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When Our Words Return

When Our Words Return: Writing, Reading, and Remembering Oral Traditions from Alasak and the Yukon

Phyllis Morrow
William Schneider
Copyright Date: 1995
Pages: 264
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  • Book Info
    When Our Words Return
    Book Description:

    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.

    eISBN: 978-0-87421-376-8
    Subjects: Sociology, Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vii)
  3. [Map]
    (pp. viii-viii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-ix)
  5. [Map]
    (pp. x-x)
  6. Introduction
    (pp. 1-8)

    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 Yupʹik Eskimo language, she said, is as precious a gift as the seals, fish, and other game on which people depend. She reminded her listeners that when animals are treated with care and respect, they willingly return to those who have hunted them. Later she alluded to the ancient Bladder Festival, during which the spirits of seals...

  7. A Note on Consistency
    (pp. 9-9)
  8. [Map]
    (pp. 10-10)
  9. Part I. Writing

    • With a Vision beyond Our Immediate Needs: Oral Traditions in an Age of Literacy
      (pp. 13-26)
      Elsie Mather

      I was born and raised in Kwigillingok, a Bering Sea coastal village in southwest Alaska, and have also lived in the Bristol Bay village of Clarkʹs Point. My employment includes work at hospitals in Mt. Edgecumbe, Anchorage, and Bethel, Alaska, as a nurse and interpreter for Yupʹik patients.

      In the early 1970s when bilingual schools started in the Bethel area, I was hired by what was then the Alaska State-Operated Schools to teach a bilingual kindergarten class. In the late 1970s, I worked at the Kuskokwim Community College as a language specialist and also did some part-time teaching in Yupʹik...

    • On Shaky Ground: Folklore, Collaboration, and Problematic Outcomes
      (pp. 27-52)
      Phyllis Morrow

      Since the early 1980s, Elsie Mather and I have collaborated on the transcription, translation, and representation of Central Alaskan Yupʹik stories. She was born and raised in the Kuskokwim delta, where her education started—and continues—with Yupʹik oral tradition. She spends much of her time in subsistence pursuits; she has also been a nurse, a teacher, a lecturer, and an author of high-school and college textbooks. Her grounding in the oral tradition puts her book learning in a certain perspective. I, on the other hand, was born on the East Coast of the United States, and my education was...

    • ʺPeteʹs Songʺ: Establishing Meanings through Story and Song
      (pp. 53-76)
      Julie Cruikshank

      Ethnographies always begin as conversations between anthropologists and our hosts, who are, in turn, in conversation with each other. If we are fortunate, some of these conversations take unexpected turns, develop into genuine dialogues, and continue over many years. Dialogues open the possibility that we may learn something about the process of communication, about how words can be used to construct meaningful accounts of life experience. In this way, they differ fundamentally from structured interviews, where one of the participants claims rights both to pose the questions and interpret the responses.

      It was my good fortune to have an ongoing...

  10. Part II. Hearing

    • Seeing Wisely, Crying Wolf: A Cautionary Tale on the Euro-Yupʹik Border
      (pp. 79-98)
      Robin Barker

      What follows is a description of the evolution in my own thinking about a Yupʹik tale known as ʺHow Crane Got His Blue Eyes.ʺ The tale is popularly used throughout Alaska in elementary classrooms; it is presented simply, without much thought about the complexities of investigating its meaning. As an educator who worked in the Yupʹik region for twelve years, I have come to recognize that folklore must be treated in ways that take these complexities into account. Overcoming linguistic and cultural bias is not easy, however. For example, my own first interpretations of the story were strongly influenced by...

    • ʺThey Talked of the Land with Respectʺ: Interethnic Communication in the Documentation of Historical Places and Cemetery Sites
      (pp. 99-122)
      Robert M. Drozda

      Under the provisions of section 14(h)(1) of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) of 1971 (Public Law 92-203), the secretary of the interior was authorized to withdraw eligible lands as Native historical places and cemetery sites. Most Alaska Native regional corporations established under the act filed applications for the properties, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs created an office in 1978 to investigate these sites.¹

      Although the land entitlement under this section of the act is relatively small—less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the entire forty-million-acre land settlement (Bureau of Indian Affairs ANCSA Office n.d.)—historic and...

    • A Bright Light Ahead of Us: Belle Deaconʹs Stories in English and Deg Hitʹan
      (pp. 123-136)
      James Ruppert

      So begins the collection of stories by noted artist and storyteller Belle Deacon, Engithidong Xugixudhoy: Their Stories of Long Ago (1987). Eight examples of her movement toward the bright light are transcribed into Deg Hitʹan (Ingalik), with an English translation facing the Native-language text. However, one of the unique things about the volume is that versions told in English follow five of the tales. I would like to open with a question: How does the English telling of a Native tale by a Native-speaking storyteller differ from the original version and its translation. Furthermore, I would like to suggest that...

  11. Part III. Remembering

    • The Days of Yore: Alutiiq Mythical Time
      (pp. 139-184)
      Patricia H. Partnow

      On June 6, 1912, Novarupta Volcano in southwestern Alaska exploded in one of the largest eruptions in the history of the world. Ash and pumice buried the Alaska Peninsula villages of Katmai and Douglas and the seasonally operated fish-processing camp at Kaflia Bay and fell two feet deep on the city of Kodiak, 115 miles away. The explosion spawned continuous thunder and lightning storms and resulted in total darkness for more than forty-eight hours. Its roar was heard as far away as Juneau, 750 miles distant (Martin 1913: 131). This event was the cause of widespread displacement of the Alutiiq...

    • Lessons from Alaska Natives about Oral Tradition and Recordings
      (pp. 185-204)
      William Schneider

      Years ago, Alan Dundes (1964) pointed out that stories contain at least three elements: text—what the story is about; texture—the way the story is told; and context—the circumstances surrounding the telling. These three elements are not always obvious and clear-cut, but the categories point to the fact that storytelling and comprehending its meaning depend upon an appreciation of what is said, the way it is expressed, and the particular setting that prompted the telling. These considerations have become basic to our understanding of oral literature and the verbal arts, terms which are often used interchangeably but carry...

    • The Weight of Tradition and the Writerʹs Work
      (pp. 205-222)
      Mary Odden

      Nearly the last thing my father said to me, certainly the last thing I remember, was ʺYou know what I mean, Mim.ʺ Mim was a nickname he had for me, a special name between the two of us, reserved for the times when we would sit in the back door of the family grocery store and watch the eastern Oregon thunderstorms roll across the sky, or when I had just won a ribbon on my horse—something extraordinary like that. My mom never called me Mim, and Dad wouldnʹt have used Mim in the third person, as in ʺMim did...

  12. Epilogue
    (pp. 223-226)

    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 contribution to that tradition. We sense that if we really want to understand oral tradition and contribute meaningfully to the dialogue which is well under way elsewhere, we must expand our audience, and we...

  13. Appendix: Polar Bear Story
    (pp. 227-240)
  14. About the Authors
    (pp. 241-244)