Storyknifing and Yup’ik Cautionary Tales


Traditional story knife carved from walrus ivory and marked incised herring-bone and line pattern in black on one side. British Museum Collection

Traditional story knife carved from walrus ivory and marked with herring-bone and line pattern in black on one side. British Museum Collection

WC lived in Bethel, Alaska from 1954-1959. Our family lived at the Moravian Church mission, on “Mission Row,” three more or less traditional western homes in a village that back then still had a lot of sod structures. WC’s dad was an inspector for the Corps of Engineers as the Distant Early Warning project, the DEW Line, was just getting under way, and Bethel was just beginning the difficult transformation from a traditional Yup’ik community to a culture struggling with Western ideas.

But when WC was there, traditional values and practices were still very strong. One of them was storytelling, and in particular “storyknifing,” the practice of illustrating the story as it was told using a storyknife – a yaaruin, a carved wooden or bone stick – and the dirt underfoot. It was a game played by younger kids, especially girls, but it was also a way of making the elders’ Yup’ik cautionary tales more vivid and memorable.

A girl uses a story knife for drawing pictures in the ground to illustrate a story. Bethel, 1936. Hans Himmelheber, Courtesy of Eberhard Fischer and Anchorage Museum, HH28.

A girl uses a story knife for drawing pictures in the ground to illustrate a story. Bethel, 1936.
Hans Himmelheber, Courtesy of Eberhard Fischer and Anchorage Museum, HH28.

One of the tales that has stuck with WC over the decades was told to WC, his brother and the two daughters of a Moravian missionary, by a Yup’ik elder acting as babysitter to four gussik kids. It was a story of how two boys’ fighting led to the massacre of an entire village. As WC recalls the story, some 60 years later, it told how two boys were playing darts, roughhousing, and one boy threw a dart into the eye of the other, blinding him. The injured boy’s father retaliated by completely blinding the other boy. The fight escalated and escalated and soon two neighboring villages were at war, a war that only ended with the massacre of all of a village. You’ll have to imagine our storyteller making graceful, fluid sketches as she told her story, and her graceful, Yup’ik accent as she narrated.

The message, of course, was “Don’t fight,” and the storyknife sketches of the original injury, the adults fighting and the massacre were captivating. And, as in all Yup’ik storyknife tales WC saw and listened to, the story ended with the storyteller wiping the sketches out with the flat of the blade, and saying, “So our elders teach us.”

The story was especially memorable because it was the only one that WC saw/heard that involved a war. Most of the tales were about individuals, or stories about Raven, the trickster god. Mass violence in a subsistence culture is comparatively rare. At the University of Oregon, WC dredged up – well stole – the story for a writing class, the only story illustrated (with very bad sketches) WC has ever produced.

Imagine WC’s surprise that the legend, that cautionary tale he was told as a child, may turn out to be based in fact. Anthropologists have apparently found the sight of the massacre, near modern-day Quinhagak, in southwestern Alaska. Anthropologists there have uncovered the remains of 28 people who died in a massacre as well as 60,000 well-preserved artifacts.

WC is aware that legends often have a basis in fact; Heinrich Schliemann, after all, found the site of Troy. But for WC, the discoveries at Quinhagak are more like finding the oven from “Hansel and Gretel,” or the toe of the glass slipper in “Cinderella.”

So our elders teach us. Indeed.

 

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2 thoughts on “Storyknifing and Yup’ik Cautionary Tales

  1. I think the storytelling and storyknifing are a wonderful idea. I would like it to make a comeback.
    I wish that storyhearing, storyunderstanding and storygetting would get started in my lifetime.
    Or that some other manifestation of improved reasoning would take hold.

    I know, it’s an awful lot to ask for.

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