Nunivak Island in the 20th century

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Nunivak kayaks (wikimedia commons)

Hans Himmelheber was a German ethnograph who travelled to Nunivak Island between 1927 and 1980. While he lived with the Nunivak Inuit, he recorded their stories and traditions. This blog is based on his book “Where the Echo began” and gives an insight of 20th century Nunivak Island. I highly recommend to read it by yourself, it is fascinating!

Nunivak Island lies in the south-east of Alaska. The Inuits living in the south-east of Alaska differ from other Inuit: They speak a different language and they have a distinct culture. Their culture is based on seals, reindeers, walrus, salmon and other fishes. However, they also depend on driftwood, roots, greens and berries. Activities depend on the different season. Therefore the year is divided into Berry time, time of plucking the dry grass, salmon time amongst others.

Hunting is central for the Nunivak Inuit: it determines their survival. For that reason, a man’s worth depends on his hunting ability. Stories are about men and hunting. Qualities like cleverness, faithfulness or heroicness seem less important.

Animals are seen as disguised people. Within it lives a second being which can appear as a human at will. Hunters take care of connections to the animal world but communication with the animal and the spirit world is handled by a Shaman.

There are different types of stories: hero stories, animal stories, myths and creation legends and ancestor stories.  Hero stories are the most popular ones. Mostly they tell the adventures of a poor boy finding a way to a better life. Surprisingly, animal stories are not told a lot despite the spiritual connection to them.

The stories are differ greatly from the stories told in western society. Rather than going into a certain direction, the stories flow like a river. Often, the end comes abruptly and the story is framed by a distinct morality. Death and killing is regarded as more casual, a fact which is might come from the rough environment and the daily struggle for live which inform the Inuit’s experience.

Reference: Hans Himmelheber, 2000: Where the Echo began (edited by Ann Fienup-Riordan)

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