Magazine article Humanities

A Storied Tradition

Magazine article Humanities

A Storied Tradition

Article excerpt

ALASKA IN THE NATIVE Yup'ik communities of southwestern Alaska, it was once common to see groups of young girls crowded around a circle in the mud, engaged in a curious sort of game: One would be telling the others a story while simultaneously drawing intricate symbols with a knife on a flattened canvas of mud.

The practice is known as storykniñng, a Yup'ik tradition of mysterious origin that is estimated to be around three hundred years old. Russian explorer Lavrenty Zagoskin was the first to provide a written account of storyknifing in 1847 in a book about his travels through Alaska, which mentions native women drawing on the snow with ivory blades. The symbols, which can vary widely from village to village, illustrate the action in the story. A house's interior, for example, would usually be drawn as a top-down diagram, while a person could be represented by anything from a stick figure to an abstract shape, with variations depending on the character's age, gender, whether they were standing, sitting, talking, and other factors. When a story changes scenes, the storyteller simply wipes away the image and starts drawing a new one.

For Agnes Lewis David, a Yup'ik elder living in Kongiganak, Alaska, storyknifing is a fondly remembered part of her childhood in the 1950s and '60s. "We used to do it a lot," she says. "A couple of girls would bring a storyknife and one, only one, would tell stories, and all of us would listen to her." Although boys generally understood the symbols, storyknifing is traditionally an activity for girls from the age of six through their early teens, and sometimes for mothers and grandmothers as well.

The storyknives were carved from wood, bone, or ivory, sometimes engraved with detailed ornamental designs. David's own grandfather frequently made her storyknives when she was little. "He would already finish the storyknife every day. I don't know how many times I went to him to get a wooden storyknife," she recalls. Any knife could do in a pinch, though, even a humble butter knife.

With regards to storyknifing today, David observes, "They don't use it no more in our area, where it was really strong when we were small." She links this trend with the rising popularity of other forms of entertainment such as television. …

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