- Hunting Tradition in a Changing World: Yup’ik Lives in Alaska Today
Occupying a large portion of southwest Alaska (including both coastal and interior zones), the Yupiit (plural of Yup’ik) are one of Alaska’s most numerous indigenous groups (approximately 20,000 according to the 1991 census). Ann Fienup-Riordan, one of the most prolific chroniclers of Yup’ik history and culture, is the lead author of this anthology of essays, which includes contributions by Yup’ik authors William Tyson, Paul John, Marie Meade, and John Active. The book’s central theme is highlighted in the title, Hunting Tradition in a Changing World. Rather than defining Yup’ik tradition as a homogenous and stable set of ideas and practices, Fienup-Riordan and her colleagues analyze Yup’ik tradition as primarily “an individually negotiated enterprise” (48), whose meaning and significance are continually transformed as Yup’ik explore new realms of cultural expression in such contexts as work, attending a Catholic mass, visiting New York City, and designing a museum exhibit. Fienup-Riordan is also interested in the relevance of anthropology to indigenous peoples, particularly in an era of identity politics. These two themes undergird the book’s four sections, which deal with the following themes: 1) the relationship between anthropologist and subject(s); 2) the encounter between indigenous Yup’ik religion and Christianity; 3) the meaning of community in an era of globalization; and 4) the changing role of museums in the performance of Yup’ik culture and tradition.
In the first section, Fienup-Riordan narrates her own initiation into the Yup’ik world and into the discipline of anthropology. After her initial experiences as a survey researcher in a Yup’ik village, she decided to pursue a PhD in anthropology with an emphasis on ritual and religion. After more than two decades of research, her ideas about the role of anthropology in indigenous communities have changed. Once an independent scholar, her strategy has become that of an engaged advocate, and Fienup-Riordan has used her expertise to facilitate a number of projects promoting Yup’ik culture and tradition.
The second section includes essays about the place of religion in contemporary Yup’ik society. Specifically, Fienup-Riordan traces the blending of “Yup’ik” and “Christian” elements (some Yup’ik argue that these have never been distinguishable categories) in the Catholic diocese of southwest Alaska, including the performance of Yup’ik traditional dancing in the mass. Fienup-Riordan uses the term “metaphorical incorporation” (110) to describe how Yup’ik elders have managed to restore the power of traditional Yup’ik dances by incorporating them into the liturgy. Once condemned by missionaries, these dances are now a key ingredient of an emerging Yup’ik Catholicism.
“Yup’email@example.com” is the title of the third section, which explores the extension of the Yup’ik community into urban spaces including Anchorage, Salt Lake City, and even Atsarpak (‘the Big Apple’). In the book’s most humorous essay, Yup’ik journalist and essayist John Active describes how Yup’ik creatively confront stereotypes about themselves and their culture. Writing about a Yup’ik friend attending graduate school in Utah, he describes how a Mormon student asked his friend if the Yup’ik Eskimos still practice polygamy. “Only the Mormon Eskimos,” (179) the friend replied, in jest. But Active is quick to assert that it is not always easy to make light of the experience of Yupiit in the city. Indeed, moving from the village to an urban environment like Anchorage is often difficult, even traumatic. “If Native Alaskans want to live in Anchorage today,” Active writes, “they have to throw out their traditional upbringing in exchange for something totally alien to them—the idea of individuality” (178).
The title of the fourth section shares its name with the book and includes two essays by Fienup-Riordan documenting her role in working with Yup’ik elders to develop an exhibit entitled “Agayuliyararput: The Way of the Masks.” These essays shed...