Art Beat: Monumental Alaska Native grammar missing from state's libraries

Mike Dunham
A diorama stunningly portrays a beluga whale hunt at the Dena'inaq' Huch'ulyeshi, The Dena'ina Way of Living exhibit Friday, September 13, 2013, at the Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center.
Erik Hill
Dena'ina Elnena, The Dena'ina homeland, encompasses more than 41,000 square miles of Southcentral Alaska.

The fact that "Dena'inaq' Huch'ulyeshi," which opens at the Anchorage Museum today, is the first major exhibit of material associated with the Dena'ina people reminds us of how unaware most modern Alaskans are with regard to the integral and vibrant indigenous cultures that permeate the state's landscape, history and contemporary life.

Another example is Osahito Miyaoka's "A Grammar of Central Alaskan Yupik (CAY)," which came out last year but remains off the shelf in most Alaska libraries.

I must disclose two conflicts of interest with regard to this book. When I was a child I lived in a world that was mostly monolingual Yup'ik speakers and thus have a very warm spot in my heart for the sound, music, vocabulary and nuances of that language. More recently, I was among those who assisted Miyaoka with this book, though my contribution was akin to that of the ship's milk goat on Captain Cook's voyages.

Miyaoka's 1,600-plus-page book is the result of his nearly half-century of work with many of the most knowledgeable speakers of the Native language of Western Alaska. It is not a phrase book but a high academic achievement of encyclopedic scope.

With chapter subheadings like "Appositive nouns," "Demonstrative roots," "Preterite relativizers" and "Subordination and cosubordination to a nominalization," it won't quality as easy reading for an amateur linguist. But if you can muscle through the chapters and retain a tenth of what you read, the mechanics and genius of the language will be revealed with supreme clarity -- as it will be for readers a thousand years hence.

It should be in every major library in the state and in every high school, at least in the parts of Alaska where Yup'ik is still spoken by a healthy percentage of the population. Yet it's not.

I see several listings in Alaska catalogs for Steven A. Jacobson's fundamental "A Practical Grammar of the Central Alaskan Yup'ik Eskimo Language" and "Survey of Yup'ik Grammar, Revised" which Miyaoka coauthored with Yup'ik scholars Elsie Mather and Marie Meade. Both are valuable, important resources, though compared to the new book they barely scratch the surface of the enormous subject.

But an online check of library holdings this week revealed two copies of the new grammar at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and not a single copy in any other Alaska library. Not in Juneau, not in Anchorage, not in Bethel, nor in the university libraries in those cities.

That doesn't mean it's not there; the spell between acquisition and cataloging can be long. Whether a book is shown on a website is no guarantee that it is or isn't on the shelf. If anyone has copies available for public access, let me know and I'll pass it along.

Part of the problem may be the publisher. Though the volume was created under the auspices of the University of Alaska with a grant from the National Science Foundation, a U.S. government agency, it has been published in Germany, where Miyaoka was previously a visiting scientist at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig.

The volume from De Gruyter Mouton, part of the Mouton Grammar Library series, is technically gorgeous, on high quality paper with meticulous typesetting, the type of book that makes you want to put on a clean shirt and tie before reading. The heirs of Gutenberg, bless them, take printing as a serious art form, and Miyaoka's book is worthy of such treatment.

But the foreign publisher and the price -- about $170 according to the customs declaration that came with my copy, $280 on Amazon (a limited paperback edition is out of print) -- may be deterring its dissemination in America. It isn't even available online as best as I can determine, perhaps a requirement of De Gruyter.

It's odd, if not sad, that an Alaska publisher didn't pick this up. University of Alaska Press has taken off in recent years, not only with its academic and nonfiction books -- like the full-color 300-page catalog for the aforementioned Dena'ina exhibit, which must have cost a bundle -- but also the new fiction imprint that has brought us poetry volumes by Tom Sexton and Joan Kane, short stories by the late Marjorie Kowalski Cole, novels by Mei Mei Evans and Nicholas O'Connell. (The last named, author of "The Storms of Denali," has a slide talk coming up at Loussac Library, 7 p.m. Thursday.)

Publishing books is an expensive, chancy business. But given the invaluable and irreplicable work of Miyaoka (many of his original sources have passed on) it's surprising and disappointing that a successful attempt to produce and distribute "A Grammar of Central Yupik" in Alaska has not been undertaken.

A lot of people -- politicians, educators, etc. -- mouth platitudes like, "Native knowledge is an important part of Alaska's cultural treasure."

Enough with the platitudes. If you really believe in Alaska's cultural treasure, then consider this book a gold mine.

First Friday rambles

The standout art show this month is Annette Bellamy's "Floating" on the fourth floor of the Anchorage Museum. An award-winning potter from Kachemak Bay, Bellamy has been working in clay for decades. However, it's a different medium that grabs your attention when you turn the corner into the show area. On the far wall is a large fish skin patchwork reminiscent of Piet Mondrian's right angle compositions, titled "Out of Water."

Two related items occupy the center space. One is a cluster of clay boat forms suspended from the ceiling, the other a cluster of clay plumb bob shapes; the first is titled "Floating," like the show, the second "Sinkers," like the things used to pull fishing line and nets under the water. They are graceful and intriguing, but not the most interesting things in the show. Those would be the oars. Each wood shaft is topped with a clay construction that appears to refer to a person the artist admires, or at least spends time musing about.

Poet and homebody Emily Dickinson's oar, for example, features a porcelain white filigree that calls to mind a doily. A neat stack of rock forms bears the name of photographer Andrew Goldsworthy, who often arranges natural material in unnatural poses for his images. New York Times crossword composer Will Shortz is the honoree in a design that suggests a maze and cursive writing. (Wait! Who uses cursive writing in crosswords?) The titles of other oars are more obscure, probably tributes to Bellamy's friends in Halibut Cove or Homer. But "Potter's Oar," with little clay bowls sitting one atop another, may be a kind of self-portrait.

A press release for the show calls the oars "symbolic of how we navigate, not just through the water, but also through relationships and transitions." They felt more like fun, visual (auto)biographies to me. Their positioning, close to the wall and a corner, made reading titles difficult in some cases.

The show also has several clay bowls. I kept looking for chips and dip in them but came up empty. I guess it wasn't that kind of First Friday opening reception.

Design Forum series starts

The new seasons of talks sponsored by the Alaska Design Forum will get underway 6 p.m. Tuesday at the Anchorage Museum auditorium. Erica Behrens, director of the New York office of Franz Mayer, a Munich, Germany, company, will discuss some of the studio's projects around the world. The Mayer organization is particularly known for work with architectural art glass and mosaics. Alaska artists Pat Shelton and Sheila Wyne will join to talk about their collaborations with Mayer in Anchorage public projects. Admission is free, though a donation may be requested.

More online

Valley Performing Arts' production of the musical "Brigadoon" has opened in Wasilla. A "You Be the Critic" review from Stephen Warta is now posted at

Reach Mike Dunham at or 257-4332.