Arts & Culture

Yu’pik

Written by
Tricia Brown

Some kids are playing on the swings and the slide; others are shooting baskets. The ball doesn’t bounce on packed snow, but that’s okay. Everybody knows you can’t dribble, so they just pass and shoot.

Then lunchtime recess is over and it’s time to head in to Bethel’s Yup’ik [YOU-pick] immersion school called Ayaprun Elitnaurvik, meaning “School of the Bears.” Inside, students are swishing around in unzipped coats and wet boots when the steady rhythm of a half-dozen drums begins. A BOOM! Rolls out like a soft thunder clap. A pause, then another BOOM! Again and again, and getting louder.

Fifth-grader Ethan Sparck is among the drummers tapping taut fabric hoops with lightweight wands. Traditionally drums were made with seal or walrus skins, or the stomachs of caribou or beluga whales. But fabric is easier to stretch and won’t dry and crack. An adult drummer begins singing in Yugtun [YOUX-toon], which these students speak and write as well as English. In the early grades, all lessons and conversations are in Yugtun. If you must speak in English, you must whisper.

Boys and girls toss lunch leftovers and wander over, one or two at a time, to find a space among dancers facing the singer-drummers. Boys throw down their coats to kneel on the soft bundle with heels under their bottoms. Their arms, hands, and heads begin to move in unison. The girls join them, standing in rows behind the boys, according to tradition. Their words and motions tell a true story that was worthy of a song.

“It was about a long time ago when people used powerful guns to go hunting out in the sea,” Ethan explains. “One time an old man saw a seal. He took his gun and shot that seal, and when it came out of the water, he thought it was one seal, but he got two seals. One was hiding behind it. 

Ethan translates the words of the song and explains its joyful ending. “The old man says, ‘Holy cow!’ when he sees that he got two seals, not just one.” In an ancient culture that has survived through sharing food, a successful hunt means everything.

Ethan is as good at drumming and singing, speaking, and spelling Yugtun as he is at ice fishing, basketball, Wii Mini-Golf, salmonberry picking, or his latest hobby, knitting. It’s a follow-up to the crochet skills he learned at age nine from his mother and grandmother. Ethan has made dishrags, hats, scarves, potholders . . . he loves it.

Later, at home, it’s a typical afternoon. Ethan announces that there’s no more room on his device to download even one more game, while his first-grade brother Adam pleads, “Can I play on your tablet?” Their creaky old Golden Lab, Jena, is also hungry for attention as the brothers huddle. She hobbles over and breathes on their laps.

Ethan’s hometown of Bethel lies along the great Kuskokwim River in southwestern Alaska, a nearly treeless region. Flying above it, the tundra seems to have more ponds, wetlands, and rivers than solid land. Most of the people who live there are Yup’ik, meaning “real person” in English.

Bethel is the go-to city for villagers along rivers in the Yukon–Kuskokwim (YK) Delta. It’s where people fly for shopping, eating out, sports or cultural events, visiting, or traveling to and from Anchorage. Jets roar in and out of Bethel every day. From small, outlying villages, people come in propeller-driven planes that can land on short airstrips at villages like Akiachak, Eek, or Chevak, where Ethan’s father, David, grew up. Ethan’s grandfather was Harold Sparck, a white, Jewish man from the East Coast who long ago moved to Alaska and married a Cup’ik lady. He is remembered for fighting for Natives’ rights.

As in most of Alaska, roads don’t link the villages out here. To travel between them, you need a plane or boat. The exception is wintertime, when the Kuskokwim River freezes and becomes a snow-packed highway for trucks and fast-moving “snowmachines,” as snowmobiles are called in Alaska. At spring “breakup” in May, the ice groans and grinds and finally breaks apart and floats out to sea—the Kuskokwim River comes alive again. All summer long, people go fishing, and barges deliver large freight, like trucks and building materials.

In the 1800s, when non-Native missionaries settled here along the river’s cut bank, the Yup’iks advised against it. The newcomers didn’t listen, however, so year after year the river chewed away at the bank until the Moravian missionaries had to cut their wooden houses in half, top to bottom, so they could drag the pieces away from the edge and then rejoin them. Now there’s a seawall to protect the city.

Ethan’s ancestors didn’t live in wooden houses. They preferred sod homes partially dug into the ground for natural insulation. They moved with the seasons, knowing where the fish and game would be plentiful, where the ducks and geese would pause in their migrations, where the berries would be at their peak. By autumn, they would have food safely stored, ready for the cold, dark curtain of winter to fall. Winter meant ice fishing and trapping for fur-bearing animals, then sewing tanned animal skins for clothing and shelter. A common phrase in the Yup’ik region was “always getting ready.”

Just two generations ago, Ethan’s Cup’ik grandmother was a little girl living in a traditional sod house and practicing the subsistence ways of her ancestors.

“Driftwood held up the ceiling,” Ethan says. “They would weave grass to make their beds. They hunted lots of things like moose and seal, whales, rabbits, and other kinds of animals that have fur to keep them warm. And the women would sew their clothes.” These days the Real People live in modern homes and wear brand names or, like Ethan, jeans and a T-shirt. Sometimes an Adidas logo lies beneath a traditional fur parka. Shoppers can buy packaged chicken or hamburger, but most Yup’iks still prefer fresh fish and game they catch themselves. When he eats out, Ethan likes bacon-fried rice, steamer clams, or sushi. At home, he’s big on soup: “We eat moose soup, seal soup, fish soup, bird soup, Canadian geese soup, swan soup, mallard soup . . .”

The Yup’ik people have lived a subsistence lifestyle for centuries and continue to do so still today. When the salmon are running, Ethan and his family take out their small aluminum boat and use a “drift net” to trap passing fish.

“We put the net over the edge of the back, then we motor away,” he says. “Our net, it’s not very long, so we’ll catch maybe ten in each drift. One time we caught sixty-two salmon in one day!” Some will be smoked, some frozen, some cooked fresh. 

In the fall, temperatures drop and river ice builds, sometimes reaching three or four feet thick. On the radio, Bethel Search and Rescue advises when it’s safe to drive on the ice. Then it’s time to watch sled-dog racing or Ethan’s favorite, manaqing, ice fishing for pike.

“We don’t use a rod,” Ethan says. “We use a stick with string and a hook on it. We make a hole with an auger, and then we unravel [the string] into the hole to the bottom.” With pieces of blackfish as bait, Ethan will “jig” the line, jerking it slightly up and letting it fall. Later he will help cut and prepare their catch using his own ulaq, a curved knife.

One afternoon, Ethan and his fellow Bears are playing indoor basketball against boys from Bethel’s other elementary school, the Cranes. They’re nearly all friends or relatives and evenly matched. After the Bears beat the Cranes, Ethan grins, remembering a friend’s pre-game trash talk. “He’s a Crane, so he said to me, ‘You run . . . we SOAR!’” On this day, however, it’s Ethan’s turn to soar.

No items found.

Yu’pik

Arts & Culture

Author

Tricia Brown

TRICIA BROWN has written and edited dozens of books since she first made Alaska her home in 1978. In a career that evolved from newspapers to magazines to book publishing, her writing is inspired by Alaska, reflected in nearly thirty titles on Native cultures, dog mushing, Last Frontier living, reference, and travel. She travels often for school and library visits, where she urges students to water the creative seeds inside of them. Tricia and her husband Perry make their home in Anchorage.

Some kids are playing on the swings and the slide; others are shooting baskets. The ball doesn’t bounce on packed snow, but that’s okay. Everybody knows you can’t dribble, so they just pass and shoot.

Then lunchtime recess is over and it’s time to head in to Bethel’s Yup’ik [YOU-pick] immersion school called Ayaprun Elitnaurvik, meaning “School of the Bears.” Inside, students are swishing around in unzipped coats and wet boots when the steady rhythm of a half-dozen drums begins. A BOOM! Rolls out like a soft thunder clap. A pause, then another BOOM! Again and again, and getting louder.

Fifth-grader Ethan Sparck is among the drummers tapping taut fabric hoops with lightweight wands. Traditionally drums were made with seal or walrus skins, or the stomachs of caribou or beluga whales. But fabric is easier to stretch and won’t dry and crack. An adult drummer begins singing in Yugtun [YOUX-toon], which these students speak and write as well as English. In the early grades, all lessons and conversations are in Yugtun. If you must speak in English, you must whisper.

Boys and girls toss lunch leftovers and wander over, one or two at a time, to find a space among dancers facing the singer-drummers. Boys throw down their coats to kneel on the soft bundle with heels under their bottoms. Their arms, hands, and heads begin to move in unison. The girls join them, standing in rows behind the boys, according to tradition. Their words and motions tell a true story that was worthy of a song.

“It was about a long time ago when people used powerful guns to go hunting out in the sea,” Ethan explains. “One time an old man saw a seal. He took his gun and shot that seal, and when it came out of the water, he thought it was one seal, but he got two seals. One was hiding behind it. 

Ethan translates the words of the song and explains its joyful ending. “The old man says, ‘Holy cow!’ when he sees that he got two seals, not just one.” In an ancient culture that has survived through sharing food, a successful hunt means everything.

Ethan is as good at drumming and singing, speaking, and spelling Yugtun as he is at ice fishing, basketball, Wii Mini-Golf, salmonberry picking, or his latest hobby, knitting. It’s a follow-up to the crochet skills he learned at age nine from his mother and grandmother. Ethan has made dishrags, hats, scarves, potholders . . . he loves it.

Later, at home, it’s a typical afternoon. Ethan announces that there’s no more room on his device to download even one more game, while his first-grade brother Adam pleads, “Can I play on your tablet?” Their creaky old Golden Lab, Jena, is also hungry for attention as the brothers huddle. She hobbles over and breathes on their laps.

Ethan’s hometown of Bethel lies along the great Kuskokwim River in southwestern Alaska, a nearly treeless region. Flying above it, the tundra seems to have more ponds, wetlands, and rivers than solid land. Most of the people who live there are Yup’ik, meaning “real person” in English.

Bethel is the go-to city for villagers along rivers in the Yukon–Kuskokwim (YK) Delta. It’s where people fly for shopping, eating out, sports or cultural events, visiting, or traveling to and from Anchorage. Jets roar in and out of Bethel every day. From small, outlying villages, people come in propeller-driven planes that can land on short airstrips at villages like Akiachak, Eek, or Chevak, where Ethan’s father, David, grew up. Ethan’s grandfather was Harold Sparck, a white, Jewish man from the East Coast who long ago moved to Alaska and married a Cup’ik lady. He is remembered for fighting for Natives’ rights.

As in most of Alaska, roads don’t link the villages out here. To travel between them, you need a plane or boat. The exception is wintertime, when the Kuskokwim River freezes and becomes a snow-packed highway for trucks and fast-moving “snowmachines,” as snowmobiles are called in Alaska. At spring “breakup” in May, the ice groans and grinds and finally breaks apart and floats out to sea—the Kuskokwim River comes alive again. All summer long, people go fishing, and barges deliver large freight, like trucks and building materials.

In the 1800s, when non-Native missionaries settled here along the river’s cut bank, the Yup’iks advised against it. The newcomers didn’t listen, however, so year after year the river chewed away at the bank until the Moravian missionaries had to cut their wooden houses in half, top to bottom, so they could drag the pieces away from the edge and then rejoin them. Now there’s a seawall to protect the city.

Ethan’s ancestors didn’t live in wooden houses. They preferred sod homes partially dug into the ground for natural insulation. They moved with the seasons, knowing where the fish and game would be plentiful, where the ducks and geese would pause in their migrations, where the berries would be at their peak. By autumn, they would have food safely stored, ready for the cold, dark curtain of winter to fall. Winter meant ice fishing and trapping for fur-bearing animals, then sewing tanned animal skins for clothing and shelter. A common phrase in the Yup’ik region was “always getting ready.”

Just two generations ago, Ethan’s Cup’ik grandmother was a little girl living in a traditional sod house and practicing the subsistence ways of her ancestors.

“Driftwood held up the ceiling,” Ethan says. “They would weave grass to make their beds. They hunted lots of things like moose and seal, whales, rabbits, and other kinds of animals that have fur to keep them warm. And the women would sew their clothes.” These days the Real People live in modern homes and wear brand names or, like Ethan, jeans and a T-shirt. Sometimes an Adidas logo lies beneath a traditional fur parka. Shoppers can buy packaged chicken or hamburger, but most Yup’iks still prefer fresh fish and game they catch themselves. When he eats out, Ethan likes bacon-fried rice, steamer clams, or sushi. At home, he’s big on soup: “We eat moose soup, seal soup, fish soup, bird soup, Canadian geese soup, swan soup, mallard soup . . .”

The Yup’ik people have lived a subsistence lifestyle for centuries and continue to do so still today. When the salmon are running, Ethan and his family take out their small aluminum boat and use a “drift net” to trap passing fish.

“We put the net over the edge of the back, then we motor away,” he says. “Our net, it’s not very long, so we’ll catch maybe ten in each drift. One time we caught sixty-two salmon in one day!” Some will be smoked, some frozen, some cooked fresh. 

In the fall, temperatures drop and river ice builds, sometimes reaching three or four feet thick. On the radio, Bethel Search and Rescue advises when it’s safe to drive on the ice. Then it’s time to watch sled-dog racing or Ethan’s favorite, manaqing, ice fishing for pike.

“We don’t use a rod,” Ethan says. “We use a stick with string and a hook on it. We make a hole with an auger, and then we unravel [the string] into the hole to the bottom.” With pieces of blackfish as bait, Ethan will “jig” the line, jerking it slightly up and letting it fall. Later he will help cut and prepare their catch using his own ulaq, a curved knife.

One afternoon, Ethan and his fellow Bears are playing indoor basketball against boys from Bethel’s other elementary school, the Cranes. They’re nearly all friends or relatives and evenly matched. After the Bears beat the Cranes, Ethan grins, remembering a friend’s pre-game trash talk. “He’s a Crane, so he said to me, ‘You run . . . we SOAR!’” On this day, however, it’s Ethan’s turn to soar.

No items found.

Author

Tricia Brown

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