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Why Subsistence is a Matter of Cultural Survival: A Yup'ik Point of View

Once there was a little blackfish swimming up a stream. Every so often he would swim up to the surface and look around. The first time he had surfaced he saw a camp where people were living. The people there were very careless. Their camp was unkempt and their belongings were strewn around. He noticed that when the people ate, they ate very carelessly. Bits of whatever they were eating would drop from their hands or out of their mouths onto the ground as they talked.

The little blackfish heard much wailing and crying at this camp. Those cries were the weeping and wailing of the bits of food that had fallen to the ground. The dogs were given the leftover scraps of food and these dogs would also leave uneaten bone and bits of food around the ground. These bits of food and bones were also crying.

The little blackfish said to himself, "I'll not swim into this man's fish trap. He's too careless with his food. I don't want my bones stepped on underfoot." The blackfish swam on.

By and by little blackfish came to another camp and there he also saw people eating. These people also were very unkempt, and just as at the first camp, were dropping bits of food onto the ground and throwing their bones to the dogs who were leaving them strewn on the ground. There was much wailing and weeping coming from these bits of food too.

Little blackfish also noticed that the children were playing with their food, throwing bones at one another as in a game. He thought to himself, "I'll not swim into this man's fish trap. They are also too careless with their food. His children are playing with their food. I am not game to be played with."

Blackfish swam on and soon he came to another camp. The next camp seemed to be deserted. There were no dogs about or people. But again little blackfish heard much wailing and weeping. These cries were coming from the stores of many fish rotting in the fish cache. There were no cries coming from strewn about bones and bits of food on the ground, but the cries were just as horrendous coming from the caches.

Little blackfish said, "I'll not swim into this man's trap. He must be greedy For all those poor fish are crying and not being eaten. I don't want to be wasted. I'd rather be shared with others in need."

Soon blackfish came to another camp. He listened and there were no cries to be heard. A man, his wife, and two children lived there. Their father also had many dogs which were tied around the camp. Blackfish noticed there were no bones or bits of food lying about and when the family ate, they ate very quietly being careful not to drop bits of food on the ground. He also saw that they set the edible bones aside for the dogs and those bones which they knew the dogs would not eat went to a separate pile. When the family was done eating, their father took the leftovers for the dogs to them and placed them in their bowls. The other unedibles were taken aside where people never walked and buried. There was no carelessness at their campground, indeed it was very quiet.

Little blackfish said to himself, "At last, a family which appreciates their food. They don't waste or leave bits of food or bones on the ground. They bury their unedibles so there is no crying and wailing at this camp."

Blackfish was overjoyed. He swam about immediately looking for the man's fish trap and upon finding it, swam into it because he knew he would be eaten very carefully and his bones would not be strewn about on the ground.

Lessons in the Stories

The preceding was a story my late grandmother, Maggie Lind of Bethel, used to tell me when I was a child -- her Yup'ik way of teaching me to be careful with my subsistence foods. I think you get the point. If you are wasteful you will become unlucky while hunting and gathering because the animals will stay away from you. It might be a fable -- or it might not.

Young Yup'ik people are taught by example and through story telling. The late Jimmy Chimegalrea of Napakiak told this story at our kitchen table one day when visiting my grandmother. Chimegalrea was relating a story he had heard from another man who had the dream.

The man dreamt he was drift netting on the Kuskokwim River. The man drifted and drifted and he didn't seem to have caught anything so he decided to take his net in. As he pulled the net in, there were no fish caught in the first half of the net, but then near the end, he felt a tug and eagerly waited for the fish to appear. When it did appear, the man was horrified to find what appeared to be a salmon which was nothing but skin and bones, but quite alive. The man was about to pull the fish into his boat when the fish spoke to him. It said, "Please, wait a moment. I have something to tell you." The fisherman sat down, quite surprised, and listened.

"Look at me," said the fish. "I am skin and bones. This is because your people have been so wasteful. There is coming a time when we fish shall be scarce to you. The people have begun to use us to become rich (probably referring to the commercial fishing industry).

"We fish were not put on this earth to be used this way We were placed here for you to catch. Look where it has led you. You fish us only to make money and some of you fish us only for our roe and throw the rest of us away.

"Listen, I hear crying and wailing coming from your fish catch. Many of us from last year hang rotting in them. Why should we make ourselves available to you when you waste us and only use us in this way?

"Go and tell your people there is coming a time when there shall be very few fish returning to this river. Those of you who fish honestly for food must go and lock the doors to your cache. The days of want and stealing are coming. Many hearts will be broken when people find that their subsistence-caught fish have been stolen. Even their set nets will be taken without asking. Be watchful. There, I have said it. Now you can take me if you want."

The man, needless to say, released the fish and told his story to Mr. Chimegalrea, who related it to us so we could pass it on to others who would listen. Indeed, along the Kuskokwim River of late there has been some reported waste and stealing of fish from fish camps. People have resorted to locking the doors to their fish cache as fish have been stolen from them, sometimes a family's entire winter supply.

Only several years ago, there was a chum salmon crash on the Kuskokwim and commercial fishermen were broke for a whole year. Even now there is always the question of whether or not to have a commercial opening because of these low returns. Elders say fish return to the rivers for a purpose: for us to eat; not to make money off of, but for subsistence purposes. They have always said, "While there are fish in the river, fish for them as much as possible. They will sustain you."

Being a `Genuine Yup'ik'

Now, in this cash economy, some people fish commercially and others even go so far as to sell fish illegally Unfortunately, those who are aware of others selling fish illegally pretend not to notice. This is not the Yup'ik way of doing things. A cash economy and stealing are not part of our culture. Subsistence is everything to us; our traditions teach us this.

I am so very fortunate to have been raised by my grandmother. I am so happy to have had the opportunity to live with her and learn from her. Maggie Lind was a `genuine Yup'ik,' as she used to call herself, and I hope that by remembering her lessons, I too, am a genuine Yup'ik.

To be a genuine Yup'ik, first and foremost, subsistence is our life. I used to go for weeks into the far reaches of the tundra with my grandmother to pick berries and watch my uncles hunt and fish. We went picking berries about 50 miles west of Bethel up into the Johnson River, a tributary of the Kuskokwim River. We would travel by boat all day and then somewhere in the Johnson River we'd veer off into one of the many small sloughs. I would watch my grandmother as she sat at the front of the boat directing my uncle who was running the outboard motor until she would point at the bank and tell him to stop.

I remember thinking to myself, "Berries don't grow here. There's no tundra. It's a swamp." We'd stop nonetheless and immediately my grandmother would take me and bring me ashore.

Then she would take me into the tall grass until we came to what appeared to be a small mound and say, "This is where my mother is buried. She was your great grandmother." We'd linger there a moment and then return to the boat where she would take out a lunch for us. Before saying grace, she would take a pinch of everything that we were going to eat: bread, butter or jam, dried fish, tea or coffee, everything that we were going to have for lunch, then she would take these and go back up onto the land and bury them there.

She told me that she was feeding our ancestors, her family who was buried there. She also said this was done for a good journey and "for the abundance of the subsistence foods we were going after today" I still do this. It is our tradition. It is a part of what makes me a `genuine Yup'ik.' I thank my grandmother who taught me these things, who taught me to appreciate our subsistence lifestyle, to not waste, but share; to not steal, but provide for myself; to remember my elders, those living and dead and share with them; to be watchful at all times that I do not offend the spirits of the fish and animals; to give the beaver or seal that I caught a drink of water so its spirit would not be thirsty; to take from the land only what I can use; and to give to the needy if I have enough to share.

Today, Yup'ik elders shake their heads and say we Yupiit are losing our culture. Our subsistence lifestyle is our culture. Without subsistence we will not survive as a people. If our culture, our subsistence lifestyle should disappear, we will be no more.

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