Sunday, October 29, 2006

Yupik Eskimo Ghost Stories

In the ancient pagan and nature-based polytheistic spiritual traditions, the important festivals were celebrated on days that were significant in the natural order of life: summer solstice (the longest day), winter solstice (the shortest day), and spring and autumn equinox, when the days and nights were of equal length. The half-way points between these festivals were celebrated as minor festivals, and Halloween is one of these: the half-way point between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice. In many traditions around the world and throughout history, this has been the festival associated with death; a time to honor one’s ancestors, a time when the veil between the living and the dead, between this life and the afterlife, is said to be the thinnest. A time when spirit-tales and ghost stories are right at home.

In southwest Alaska, October is the month of heading-into-winter. Most years, the huge Kuskokwim River is frozen solid by Halloween (this year being an exception). The hours of daylight have dwindled significantly; we are down to about seven hours a day now. As the long dark nights begin, the oral traditions of the Yupik Eskimos are handed down in stories told around the crackling warmth of the wood stove.

In my search for information about Yupik ghost stories, my friend Joan loaned me some materials she had from a class on Yupik culture that she took back in the early 1990s. I was immediately drawn to a yellowed, spiral-bound booklet entitled Kaliikaq Yugnek (loosely translated: written stories of the Yupik people). It is a sort of magazine (Volume 2, Number 1) published by the students and teachers of Bethel Regional High School in the fall and winter of 1975. The booklet consists of stories and legends told by village elders, and recorded and translated by the students.

I would like to share two of the stories with you. I searched for anyone from whom I might obtain permission to reprint, but as this was over thirty years ago, the editors are long gone. Given the age of the document, I hope that full attribution of the source is adequate. I have done some minor editing for clarity and correction of typographical errors.

The first story is called “Ghosts and Rules” and was told by Bethel elder Lucy Beaver. As an aside here, I actually met Lucy Beaver when I first came to Bethel in 1998. She was a well-respected skin sewer (a maker of fur and leather garments) for much of her life. I went to her home and she showed me a suitcase full of fur hats, mukluks (knee-high boots), and dolls that she had made. I bought a beautiful hat and pair of mukluks from her.

She became somewhat famous in Alaska in the mid 1980s as the subject of a well-known photograph by Myron Rosenberg (photo at right).


She was 69 years old when that photo was taken, holding her great grandson. The second photo of her is one that I took in her home that day; she was 83. She still lives in Bethel and is now 91 years old, in frail health but good spirits, and still with that infectious smile.


Ghosts and Rules

by Lucy Beaver, translated by Janet Kasayuli

My name is Lucy Beaver and I’m 61 years old. I am from Nunapitchuk and now live here in Bethel, it’s not too long that I have lived here. I am going to tell you what I know about what us young people were scared about. When we were young, they told us to never walk around at night and they let us go to bed early. [Ed. note: in village English, “let” does not mean “to allow”, it means “to compel, to require, to force.” Lucy means that they made her go to bed early.] They always let us go to bed early because if somebody walks around at night he will see a disembodied spirit or images of ghosts in front of the door. When they told us this it would make us scared so we never wanted to walk around at night. We were scared because something might happen to us. We used to believe what [the elders] told us without mistrusting them. In those times when I asked my mom what that spirit or image of a ghost was, she would say when a person walks around at night too much he would see a person standing [coming up] out of the ground. And if he sees this, there is a rule that even though he is very scared he should go over to the ghost and find his collar and try to touch his skin. That was the rule, even though he was very scared. When he touched the ghost’s skin, his hand would get cold immediately and [the ghost] could not be held for a long time because it was very cold. After that happens, you should try and touch the head of [the ghost] with your hands, then slowly push down with all your might. That way [the ghost] goes down, then all of a sudden the land turns as the thing is pressed down. As it is pressed down it comes up a little, but yet goes down as it is pushed, and then the world turns even though it is very cold in the winter. As it turns, use your hands and rub the [ghost’s] head, never look at it until it really stops the earth completely. What was that thing out of the ground? It was an image of a man who had been dead. That’s how they used to tell us to believe when we were young.

[A man who experienced this] took care of the image [of the ghost] then goes in the house and right after he goes into the house he gets very sick and starts throwing up lots of green stuff that was very bad. That’s what happens to every person that had the same experience.


The second story is told by someone from a different village, but conveys similar beliefs about what to do when you see a ghost.

Seeing a Ghost

by Minnie Carter, translated by Annie Carter

Once upon a time there was a white man who traveled from Quinhagak to Bethel by dogsled with an Eskimo man from Eek. The weather was really cold. The time was after Christmas. They came to the abandoned fish camp at Enhiak. They brought their food and stuff into a house and found out that they had no kettle. The white man couldn’t have tea in this cold weather. They were camped near a grave yard. The white man said that he had seen kettles and pots by the graves. The Eskimo just wanted to make a campfire and have something to eat. The white man really couldn’t wait to have tea, but the Eskimo told him not to get a kettle from the graves. But the white man went up to the graves and picked up a kettle to make tea. The kettles and pots had small bird eggs in them. He dumped the junk out of the kettle and as he was coming back to the camp he bent down and put snow in the kettle and went into the house and put it on the fire. The kettle started to boil.

The white man made tea. The Eskimo didn’t want any tea. After tea, when the Eskimo had eaten and the white man had had his tea, they got warm. They put wood on the camp fire. They got sleepy. When the days got shorter they started getting ready for bed early. Just when they were getting ready for bed they heard something which seemed to crack. It cracked harder at the door. They wondered what it was. The door was shaking and it seemed as though fog was coming around the door. The white man asked, “What is it?” And the Eskimo said the ghost was coming in. The fog went whirling up toward the ceiling. The white man didn’t believe there could be a ghost coming. On the floor, the grasses (grass mats used as floor coverings) stood up, even though the white man and the Eskimo stood on them, pinning them to the ground. The grasses stood straight up on the floor. The door had not opened when the ghost came in; it came in at the bottom of the door. The ghost came in all white, his face was covered with something like leather, like muskrat on an old parka. The ghost came in all the way. The white man got scared and started running in the house. He was crying in the house, running around trying to get out, but the door could not be opened. The white man went over beside the Eskimo, and the Eskimo tried to think of what to do. The ghost was coming and the Eskimo stood up very fast. While this was going on they were afraid that the ghost might kill them by whirling them like a bome [ed. note: ? ... no idea]. Then the Eskimo went right over to the ghost as he used to hear was the right thing to do with ghosts and put his hand on the ghost’s neck and it felt very cold, it was like the ashes from a burned wood fire, and as he had heard about ghosts, he put his hand on the ghost’s head. Then the ghost started going down under the ground, disappearing. When the Eskimo thought he’d try to push it harder, the ghost came back up a little. The ghost disappeared into the ground and the ground where the ghost disappeared was whirling. The Eskimo remembered that he used to hear stories about what to do about ghosts so he used his mukluks to step on the whirling ground and it stopped whirling. The grass mats on the ground that had stood up fell to the ground and the white man took the grasses and threw them outside very fast.

They started getting ready to go. They packed their bags. They packed their sleds and didn’t put out the campfire. They left the dogs ready to go when they went in the house. They didn’t want to waste time getting the dogsled ready.

They traveled not too far from where the graves were. Then the white man patted the Eskimo on the back and told him to look behind. It looked like a sun, a really red ball was following them. The Eskimo took out his knife and put marks on the snow crossways. They continued traveling. The red fire ball got to those marks and started sinking into the ground.

They started to get sick before they got to the village of Eek. Where the trash was, the Eskimo man told the white man that they would have to roll in the trash after they had seen a ghost. They rolled for a while. Then they got really sick. They went to the preacher’s house and left the dogs by the trash. In the house the preacher realized why they came and made some tea for them. They got really sick and started vomiting.

They were well the next day. They left and got to Napakiak safely. They were still scared and were really looking out for ghosts. Even though it was in the day time, they were scared.


This little booklet is a treasure trove of Yupik culture, and I am delighted to have come across it. Many thanks to Joan for sharing it with me. And a happy Halloween to one and all! May the spirits of your ancestors be pleased with you...



Blogger Borneo Breezes said...

These are both great stories, so appropriate for today. You made a big mistake tho' when you didn't get a doll--better rush right out and make it right. I hope you can circulate the story in the schools, or maybe they can pick it up from the internet?

Monday, October 30, 2006 10:25:00 AM  
Anonymous Sharon from NY said...

Not only is your blog fascinating to read regarding health care in Alaska and the lifestyle there, but your deep respect and admiration for the Yupik people is very clear. Sharing stories such as these helps the rest of us to appreciate this ancient culture. Thank you.

Monday, October 30, 2006 10:29:00 AM  
Anonymous Ruth said...

People from any culture could identify with these stories. I would love to hear these traditional oral stories told around a fire. A child would not venture out of bed for anything at all...probably what the adults wanted. These are much more creative than the average slasher horror flick story line.

Monday, October 30, 2006 2:50:00 PM  
Anonymous wolfbaby said...

How facinating!!! I love seeing things like that that share history and culture so that it isn't lost...thank you for sharing.

Monday, October 30, 2006 5:24:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Neat post!

Monday, October 30, 2006 5:44:00 PM  
Blogger TheTundraPA said...

Borneo--your comment reminds me that I've been meaning to do a post on my Yupik doll collection, with photos, of course! I do with I had purchased one of Lucy's dolls that day. They are all gone now, and she hasn't been able to sew for years, due to failing eyesight and arthritic hands. I treasure the beautiful mukluks and fur hat that she made.

Sharon--thank you so much! I am glad that people enjoy the stories I write about this amazing place. The culture here has enriched my life immeasureably, and I am happy to share it with those who are interested.

Ruth--these ghost stories appeal to me too; I'm just not a slasher horror flick kinda gal!

Wolfbaby and bohemian r.n.--glad you liked it; thanks for stopping in.

Monday, October 30, 2006 11:08:00 PM  
Anonymous Kim said...

Lucy rocks! You can read her entire personality in her face. How wonderful for you that you have been able to know her!

Great stories, thank you for sharing them!

Tuesday, October 31, 2006 7:05:00 AM  
Anonymous David Harmon said...

These are great stories... but if Lucy is still alive, you might have asked her for permission to post her story!

Tuesday, October 31, 2006 12:11:00 PM  
Anonymous Joel M B said...

This story is old, but is very
good. A lot of people still don't take things from grave sights no more because of similar storys.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006 2:32:00 PM  
Blogger Angelle said...

what the FUCK that was scary!!

Thursday, March 12, 2009 1:27:00 AM  
Blogger SmartNative said...

Hey! The Teakettle Ghost! I love this story. It is by my Great-Grandmother from Eek. I have a VHS of her telling this story in Yupik. Thanks for posting it!

Mike McIntyre

Wednesday, April 06, 2011 4:32:00 PM  
Blogger Breanna Baldwin said...

Hello. My mom is Janet Kasayuli. I am going to share this story with her and see if she remembers. :)

Friday, March 28, 2014 4:11:00 AM  

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