epidemic of 1838-39 and epidemics of influenza in 1852-53 and 1861 resulted in both a decline and a shift in the population, undercutting interregional social distinctions. Although the introduction of communicable diseases damaged traditional social groups and patterns of intergroup relations, it left intact the routines of daily life throughout the remainder of the nineteenth century. Small bands of extended family groups continued to move over the landscape, seeking the animals they needed to support life and gathering in winter villages for an elaborate annual ceremonial round.

The Yupiit were left largely to their own devices into the early decades of the twentieth century. The bilateral extended family, numbering up to thirty persons, was the basic social unit. Spanning two to four generations, including parents, offspring, and parents' parents, the group might also encompass siblings of parents or their children. An overlapping network of family ties joined people in a single community. In larger villages most marriage partners came from within the group, though regional recruitment also occurred.

Extended family groups lived together most of the year but normally not in family compounds. Rather, winter villages were divided residentially between a qasgi (communal men's house) and smaller enet (sod houses) occupied by women and young children. Married couples or groups of hunters often moved to outlying camps for fishing and trapping during spring and fall. Families gathered when temperatures dropped below freezing and sometimes during the spring seal-hunting and summer fishing seasons. Winter villages ranged in size from a single extended family to a few hundred people. In the larger settlements there might be as many as three men's houses, with up to fifty men and boys living in each.

All men and boys older than five years ate their meals and slept in the qasgi, the social and ceremonial center of village life. In winter men rose early in the morning to begin their day's work and returned home by sundown. They spent their spare time together talking and carving in the qasgi. Their daughters and wives brought their meals, waiting demurely by their sides while each man emptied his personal bowl. The qasgi was also the location of the ubiquitous sweat bath, where participants socialized and cleansed themselves in the intense heat.

Every man's place in the qasgi reflected his social position, and the men's house framed a number of internal distinctions, including those between young and old, married and unmarried, and host and guest. The social structure of the qasgi mirrored that of the natural world. The Yupiit believed that sea mammals lived in huge underwater qasgit (pl.), where they ranged themselves around a central fire pit in ranked fashion. From these underwater homes they viewed their treatment by people and, based on what they observed, chose whether to give themselves to human hunters.

The hunters who gave the most thought and care to the animals they sought were richly rewarded, both socially and materially. The nukalpiaq, or good provider, was a man of considerable importance in village life. Not only did he contribute wood for the communal sweat bath and oil to keep the lamps lit, he also figured prominently in midwinter ceremonial distributions, during which local extended families vied with each other to gather and redistribute surplus. Contemporary elders had as youths listened in the qasgi to their fathers and grandfathers discussing the hunt and talking about the rules for right living.

For better or worse, southwestern Alaska lacked significant amounts of the commercially valuable resources that first drew non-Natives to other parts of the state. The region lagged behind other parts of the Arctic and sub-Arctic in sustained contact with the outside world. As a result missionaries were among the first outsiders to interact with the scattered and isolated peoples of the Yukon-Kuskokwim delta - the Russian Orthodox in the 1840s, followed by the Moravians, who settled in Bethel in 1885, and the Jesuits, who established a mission on Nelson Island three years later (Fienup-Riordan 1991, 1994; Oswalt 1990). Both Moravians and Catholics were less tolerant of pre-Christian ritual acts, especially the masked ceremonies, than their Russian Orthodox predecessors, referring to them alternately as "heathen idol worship" and the "devil's frolic" (Drebert 1959:42; Society for Propagating the Gospel 1916:41).

A major demographic marker occurred in 1900, when an influenza epidemic arrived with annual supply vessels, halving the Native population in just three months. Although coastal communities were not as severely affected, many winter villages on the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers were abandoned. A sharp increase in the region's white population matched this decline, the Nome gold rush having spawned a largely fruitless effort to locate mineral deposits along the upper Yukon and middle Kuskokwim rivers and a lucrative commercial salmon fishery that began to take hold in Bristol Bay.

The Yup'ik people supplied fish and cordwood to miners and steamship captains and participated in an expanding fur market, substantially changing their domestic economy. In 1916 the regional superintendent for the U. S. Bureau of Education, John Henry Kilbuck, wrote with satisfaction that most Kuskokwim River Natives lived in log cabins heated with cast-iron stoves, ate homegrown turnips and potatoes from graniteware dishes, possessed at least some Western clothing, which they mended on treadle machines, and received education, health care, and Christian teachings from federal employees and missionaries.

Although the people of southwestern Alaska increasingly spoke English, lived within four walls, worked for wages, and attended church, the region's isolation meant that they remained largely independent, their lives focused on extended family relations and the pursuit of fish and game, on which they had relied for centuries. Animal husbandry and tilling the soil were embraced by an energetic minority, but the people ultimately ignored these eminently "civilized" activities when they conflicted with indigenous subsistence and settlement patterns, including their annual round of hunting and fishing activities. Though much changed, much also remained of the pre-Christian view of the world, especially their beliefs in the essential personhood of animals and the responsiveness of the natural world to human thought and deed.

During the early decades of the twentieth century both the Jesuits and the Moravians sought to replace Yup'ik animism, as expressed in their traditional cycle of ceremonies, with the form and content of the Christian faith. The discipline and order they preached appealed to the Yupiit as a novel spiritual solution for an unprecedented social crisis brought on in part by the epidemic diseases and social stresses of the early decades of the twentieth century. Combining their traditional sensitivity to the spirit world with the discipline of the Protestant work ethic, the majority found it possible to become fervent Christians without ceasing to be Yup'ik Eskimos.

At the time many Yupiit probably did not experience irreconcilable conflict in core cultural concepts, such as the notion of personhood. Although the external circumstances of life changed, the men and women of the Yukon-Kuskokwim delta possessed a distinctive language and value system, certainly altered from the time of their grandparents but still retaining many vital continuities. As we shall see, Yup'ik cosmology placed fundamental importance on the power of the human mind, and it was in terms of this concept that many Yupiit were subsequently able to restate and understand the message of Christian responsibility and accountability. In the same way, though the concept of original sin was new, the Christian emphasis on salvation and eternal life corresponded at least in part with the traditional Yup'ik belief in rebirth made possible by proper action in life. Many Yup'ik people were successful in resolving the contradiction between the Christian theological emphasis on individual salvation and the Yup'ik social emphasis on nineteenth-century daily life. They did so by practicing Christianity in a way that deemphasized individual salvation while simultaneously harnessing divine help in improving the condition of the community of believers (Fienup-Riordan 1991).

Native Americans have been much more motivated to preserve what they can of their pre-Christian cosmologies in their reactions to missionaries and white agents of change in general than has been appreciated, and the Yupiit are no exception. Their initial "conversion" did not comprise a blanket denial of - or retreat from - the old ways. Such a reading of history represents the colonial ideal, not the complex reality of cultural change, simultaneously involving appropriation, resistance, and translation. Rather, Yup'ik Christianity in southwestern Alaska has been characterized by the productive interpenetration of Christian and Yup'ik sources.

By statehood in 1959, continuities between past and present were as significant as innovations. The people continued to speak the Central Alaskan Yup'ik language, enjoyed a rich oral tradition, participated in large ritual distributions, and focused their lives on extended family relations bound to the harvesting of fish and wildlife. Alaska Natives were generally viewed as extremely disadvantaged during the decade after statehood. The Yupiit of the Yukon-Kuskokwim delta region were among the most impoverished. Relative to other areas of rural Alaska, the availability of Western material goods in this region was minimal, modern housing was nonexistent, educational levels were low, and tuberculosis - as destructive as earlier influenza and smallpox epidemics - ran rampant.


Excerpted from Wise Words of the Yup'ik People by Ann Fienup-Riordan Copyright © 2005 by University of Nebraska Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Table of Contents

1 Elders spoke and young people listened 1
2 A powerful mind 43
3 Boys are like puppies, ears are eyes, and women are death 79
4 Parents and children 103
5 Men and women 147
6 Those who are rich in relatives : extended family relations 185
7 Tuqluucaraq : the way of addressing one's relatives 209
8 The world contains no others, only persons : Yup'ik views of self and other 233
9 Qanrucunailnguut : those who do not listen and adhere 255
10 Eyagyarat : abstinence practices 267
11 Making the past present : the desertion of the Qasgi 287
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