RecensionsBook reviews

FIENUP-RIORDAN, Ann, 2007 Yuungnaqpiallerput. The Way We Genuinely Live. Masterworks of Yup’ik Science and Survival. University of Washington Press, with Anchorage Museum Association and Calista Elders Council, 360 pages.

  • Marie-Pierre Gadoua

…more information

  • Marie-Pierre Gadoua
    Department of Anthropology,
    McGill University,
    855 Sherbrooke Street West,
    Montreal, QC,
    H3A 2T7,
    Canada.

Article body

Written after a decade of close collaboration with Yup’ik elders, Ann Fienup-Riordan’s The Way We Genuinely Live was created with a museum exhibition of the same name at the Yupiit Piciryarait Cultural Center and Museum in Bethel, Alaska (2007). The book and exhibition feature Yup’ik tools, techniques, and technical knowledge, in relation to what Fienup-Riordan calls “Yup’ik science”: the technological, personal, and spiritual relationship of the Yup’ik with their homeland. In this way, descriptions of technology and spirituality—or science and art—are reconciled and harmonised throughout the book and the exhibition.

In her introduction, Fienup-Riordan explains the guiding principles of Yup’ik science through various anecdotes of her interactions with Yup’ik elders. One such anecdote appropriately sets the tone of the book. At an early stage of her work, Fienup-Riordan suggested “technology” as the focus of the exhibition. This, in contrast to that of a previous exhibition on Yup’ik masks (Agayuliyararput [Our Way of Making Prayer], 1996). She was “reminded politely but firmly that Yup’ik tools and technology were also ‘our way of making prayer’” (p. 6). The book follows this premise and presents clearly and cleverly the interwoven spiritual and technological aspects of Yup’ik tools. Fienup-Riordan’s introduction also provides a brief but important presentation of the Yup’ik cultural landscape through an overview of the museum collections (from 13 museums in the USA and Germany) described later in further detail.

The book’s organisation, suggested by Yupiit elders, follows yet another guiding principle. Instead of a conventional presentation of artefact classes, Fienup-Riordan assigns Yupiit artefacts to seasonal-use categories. Each chapter is richly illustrated with photographs that show Yupiit engaged in various seasonal activities and that relate to the featured artefacts. Appropriately, Yup’ik vocabulary is used extensively in naming objects, parts of objects, and abstract concepts. Throughout the body of the text, insets provide Western scientific explanations of Yup’ik technology, emphasising the connections between Western and Yup’ik science, although Fienup-Riordan argues both traditions are inherently complementary.

The first chapter, “The Moral Foundations of Yup’ik Science,” centres on the personal relationships Yupiit enjoy with animals, marked by reciprocity and compassion, and governed by various restraints. Fienup-Riordan describes the ethics of, and motivations behind, sharing within the Yup’ik community. She further examines how these principles contrast with Western views on hunter-prey relationships and how this can conflict with dominant paradigms of resource management. She then develops this theme through a reflection on the divergent, if complementary, natures of Yup’ik and Western sciences, the former being based on observation and experience, directed toward function and outcomes, the latter being theoretical, law-seeking, and focused on hypothesis and explanation.

In another chapter, Fienup-Riordan describes a central actor in Yup’ik community life, and the place of the transmission of knowledge: the communal men’s house (qasgi). She examines how young boys were taught in the qasgi the “moral foundations of properly lived life” (p. 39), along with the technological rules of their future lives as craftsmen and as providers for their families. Young boys would observe elders manufacturing and repairing tools, or building kayaks and sleds, and would carefully listen to simultaneous oral instructions on morals. Fienup-Riordan is intently interested in how technology and moral codes are intertwined among the Yup’ik. The construction of the qasgi is also detailed, as are the associated utilitarian and symbolic artefacts.

The remainder of the book follows much the same pattern, with detailed description of the Yup’ik spiritual and technological rules on manufacturing and using tools. Each stage of the Yup’ik seasonal cycle is described in terms of its key activities and associated artefacts. This includes the gathering of raw materials, and the functional aspects of fashioning the items. Rationales for the use of one material over another are also provided. The spiritual aspects of these technologies are omnipresent; descriptions of the rules, taboos, and superstitions on making and using Yup’ik gear provide much-needed context. Oral traditions recounted by the Yup’ik elders illustrate these spiritual aspects of their tools in grounded terms. These chapters provide elders’ testimonials and Fienup-Riordan’s descriptions and interpretations. Thankfully, the two narratives complement one another well.

“Working with Wood, Bone and Stone” describes activities associated with the qasgi in late February and early March; the procurement of raw materials, and the means of producing artefacts are well described. As always, the spiritual and symbolic associations of the artefacts are front and centre. For example, Fienup-Riordan discusses the personhood of wood, the rocks used as amulets, and the role of the mineral paints and decorations made from them. In “Kayak,” she describes in detail the building and refurbishing of kayaks during the spring, the gathering and preparing of the materials, and the measurement, manufacture, and assembling of the composite parts. She also notes the importance of the kayak in the construction of men’s identities. In “On the Coast During Spring,” she describes open-water kayak hunting of sea mammals, with elder commentary on potential dangers, survival principles, associated gear and techniques, and material items made from the sea mammals captured.

In “On Rivers During Spring,” the knowledge and gear needed to travel inland to hunt terrestrial resources (caribou, moose, bear, and squirrel), and the objects and garments made from the products of the hunt, are juxtaposed with coastal subsistence. “Those Who Are Going to Fish Camp” describes the summer abundance associated with Yup’ik fishing, including discussions of fishing with nets, cutting, drying, aging, smoking, fermenting, and storing of fish, and articles made of fish skin. Similarly, the following chapter, “Birds in Abundance” depicts the tools and techniques used to harvest waterfowl, the objects and clothing made from their skin and feathers, and the figure of the bird in oral tradition, beliefs, songs, dances, masks, and amulets.

The title of the next chapter speaks for itself. “Things Made From Grass” describes the fall activity of gathering grass in large quantities for construction of houses and the making of baskets, mats, cloth, and ropes. “Fall Hunting and Trapping” and “Fall and Winter Fishing” provide background information: ancestral knowledge and technology needed to travel in the snow; hunting gear and techniques used during this season; items made from the animals captured (fox, moose, and caribou); fishing during the fall with dip nets, hooks, and spears; instructions and prohibitions on the harvest and use of fish products; use of fish parts for amulets; and a sample of Yup’ik legends about fish. “In the Home” centres on women’s activities during the coldest months, such as preparing food and sewing skins, and the numerous household artefacts involved. Finally, “Sharing, Celebration, and Renewal” presents the feasting and sharing traditions of Yup’ik people, embodied in various ceremonies. Of particular note is the finely detailed Messenger Feast, held in the village of Kotlik in March 2003. Fienup-Riordan compares this event with earlier historic ceremonies; the tools and technology are slightly different, but the preparation, its value, and its guiding principles remain the same.

By offering an authentic and explicit account of Yup’ik customs, beliefs, and spirituality through the lens of their material tools, too often limited by anthropologists and archaeologists to subsistence activities, this book brilliantly accomplishes the mission of faithfully portraying the Yup’ik concept of science, or technology as a way of making prayer. Fienup-Riordan and the elders effectively demonstrate that Yup’ik technology, tools, and techniques regularly “express and affirm human relationships and relationships between humans and animals in a uniquely Yup’ik way” (p. 343). For this reason, this book is of interest not only to material-culture researchers, but also to anthropologists wish to include material items in their studies of human relations. This book may also be of serious interest to archaeologists for whom material culture is primary research data. It should not be forgotten that archaeologists often tend to minimize the importance of the spirituality and worldview inherent in technology. In this sense, Fienup-Riordan’s eloquent publication is a meaningful source for interpretation of material culture, whether for the study of contemporary groups or for the reconstruction of life ways and beliefs of past hunter-gatherers.