The Significance of Yup'ik Eskimo Clergy Speaking Out
by George Owletuck
"We call ourselves Yup'ik people or Yupiit [Real People]. In our language yuk means 'person' or 'human being'. Then we add pik ['real or genuine].
We are the real people."
-- Yup'ik Elder Paul John November 1991.
Anthropologist Ann Fienup-Riordan, has spent years documenting and publishing Yup'ik Eskimo knowledge and recently published "Yuungnaqpiallertput THE WAY WE GENUINELY LIVE" which summarizes the
teachings we Yupik are taught by our Elders.
To truly understand the immense significance of the Yup'ik clergy speaking out about the situation in Alaska is to consider the following teachings of our Yup'ik Elders in terms of what is proper protocol and behavior.
This is by no means a criticism of our Elder Priests and Yup'ik clergy but an effort to put their "outspokenness" into context.
First, Yup'ik leaders and community leaders seek to enhance our culture after centuries of federal policies that first enacted physical genocide of Native Americans but in more recent decades enacted cultural genocide of us: our grandparents were forbidden to speak our Native languages to each other and my generation has almost lost the invaluable treasure of
our Yup'ik language. After all this, it is of great significance that many of our clergy can still speak to each other in Yup'ik.
We have even non-Yup'ik clergy such as Dr. Very Reverend Michael Oleksa whose prodigious analytical and linguistic capabilities have afforded him the opportunity to learn our Yup'ik language sufficient to communicate with our revered Elders in our own language! Even early Orthodox missionaries are known to have translated sacred texts into indigenous languages to "Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature." (Mark 16:15)
Given the centuries of physical and cultural genocide suffered by Native American peoples, it is significant when in this day and age, Yup'ik clergy are forbidden to speak to each other in their Native language.
As Riordan recorded, the Yup'ik Elders teach us that a person's mind is powerful. Theresa Moses of Toksook Bay reminds us, "Umyugaa-gguq tukniluni [They said that one's mind is powerful]. They told us that a
person's gratefulness is powerful, and that their hurtful feelings arealso powerful. If we cause that poor person to have hurtful feelings, they can shove us into negative consequences. But if that person is grateful, it is like they are pushing us toward our own happiness. In
our sentient world, Ellam Yua [The Person of the Universe] is always watching and will reprimand those who do as they please."
Riordan comments that us Yupiit externalize and codify constraint instead of reason, relying on guidance from our ancestral qanrayutet or teachings. The foremost admonition is to act with compassion, sharing and helping those in need. Second, we are taught to control our own thoughts and feelings, avoiding private conflicts and public confrontation.
As Riordan comments, these two admonishments advocate neither selfless altruism nor passive acquiescence. Rather both are our Yup'ik
understanding of the minds positive and negative powers. To act with compassion elicits the gratitude of those that one helps, and brings the power of their minds to bear on one's future success. To act selfishly or in anger, on the other hand, injures the minds of one's fellows and produces dangerous negative effects. This immediate and tangible reciprocity is at the core of Yup'ik social and emotional life.
When our revered Yup'ik Elder the Archpriest V. Rev. Peter Askoar, spoke out, it is very significant given the ancient Yup'ik teachings we are given a lifetime to learn. Many of us who know Father Askoar know him to be a typical Yup'ik Elder, quiet, soft-spoken, humble, kind, compassionate--the last person we would expect to speak on behalf of the Alaska Diocese.
Likewise, the Kuskokwim priests and the eloquent Yup'ik priest Fr. Thomas Andrew speaking out are speaking despite our ancient teachings to avoid
confrontation if at all possible. This is by no means an effort to criticize their bravery but an effort for the dominant European-American society to glean miniscule comprehension of the great significance of
My wife and I were born and raised Roman Catholics and met in a Jesuit Boarding High School; my father a retired Roman Catholic Deacon. After my
years of indoctrination from Fr. Stephan Heckman and with His Grace Bishop NIKOLAI's blessing we were able to baptize our children into Holy Orthodoxy and after becoming chrismated; we were able to receive the sacrament of Holy Matrimony from, then Archimandrite, His Grace Bishop BENJAMIN.
We are sad and hurt that our idealism, fervor and love for Our Lord Jesus Christ in Holy Orthodoxy has come to this state of affairs, yet we remain ORTHODOX. Poor sinner that I am, God-willing, we will forgive our
brothers who have hurt us seventy times seven.
It seems God sends us people for a reason, He sent us Saul--who became St. Paul; He sent us Judas Iscariat; He sent us St. Mary of Egypt; He sent us St. Herman; in His infinite Wisdom, He sends us people.
Please keep our Orthodox Church in America, our Holy Synod, our Bishop NIKOLAI, our Chancellor Isidore, our Archpriests, our Priests, our Proto-Deacons, our Deacons, our Sub-deacons, our Readers, our Altar
Servers, our Matushki, our families and our Laity in your prayers. We love you, keep the Holy Orthodox Faith unto Ages of Ages!
Help us, save us, have mercy on us, and keep us, O God, by Thy Grace.
Your unworthy servant,
George Owletuck, M.A.
Assistant Professor of Alaska Native Studies
University of Alaska Fairbanks