When Our Words Return
Writing, Reading, and Remembering Oral Traditions from Alasak and the Yukon
Publication Year: 1995
The title to this interdisciplinary collection draws on the Yupik Eskimo belief that seals, fish, and other game are precious gifts that, when treated with respect and care, will return to be hunted again. Just so, if oral traditions are told faithfully and respectfully, they will return to benefit future generations. The contributors to this volume are concerned with the interpretation and representation of oral narrative and how it is shaped by its audience and the time, place, and cultural context of the narration. Thus, oral traditions are understood as a series of dialogues between tradition bearers and their listeners, including those who record, write, and interpret.
Published by: Utah State University Press
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We offer our deep and heartfelt thanks to the following: Robert Drozda for translating his love of place into maps, and James H. Barker for translating his love of people into photographs; Our proofreader, Sue Mitchell, for her microscopic attention...
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The title of this book, When Our Words Return, was inspired by an analogy between language and the animals people hunt. In what was originally a keynote speech presented to bilingual-bicultural educators, Elsie Mather described the importance of preserving indigenous languages. Her own...
A Note on Consistency
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Readers will notice that different terminologies and forms of address are used by the authors of these essays. The authors follow the conventions for group and individual designation considered appropriate by the people of the area where they work. For example, indigenous Canadian groups are called "First Nations," whereas...
Part I: Writing
With a Vision beyond Our Immediate Needs: Oral Traditions in an Age of Literacy
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The desire to preserve and perpetuate oral traditions is ambiguously linked with the process of writing them down. In this essay, Elsie Mather tries to come to grips with the "necessary monster" of literacy in relation to the transmission of her Yup'ik Eskimo language and cultural ideals. As someone who has played an active role in writing down stories, documenting...
On Shaky Ground: Folklore, Collaboration, and Problematic Outcomes
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In Yup'ik society, hunters and fishers who are lucky enough to catch anything are individuals who pay attention to what they have learned. It is they to whom game returns. Storytellers, too, are people who are said to be "lucky enough to have caught a tale." Implicitly, people have this luck, too, when they pay attention to a store of ever-changing experiences...
“Pete’s Song”: Establishing Meanings through Story and Song
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Mrs. Angela Sidney, the Tagish and Tlingit woman whose multiple tellings of one story are highlighted in this essay, passes on an oral tradition that is both good to "think with" and a useful part of the" equipment for living." These ideas echo Elsie Mather's point that stories are a part of everyday life, recalled by events that cast them in variable lights at different...
Part II: Hearing
Seeing Wisely, Crying Wolf: A Cautionary Tale on the Euro-Yup’ik Border
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The previous two essays emphasize that interpretations of a story are at best incomplete and raise the problem of whether writing can be informative without becoming authoritative. In this piece, Robin Barker demonstrates that interpretations, whether based on oral or written accounts, can simply be wrong. They can, however, be wrong in ways that tell us, if we listen to...
“They Talked of the Land with Respect”: Interethnic Communication in the Documentation of Historical Places and Cemetery Site
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If it is difficult to hear the voices of oral tradition in a classroom, where the educational system turns meaning making into lesson learning, it is perhaps even harder to hear them in the goal-directed confines of an agency. Bureaucrats may cast tradition bearers as information givers, people from whom one can get answers to predetermined questions in a recognizable...
A Bright Light Ahead of Us: Belle Deacon’s Stories in English and Deg Hit’an
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James Ruppert leads us to consider the encounter between tradition bearer and audience in a rather different (bright) light than the preceding two authors. He suggests that the communication between teller and audience begins long before the two actually meet. Scholars, for example, bring standards of authenticity to their "listening" so that they may simply not hear...
Part III: Remembering
The Days of Yore: Alutiiq Mythical Time
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Historians and cultural anthropologists have gathered increasing evidence that we all remember the past in ways that reflect present under standings of ourselves. This in no way discounts the value of oral history, which encodes specific and valuable historical and cultural details (as Robert Drozda, for example, documented in his interviews on Yup'ik historical and...
Lessons from Alaska Natives about Oral Tradition and Recordings
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In this essay, William Schneider focuses on the record of remembrance that is bequeathed to future generations. As an oral historian and archivist, Schneider is sensitive to the differences between remembering in context and "freeze-drying" memories...
The Weight of Tradition and the Writer’s Work
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In the introduction to this book, we noted that stories, to be recognized as important cross-culturally, must move beyond the interestingly exotic or inaccessibly esoteric. Throughout these essays, even where they focus on oral traditions from some academic distance, the writers hint at numerous ways that we all take stories home with us at the end of the day, identifying their...
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We offer this book with both humility and a sense of accomplishment. We feel a bit like a young girl who has completed her first basket or a boy who has killed his first game. Like them, we are pleased; we see our work as a significant start, and we are indebted to the traditions of our forebears as well as offering an original and unique...
Appendix: Polar Bear Story
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About the Authors
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Each of the contributors to this volume has sought out and found rewarding ways to pursue collaborative projects with Alaskan and Yukon Native peoples. In Alaska and the Yukon, trust develops slowly between people, and long-term personal relationships form only after the newcomer's words begin to return...
Publication Year: 1995