Alaska Native stories carry lessons for living in a harsh land

Posted: Sunday, October 21, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- 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.

The story goes like this:

One day the man's only son took a walk on the tundra and never

returned home. The hunter asked other people in the village to look

for his son, but they couldn't find him. So, he went himself and

chanted a certain song that elevated him into the realm of the great


The hunter told God that he was looking for his son. God pointed to a

box and told him to look inside. The box had flames around its sides.

Inside was the man's son, who was little more than a skeleton.

The man asked God why he wanted him to see his son that way. God

replied, 'It is because my gifts to you have only been made useless.'

The man then told God in the future he was going to give all of God's

gifts away to others.

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 center's mission is to preserve Alaska's Native languages and an oral tradition.

''The challenge is keeping the intergenerational transmission of language going in the culture,'' said Kaplan, who attended Thursday's storytelling seminar. ''

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.''

Edna McLean of Barrow, Alaska's northernmost city, told the story about a young Inupiaq man who didn't take good care of his boots. Disaster follows after people in his traveling party decide not to help.

The story goes like this:

A young man, his brother and his wife are preparing to head toward

Canada in the deep snow. The young man does not tell his sister-in-law

his boots have no soles until they are ready to travel. When she finds

out, she fixes them but must do the job in a hurry.

The young man later takes the soles off, walks for a ways with no

soles and then asks for new boots. But no one in the group

will help him and he cuts his Achilles tendon running in the

icy snow. Everyone in the traveling party, except for his brother and

sister-in-law, starve to death because they can't find any game.

''The moral of the story is that this was a mishap that a young person brought on himself... Nobody helped him,'' McLean said. ''All the hardship is because of the actions of the humans, things that could have been avoided.''


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