Alaska Native stories carry lessons for life in a harsh land

Posted: Monday, October 22, 2001

ANCHORAGE Vera Metcalf learned about her Siberian Yupik world from stories told during long winter nights nestled in a bed covered with reindeer hides, listening to the voices of her mother and father.

"My parents told many tales, many nights," she explained to people gathered in Anchorage for the American Folklore Society's 113th annual meeting that ended Sunday. "They are our cultural literacy. ... They provided us with the knowledge to understand our world."

Metcalf, 49, was born in Savoonga on St. Lawrence Island in the middle of the Bering Sea, nearly 700 miles from Anchorage. She was among more than a half-dozen Alaska Natives who discussed the importance of stories to impart lessons needed to survive in some of Alaska's harshest, remotest areas.

Many of the presenters illustrated their point by telling stories handed down from generation to generation.

Metcalf told of the "Good Hunter," about a man with exceptional hunting skills who liked to show off his prey by hanging it outside his home where the food would spoil in the sun.

The story is a lesson in sharing, Metcalf said.

"These stories were passed from person to person. There was no one great teacher that held all the knowledge," Metcalf said.

Stories handed down from generation to generation in Native cultures impart to youngsters the history of the group, its morals, principles of behavior, consequences for not acting properly and how to do things correctly, such as hunting and fishing, said Lawrence Kaplan, director of the Alaska Native Language Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

"The challenge is keeping the intergenerational transmission of language going in the culture," said Kaplan.

Alaska has 20 Native languages, and some of them are barely spoken anymore, Kaplan said. For instance, only one person knows how to speak Eyak, a Native language from around Cordova. Tanaina, a language spoken in the Eklutna area near Anchorage, and Sugpiaq, spoken by Eskimos in Southcentral Alaska, are rarely heard except among elders.

Herb Anungazuk, 56, who was born in Wales at the tip of the Seward Peninsula less than 75 miles from the Russian coast, said only a smattering of Inupiaq is heard in the area now.

"There's been a big interference from Western culture. I'd like to keep it alive but it is very difficult," he said.

Anungazuk, who works as a cultural liaison for the National Park Service, told the following story that he got from his mother:

"A hunting crew was headed for the ice field to hunt for seals and walruses when the men heard the sound of a large animal exhaling. A killer whale broke the surface and then the sea exploded with killer whales. This was not a good thing. There was a rule never to bother killer whales, and now they were angry.

"While some of the hunters accepted their fate, one of the hunters grabbed the gunnels of the boat and said, 'We are hunters like you. Please let us continue with what we are doing.' He offered to give the whales the tongues of any animals they killed.

"The crew made it to the ice field where the hunt for seals and walrus continued. They dropped the tongues into the water. Peace was made with the whales."

"The sea supports the entire people," Anungazuk said. "You can ask whales for a share of their harvest and it will be given."

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