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History and Culture

Home  >  History and Culture  >  Cultural Heritage
An Introduction to the Chevak Curriculum
By John Pingayaq

My Window to the Past

The oldest story of our Cup'ik ancestry is recorded in "Our First Ancestor," by my grandfather and mentor, Joe Friday. When my grandfather began telling me stories of our ancestry, it was difficult for me to understand the Cup'ik philosophy embedded in those stories, because it involved a complex way of thinking. This mental block prevented me from understanding our ancestral way of life through my grandfather's eyes. My mental block can be described as not having experienced what my grandfather did, before extensive contact with Western civilization. The "window to the past" was a complicated intellectual skill I had to develop. To accurately record the stories on paper, I had to visualize them.

Joe Friday's helper and partner, Ulric Nayamin, also helped me understand the past. He would explain, in modern context, elements that helped me fully understand the stories. He was also my window to the past. Many of the stories and legends he and my grandfather told took place near Chevak, at sites I began to know and see through the experience and eyes of my forefathers.

John Pingayaq and his carving
Cuuyaraq: Our Way of Life as Human Beings

To learn about Cup'ik culture and history, our young people must first become familiar with Cuuyaraq, or our way of life as human beings. Cuuyaraq highlights our dealings with fellow members of the community, our subsistence way of life, our relationship to our environment, and our understanding of the spirit world and Creator. If our young people are well taught in Cuuyaraq, they can become masters of the land and live good prosperous lives.

To become knowledgeable in Cuuyaraq one must be open to advice and listen to Elders and parents. There are different methods of acquiring the wisdom and knowledge of our ancestors. Many of the Elders who share knowledge will say, "These are not my words." Some Elders hesitate to speak about different elements of life, because they are afraid of making mistakes or giving wrong information. Others will consult and correct each other when they give advice. Occasionally, one or two Elders will have confidence in their advice and will be direct in correcting the wrongdoings of others.

Elders will remind us, "If we didn't care, we would have not said anything to you." The person who does not say anything about your wrongdoing does not show care and love toward you. The person who says something — even if your mind and heart may be offended — is the person who loves you and does not want you to repeat the mistakes he may have made.

This is the reason why Cuuyaraq is so sacred to our people. As they grow older, many people say, "I have begun to recognize the experience that my Elders have talked about for so long." Young people given advice may at first say, "No way in this world will I ever do that." But as time passes they say, "We recognize those things we have been told about our future." It is true that our ancestor's words are real and can be used each and every day. This belief in our heritage also needs to be passed on to our young people. We are the only ones able to pass on the information that will allow our Cuuyaraq to survive.

Amellrutaq: Rule of Cooperation

Another very important aspect of the traditional Cup'ik way of life is amellrutaq, or rule of cooperation. To understand our culture, young people must also understand how decisions were traditionally made.

The Cup'ik people would talk and reach a consensus about some issue affecting the community. Once a consensus was reached, no one could go against it. The rule of cooperation states that whatever the majority wants, never go against it. This is referred to as pairtesqevkenaku: do not go against it. It was dangerous to go against the group; the well-being of one person could be destroyed, if the rest of the people developed negative attitudes toward him.

Once the consensus of the people was reached, it was told to an Elder in the village, who could then advise the people. Since the Elder had experienced more in life, he could advise others about whether the decision they had reached was good or bad for them. The Elder was an important element in the process of reaching a decision and determining whether it was a good decision.

This traditional practice corresponds with what we still do today. In community meetings, people state their views and after all their views are expressed, a decision is then voted on. If one person is against the consensus decision, he should not speak against the people's choice. Others may turn against him, and the life of that person will be unpleasant.

Predictions of the Wise Men

Long before white men arrived in southwest Alaska, Cup'ik wise men predicted how our lives would change in the future. They told stories to the younger generation, predicting the following things: (1) that people would behave without respect; (2) that there would be a smoking star; and (3) that shining particles would appear on the tundra.

Disrespectful Behavior

The wise men predicted that people's behavior would deteriorate, and that unacceptable behavior would be displayed openly, without remorse. This kind of behavior was not tolerated traditionally, and was considered a disgrace to families who did not try to correct it. Some examples of such behavior include lack of respect for people who try to correct bad behavior, swearing and fighting. Such behavior among young people is a result of little or no discipline. An important result of bad behavior is that people who choose to behave with disrespect do not learn traditional knowledge and wisdom — and may therefore not survive the harsh conditions in the Arctic.

Much of what the wise men predicted came to pass, in the third or fourth generation after white men arrived in the region. The missionaries came; more white men came; white men's goods began coming to Qissunaq. Soon the Eskimo way of living was disappearing. No more Qaygiqs; no more hunting with bows and arrows; no more Eskimo clothes. The traditional beliefs were suppressed. Too often, young people lost discipline and began behaving however they pleased.

The Smoking Star

The wise men also predicted that a smoking star would appear near Cape Romanzof. We believe this prediction meant that the coming generations would use machines that smoke, and things that smoke — like cigarettes and gasoline burners.

Shining Trash on the Tundra

Finally, the wise men foresaw shining trash on the tundra. They said that in the future we'd be seeing particles shining from the sun on the tundra. We believe these shiny particles they predicted were items made of glass, aluminum, and other metals that have become so prevalent in our lives.

These predictions were made long before there was any influence with other cultures. They have been passed down in stories over the generations. It is startling to think about how much of what our ancestors foresaw can be seen in our lives today. But it is vital for our young people to learn what life was like among the Cup'ik people for thousands of years before outsiders came.

Framework for Learning: The Classroom and Beyond

This curriculum is intended to enhance the students' interest in their own culture by making that culture a part of their daily activities. Another key element of the lessons is teaching students to practice the traditional Cup'ik respect for fellow students and for others in the community.

The stories and legends of our people — who we are and where we came from — are very important for our children to learn. The Qissunamiut Cup'ik people of Chevak traditionally used semi-subterranean sod houses as training sites for young people. The Elders taught simple rules and guidelines that students learned with intensity. Their goal was to prepare students to survive in the face of any future natural or man-made disasters. They prepared the students by teaching them the ancestral ways of living, before contact with Western culture.

Today most teaching is confined to classrooms. But teaching Cup'ik children the traditional stories and legends in just classrooms is difficult — because to really learn, the students must picture and internalize the stories. So while this curriculum is mainly intended to help teachers in the classroom, it also calls for students to leave the classroom and go to some traditional Cup'ik sites. Students will spend a few days living and sleeping on the tundra — during fall, winter, and summer — at sites where stories told by the Elders took place. The students will bring their sleeping gear and other camping essentials. For students to fully appreciate and understand their cultural way of life -- and to picture and internalize the Cup'ik stories and legends — they must experience for themselves how our ancestors lived 100 or more years ago.

Another reason for students to spend time subsisting on the land is to help them appreciate what they eat and learn to identify food sources available for each village. The survival methods of our ancestors will come into play. Some of those methods, as described later in the curriculum, can be demonstrated. Students will experience both the hardship and the enjoyment of the tundra by reliving the paths of their ancestors. The Cup'ik stories and legends will then become real to them.

Yet another goal of this curriculum is (like the goal of the Elders in earlier years) preparing our young people for natural or man-made disasters that could devastate our towns and villages. For example, disasters such as volcanic eruptions could prevent oil and gas from reaching our villages. How could we survive without fuel for our modern-day conveniences? What would happen if supplies could no longer be flown or shipped to our villages?

Our ancestral ways of living would help us survive these difficulties, should they happen — but we must teach our children those traditional ways. This includes teaching them about traditional clothing and tools that can help us become independent of our modern conveniences.

In summary, this curriculum will teach students about their culture so that the traditional way of life will not be foreign to them. Our region is treeless -- but it is still beautiful: the beautiful tundra that is home to the Cup'ik people.

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