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In new book documenting Yup’ik culture, elders share teachings about the more-than-human world

  • Author: Nancy Lord
    | Alaska books
  • Updated: January 23
  • Published January 23

“Nunakun-gguq Ciutengqertut, They Say They Have Ears Through the Ground: Animal Essays from Southwest Alaska”

By Ann Fienup-Riordan with Alice Rearden, Marie Meade, David Chanar, Rebecca Nayamin and Corey Joseph. University of Alaska Press, 2020. 382 pages. $39.95.

’Nunakun-gguq Ciutengqertut, They Say They Have Ears Through the Ground: Animal Essays from Southwest Alaska”

The essays or articles in this book are the result of regional gatherings and discussions with Yup’ik elders from Southwest Alaska to document human and animal relations within their shared environment. Anthropologist Ann Fienup-Riordan, who has spent decades working with elders to compile Yup’ik history and oral traditions, has acted as scribe to record knowledge the elders wish to pass down to their descendants and to others who may learn from it. The texts are not meant to be “facts.” Rather, they reflect conversations about relationships — conversations through which the world as known to participants is allowed to unfold.

“They say they have ears through the ground” expresses the Yup’ik belief that all animals (and indeed other more-than-human entities) have minds and are responsive to thoughts, words and deeds. Animals know what people are thinking and saying, and they reciprocate their treatment. Treat them with respect, and you will be rewarded. Be wasteful, brag or otherwise show disrespect, and animals will withhold themselves.

As Fienup-Riordan observes in her introduction, Southwest Alaska was late to be colonized compared to the rest of Alaska, and the region has retained social patterns and traditional knowledge that has been largely lost elsewhere. The building blocks of Yup’ik education, still, are “qanruyutet,” rules for right living. These exist as sayings and adages and are embedded into teaching stories.

The material compiled here includes creation and traditional stories passed down for generations, stories shared by the elders’ parents and grandparents, and the experiences and knowledge of the elders themselves. Fienup-Riordan has organized all this into three parts. The first, which she has called “Thinking on the Page,” draws together the words from gatherings with other references to better understand and express what she had learned. Chapters in the second part bring together stories about particular animal groups — king salmon, “big animals” (moose and bear), sea mammals and birds. The third section, centered on a town hall meeting in Toksook Bay in 2006, shows how community members respected and employed traditions to work with the Alaska Department of Transportation to reach an agreement about the routing of a road.

The decline of king salmon on the Yukon River is much discussed in the first chapter, which draws upon the history of communities on the lower river and the changes in fishing and fish runs over time. It’s telling that the word “neqa” means both fish and food. Elders stressed that the availability of fish (and food generally) depends on the care given to it. Many traditional practices, such as taking only what you need and not wasting, assure reciprocity. As Fienup-Riordan concludes, in the Yup’ik view, crashes in animal populations are not biological processes that can be separated from social relations but are essentially driven by morality. Fisheries management based on western science and calculations does not address the problem of right relationship that is so fundamental to Yup’ik understandings.

King salmon are again discussed in chapter six, which collects knowledge from a gathering of elders. These elders contribute a deep and nuanced understanding of the lives of salmon, various stocks, run timings, methods of fishing, methods of preparation and preservation, history of use, cultural practices including honoring the first salmon of the season, and the role of salmon in village life and economies. With fishing closures and the abandonment of fish camps, the elders worry that the teaching and learning about salmon (and other matters) has been declining along with the salmon themselves.

Chapters devoted to marine mammals, bears and moose and birds are equally packed with intimate knowledge of animal behavior, accompanied by many personal stories of hunting and otherwise knowing the environment. The elders share how Raven and Pacific Loon came together to paint one another’s feathers, why spotted seals are smarter than the other species of seals and how geese taste in different seasons. The ocean itself is presented as a living being, as sensitive as sea mammals to a person’s attitudes and actions. Traveling on the ocean requires not only close attention and intimate knowledge of currents, wind and ice conditions, but speaking respectfully of it and obeying certain codes of conduct.

Although climate change was not a central subject for any of the conversations, the elders were well aware of environmental change and spoke of ice thinning and retreating, moose and beaver moving into the area, and changes to vegetation and in the arrival and departure times of birds. They mention repeatedly that change is a constant, through history and in their lives. They recall their own elders telling them that the region used to be much warmer.

The elders who participated in sharing some of the wealth of their knowledge did so with the hope that their experience — including what they’d been taught as young people — could help guide the youth of today. One who asked if their words would appear in a book said, “I am asking because many in our village no longer have people to instruct them. Truly, if you put these into books and they are read by those who wish to read them, how great that would be!”

Great it is that Fienup-Riordan and her collaborators, with the support of the Calista Education and Culture organization, have brought together what amount to encyclopedias of Yup’ik knowledge, for the benefit of younger generations and the world at large. The value of what can be learned from and about the more-than-human world, especially in a time of change, is matched by lessons in how we all might live more responsibly.


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