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An archaeologist in Alaska: how working with a Yup’ik community transformed my view of heritage

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Written by: Alice Watterson, Post-doctoral Research Assistant, 3DVisLab, University of Dundee

Alice Watterson, CC BY-SA

In spite of the gore, I sit completely transfixed by the deft movements of Sarah’s hands as she butchers a young spotted seal laid out on a strip of cardboard on the floor. “Can I help with anything?” I ask. She laughs as she separates out the meat from the fat and the fat from the skin and suggests that I can do the dishes if I like.

This is my third trip to the village of Quinhagak on the western coast of Alaska, surrounded by a landscape of vast expanses of tundra and an intertwined tangle of lakes and rivers which feed into the Bering Sea.


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The Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta region of Alaska is home to the Yup’ik people, who practise a largely subsistence lifestyle characterised by seasonal hunting, fishing and gathering. An archaeological dig happens here each year over the brief summer season between July and August, although seasonal changes, once like clockwork, are becoming less distinct because of climate disruption.

Local woman Mary Church hangs up salmon strips to dry.
Willard Church., CC BY-SA

Discovering Nunalleq

The dig, which goes back nearly a decade, was initiated by the local community with the aim of rescuing the remains of an old sod house in a nearby area known as Nunalleq, or “the old village”, before it is lost to permafrost melt and a crumbling coastline. The site dates from between 1570 and 1675, decades before Yup’ik first came into contact with Russian and European traders.

The archaeological excavations at Nunalleq.
Nunalleq Archaeology Project

The excavations, led by a team from Aberdeen University in Scotland, were well underway by the time I joined in 2017. The project has recovered some 100,000 artefacts which were put on public display for the first time in August 2018 at the Nunalleq Culture and Archaeology Centre in Quinhagak.

As a reconstruction artist, it is my job to translate archaeological findings into renderings of life in the past. In Quinhagak, I was tasked with collaborating with the local community to co-design a digital resource for schoolchildren. It tells the story of the excavations in a way that makes space for the traditional Yup’ik worldview and contemporary parallels in subsistence, dance and crafts.

A reconstructed interior of the sod house.
Alice Watterson with characters by Tom Paxton

Within this resource, 3D-scanned artefacts and animated reconstructions of village life at Nunalleq can be explored on a computer screen, accompanied by soundbites, videos and interactive content co-curated by the Quinhagak community and the archaeologists. It will be available to the public here from July 2019.

3D scanned artefacts, narrated by local community and archaeologists.
Alice Watterson with characters by Tom Paxton

The purpose of my trip in April 2019 was to test the resource on school computers in the village. This trip was outside the usual dig season so I stayed with a local family. My host was schoolteacher Dora Strunk, who was raised in Quinhagak and whose children belong to a generation in the village who grew up with the archaeology project.

Whether it was bouncing across the tundra on Dora’s four-wheeler to collect kapuukuq greens, or sitting in her daughter Larissa’s bedroom listening to her explain the meaning behind her traditional dance regalia, these friendships have gradually reshaped my own understanding of what it means to be Yup’ik in the 21st century.

What heritage means

I’ve heard objections to the collection being housed in the village: shouldn’t it be in a big museum in Anchorage or New York where more people can see it, “for the greater good”?

What I have learned during my visits here is that there is a need to maintain heritage within a community – and to allow it to be part of the here and now. Heritage is often seen as being focused on fragmented artefacts and ruinous buildings, but for many people, particularly indigenous and descendant communities, it can be intrinsically connected to a sense of social identity and cohesion.

Children gather for the annual show-and-tell to see the finds excavated after each dig season.
Nunalleq Archaeology Project

Like many indigenous communities across the world, Yup’ik are still dealing with the effects of deep historic trauma from centuries of colonisation, exploitation and misrepresentation. Yet unlike the majority of Native Americans in the lower 48 states, Alaska Native land isn’t compacted into Indian reservations. People still traverse the vast expanse of tundra and coastline like their ancestors did thousands of years ago.

That said, maintaining this connection to land and tradition does not constitute a bygone era. Yup’ik is a living culture fully part of the modern world, with Snapchat and drum dances, microwave pizza and walrus ivory carving, snow machines and subsistence practices – even Facebook feeds filled with Yup’ik memes. Culture persists.

Establishing the Nunalleq centre in Quinhagak and helping to create the digital resource with the Yup’ik community is part of the same mindset that is prompting a handful of museums to repatriate artefacts and remains to descendant communities – while others come under mounting pressure to do so.

Here and now

My latest trip coincided with the district’s annual dance festival, which brought together schools from across the region. I had worked with young people from the local group the previous summer, who had chosen to interpret the excavation of dance regalia from Nunalleq by writing a new traditional drum song or yuraq about the site. They performed it again at this year’s festival.

During the festival, many youngsters came to the museum to see the artefacts. I witnessed teenagers pulling open drawers containing wooden dance masks, drum rings, ivory earrings, bentwood bowls and harpoons with trembling hands. Big kids lifted little kids up to peer into the cabinets and gasp, asking: “These all came from down there? From our beach?”

Volunteer Rufus holds out an ivory toggle he excavated from Nunalleq.
Nunalleq Archaeology Project

The “greater good” is right here: not only the collection being housed in Quinhagak, but also the work the village is doing to take charge of its story and share it with the wider world through outreach like the Nunalleq Educational Resource.

For Quinhagak, the past is not a place which is independent from the present. For the younger generation especially, the past is becoming a space for engaging with their heritage which they are continually transforming and reimagining in the present.

The Conversation

Alice Watterson's work on the Nunalleq project has been supported by funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), the University of Aberdeen and the University of Dundee.

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