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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America



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Storytellers impart Native Wisdom, Humor


by DAWNELL SMITH - Anchorage Daily news


credits: photo: Christian Tagiuq Analoak tells a tale about two great polar bear hunters recently at the Alaska Native Heritage Center. The stories, told four times daily during the summer, express fundamental elements of Native culture. (Photo by Daron Dean / Anchorage Daily News)


Christian Tagiuq Analoak tells a tale about two great polar bear hunters recently at the Alaska Native Heritage Center. The stories, told four times daily during the summer, express fundamental elements of Native culture. (Photo by Daron Dean / Anchorage Daily News)When Christian Tagiuq Analoak tells the story of two polar bears, he swings his arms and sways his torso like the great white ruler of the north, the Inupiaq hunter's most daunting quarry.

One day, Analoak wants to slay a polar bear of his own, but for now, the 32-year-old storyteller recounts a King Island hunting story for visitors at the Alaska Native Heritage Center.

Everyone at the center's cultural sites tells stories, but Analoak and a handful of others share theirs onstage four times a day.

A dancer and carver, Analoak started telling stories about a year ago and still gets nervous before performing at the Gathering Place. Unlike many of the stories told there, his ends abruptly and leaves a pool of unexpected silence.

If his elders had told the story, they would laugh heartily and leave listeners to their thoughts. But Analoak has never heard them tell it.

"I was too young to hear them tell stories," he said. "If someone doesn't take responsibility for doing it, storytelling will get lost."

Analoak's childhood friends might say the stage is the last place they would have expected to find him, but he finds courage and purpose there. He conveys a timeless connection with his people by passing along knowledge, wisdom and humor.

"A lot of times, it is a picture, a window into someone's life," said Kay Ashton, director of public relations for the center.

Unlike myths or tales, stories express the fundamental elements of culture, she said.

"If I told you I'm going to tell you a tale, you wouldn't know if it's true or not, but if I tell you a story about culture, it means something."

For Analoak, the story of the two polar bears unites his people's story with his own.

"I show them first my people through polar bears, and then I show them myself," he said. "The polar bear is the backbone."

Ironically, his story comes from the book "King Island Tales," which records stories told and translated by some of the island's elders, most of whom were relocated to Nome in the 1970s by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. For Analoak, the word "tales" fails to capture how verbal and body language carries culture from generation to generation.

The story begins with Avuk waking up late for a hunt. He sees a single set of human tracks going in a direction different from the others, so he follows the single set for good reason: One must never hunt alone.

After Avuk finds Kuguk exhausted in the snow, he sees a worn-out polar bear nearby. He tries to convince Kuguk to make the first cut and claim the bear, but Kuguk refuses; he's too tired.

After some quarreling, Avuk kills and dresses the bear, spreading out the hide to carry his bounty, but he can't decide whether to haul the impressive head or the mass of meat. At Kuguk's urging, he leaves the head behind, for meat is more important than showing off.

As they near home, another polar bear meanders from behind, swaying and swinging in bulky insolence. The two men talk about killing the beast, a bigger bear than the first, but Avuk says no. "We might get hurt."

The story ends here, with listeners waiting for more. His elders might have finished in laughter, but Analoak probes further.

"What is the lesson?" he wonders.

"Be happy with what you've got," someone responds.

With that, Analoak turns to his own story. Unlike many young boys who hope to become firefighters or police officers, Analoak dreamed of living like his forebears as a child in Nome. By his teenage years, he realized that he could never live the life of his elders on King Island, and he turned to alcohol "to fill the void in my heart."

Eventually, his mother sent him to Point Hope, a dry village, to reclaim his life. He remembers sitting in an open skin boat and seeing a 30-foot whale off the side; he recalls catching his first seal, walrus, beluga and caribou.

Over time, carving, dancing, storytelling and hunting bound him to his people and helped him stop drinking. Today, he sees culturally rich activities as imperative to staying away from alcohol and enriching his life.

"When I'm onstage, I have a whole group of cultures behind me," he said. "The Inupiaq are my people. That's my element."

As he swaggers like the king of the carnivores onstage, the lessons of his story bear out: One shouldn't go forth on his own, put pride before nourishment or forget to be grateful for what he has.

STORYTELLING at the Alaska Native Heritage Center is presented at 9:30 and 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 and 4:30 p.m. daily during the summer.

GUEST STORYTELLER DOROTHY JOSEPH will talk about her experiences as a child at 9:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Saturday, July 24. In between, she will sign copies of her book, "Fishcamp."

THE ALASKA NATIVE HERITAGE CENTER has partnered with the Anchorage Museum of History and Art to offer adult admission to both venues for $20.75, two dimes less than entry to the heritage center alone. A free shuttle runs between both places, stopping at a few downtown locations on the way.


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