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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


November 3, 2001 - Issue 48


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 Power Of Place
Folklorists bring stories from Alaska and the nation to
Anchorage conference


 by Sandi Gerjevic Anchorage Daily News - October 18, 2001


art Gathering the Season by Barbara Lavallee

The story did not begin in the usual way.

Asked to give his life history, the Yup'ik man did not immediately talk about his lineage, his birth date or the highlights that mark the passage of a life.

He began with the mundane. He began with the land.

The man spoke of places he'd hunted for seals as a boy. Of where he knew a certain plant could be found. Of natural landmarks and their character.

The path of his life followed the way to fish camp and berry camp and seal camp. As he talked, it became clear these "memoryscapes," connections to landscape through personal experience, were an integral part of his soul.

It wasn't the first time Holly Cusack-McVeigh had encountered this intense relationship between people and land in Alaska.

While working on a photo repatriation project in Hooper Bay, a coastal community in Western Alaska, she and Bosco Olson, a local son, laid out a huge map on a community-room floor. The map showed the English names for places in the area. All day long, elders stopped by to offer Yup'ik names and talk about these places to hunt and fish, some of which are abandoned.

"It became so much more than that so quickly," Cusack-McVeigh said. "As people began to fill the pages with more than just a place name but a memory it became a very emotional thing."

Cusack-McVeigh and Olson will share their research this morning in a panel discussion, "The Power of Alaskan Places," at the 113th annual meeting of the American Folklore Society.

This is the first time the venerable society has met in Alaska. Founded in Cambridge, Mass., in 1888, the society drew support from such cultural and artistic leaders of the time as writer Mark Twain and Rutherford B. Hayes, the 19th U.S. president. Its purpose was to preserve the lively tradition of homespun tales and oral histories found in the many cultures that have found their way to America.

Today the society has about 2,500 members and subscribers around the world, with strong academic draw. A Russian and a Palestinian scholar as well as a Harvard University professor will present papers touching on the mythical aspects of John Steinbeck, Jane Fonda, the prophet Elijah and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." Many of the panels at the conference, which opened Wednesday evening with a session at the Anchorage Museum of History and Art, will explore aspects of America's folk life, including music, dance, craft and stories.

The convention, hosted by the Hilton Anchorage, is open to the public.

Alaska-related workshops include discussions of the political, aesthetic and functional dimensions of Arctic clothing; Alaska Native music; mask making in Anaktuvuk Pass; ethical practices for documenting Alaska Native cultures; and the new practice of learning the Native way in "culture camps."

The Alaska-places workshop will center on discussions of Hooper Bay, Anaktuvuk Pass, Nunivak Island, St. Lawrence Island and King Island.

"Place is a subject of (scholarly) interest more and more," said Phyllis Morrow of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, who will serve as panel moderator. "We're all very connected in one way or another to places. Talk about those places is one way to make those connections and what keeps them alive."

Panelists include Deanna Kingston, a graduate student at Oregon State University whose mother was from King Island, an abandoned Alaska village whose people have been in diaspora for about 35 years. Kingston felt a pull to this haunting place she'd never seen before.

The people of King Island refer to their former home as a "paradise" or being "next door to heaven." With poignancy, they speak of its variety of delicious foods, its distinctive features and the stories of their lives there.

As a graduate student, Kingston explored King Island dance traditions. In seeking to know about her own heritage, she made her own connection to King Island more direct.

"Connection to place is something that you make as well as something that you have," Morrow said.

Another panelist, Carol Zane Jolles, will discuss the complex naming traditions of Natives on St. Lawrence Island, where names "invoke and reassert ties to land, family, settlement and community."

Robert Drozda will show how Nunivak Island Eskimos have adapted new technologies to continue the traditional transmission of names and other important cultural information.

And Margaret Blackman, a professor of anthropology at State University of New York College at Brockport will discuss Native identity and changing times in Anaktuvuk Pass, a village of 300 people settled in 1949.

There, elders still think of themselves as nomadic and speak longingly of their forebears, those "lucky people" always moving over a landscape of names and places that covered some 300 miles. In her paper "99721 -- The Place of Many Caribou Droppings," Blackman examines Anaktuvuk Pass as both an American ZIP code town and a hunting ground of the ancients, whose name refers to its annual herd migration.

"The whole landscape is dotted with places that represent hunting sites, camping sites," said Blackman, who has studied Anaktuvuk Pass culture since 1988. "The idea of movement is very important."

In Alaska, Morrow said, we're constantly struggling with all kinds of issues about how we're going to treat this land. Knowing the multiple political, emotional, spiritual and personal associations Alaska people have with their landscape is vital, she said.

"People in Alaska," she said, "feel very fiercely about specific Alaskan places."

    Maps by Travel

Yup'ik of Western Alaska
The Yup'ik Eskimos of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta area in Western Alaska lived in an environment that was very different from our stereotyped images of a barren, icy, harsh existence

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