Reading the north

Yupik Transitions: Change and Survival at Bering Strait, 1910-1960

Igor Krupnik and Michael Chlenov (University of Alaska Press, $60)

The blurb: The Siberian Yupik people have endured centuries of change and repression, starting with the Russian Cossacks in 1648. The 20th Century brought especially formidable challenges, including forced relocation by Russian authorities and a Cold War "ice curtain" that cut off the Yupik people on the mainland region of Chukotka from those on St. Lawrence Island. Yet through this all, the Yupik have managed to maintain their culture and identity. Igor Krupnik and Michael Chlenov spent more than 30 years studying this resilience through original fieldwork. In "Yupik Transitions," they present a compelling portrait of a tenacious people and place in transition -- a portrait all the more needed as the fast pace of the newest century threatens to finally erase their old way of life.

Excerpt: Much less easy were the lives of those who did not fit into the adopted norm of family life -- the singles, the disabled, and elderly loners. Their position was unenviable and their status was very low. Because they could rarely procure for themselves, they were reliant upon people with whom they lived. The lot of single individuals, and most often these were people with physical deficiencies, was to join the families of their relatives as junior members without any rights. All the same, people tried to contribute to the household, especially men, who served as paddlers in the hunting crews of their supporters:

"Saygugyi from Sighineq came to hunt with my uncle in Imtuk (in the years 1910-1930). Saygugyi was the son of my uncle's sister, but he was, sort of, retarded, like a child. I don't know who his father was. But his father was a full-blooded Eskimo, a Sighineghmii. Saygugyi wasn't married, had no kids. He was just like a child (Saivak 1977, in Krupnik 2000, 204)."

A mentally handicapped person, Saygugyi lived what by Yupik standards was a long life died in 1933, when he was 57 years of age.

Disabled persons who were possessed of mental faculties but were not able to perform work typical of adults often proved themselves in other spheres to lessen the burden on their relatives of supporting them. The blind and invalids often compensated by becoming storytellers and keepers of the oral tradition. One such figure was Qiwaaghmii, a middle-aged hunter from Ugriileq who lost his frostbitten feet hunting and who became renowned as a superb storyteller (Sergeeva 1968, 30-46). Even more famous was the blind youth from Ungaziq named Ayveghhaq, known as the narrator of many stories recorded from his words (Menovshchikov and Vakhtin 1985, 506; Rubtsova 1954, 11). His villagers also remembered Ayveghhaq as a shaman and at the same time a profoundly unhappy individual:

"In Chaplino [Ungaziq] there was such a singer (a shaman). His name was Ayveghhaq. He was completely sightless. When we were children and would play on the shore in Chaplino, he would say to me: "Well, if I were only a hunter! If I went with the hunters, I'd be better than a compass. Even if there were fog, and if you couldn't see a thing, I could bring the whaleboats right back to Chaplino."


Debra Bloomfield (University of New Mexico Press, $25)

The blurb: Debra Bloomfield engaged for five years on a photographic project in the wilderness. After photographing the desert in "Four Corners" and the ocean in "Still," she has moved on in this new book to the forest.

Her photographs do not describe a particular place. She does not catalog the elements that add up to wilderness. She does not show each detail she observed or convey all the information she learned while she was there. Instead, her photographs and soundscapes bring us to the experience of wilderness.

A CD is an integral part of this book, allowing the reader to share the photographer's journey of hearing the call of birds overhead, the crunch of snow underfoot, and the hum of a ferry's engine.

In Wilderness, two former University of New Mexico authors have joined in a collaboration that began over a cup of coffee and their mutual passion for wilderness.

Excerpt: In the five-year period beginning in 2007, Debra Bloomfield undertook her third photographic landscape project: "Wilderness." The photographs she created do not physically describe what one particular wilderness place looks like -- they are not intended to. She does not catalogue the elements that, when added together, make a wilderness. She does not worry about showing each detail she observed or conveying all the information she learned while she was there. Instead, she tells us what wilderness means. What it feels like to be there. What we need to understand about the place in order to care about it, appreciate it, value its existence, and be concerned about its future. Her photographs convey the experience of wilderness.

Bloomfield's artistic process involves focusing on one undertaking at a time, consuming her creative energies and including research on the historical, cultural, and sociological components of a place. Her first landscape project, published as "Four Corners" in 2004, began in 1989. For 12 years it took her down dirt roads, across the deserts, and under the big skies of the American West.

At the conclusion of that project, she began photographing the ocean. This series of eloquent and richly pigmented oceanscapes, all made from a fixed vantage point, was published in 2008 as "Still." As she photographed the ocean, Bloomfield thought about the ocean's water. Water flows and moves, it connects the planet's continents, and it is oblivious to political boundaries. Water is for everyone. These quiet pictures had more to do with contemplation and observation than exploration, and as she concluded creating her color-saturated water views, she began to yearn for a project that would put her back in the terrain, moving through the environment, immersed in the sights, sounds, and smells of a place. She wanted to be able to change the visual experience with her own movement.

Bloomfield was planning a trip to the northwestern United States and southeastern Alaska, and author Terry Tempest Williams, who wrote an essay for the publication of "Still," recommended a forest that was not to be missed. Once she was there, Bloomfield became captivated by a raven's call. Initially, she could not identify the source of the noise she heard. Entranced and pulled in by the bird's throaty cry, she later described the sound as "primal," saying, "I had never heard anything like it." Bloomfield quickly decided that this forest would be the site of her next land-based project.

When exploring in the far north, one accesses the wilderness by air or water -- these faraway places are not reachable by car. Yet, Bloomfield did not want to be confined to the aerial perspective, looking down from above. She wanted to be engulfed by the place. So rather than fly directly to the forests that would be her subject, she chose to make the last leg of the journey by water. Each visit to the wilderness was a process that unfolded in steps: first on an airplane, then a public ferry, then finally, on foot.

Compiled by Kathleen Macknicki, Anchorage Daily News