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Rural Alaska

Ways of real people: Scholars document traditional Yup'ik life by talking to elders who lived it

  • Author: Lisa Demer
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published May 28, 2015

"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, late Toksook Bay elder

A library of ancient knowledge drawn directly from the memories and stories of Yup'ik elders who lived the old ways -- before children went to Western schools, before year-round villages, before many village stores, before shopping on Amazon -- is quietly being produced before the opportunities are lost.

For 15 years, Ann Fienup-Riordan, Mark John and Alice Rearden have worked through a nonprofit organization to create books that are digging ever deeper into Yup'ik history and life.

They've studied moral teachings and skills for hunting, ancient harpoons and spiritual masks, life in sod houses and travel through the wilderness. They cover the dangers of hovering ice, the best kind of snow for making akutaq or Eskimo ice cream, what happens when people don't follow rules and the animals don't come, the place some say Yup'ik people go when they die.

The books are full of advice and Yup'ik stories. Erect a paddle with something on top as a sign of distress if drifting at sea. Use a walking stick to test the thickness of ice. Learn the land when the weather is good, so you can find your way when it's bad. Don't pick berries clustered all together, because those are for the mythical little people. Pick just one, and you should soon find a bounty.

Fienup-Riordan, 66, a cultural anthropologist raised in Virginia, has worked with the people of Nelson Island and the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta for 40 years. Now she's part of a team creating books published with side-by-side Yup'ik and English translations.

John, 60, is originally from Toksook Bay on Nelson Island and is the son of the late elder and Yup'ik culture guru, Paul John. His family was semi-nomadic, traveling from camp to camp in spring and summer, until he was 6 and had to go to school. He became executive director of Calista Elders Council. It merged with another group to form Calista Education and Culture, where he now serves as cultural director. He's been a social worker and still works as a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman.

Rearden, 38, who is originally from Napakiak, is a fluent Yup'ik speaker who works as primary translator and oral historian for Calista Elders Council and now Calista Education and Culture. Marie Meade also works as a translator on their projects.

The elders council guides much of their work, picking topics often related to hunting and fishing as well as the old semi-nomadic life, which the team then researches in the field, at gatherings held in villages and at Fienup-Riordan's home on the Upper Hillside. They've produced about 10 books as a team, and a book on warfare is in the printing stage.

Their work has been funded mainly by the National Science Foundation, with support also from Calista Corp., Donlin Gold, Rasmuson Foundation, Alaska Humanities Forum, National Endowment for the Humanities and other federal agencies.

Fienup-Riordan, John and Rearden, who all live in Anchorage now, were interviewed recently at Fienup-Riordan's home. The interview was edited for length and clarity.

ADN: Tell us about your work.

Mark John: We gather four or five elders with a specific topic and ask them questions. Sometimes we follow up with another gathering to fill in with what was missing. With that information, Alice will transcribe and translate. And eventually a book would be made about that specific topic.

Ann Fienup-Riordan: We started as a team that really didn't know each other very well. But boy has this worked out well. I think as a threesome we do something that nobody by themselves could do.

Alice Rearden: We're building upon gaps, things we want to know more about, things about the Yup'ik culture. We're working a lot faster too. I remember when we did our first book it probably took four years.

Fienup-Riordan: Now it's about a book a year.

We have elders from different villages. They are learning things about each other or they are learning things about different parts of the region. It's like a symposium of professors. By the end they are really close friends.

ADN: How are the books being used? Who buys them and where do they go?

Fienup-Riordan: They're used in college classes up in Fairbanks. They are used by students in the schools out in the Bethel area.

John: When I went to college, I looked for resources and there was nothing in Yup'ik. I was asked to take on Calista Elders Council and saw that two sections of the mission statement were directed toward working with elders and connecting elders with youth. And documenting and encouraging traditional knowledge. That really caught my attention.

The elders have been so eager to pass on their traditional knowledge. They were kind of shut off when the schools came around, when the churches came around.

ADN: What do you see as the overall goal?

John: To document it so that it's there. We are losing more and more of our elders that lived that traditional way of life and have so much knowledge about it. Now we are getting elders who have gone to school. The elders we've been working with up to date are the ones that didn't go to school. They lived that way of life.

Fienup-Riordan: The elders share because they want the young people to know these things. I think the world should know. The Yup'ik world view is really distinctive. It's really special. I feel like it's changed how I act.

ADN: Mark, you just lost your father. He was an elder featured in most of the books. Do you feel urgency for your work?

John: It's like a library dying when they pass away. They have that knowledge up in their heads. It's not written down. We have been blessed with the opportunity to put it in books.

ADN: In capturing the culture and history, are you finding anything that is resonating with young people?

John: With songs and dances and the gatherings, the big dances they have in different villages, more and more young people are realizing that "Hey, we need to learn that too, we need to participate in that."

In the past for myself, I wasn't so concerned because we lived it. It was part of our lives. Now that we are losing more and more of that way of life.

Rearden: I feel that all the things the elders have shared have a relevancy today and can be practiced today. Traditional moral lessons, the cautionary lessons they have to give. They still apply to today's world. That's the reason why the elders share what they share, because they feel that the best way to prepare young people to live a good life in the future is to know those lessons and rules for living, qanruyutet. It is going to give all the Yup'iks a chance to have a better future.

ADN: An example or two?

Rearden: I follow a lot of them I've learned from elders. Especially when it comes to raising children. Not to bring them visiting because they become restless and unsettled. Not to bring them here or there but raise them in your home and use a calm voice to tell them what's right and wrong. And also to not always say "yes" to them.

Or when it comes to sharing, the more you give away the more you get back.

Fienup-Riordan: One that applied to kass'aqs (white people) that I always held onto was braid your anger in your hair so it won't become loose. Don't just react.

I heard it and it changed how our family interacted. They are not only making Yup'ik people better. By talking about the past, they are shaping the future.

John: Having a background in social work, in so many of our gatherings, I recognize ways of healing that come out from their teachings, and ways to prevent problems. Our traditional way of being comes with a lot of sharing. Looking out for each other. Making sure others are taken care of.

ADN: What stands out in your work?

Rearden: We found a theme. Subsistence, we started with that. Talk about how you subsisted back in the day. Talk about how your parents raised you.

John: In coastal areas, the focus is on sea mammals, things that come from the Bering Sea. Once you go in-river you are focused on what comes out of the river. Moose, otter, beaver. All those different things. Freshwater fish, white fish, pike, lush fish.

The way you prepare for them is different. The seasons are different.

Fienup-Riordan: And the words are different.

ADN: How have you seen life change in remote villages?

John: In my time we played out. There was no TV. We had to gather other kids from the village and play lap game or kal'utaq. Something close to hockey but you didn't have skates.

When we were growing up, we were taken on subsistence trips. We were small so they didn't expect much from us. The idea was for us to see what was going on, to start to see and understand what was taking place.

Rearden: Even when I was small we moved to fish camp. Even if it was across from Napakiak, across the slough. We got to experience living at fish camp where all they did was cut salmon, the different kinds of salmon -- king, chum, red, silvers -- for the whole summer and live there.

These days I don't hardly see anyone doing that. I don't see people moving to fish camp. The motors have gotten so fast. They can get there in one day. People are more living within the village. Their fish camps are right there, right next to their houses sometimes.

There are a lot of people who still do go. Pike fishing in springtime right before summer for a weekend. Berry-picking camps. They are trying to fill not just one little bucket but seven 5-gallon buckets.

Nowadays when somebody does something, they know instantaneously what goes on, through social media. People are posting, "This is the food I gathered today."

John: I go back for walrus. I hunt here, too.

ADN: What do you hunt?

John: I go for seal over in Prince William Sound. I fish Bristol Bay so I get my fish from down there. It will be my 46th commercial fishing season this summer.

Fienup-Riordan: And he shares what he brings home.

Rearden: And he cooks.

Fienup-Riordan: When we have these gatherings, Mark brings seal and beluga and all these good foods.

John: The cultural values that go along with subsistence are still very much alive, like sharing the first catch and celebrating the first catch. Teaching the youth how to hunt and fish so they can take care of themselves, so they can feed themselves, so they can feed the elders or the ones that don't have hunters or providers.

When I went home earlier in the winter, just about every elder's house I went to there was (seal). They were sharing them with everyone around, meat and seal oil, skins if they want to take care of the skins.

Rearden: It's just that feeling you get when fishing is almost coming. You feel anxious. My hands get kind of restless. Because I like working on fish. I like learning to do things.

I pick blackberries here. I make egamaarrluk here, half-dried and then boiled salmon. I made strips here. I canned fish here.

It's a strong urge when you are a Native to do the things you grew up with, to eat the things you grew up with. If I eat too much kass'aq food every single day I don't feel like I'm satisfied. When you finally eat that Native food, it's really satisfying.

ADN: Are you dealing with the devastating parts, the devastating things that have happened?

Fienup-Riordan: (She talked about how an elder in the village of Alakanuk, Lawrence Edmund, shared a story about how two aunts dealt with death.)

They were removing a corpse from a house during an epidemic. They were taking it to a burial place. Just when they got to the top, the body rolled down. They started to laugh. They laughed and they laughed and they couldn't control it. They were laughing death away.

People at Alakanuk met as a group and decided to share that story with the young people. It's part of the healing. They laughed and they threw out the deaths from suicide. His message was the solutions to suicide have to be local.

They made it four years with no suicide.

ADN: Did you always understand the Yup'ik language at a high level?

Rearden: The elders that we interview, they do have a much higher level of Yup'ik. In the beginning I had a really hard time understanding, transcribing and translating. I had to look up a lot of stuff. Even our work has added to the dictionary. Ice terms. Things that people stopped using when they stopped practicing the way of life.

Fienup-Riordan: Detailed names for land features.

John: The sea and the land. There were names and they were talked about all the time because of safety and also the need to know location. Fish hit certain places. Seals hit certain places. You just don't find them all over.

Rearden: I didn't realize there was such a complexity of our language. I didn't grow up in a community that dances and sings. So I refuse to translate, transcribe songs. They are too difficult. The endings are too hard for me. Even prayers, sometimes I don't do them because they are a little too complex.

Ella allamek yuituq. I finally figured out what does that means after a long, long explanation. You can't just literally take words and think that you are going to know what they mean. The world, another thing, there's nobody else. There's nobody else in this world than us. We are all related. We should treat each other well.

John: They use words that are very deep, that are not commonly used in conversation. (He described a song by the late Dick Anthony of Nightmute about being grateful beyond words.) About his grandchildren, first time out to catch food to bring home. Which is a beginning of those two grandchildren doing that for the family.

Fienup-Riordan: The way things are said is very particular, really rich and really eloquent. If you just translate it, it doesn't have the same weight.

ADN: What surprised you?

Rearden: I get so excited about the things that our elders knew to know how to build. We were so fortunate to work with Frank Andrew from Kwigillingok, to have his knowledge about wood, wood grain, about tools and technology, about harpoons. The things they had to know in order to survive. Little holes at the tip of the harpoon so the point would come off when it hit the seal. How much air you need to put into a float in order to tire the seal out. The way of sewing seal gut parka with grass reinforcement.

I grew up at a time where people didn't know those things. People used guns, they stopped using harpoons. I grew up thinking our ancestors weren't very smart. I didn't realize the depth and the ingenuity it had to take to live that way of life. How to be so skilled with hands. How they knew how to store stuff, food.

ADN: Is traditional village life sustainable?

John: We're working on helping LKSD (the Lower Kuskokwim School District) teach kids. We talk about quality of life and different meanings. YKHC (the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp.) does that a lot. When people get together and decide they are going to do something, it's very powerful.

There's a saying. Some people just become old, in their Yup'ik ways. Then there are others that get old and teach. There are elders that won't share or talk to only their children and grandchildren. They don't talk to anybody else. They are considered stingy. They are the elders that just get old. In order for someone to be considered a respected elder, they are supposed to be teaching, healing, sharing.

ADN: What's next?

John: We want to continue to document but we also want to start utilizing what we've documented and using that to teach in different ways. Alice wants to get out and start working with the youth, so the young are learning from and using what we've documented. And making videos, other things. Not just books. Using the Internet to pass on all of what we have.

Fienup-Riordan: I'm finding the longer I work, the more I know I don't know.

Alaska Dispatch News reporter Mike Dunham contributed to this story.

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