Culture, fish, and spirituality

As I spend more time in Bethel, I realize that traditional culture is deeply imbedded into everyday life. From the food the people eat to the landscape that they live on, everything can be tied back into native Yupik tradition. As a person from a Eurocentric society, I find this concept hard to grasp. I don’t consider the German and Irish ways of my ancestors when looking at the world around me. In fact, I know very little about my cultural roots. Maybe that’s why I can’t help but feel a little envious of the Yupik culture.

This culture can be so empowering. I was lucky enough to get a small taste of it when I gutted and filleted a salmon a couple of days ago. I was taught to use an uluaq in the proper way, how to strategically cut the fish, and how to correctly prepare it for a meal. Most importantly, I learned to cut off as much meat as possible, because every little piece is valuable. I’ve never had a more satisfying meal in my entire life. Simultaneously, I felt a refreshing freedom from the modern world and a connection to the natural world around me. Yes, someone else caught the fish, and no I didn’t do this in a fish camp, but for a brief moment I was a part of the Yupik culture.

The native culture here can be just as humbling as it is empowering. As part of a presentation that was given to us, we simulated how a traditional Yupik society functioned. At the center is spirituality, represented by a hand drum and smudge. In the circle directly around spirituality is the children of the society. Myself and three other of the youngest members of our group comprised this circle. Around the children sat the Elders. Traditionally, it was the Elders who passed on cultural wisdom to the children. In the next circle was the mothers who took responsibility for caring for the family. The final circle was where the fathers stood. They functioned as the protectors and providers of the society.

Sitting in the middle of the circle, surrounded by so many people, I felt such an overwhelming sense of safety and protection. A sense of love and importance. There was no question of where I belonged in the society and no danger of being left behind. In a world that’s so complicated, our circle was beautifully simple.

The simple beauty of the Kuskokwim River.
The simple beauty of the Kuskokwim River. Photo courtesy of John O’Keefe.

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