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“We Talk to You Because We Love You”: Learning
from Elders at Culture Camp
9951 Prospect Drive
Anchorage, AK 99507
SUMMARY This article explores the activities of the Calista Elders Council (CEC) as
an example of “culturalism,” that is, the process of self-conscious, deliberate use of
identity, culture, and heritage in the struggle for recognition of a distinctive Yup’ik way
of life. Culture camp in southwestern Alaska provides a modern means for the traditional
end of training young people to be good listeners and, in their turn, become speakers of
truth. The emphasis on talk remains, reflecting an indigenous view of how young people
should learn and elders should teach. Grandparents, even more than parents, were an
important source of moral instruction in the past. Contemporary village children spend
much less time in the presence of elders. Through CEC activities, some elders seek to
reclaim that space and make their voices heard.
Elders at camp presented instruction in group settings, based on their own personal
experience: “I tell what I know.” They made no claims to completeness or to imparting
the one true faith. Their sense of their own culture was neither essentialist nor bounded,
and the emphasis was not on presenting a unified, homogeneous, systematic view, as in
some instances of cultural revival and renewal. During evening sessions elders engaged
in serious moral discourse. They talked about not only what young people needed to know
but how they were expected to learn it. Like the grandmother we honor here, they were
teaching nothing less than how to learn.
When I lived on Nelson Island in the late 1970s, I heard many stories about life
at Umkumiut, a seasonal camp on the shores of Toksook Bay. Through the 1950s
Umkumiut was occupied from mid-April, when families arrived by dog team
from the winter village of Nightmute, through fishing in July, when they returned upriver by boat with their summer’s harvest. The shallow bay discouraged passing ships from landing, and villagers’ only contact with the outer world
was when they walked over the top of Nelson Island to visit the store and attend
Sunday mass at Tununak.
Umkumiut originally comprised a dozen sod houses strung out along the
beach, including a larger sod structure—the men’s house or qasgi—where men
slept, worked, told stories, and enjoyed daily sweat baths. By the 1950s the qasgi
was abandoned, and the sod houses were replaced with frame dwellings. In 1964
a number of enterprising Nightmute families established the village of Toksook
Bay on high ground along the coast three miles to the east of Umkumiut, thus
avoiding the arduous annual move between summer and winter villages. Since
then, tundra mice had been Umkumiut’s only summer residents except for a few
Nightmute families who come to fish for herring and salmon in June.
Though still on the physical periphery of the Western world, Umkumiut has
recently reemerged as a vital center of Yup’ik activity. This time, however, it is
not fish people seek but nothing less than the preservation of Yup’ik culture. For
ten days in June 2000, five elders—Paul and Martina John and Theresa Moses of
Toksook Bay and Simeon and Theresa Agnes of Nightmute—worked with 20
10-14 year olds from surrounding villages to teach them about Yup’ik ways of
Anthropology and Humanism 26(2):173-187. Copyright ©2002, American Anthropological Association.
Anthropology and Humanism
Volume 26, Number 2
thought and life. This “culture camp/’ as it was called, was sponsored by the
Calista Elders Council (CEC). Although a “new tradition,” the camp proved to
be a place where many past practices lost to contemporary village life were
present in word and deed.
The Calista Elders Council
Thirty years ago I never heard the word culture used on Nelson Island. Today
it is on everyone’s lips. Conscious culture is the trademark of the new millennium
on Nelson Island as elsewhere, requiring effort to preserve and reproduce past
practices and defend them against assimilative pressures. In this struggle, as
Sahlins points out, “the continuity of indigenous cultures consists in the specific
ways they change” (2000:196).
Two years ago Mark John, eldest son of regional leader Paul John and a leader
in his own right, took a job in Anchorage as director of the CEC. The council is a
nonprofit organization representing the 1,330 Yup’ik elders 65 and older in the
Yup’ik homeland. Under Mark’s leadership, CEC appointed a nine-person board
of elders and hired small but dedicated staffs in Anchorage and Bethel. The board
developed a fivefold plan of action to preserve and transmit Yup’ik values and
traditions, including annual youth and elders conferences, regionwide dance
festivals, a network of village representatives, a series of bilingual publications,
and the youth culture camps. Because of the potential of CEC’s plan to contribute
to both community health locally and arctic social science globally, the council
has been successful in obtaining Association for Native American and National
Science Foundation (NSF) support for its work, and I work with it as part of the
NSF project. Ironically, normative society originally worked vigorously to erase
difference and assimilate indigenous others during most of the 20th century, but
today federal and state efforts materially support the new emphasis on differences.
The CEC’s real power and authority rest with its board of elders. In many cases
of cultural revival, younger men and women who champion “tradition” are often
at odds with parents, who had “accommodated to the white man and internalized the latter’s reproaches” (Sahlins 2000:198). In southwestern Alaska, tradition-bearing elders are truly leading the charge, as they have retained both
knowledge of their past and a passionate desire to communicate it. For them, as
for indigenous leaders elsewhere, “culture is not only a heritage, it is a project,”
a demand for specific forms of modernity that are only possible if the next
generation shares their view of the world, that is, their culture (Sahlins 2000:200).
Much has changed in the last 40 years, but contemporary Yup’ik elders
especially retain a sense of Yup’ik distinctiveness. These men and women, born
in the first decades of the 20th century, were in the last generation raised in the
qasgit and sod houses. How do they define themselves? What are some of the
uniquely Yup’ik ways of viewing the world that they hope to communicate to
their young people, and, as important, how do they want this communication to
Culture Camp: “We Talk to You Because We Love You”
The following pages examine the Umkumiut culture camp as CEC’s first, and
to date most successful, effort to create a context in which elders can communicate their sense of Yup’ik distinctiveness to young people. I attended the camp
not as an outside researcher but as a mentor to help CEC staff record what their
elders had to say, and this article presents some of what I learned. One might
account for the elders’ words as part of the Yup’ik search for identity, but such
“We Talk to You Because We Lov You
a quest did not motivate the specific form they took or precisely what was being
said. To understand these things, we need to explore the camp’s properties, not
its effects (e.g , Sahlins 1999:407). As Little Richard puts it so well, “There was a
whole lot of [talkin’] goin on. What were the elders trying to say?
The Umkumiut camp was unlike any I had ever attended—no evening taps or
morning reveille, no regular wakeup time, mealtime, or bedtime, no songs, skits,
lanyards, or campfires in the dark, not even any dark to have campfires in.
Instead, structure flowed from the seasonal cycle of activ ities. We rose with the
tide and moved with the weather. On a calm morning we were up early, and half
the campers left by boat to dig clams, check nets, or gather herring eggs from the
shore. The others helped the elders with activities around camp, including
preparing seal gut, stringing nets, cutting fish, and braiding herring for drying
(Figure 1).
Unusually good weather allowed many opportunities for campers to explore
the tundra and shallow waters of the Bering Sea coast. Regardless of how busy
the days were, evenings were reserved for “elder time”—an hour or more during
which the young people sat m a circle on the floor of the small, frame church we
were using as the girl’s dormitory and listened to the elders. The warm dark room
with high windows letting in evening light resonated with the original context
of such oratory—the qasgi. The elders spoke in Yup ik, which Alice Rearden and
Charlene Bosco took turns translating for the handful of students who were not
fluent in their native language.
Living at Umkumiut for the first time in 35 years was tremendously evocative
for elders. Walking in the tall grass by the shore or sitting by the fish racks looking
out at the Bering Sea deluged elders with a flood of memories. The first two
evenings they described their experiences at Umkumiut and entertained the
young people with ghost stories of the extraordinary beings inhabiting the
Figure 1
Jackie Lincoln of Toksook Bay learning to braid herring fish with beachgrass
for drying.
Anthropology and Humanism
Volume 26, Number 2
landscape. They also remembered the many babies buried on the hillside. Late
one afternoon, drinking tea in one of the small houses, Martina commented on
how quiet life had been here in the past, lacking even the sound of children
playing as work was constant and families were small.
Moving beyond reminiscences, elders began to seriously talk to the young
people about why they were there and what they hoped they would learn (Figure
2). Simeon began:
We came here to camp at Umkumiut. . for the purpose of learning about our way of
life, about Yup’ik ways, about how they tried to live and how a man provided for
himself. We came here to be speakers because we wanted you to know about those
things, neqaqarkiurhici [to give you advice to remember later on in life].. .You might
forget what you were told, but someday it will appear in your minds when you become
Theresa Moses echoed his emphasis on talk: “We are supposed to instruct you if
we have the knowledge, to talk to you
about the lives you will live.” Theresa
stressed that explanations should be kept short and simple: “You know, our
children don’t understand some things.” Simeon agreed: “Some of these people
here do not comprehend what we are saying at all. . Some have not been spoken
to in this manner.” Nevertheless, the youngsters were expected to be responsible
for their own learning. According to Paul John, “Another person can’t learn for
you, but we should try to learn ourselves from what we heard and try to be
attentive as we learn.” As Theresa said, “We are in charge of our own lives.”
The elders made it clear from the beginning that the purpose of camp was far
from academic. Their goal was nothing less than to teach the Yup’ik way of life
Figure 2
Paul John of Toksook Bay and Simeon Agnes of Nightmute speaking to the
“We Talk to You Because We Love You”

so that these young people would never lack for food in the future. According to
Paul, a CEC board member:
As we were raising funds for these camps for you to attend, we discussed the fact that
when we first became aware of our surroundings, food from the land was our only
means of living. This was before welfare and before there were food stamps, when
harvested food was the only thing available. We wanted to raise funds for the purpose
of teaching the young people about nerangnaqsaraq [subsistence, literally, “trying to find
something to eat, seeking sustenance”}.
And it has become a reality. We received money. And earlier, they spoke about the
importance of subsisting. Indeed… subsistence is a source of great wealth to us Yupiit.
Even though one has no money, if they have stored food they have caught, it is as though
one has a lot of money. One will eat when hungry; their means of support is not cut off,
but it is like that person is wealthy…. Because that is what a subsistence lifestyle
provides, the council wanted you to learn about it here in these camps. And those who
have spoken before have told you the truth. They learned this from their elders, and
they have told us what they have experienced in their lives; the things they told us are
very true.
Now those people who provide public assistance have said that… this source of
money is going to run out. When welfare is no longer available… people will have to
return to the subsistence way of life. Those who have jobs will continue to eat storebought food, but jobless people, if they don’t try to subsist and take care of food, will
have none.
Paul concluded, “Kenekngamceci qanrutamceci [We talk to you because we love
you], that is why we are giving you wonderful young people advice.”
Having explained the purpose and truth of their words and the loving spirit
in which they were given, the elders went on to emphasize how important it was
for the young people to listen to what they had to say. Using a traditional adage,
Paul stated:
Back when our ancestors constantly taught their young people in this manner, they
used to say, “Ayuqekusngatullruit qanmeng iluatni uitalriatnun” [They likened them to
something that was inside their m o u t h ] . . . . It was because they were adhering to what
that person told them. And then the opposite. If a person does not listen . . . they said
to that young person, “Tang elpet keggutma akuliitggun anqatalriaten” [It appears that you
are going to slip out through the spaces in my teeth]
That is what they used to tell
them; a person who adhered would be likened to staying inside the mouth, but the one
who was not cooperating even though they were disciplined, one who did not adhere,
was told that they were slipping through the spaces in their teeth.
Elders Spoke and Young People Listened
Not surprisingly, the first topic our elders addressed was how children were
talked to in the past. Parents then were never quiet. According to Simeon,
Our parents’ qanruyutet [words, teachings] were true, and they were never quiet
towards young girls and young men who they wanted to encourage…. They were
always talking, always disciplining young boys and girls. They always spoke to those
who they didn’t want to see heading in the wrong direction in their lives. But they said
that some men would not discipline others but only discipline their own children. That
is how those qanruciiyuilnguut [people who did not discipline others] were.
Paul added that, in the past, elders really wanted their listeners to pay attention:
“When someone interrupted while there was a speaker, they would direct their
attention to us and say, ‘Hey you, you poor thing, you aren’t listening!’ Apparently, they really wanted us to learn and loved us a great deal.”
Anthropology and Humanism
Volume 26, Number 2
In rich, metaphoric language, Theresa Moses elaborated on the importance of
listening to one’s parents:
Let me tell you about my experiences. You all have mothers and fathers. When you
return home, follow your mother’s inerquutet [admonishments]. To lose a mother is very
devastating and lonesome…. Those of you who have mothers, if they admonish you
about not taking the wrong path, try to listen to them, listen also to your fathers
How will you live when they pass away if you do not learn how to do things? . . .
When parents die, it is like they leave with everything that you own…. Those things
that used to appear are lost. And even though we mothers try to do things with our
sons, the things that our father took from the water and brought home are lost
And when we behave in a bad way, our parents get embarrassed if they hear
should listen to your mothers and have respect for them, try to follow what they say.
And when they die, if you want to do something after they pass on, you can’t.
Theresa added that some young people do not want to listen because they think
speakers are talking specifically about them:
Some girls or boys don’t want to hear it when they listen to people giving oral
instruction because it seems like they are actually talking about their behavior. That is
what 1 used to do. When a woman would come in and talk, it seemed like she was
directing her words to me. When she would leave, I would ask, “Who talked about
me?” And before my mother died, she told me that if I travel to other villages… I would
think that somebody was gossiping about me if I hadn’t given up my bad behavior.
Simeon also emphasized the importance of good listening. He said: “This is
the first time we are doing something like this here at Umkumiut… . When you
return home your parents will ask you, ‘What did they speak to you about at
Umkumiut?’… If you hold onto and put away this qaneryaraq [saying], this
ayuqucirtuun [instruction],… you will take it back to your villages. Only if you
pay close attention while you are listening.”
Instructions in the Past: What Elders Had to Say
After establishing the importance of good talking and good listening, the elders
began to elaborate on what they were told when they were young. Paul described
how he was instructed not to “follow his laziness”:
When they talked to us boys about our lives up to the point where we would have
wives, they used to tell us, “If you live by following your laziness and do not try to
provide food,… if you happen to get a partner, you will only contribute to finishing
the food of your in-laws.” …
And when listening to those who were speaking to girls … [:] “If he made a mistake
by looking at your [pretty] face and he married you for that reason, if you don’t work,
your husband’s family will say to your husband, ‘Bring her back to her family because
she doesn’t do anything.’ ” . . .
And then they would give us an opposite scenario
“If you tried to obtain food,
breaking down your laziness, your in-laws will hold you more dear than their own
children, loving you and wanting you to be their in-law. Also when a girl becomes a
daughter-in-law, if they do not sit still,… she would be no different…. They would
consider her more dear than their own children.”
Speaking on laziness, Theresa Anthony (a visitor from Nightmute) added, “Being
lazy is not good. When someone had to ask us to perform a task, we suddenly
felt overwhelmed.” Conversely, Simeon described how people’s activity could
“wake up” their partners and cause them to succeed: “And a man might be a
nukalpiaq [good hunter] and would catch everything…. When he gets a partner,
“We Talk to You Because We Love You”

if the wife does not pay attention to his catch, that man will start to hunt without
catching anything. Some of these girls here can wake up their husbands…. If
she takes good care of the game her husband caught, she will encourage her
husband’s hunting skills.”
Theresa Agnes described how, in the past, girls were talked to about men’s
work: “Even though we were females, they talked to us about topics that
pertained to boys. And they brought to our attention that everything that was to
be caught comes from the w a t e r . . . . Even if they were women, they told them
about the qanruyutet and did not exclude them just because they were females.”
Paul noted that the same was true of boys and that today he still helps his wife
with “women’s work.”
Theresa Moses also recalled being advised not to talk back or act on her anger:
“They admonished us like this, ‘If a person confronts you and even though you
get hurt, do not talk back to t h e m . ‘ . . . They call that person qen’ngailnguq [one
who does not g£t mad easily or act in anger]. Even though he gets angry, he tries
to remain calm, holding back what he has to say.”
Following their elders’ admonishments was parti …
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