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Friday, June 14, 2013

Bush Teaching 101: Yup'ik Worldviews


I have worked as a teacher, a consultant, a professional development specialist, a Technology Coordinator, and now a Director of Technology. In each of these roles I have had occasion to talk to and mentor educators coming to the bush for the first time. As a teacher I organized cultural introduction sessions for new staff at my school, presented at new teacher orientation, and taught informal "classes" to colleagues throughout the years. As a consultant and trainer I presented to other school districts on similar topics. Now with Lower Yukon, I approach the second new hire orientation as a full time employee and the third in general.
Each of these events bring me cause to reflect on my content, my research, my ideas, and my delivery. It occurred to me recently, while considering the next few topics to discuss on this blog, to share these contents freely and seek input. I am unsure of how many installments I will share here, but seeing as to how I learn something new every day, I likely will never complete it.

What does it mean to be Yup'ik?

‘In the beginning there was a balance between the spirit world, the sky, the Earth, and the world below. The animals traveled freely between all. Then came the First Humans. Yup’ik mythology tells us that we washed up pitifully on beach one day. Raven watched us curiously; we had no fur to keep warm, no claws to hunt with or defend ourselves, no fangs to bite with, etc. We would die soon if left on our own, so Raven gathered with the other animals to discuss our fate. Raven explained the situation and the animals decided to take pity on Humans. They agreed to GIVE themselves to us as a sacrifice, a gift. They did so with the expressed requirement that Humans would forever honor and respect them for their lives.’

With this story we see the perception of animals as our friends, our equals, and in many ways our superiors. They most certainly have advantages we don’t, and without them we would surely parish. This origin story always interests me. It is humble, respectful. It is full of humility and reflective of our place and role in nature. 

Differences in Perspectives

Now contrast this worldview with that of Western/Judeo-Christian culture. Our legends and myths tell us the animals are wild, set against us, and should be beaten, trained, and dominated. 
  • Hercules and the lion
  • Jonah and the whale
  • Eve and the serpent
  • Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf 
  • Genisis 1:28 - God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.
Animals are either domestic or wild. Think of some of our worst fears. ("When animals attack" or "Cujo") Western culture even uses the word itself as a negative cannotation: 'Mike Tyson bit Evander Hollyfield's ear off, he's an animal in the ring!'

Yup'ik Tradition
Animals represent model families, teachers, and our sustainers. Wolf packs teach us to be a caring, nurturing family. Ravens are monogamous. Salmon model work ethics. The moose and whale offer themselves to us as a sacrifice to nourish us. 

We should all be aware of certain differences between our own perceptions and those of others. Because we all have individual and unique experiences, we all have a different way of looking at things.

In honor of LYSD and Scammon Bay:


If you want to look at a "textbook definition" of Yup'ik, think of it this way: Native Americans from the coastal regions of Siberia and Alaska occupying the region south of Nome to South Central Alaska. This in my language, of course, and not official. In lay terms, which are considered uncouth, or not P.C., you could call them one of the ethnicities making up the "Eskimo" people. Again, I would not use this language or terminology, but to help describe Yup'ik in crass terms refer to the chart below. 
You may wish to refer to the map pictured above here


In terms of identity, we all define ourselves differently and uniquely.  I am a Cajun. I do not live in South Louisiana, I do not fish, shrimp, hunt alligators, or raise farm animals. I don't speak French outside common phrases or expressions and I am not a practicing Catholic. These are all of the things one might attribute to being Cajun and though I do not fit this "textbook definition" I remain firm in my identity. Just food for thought, though. 

Yup'ik language tells us who they are. 
  • Yuk (people) and -iaq (genuine/authentic) combine to form Yup'ik.
  • We; self; “The People”; “The Real Humans
  • ‘Self’ is not autonomous, you are a part of something greater, one with the community

Besides the plurality of the people as a whole, naming can also be interesting to outsiders:
  • Not gender specific
  • Passed on from people to people reflecting the spirit within – the ‘Yua
  • It tells a history in itself
  • You might actually be spoken to as if you were the individual, even referred to as an elder at a young age (which can be quite comical, yet profoundly meaningful).

How we relate to each other in Yup'ik traditions is unique as well. We are not just people. Spirits reside in animals, humans, and our world itself. Communicating respect between the world around us is of the utmost importance. Yup’ik masks reflect these principles through art. An animal mask generally has one eye representing a fetus or human. Insinuates connection to the spirit within all things.

Prehistory: Contrasting Yup'ik and Western Worldviews

  • Human’s had free access to spirit world and all of the realms above and below
  • Humans were supposed to pass this information on to the next generation, but we could not maintain this knowledge indefinitely, and paradise faded
  • Now when we look to the past, we see a downward change in our world. The focus is to pass on everything we can to preserve what little is left of this knowledge for the next generation.
  • the First People were the most enlightened
  • Stories and history is passed down and the perfect ways of doing things have slowly been lost in each subsequent generation (imagine a 10,000 year old "pass the message along" game)

  • Human's possess sin from an early age and require forgiveness from other sources
  • Our nature is base and sinful
  • Science claims we come from unintelligent apes and evolve into sentient humans
  • Modern technology and medicine make us more fit for our environment, help us live longer, and grant us happier lives
  • Humanity is improving and constantly getting better
  • There was nothing of value prior to history, a.k.a, human advancement
In modern terms think of the dichotomy of success in the modern city versus the bush. A successful provider, a nukullpiak, of the bush kills animals to feed, house, clothe, and trade for their family. They know where the best fishing holes are. They track animals with ease. They know the seasons and interpret the weather to prepare for the harshness of the Alaskan wilderness. In Anchorage this person may lack any real skills necessary to secure a decent job, pay bills, and generally "make it" in the city. Conversely, a teacher with a PhD, able to speak multiple languages, well read in philosophy, history, and science may never have even been camping. This individual would die in the bush without housing, plumbing, water, and groceries from the outside. Who is successful, then?