YUPIIT YURARYARAIT (Yupi’ik Ways of Dancing)
By James H. Baker, Ann Fienup-Riordan, Theresa Arevgaq John
University of Alaska Press
This historic and cultural significance of YUPIIT YURARYARAIT requires an explanation for Alaskan non-Natives. In 1885, when Alaska was a District and not a Territory, Dr. Sheldon Jackson, the head of the Presbyterian Mission in Alaska, was the General Agent for Education in Alaska. Following the practice in the Lower 39 at that time, Alaska was divided up by religious organizations. The point of the practice was to inculcate Christianity into Native Alaskans to make them mainstream Americans. On one hand, the effort was marginally successful because over the next century the ‘best and brightest’ Natives did find their way into success in the White world. Those now-seniors and their descendants are the movers and shakers in the Alaska Regional Corporations, Village Corporations, Native nonprofits in addition to private sectors businesses. A few have gone on to be legislative leaders and visionary Alaskans.
But there was a downside. Not all Natives would move up in the White world. Those who were left behind saw their ancient customs brushed aside by a new religion, that religion being determined by whatever geographic local had been assigned to their village. These ancient customs included such activities as dancing and drumming.
Over the long run, you cannot eradicate culture as easily as erasing a pencil mark on a sheet of paper.
As an example, a century after the Natives of Kotzebue had been ordered not to use drums, a weather balloon was ripped apart in the predictably unpredictable Arctic weather. According to Willie Hensley, Native activist and author of FIFTY MILES FROM NOWHERE, the local elders butchered the synthetic rubber to make drums. The elders did not have any problem remembering the cadence and chants because, as Henley noted, “you cannot just erase ten thousand years of culture.”
YUPIIT YURARYARAIT is an important book because it is, so to speak, the last gasp of the Yup’ik elders to pass along “ten thousand years of culture.”
As a specific example, in the Introduction to the book, there is a list of elders who were consulted for the songs, dance sequences, choreography and traditional apparel. The book, published in 2010, includes a substantial list of contributors born before 1920 so it is reasonable to assume they are no longer among the living.
This book is more than an illustrated compendium of dance songs and routines. It is a snapshot of Yup’ik history. It was produced in the sunset of an era that will only ‘rise again’ in the cultural memory those elders were able to pass along to the present generation. If you want an on-the-ground look of the Yup’ik culture a century of missionary failed to extirpate, this is your book.