Alaska Native storytellers are trying to modernize their tales and teach them to a new generation, keeping their traditions alive into the future.
Whether it's the story of how your parents met, a fairy tale about three bears and a little blonde girl, or the legend of how Raven brought water to the earth, every society and every family has its stories.
For most of us, we grew up hearing stories from our parents or grandparents. As children they seem like adventurous tales. It's only later that we discover the lessons that were taught.
“It was an oral tradition passed down from generation to generation,” said Ed Bourgeois, who conducts community engagement for the Alaska Native Heritage Center. “And these stories, imbedded in these stories are the cultures, through the language, the values that are discussed in the stories -- it really is an essential component of what we call culture.”
Stories become subtle ways of reinforcing the values and the morals that need to be continued, sometimes without the listener even knowing it.
“My mom has told me stories my whole life about our family, about the land; my uncle tells me stories about the land,” said interdisciplinary artist Allison Warden. “They give us a framework of who we are, where we come from, our relationship to each other, our relationship to the land. And it's amazing to me how much of that has stuck with me, how much is just instilled in every piece of my body.”
Recently, traditional Yupik storyteller John Active shared the story of “The Little Black Fish” to a captivated audience in Bethel.
“‘Oh, he's rich, he's got all that fish hanging on his fish rack, he's got all the fish hanging in the smoke house, I don't care,’” Active read. “‘I'm going to look for that man's fish trap and swim into it because he takes good care of his food.’”
“Oh, the traditional stories to me are still the best stories,” Active said. “They are the ones that have been around the longest, and the reason they've been around the longest is because they're so relevant.”
But nothing stands still. As the world changes, new stories need to be told. Jack Dalton was raised in Anchorage and re-discovered his Yupik heritage when he was in his mid-twenties.
“There is nothing that says, ‘Oh, well, these are the stories that we tell,' and that's our culture and there's nothing after that,” Dalton said. “Story is something that's constantly changing and evolving, and our cultures are evolving -- we also want the stories to do that as well.”
Dalton says some tales deal with subjects as tough as they’re necessary.
“Some of the stories being told are really painful, they're really difficult, but it's important to tell them because that's where healing begins,” Dalton said.
Sometimes those new stories turn in unexpected directions. “Raven 1,” by playwright Lucas Rowley, takes some traditional elements of Alaska Native culture and places them in a futuristic world.
“It's a contemporary play, it's actually a science-fiction story about an Alaska Native corporation that owns a space ship and sends two men out into space to do a mining project,” Rowley said. “And they run into some trouble and actually use some traditional singing to get them through a hard spot.”
The new stories can reach out and touch a new crowd of listeners, carrying traditional lessons forward. Allison Warden, also known by her rap name Aku-Matu, sees the results firsthand.
“I work with young people a lot and I'm just amazed by them,” Warden said. “They know our values, they exhibit them easily, they know the stories -- so I have a lot of hope and faith in our young people in carrying on the traditions and making new ones.”
Carrying on the tradition and keeping stories alive becomes the responsibility of every generation.
“And so, we now, even though I'm wearing Western clothes and have a smartphone and get on planes and travel the world, stuff like that, I am the product of that long shadow cast by my ancestors,” Dalton said. “And if I do a good enough job at what I do, I'll be a part of that shadow for the future.”
Allison Warden will be performing at the Fairview Block Party in Anchorage on July 21. Her one-woman show, "Calling All Polar Bears," is slated to appear in Homer in October.
Email Tracy Sinclare