- Stories Find You, Places Know: Yup'ik Narratives of a Sentient World by Holly Cusack-McVeigh
Holly Cusack-McVeigh's stated purpose is to describe the ways that stories reflect and emanate from place in the Yup'ik region of Alaska, represented in this book by the village of Hooper Bay, and to describe through stories a unique and particular understanding of place within the Yup'ik worldview. She asserts that for Yupiit (plural of Yup'ik), places have agency: they react to human actions and states of being. Her introduction sets this work in the context of folklore and ethnographic studies. Cusack-McVeigh summarizes: "To understand sense of place in the Yup'ik region, we must know something about the relationships people have with specific kinds of places" (p. 254), and "what is unique here is the way that Yup'ik places are consulted as guides. The land and specific places are, in essence, beings among beings, and particularly powerful and sensitive ones" (p. 259).
Cusack-McVeigh's central argument is that the Yup'ik landscape is a "storied" place—on the face of it not a novel observation—but, in so saying, Cusack-McVeigh argues that, in addition to providing the setting for experiences and events, the land also reflects the state of human society and is an active component of the universe. Cusack-McVeigh notes: "The land, the water, and the spirit world directly react to the actions of the living world" (p. 85). She contrasts this conception with a Western understanding of the land as an external entity that is apart from, though a part of, human life, and that is considered merely a surface or stage upon which human life occurs.
The notion that traditional peoples have close, even kin-like relationships to the place of their birth is not new. What is new and convincingly argued here is that the land and the land/ water interface are conceived, in Yup'ik life, in a way that is very different from Western ideas. Perhaps this is a reflection of the tundra, which [End Page 241] in the winter is frozen solid like the rest of the terrain and during the summer is in places a marshy, wet, and unpredictable surface with no clear dividing line between water and land. Perhaps the state of Yup'ik land contributes to an aspect of their culture in which land and water can transform from one to the other in response to human behavior and speech. The author notes that the lack of firm conceptual boundaries regarding the land extends into many aspects of the Yup'ik world, including the transition from life to death and from the physical to the spiritual worlds. Cusack-McVeigh presents her case through many narratives of Hooper Bay residents, communicated in the midst of a chronicle of her own experience as an outside researcher whose awareness (a crucial aspect of Yup'ik existence and the universe itself) grows as she learns the many ways that humans and the land interact with each other.
About half of the chapters in this book relate directly to the theme of stories and places. The others are less focused on place, edging into discussions of how oral traditions reflect, create, and subvert power, both internally and cross-culturally. In these chapters, the author situates the stories in place and notes which places they are about, but does not make a convincingly overt connection between the two themes. This connection does occur, finally, in the last two chapters of the book.
Cusack-McVeigh's approaches to both fieldwork and writing stem from the fields of anthropology and folklore, the latter with a performance-centered bent. Chapter 7 in particular, "The Tale of the Teakettle Ghost," provides a good discussion about the importance of a performance's context. Here and elsewhere, the author explores not only what was being told in her presence, but why those particular stories were told...