Yup’ik Youth Use Media as a Cultural Tool
Our Way of Life
CHEFORNAK, ALASKA: It’s a sunny spring day in the Yup’ik Alaska Native village of Chefornak. Patches of snow remain on the tundra that surrounds this isolated community, while sloppy spring slush and mud fill the wooden boardwalks that serve as the town’s roads.
One small, red house seems particularly busy this afternoon, and boast subsistence traditions at their finest. A tall stack of firewood dwarves the house; several sealskins are stretched out on boards leaning against the building. The porch is an active food preparation space, where a variety of birds and seals are being skinned, cleaned, and butchered. A length of seal intestines soaks in one pot, and akutaq, a traditional dessert made of wild tundra berries, is being prepared in another.
Out front, dozens of women gather from the community for a throwing party, a celebration to honor a young man’s first catch. The women chat quietly with one another, mostly in Yup’ik, as they wait for the party to begin. They then shriek with laughter as the hosts, the women of the household, begin to throw gifts out to the crowd.
Inside, seventeen-year-old Cyrus Kinegak hangs out with his best friend, watching TV and passing a guitar back and forth between them. It’s a beautiful day to be out hunting, but he has just finished three days of drumming and singing at the school’s traditional dance festival. Today he is resting and helping with household chores before school resumes.
At a first glimpse, Chefornak comes across as a culturally strong community, thriving with Yup’ik language, traditions, and values. However, Kinegak is concerned that the way of life is changing in his community. With ever increasing access to technology and media, Yup’ik communities have become increasingly influenced by mainstream American customs, values, and language. It has caused him, and other concerned community members, to consider how to use the very same tools to keep the scales balanced, and the community’s cultural identity in tact.
Introduction Video: Yuuyaraq, Our way of LifeChefornak, Alaska is an isolated village that maintains its Yup’ik language and subsistence traditions, but is also undergoing some cultural shifts.
(Video: Victoria Nechodomu/Nechodomu Media)
Things that Threaten and Change our Culture
A Changed World, A Changed Language
Sophie Evan is a Yup’ik Media Producer at KYUK, a radio station based in the region’s hub town, Bethel. She has devoted many years to translation and media work with radio and documentary. Evan recognizes a shift in modern Yup’ik culture based on the language spoken today.
“Times have changed from my grandmother’s time. The language she used growing, the Yup’ik language, has changed because our utensils, our tools, our daily activities have changed,” Evan explains. “So the terminology from my grandmother’s time to today has changed, basically because our world has changed.”
Cyrus has also noticed a change in the language around him. He grew up speaking Yup’ik as his first language, and was entirely immersed in the language. Siblings, parents, and the entire community spoke with him in Yup’ik.
“Every time if I see parents talking to their children in English, I think about how our future will look like,” explains Cyrus, a somber expression on his face.
Shiela Wallace is a Yup’ik curriculum specialist for the Lower Kuskokwim School District (LKSD), and has worked extensively with students and staff in the district’s 22 remote villages.
“I think there are a lot of reasons why the language shift is occurring in our region,” Wallace explains. “Number one, we have the influx of technology. Through the internet and through television and through the satellite, English is a lot more prevalent than it was ever in the past.”
Technology: It’s Everywhere
We use technology here like every day life. Cell phones, iPods, iPads. There’s TVs, phones. Most people talk on the VHF [radio] if they don’t have cell phones,” explains Kinegak. While many teenagers his age in mainstream America grew up with access to cell phones, Kinegak can recall their introduction to the region a mere six years ago.
“A long time ago, when they had no cell phones, no iPods, we were really little,” explains Kinegak, rushing through childhood memories of playing in mud puddles and ponds.
“We didn’t care about dirt. Now, 8 year olds are starting to get cell phones and technologies. And we’re like, ‘What the heck?’ They’re on the Internet, playing games… They’re not living their youth outdoors. And most teens here are getting addicted to cell phones.”
As access to technology increases in rural Alaska, so does the amount of media: television programs, YouTube videos, music, trends, and viral social media content.
“Most teens are changing because of TV,” observes Kinegak, and this has him concerned. Drugs and alcohol use are among the negative influences he recognizes in the media. While this is certainly no new complaint regarding media, Kinegak’s concerns come from a different place.
To Kinegak, the two worlds are completely incompatible. In a traditional Yup’ik world of hunting, navigating the tundra in extreme weather, and family and community obligations that require hard work and energy, Kinegak sees no place for substances that may affect a person’s work ethics or coherent thinking. “They could die or something,” he states, bluntly. “They could get lost on the tundra. They could forget the advices the elders told them. They might be too lazy to go hunt.”
Carolyn Iverson is a social worker for LKSD, and has also had years of experience through other behavioral health programs in the region. In her work, she has come across many youth who she would describe as being, “out of harmony with their culture.”
“I think cultural identity plays a huge role in a person’s emotional health and how they view themselves within their society, within their culture, their community,” Iverson explains. “Sometimes they have lost their purpose of self, or purpose within their community, within this world. It feels very broken. There’s a lot of disconnect between who they are and how people view them. Some of that is connected to their cultural identity.”
Creation, Community, Family, Self
Jack Dalton, a Yup’ik story teller and writer, believes that the greatest shift in Yup’ik culture isn’t happening on a level of practiced traditions, but in the values and intentions backing such traditions.
According to Dalton, in traditional times, society was structured around first caring for creation, or nature. After creation came care for the community, and then family.
“The very last thing that you even think to take care of is yourself. And in most cases, you didn’t even have to take care of yourself because you taking care of creation, community, and family, they automatically took care of you,” Dalton explains.
According to Dalton, the western society, as modeled through media, promotes the reverse: caring for yourself first, then family, community, and creation. “The western society model and the fact that it is centered on the self and taking care of one’s self, I see that as stemming from technology. As technology improved, taking from nature, taking from creation became much easier. And the easier that it is to take from creation, the less respect you have for creation.”
Dalton believes that many of the social issues faced in today’s Yup’ik communities are linked to this reversed model. “Now it’s a lot harder for us to take care of ourselves because we’re not taking care of our families, our communities, and creation. Whereas, if we went back to a traditional model, that we would find things much, much easier.”
The negative impacts of media and technology are diverse and far-reaching in the region. While it may have made impacts, however, Dalton doesn’t believe it is to blame.
“Now does that mean technology is the problem? No. Technology is not the problem. Technology is just a tool. And tools are not, in and of themselves, bad,” he concludes.
Video: Honey Bucket Blues
One of Cyrus’ least favorite chores is dumping the family’s honey bucket. Chefornak, like many rural Alaskan villages, lacks plumbing and families must manage and dispose of their own waste using plastic buckets.
(Video by Victoria Nechodomu/Nechodomu Media)
Embrace Our Culture
Preserving Cultural Knowledge
Three years ago, Kinegak found his interests piqued by media production. He started taking elective classes in journalism and technology. He took part in the district’s intensive journalism programs, film academy, multimedia contest, and art festival. He discovered he was a quick study, and even had an eye for video.
But more interesting to him were the topics of the videos, and those he saw his classmates producing around him. Videos of elders, traditions, language, and community. Photos portraying and documenting Yup’ik culture in a beautiful, positive way.
Last year, he was listening to an elder speaking, sharing wisdom and advice, when two of his greatest passions finally merged. “I hope people will make videos of elders talking, before they disappear. Most elders are disappearing,” Kinegak reflects. “We need to carry out their stories. And not forget about our language in the media, too, so it won’t disappear. The media will help a lot because the media will not disappear.”
The use of media to preserve cultural knowledge is not a new idea. However, with the evolution of technology and its accessibility in rural Alaska, community members are now more capable of producing and distributing media themselves
Back in the day, Evan’s grandmother was a messenger, a young woman who was sent to run between villages, jump small sloughs, and deliver messages to neighboring communities. Evan recalls her grandmother’s reactions as she witnessed the introduction of new technologies to the region.
“My grandmother, who was a messenger in her youth, saw this modern communication, with land lines first, as a true gift from our creator, to communicate with someone so far away,” explains Evan. She was taught by her grandmother to cherish such technology. “We were taught to not abuse it by being angry or saying mean things over the telephone. To respect that space.”
Evan has taken those teachings and passed them on to her own children, in hopes to instill in them the same respect and appreciation for technology. “These are such beautiful gifts, coming from just four generations away.”
Dalton also recognizes the many ways that technology has become the modern version of messengers.
“I see these new technologies as being tools that could be used in a very positive way,” he explains. “Traditionally there were the messenger feasts, which were celebrations of good harvest. And the idea is that you send someone and they would run to the surrounding villages, and they would say, we’ve had a good year, we want you to come and celebrate with us. Well, now, instead of sending someone to run to the other villages, you use social media, you use email, you it’s another way of connecting with people.”
Both Bach and Evan have recognized a large number of youth using Yup’ik language, values, culture, and laws in social media posts.
“There are vibrant groups of young Yup’ik speakers that I’ve observed as well. On social media, they even communicate in Yup’ik. I’m so proud, considering their age. Even my 10 year old daughter-she texts me in Yup’ik,” describes Evan.
“The opportunity really is with them because they have this second chance to say, “yah I’m part of it.” And what’s even more incredible is when they’re proud of it-that they proudly speak their Yup’ik language,” Explains Bach.
Facebook, in particular, has become a place of cultural pride, with groups and pages devoted to communities, cultural knowledge, and traditional artists and performers.
“I think we’ve already started that path of cultural pride growing within media,” describes Iverson. “We can help them find an avenue that brings them back into harmony and help them find a place of worth and importance. And if they can do that through media, that is something that could be shared by a lot of people across this state, even across the nation. I think that’s powerful.”
Media = Art = Healing
Byron Nicholai, a young man from Toksook Bay, has brough Yup’ik songs, drumming, and dancing to global recognition with his Facebook page, “I Sing. You Dance,” which now has over 15,000 likes across the world.
“We’ve jokingly been calling him the Yup’ik Justin Bieber,” teases Evan. “I think Byron’s attitude, even though he’s been thrown into the spotlight, keeping his Yup’ik characteristics that we all are told to strive for, to be humble and gracious. He’s shown that and I see him as a good example for this next generation of Yup’ik.
Iverson recognizes the work of Nicholai, as well as youth like Kinegak making who are making efforts to generate more digital media, as a therapeutic, cultural art form.
“I see it [cultural pride in the media] growing no matter what,” said Iverson. “When you bring an art form to a person and have them connect with that art form, a part of who they are is going to come out and strengthen that art form. Our region has such a strong cultural base, even when people are somewhat out of harmony, they still are intertwined with the culture around them.”
Media: a Cultural Tool
Kinegak has not yet chosen what path he will take after high school. He knows he wants to go to college, and is exploring options in the music, engineering, and aviation industries. While he is not considering media as a career, he maintains passion for it, and encourages his peers to use it to strengthen their culture.
“Some people can’t remember how they [Yup’ik people] used to live, but we can learn by videos and watching them, and listening to the elders,” Kinegak states, with a hopeful expression on his face. “It won’t disappear because it’s media. We need to keep the advices of our elders. How to live. How to survive.”
Advances in technology have contributed to a number of negative impacts in Yup’ik communities, from language loss to social issues. However, the opportunities for technology and media to be used as tools in culturally strengthening ways are abundant, ranging from social media connectedness to producing media to preserve cultural knowledge.
“I believe that the future of this region and the hope is very, very promising,” stated Bach. “I really believe that. Maybe I missed the boat on intensive Yup’ik language, but it’s not too late for me to pursue or encourage others to make it happen for my children or the generation after that.”
“Technologies can be used in a positive, cultural identity way. I look forward to seeing how our young people take that on,” concludes Dalton.
Cyrus created this video to showcase the beauty of his home village, Chefornak, and submitted it to the LKSD Arts Festival.
Yup’ik Media Programs and Resources
Yup’ik Media: Student Videos
The above playlist features culturally themed videos produced by Yup’ik students in the Lower Kuskokwim School District.