Eskimos Made Ingenuity Into Art Form

Posted April 21, 2010 at 4:44pm

A new Smithsonian exhibit will make it worth fighting the hoards of tourists: On Saturday, the National Museum of Natural History unveiled “Yuungnaqpiallerput (The Way We Genuinely Live): Masterworks of Yup’ik Science and Survival.”

And although contemporary presidential politics have inserted the 49th state into the national spotlight, the indigenous people tell a more significant tale.

The Yup’ik are an Eskimo people, indigenous to the Bering Sea coast of Alaska.

The exhibit, on loan from the Anchorage Museum, culls together collections from 13 museums in the United States and Germany. The activities, tools and materials of Yup’ik daily life are the focus, with most of the 200 pieces tracing back to the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Cultural anthropologist and exhibit curator Ann Fienup-Riordan collaborated with a group of Yup’ik elders in bringing the exhibit together. She got an early start with a trip in the late 1990s, when she led a group of Yup’ik elders to a Berlin ethnological museum, which houses a large collection of Yup’ik artifacts collected in the 1880s.

Since that excursion, Fienup-Riordan has conducted extensive research and oral interviews with Yup’ik people — all of whom provided content for what would come to be “The Way We Genuinely Live,” a joint project of the Anchorage Museum and the Calista Elders Council. Virtually all of the text accompanying the artifacts can be read in Yup’ik and English, and all come from Yup’ik elders’ interpretations.

“People were not aware of how sophisticated their technology was,” said Suzi Jones, deputy director of the Anchorage Museum. “It’s also for the understanding of the Yup’ik young people. They probably haven’t seen most of these things.”

Previously, the exhibit was housed in the Anchorage Museum, in addition to touring to two other museums. The Smithsonian exhibit, however, revamped the artifacts to become more interactive — including videos of ceremonial dances and animal hunts.

The exhibit’s layout is seasonal. A fitting introduction comes by way of a mounted drum. The instrument serves both a ceremonial purpose — the Yup’ik use drums in traditional dances — and as a representation of a cultural sound that has been kept alive for centuries, tying the whole cultural and spiritual meaning together.

Yup’ik ingenuity is immediately on display: Without many trees in a flat, barren land, the people improvised, using driftwood to construct tools.

Parkas made of seal intestine represent striking craftsmanship. Strips of intestine were sewn with waterproof stitches and the sinews were overlapped with blades of grass. When damp, the grass swells up and seals the needle holes.

But as much as the exhibit is about techniques that have been used and perfected for centuries, it is also about the new: Video shows contemporary Yup’ik constructing kayaks by splitting trees.

The result is an onslaught of artifacts throughout the exhibit — a kayak, a fishnet and seal intestine suspended above — bringing the collection to life.

“One emphasis is to stress how they allow all these things to be made out of a very few number of materials — wood, skins, ivory bone — they really can be quite sophisticated in the way they work,” Jones said. “Everything works on both a practical level and very often on a spiritual, moral level as well.”

Lamps fueled by mammal oil, seal fur clothing, salmon skin mittens and boots, bentwood hunting hats (both beautiful and useful for reducing glare while hunting), wood goggles that function like today’s Polaroid by narrowing the amount of light coming into your eyes, and a diaper made out of seal stomach with moss absorber — an early precursor to Pampers — all leave a sense of appreciation for the knowledge that the Yup’ik accumulated to survive in subarctic tundra.

“The Way We Genuinely Live” will run until July 25.