Stories are Property
All stories are considered property in the Tlingit cultural system, such that sharing a story without the proper permission of its owners is a breach of Tlingit law. However, the stories of the Tlingit people as a whole, the creation myths, and other seemingly universal records are usually considered to be property of the entire tribe, and thus may be shared without particular restriction. It is however important to the Tlingit that the details be correct, for if not this can lead to perpetuations of error and worsen the transmission of the information in the future, as well as degrade the value of the knowledge.
Voices of the First People includes a selection of recordings made between 1968 and 2008. We’ve organized them into 6 categories that highlight aspects of Vi Hilbert’s life and work, focusing on her commitment to the preservation, documentation, and revitalization of Lushootseed language and lifeways:
Talking about stories and traditional knowledge
Talking about Lushootseed culture
Talking about The Healing Heart Symphony
Learn Why the Iditarod got Started - sled dog race
The Alaska / Irish connection of interest is the sled dog mushers
But five years later the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918 - 1919 wiped out entire Eskimo villages. The whole world suffered from that post-WW I disease that killed in every country, city and village. It struck hard in rural Alaska, including Nome. Then on an ordinary mid-January day in 1925, the U.S. Public Health doctor in Nome, Dr. Curtis Welch, was summoned by an anxious Eskimo man who told him his two children were very, very sick with sore throats. The children were so ill that they couldn't open their mouths for him to examine them. A day or two later the doctor was called to the home of a white family whose little boy was also ill with a sore throat and raging fever. When Dr. Welch saw the telltale white membranes of diphtheria closing off the boy's air passages, he knew what the town was facing! The doctor met at once with the town's mayor and city council, explaining to them that they could have a devastating epidemic on their hands and some way must be found to get diphtheria antitoxin to Nome as soon as possible! The serum was found, it was rushed to the Alaska Railroad train, which carried it to Nenana. The railroad turns east at Nenana and heads into Fairbanks. So twenty dog mushers were alerted and waiting to begin the overland relay from Nenana to Nome. The mushers were Eskimos, Russian-Eskimos, Norwegians, Irish and Indians. And the serum arrived in Nome in time to save the lives of dozens and dozens of children, also of every race and nationality. Today that serum run is memorialized in the annual 1,049-mile Iditarod dog sled race that ends under the finish-line arch in Nome.
Qaluyaarmiuni Nunamtenek Qanemciput / Our Nelson Island Stories:
Meanings of Place of the Bering Sea Coast. Translated by Alice Rearden. Edited by Ann Fienup-Riordan. 2011.
Reviewed by Coppélie Cocq, Umeå University
Our Nelson Island Stories is a collection of stories from the Bering Sea Coast area in a bilingual edition (English and Yup'ik). The narratives guide the reader through the landscape and its place names. It is the result of work with community members, supported by several research centers and associations. The editor Ann Fienup-Riordan is the author and editor of books and articles about the Yup'ik and the Nelson Island area, several in collaboration with the actual translator Alice Rearden.
Voices in a Cultural Landscape
The "true authors" (xi) of the volume are mentioned in the very first lines of the book: the Nelson Islanders who share their stories. A list of the storytellers with names, place of residence and birth, and year of birth as well as some fieldwork pictures give us information about these "authors." A first section entitled "The People of Nelson Island" provides the reader with facts about the Bering Sea Coast and the people that inhabit the area. This introductory chapter includes background information on the social structure of the community, their modes of livelihood, and their relation to outside influences.
This section gives the reader a good understanding of the context in which the elders who shared the stories grew up. The information provided is highly relevant to readers who are not acquainted with the area and the Yup'ik community. Reading about the people's pragmatic relation to the land, their recent history, and the changes that have affected the community over the last sixty years also provides a frame for understanding the role of the stories in the community.
In the same section, the editor gives necessary information about the project and how it was conducted through community collaboration with five villages. The stories were collected at topic-specific gatherings about environmental change and cultural history. She underscores the meaning of stories and storytelling for the Yup'ik community. Narration is a means for remembering and for guiding listeners toward a better life. History, personal relations, and cultural values are enacted in the stories.
The introductory section also contains information about the Yup'ik language. The stories are translated into English and published along with the original version in Central Yup'ik, one of the four Yupik Eskimo languages. After some general information about orthography and pronunciation, the editor and the translator give some background information about the translation, striving for a "natural sounding" and not a literal or paraphrasing translation. This information lets us know about the process behind the English part of the book. It is helpful and necessary in order to identify the different voices, i.e., the tellers, the translators, and the editor. For the same reason, the choice to keep certain terms in the original language is a pertinent one.
Color photos of the environment, from recent and historical times as well as maps are included in the volume. Group pictures feature the storytellers and give us a feeling for the situations in which the recordings were made.
In the introductory section, the editor contextualizes some specific and sensitive topics in the stories, for instance, gaps in understandings of rights to the land based on practices since time immemorial compared to the non-native perception of land in terms of ownership. Place names are also connected to survival: we are told how they are necessary "to locate critical resources" (xxxvii) and "essential traveling tools" (xxxix). Thus, the volume illustrates the knowledge embedded in maps, such as knowledge about resources and the courses of waters. We are also told the meaning of the names: places are named after people, after the way they were used, or for things they resemble. The volume's editors and the storytellers share a common goal in the documentation of Yup'ik narration: to spread knowledge in hope of "gaining respect for Yup'ik ways" (xlv).
The core of the book consists of stories held together by the landscape and the people that inhabit it. The narratives are presented in sections according to geographical areas: Nelson Island, Nightmute and Toksook Bay, the Ocean, Qalvinraaq River and its Tributaries, Chefornak, and Newtok and Tununak. Within each section, the stories are sorted according to specific places. The narratives are pieces of the collective storytelling tradition that underscore continuity and pass on knowledge about the places, their origin, and the history associated with them. The stories tell us about the values of the community, as for instance regarding subsistence, resources, and people's relation to the land and the sea. The storytellers also tell first-person narratives and narratives about their ancestors. Topics that are brought up are often related to hunting and fishing practices, but are also about significant people for the community, such as shamans. These narratives give us some historical background as well, for instance about the school system or relations to other people (such as wars over fishing sites). Through the stories, we get insights into Yup'ik traditional knowledge about weather conditions, seal hunting, navigation, and food.
In addition to the book, there is a place-based website (http://mapserver.eol.ucar.edu/best/) where the user can browse and search for stories connected to specific places on a map. Although the website is hard to navigate, it is a great initiative and example of how to complement the printed medium with additional data.
This book connects to relevant research on the topic of places in anthropology, such as Basso (1996), Cruikshank (1990), and Ingold (2000). But the main goal of the volume seems to be to give a broader audience access to indigenous knowledge and perspectives. Our Nelson Island Stories successfully achieves this goal.
My lack of knowledge of the Yup'ik language does not allow me to comment on the part of the book in the original language, but the bilingual framing contributes to focusing on the source of the stories rather than on the role of the scholars who published them. As for the transcription, we are given little nonverbal information alongside the stories. Supplementary extra-textual information would probably have contributed to enhancing the oral character of the stories as they were documented.
The reader will certainly appreciate the way the stories are presented: the volume lets the voices of storytellers come through, reinforced by the original text in Yup'ik. The choice to present contextual information in a separate introductory section allows the focus of the volume to remain on the voices of the storytellers. At the same time, the valuable contextual information given in the introduction makes Our Nelson Island Stories more than a collection of beautiful stories. The volume can be a contribution to further research for scholars within a broad range of disciplines, on such topics as traditional knowledge, oral history, toponymy, and human geography. Moreover, many readers interested in the cultural landscape of the area and in storytelling will find in Our Nelson Island Stories relevant and pleasant reading.
Basso, Keith. 1996. Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language among the Western Apache. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.
Cruikshank, Julie. 1990. "Getting the Words Right: Perspectives on Naming and Places in Athapaskan Oral History," Arctic Anthropology 27: 52-65.
Ingold, Tim. 2000. The Perception of the Environment: Essays in Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill. New York: Routledge.