Folktales open a window into Inupiaq life

From the Bookshelf

Posted: Thursday, December 29, 2005


  The Dall Sheep Dinner Guest: Inupiaq Narratives of Northwest Alaska; Compiled by Wanni W. Anderson; University of Alaska Press; 304 pages; 2005; $39.95 (hard cover).

The Dall Sheep Dinner Guest: Inupiaq Narratives of Northwest Alaska; Compiled by Wanni W. Anderson; University of Alaska Press; 304 pages; 2005; $39.95 (hard cover).

Before the age of electricity and mass media, storytelling was more than entertainment in the far north. During the long, dark winters, traditional and original tales preserved sanity, guided morality, educated the young and wove one of tradition’s strongest fabrics.

Despite the rich traditions of storytelling in Native Alaska, many narratives have yet to appear in print. “The Dall Sheep Dinner Guest” addresses that need by bringing a rich collection of Eskimo lore to English-language readers.

Introducing it is a pair of comprehensive essays explaining Inupiaq narrative traditions, their role in the culture that created them and the origins of the current volume.

The heart of the book is an anthology of more than 80 legends and stories, collected from 16 storytellers in six villages in northwestern Alaska over several decades. Most were from the Selawik area, told in Inupiaq and recorded a generation ago.

The book’s compiler, Wanni W. Anderson, is on the faculty of Brown University, where she specializes in anthropology, ethnicity and folklore.

The stories play a new, different role as we enter the 21st century.

“Integrating Inupiaq folktales into the Inupiaq language-learning program of the Northwest Arctic Borough School District, initiated and fought for by the Inupiaq leaders, has become a strategy for remembering and revitalizing Inupiaq language and culture. The step taken is an emerging grass-roots ethnic movement, away from the melting-pot, cultural-assimilation ideology that has been so long a policy of the federal government for Alaska Natives,” she writes in her introduction.

Anderson makes a point of presenting the stories in a wider context and conveying the flavor of the social occasions that generate them.

Biographical notes introduce readers to the storytellers, who have passed away since these narratives were recorded. We learn not only about their lives, but about their narrative styles. Their personalities emerge across the decades and through skilled translation, as they slip witty comments between the lines or joke with their audiences.

An example is a typical disclaimer from Nora Paniikaaluk Norton, one of the book’s major narrators, who learned most of her stories from her late husband.

“ I’ll try my best too, even though I’m not a good storyteller,” she modestly demurs. “If I could learn fast, I would have learned many more stories from my husband.”

The narratives include tales based on true events, fiction pieces conjured up by the imagination and others from the shadowy world of the past when reality and myth blend. The book presents distinctive versions of some arctic tales that have become well known elsewhere, such as the epic “Qayaq Cycle” and “The Fast Runner,” which inspired an award-winning Canadian Inuit film. Others never have been published before.

On one level, the book arranges the tales to highlight comparative folklore.

Multiple variants of single stories or clusters of similar tales are presented together for comparison. Within them, episodes appear or disappear; the identity of the character singing or throwing a spear or running away shifts. These differences provide clues on how oral traditions change over time.

On another level, the tales themselves contain rich details about traditional Inupiaq life. These include not only homely scenes about food, clothing and travel, but also emotionally charged or subtle interactions among characters that portray the social and personal lives of the past.

Sometimes the candor is startling. For example, in “The Last War with the Indians,” based on historic events, narrator Wesley Qaulugtailaq Woods explains how Inupiaq, anxious to remove Athabascan immigrants from the Kobuk drainage, resorted to lying, treachery and murder.

Although many people nowadays consider folktales as children’s stories, this material contains plenty of mature content. With references to domestic violence, adultery, murder and, in one peculiar tale, a village of people born without anuses, this collection merits the equivalent of a movie’s “R” rating.

Despite dark moments, the stories are not, on the whole, bleak. Many present positive characters and upbeat events. These are tales of sweethearts, poor orphans making good, devoted spouses, resourceful grandmothers, brave hunters and determined youths training themselves to astonishing abilities. Elements of the supernatural run through many, as people walk into the sky and animals walk among men as their brethren.

The overall effect is of a rich and unique tradition, both cultural and narrative, carried within these pages. Between the lines, however, is an implicit tragedy: Much has been forgotten or confused during the generations of cultural upheaval and eclipse in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

We are lucky that the elders who survived that time and modern academics have gotten together to record these tales in a form suitable for survival in the setting of modern Alaska. They are well worth preserving.

Shana Loshbaugh is a writer and former Clarion reporter who now lives near Fairbanks.

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