L e s s o n s L e a r n e d
By Ann Fienup Riordan
In January 1996, fifty Yup'ik masks were flown to Toksook Bay, a community of 500 on the edge of the Bering Sea. While museum curators installed the masks in cases in the village high school, 40 planes touched down on the runway, delivering 500 guests in a single day. More than one thousand men, women, and children had come to Toksook to dance, give thanks, and celebrate. The Agayuliyararput exhibition, three years in the making, opened with drumming and dancing and the pride of seeing the Yup'ik past made present. Sam Chanar, a Toksook high school student, wrote in an e-mail message to his friend in Bethel, "The mask exhibit was awesome. I saw two masks made by my grandfather. It made me proud."
For me, the journey to Toksook began in 1989 when pictures of masks first drew me to the National Museum of the American Indian. The masks' extraordinary features intrigued me, and I wanted to know more.
While I was exploring the contents of one museum's attic, Tim Troll, former executive of the Coastal Yukon Mayors' association, and Andy Paukan, mayor of the Yukon village of S. Marys, were investigating the contents of another the Sheldon Jackson Museum in Sitka, Alaska, home to hundreds of objects collected from their area in the 1890s. We determined to work together with the Anchorage Museum of History and Art and a steering committee of Yup'ik men and women to learn what we could about these old things, and to bring them home. From the beginning what we sought was not just the masks' physical return, but the return of the knowledge and stories, the history and pride that they embodied and that, we hoped, might in some measure come home with them. This has been realized beyond our dreams.
The Yup'ik reaction to learning about the existence of Yup'ik collections has been gratitude and pride. At our first steering committee meeting, Andy Paukan said:
This project is important for me and, I believe, all Yup'ik people, not because it brings the past back to us but because it may help preserve our future. . . . I consider it fortunate that so many well regarded museums have fine collections of Yup'ik materials. Certainly those who collected these items may have thought they were collecting the artifacts of a vanishing culture. However, among those of us whose forefathers were the craftsmen, these items demonstrate that we may be different, but we have not vanished.
If this exhibition has a lesson to teach, it is the resonance and power of objects brought home. I could give hundreds of examples of Yup'ik men and women and their moving reactions to things they saw at Toksook, Bethel, and Anchorage. At Toksook, when Lizzie Chimigak saw the beautiful camataq, or women's dance headdress, she fingered it gently, saying that she had heard stories of camataq but never before seen one. The exhibition in Anchorage brought tears to the eyes of Earl Chase, a board member of the Calista Corporation, representing the Native people of southwest Alaska, and he wrote in the comment book, "I go away knowing a little more of who I am and where I come from."
Again and again, in the poorest region in Alaska, with the highest suicide rate and highest unemployment, we saw people empowered.
This brings me to a second lesson learned, the flip side of the positive ownership of the exhibition by the Yup'ik community. This exhibition originated in the Yup'ik desire to bring old things home for their younger generation to see. Had we not done the exhibition the way we did, had the Yup'ik community not been involved from the beginning, the results of all our planning might not simply have been neutral, they could have been hurtful.
The point was made clear when I gave an exhibition tour to the members of the Calista board of directors. The prospect of leading a group of Yup'ik men, most my elders, through an exhibition of their heritage was intimidating. But as we walked through, instead of talking about the meaning of the masks, I told them the story of how we made the exhibition, and their interest was intense. At the end of the walk-through, Johnny Hawk of Eek stepped forward and said:
When I hear a white person speak our language, it confuses me, and I want to answer them in English. When I hear them read my language, it makes me angry at them. But then I realize that I am really angry at myself, because I cannot read my own language. And my only regret is that we did not do this sooner.
I came away from that tour having been reminded of something I hope I never forget. If, as a non-Native researcher, I work without community involvement, I take away authorship, undercut ownership. Collaboration is much more than a matter of respect. An outsider's exhibition, however accurate, runs the risk of putting Alaska Natives at arms length from the objects of their past.
The last lesson, then, is about ownership. I smile when I think how many feel that this exhibition is theirs. The Anchorage Museum is rightfully proud of their exhibition. And I'm proud, too. Best of all, listen to what Yup'ik commentator John Active wrote about seeing the mask exhibition in Bethel:
When I walked through the doors, the first thing I saw was a king salmon mask. How appropriate, I thought. From the salmon carving, I turned to my left and walked through the rest of the exhibition which dazzled my mind. "How ingenious we Yupiit are, " I thought to myself as I saw a mask from Chevak with moveable eyes. The mask exhibit reaffirmed my Yup'icity. Suddenly I was proud to be Yup'ik.
These masks cry out to us, saying, "Look how inventive you people are! Come and see how your ancestors used to make prayers, quietly, beautifully. And you know, we are still praying for you today."
It is not the objects we have brought together that have made this work worthwhile, but the bonds of friendship and mutual respect that working together has nurtured. In making this exhibition we have learned much about masks. We have also been taught something about life, from the Yup'ik point of view. Elder Paul John has always told me about my opportunity to learn Yup'ik, "You're very lucky, Anna." Now, thanks to him and to men and women like him, we're all lucky in the rare view of the past we've been given, as well as an understanding of the meaning this past still holds for people in Alaska today.
1997 Ann Fienup Riordan.
Ann Fienup-Riordan, curator of the Agayuliyararput exhibit, has lived and worked in Alaska since 1973. An independent scholar, Ms Fienup-Riordan received her Ph.D. in cultural anthropology from the University of Chicago.
She is the author of many books about the people of Alaska including Freeze Frame:Alaska Eskimos in the Movies and most recently The Living Tradition of Yup'ik Masks. She was named Historian of the Year by the Alaska Historical society and has received many other honors and awards.
Ms Fienup-Riordan is a research associate of the Arctic Studies Center, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution.