Yup'ik Elders at the Ethnologisches Museum Berlin

Fieldwork Turned on Its Head

Ann Fienup-Riordan
Foreword by Peter Bolz
Photographs by Barry McWayne

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  • Published: 2005
  • Subject Listing: Art History / Native American and Indigenous Art; Native American and Indigenous Studies
  • Bibliographic information: 352 pp., 362 illus., 330 in color, 9 x 12 in.
  • Published with: Calista Elders Council, Bethel, Alaska
  • Contents

Norwegian adventurer Johan Adrian Jacobsen collected more than two thousand Yup'ik objects during his travels in Alaska in 1882 and 1883. Now housed in the Berlin Ethnological Museum, the Jacobsen collection remains one of the earliest and largest from Alaska's Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. When Ann Fienup-Riordan first saw the collection being unpacked in 1994, she was "stunned to find this extraordinary Yup'ik collection, with accession records still handwritten in old German script and almost completely unpublished."

In 1997, Fienup-Riordan and Yup'ik translator Marie Meade returned to Berlin with a delegation of Yup'ik elders to study Jacobsen's collection. Yup'ik Elders at the Ethnologisches Museum Berlin recounts fourteen days during which the elders examined objects from the collection and described how they were made and used. Their descriptions, based on oral history and firsthand experience with similar objects, are imparted through songs, stories, and personal narratives. Woven together with Jacobsen's writings, technical descriptions, and accession information, the narrative presents a vast array of knowledge. For example, Jacobsen had observed that large grass mats were woven for use as sleeping mats in houses and were often taken on journeys; a Yup'ik elder demonstrates how the grass mat would be folded and fitted into a kayak. Another elder describes a dance in which fox masks similar to those in the collection were used. Yet another elder, inspired by a carving of a paalraayak, launches into a story about the creature, which was sometimes encountered in the mountains near her home.

An introductory essay describes Jacobsen's life and trip to Alaska and the region as it was then and as it is today. Informal snapshots show the elders interacting with the objects and miming their use, while Barry McWayne's large color photographs make possible the "visual repatriation" of this extraordinary collection. Yup'ik Elders at the Ethnologisches Museum Berlin also includes extensive notes summarizing accession information, a glossary of Yup'ik object names, and a detailed index.

This is the first time a major Arctic collection has been presented from the Natives' point of view, an example of "reverse fieldwork" that can enrich understanding of Native American collections the world over.
Ann Fienup-Riordan is the author of numerous books on the Native peoples of Alaska, including The Living Tradition of Yup'ik Masks and Freeze Frame: Alaska Eskimos in the Movies, and has collaborated with Marie Meade on Ciuliamta Akluit / Things of Our Ancestors and Agayuliyararput / Our Way of Making Prayer.
Foreword by Peter Bolz
Preface: Unlikely Partnerships
The Gift: Johan Adrian Jacobsen Brings Treasures from Alaska
The Gift-Givers: Turn-of-the-Century Yupiit and Their Descendants
The Return Gift: The Yup'ik Delegation
First Day: Tools for Ocean Hunting
Second Day: Bows and Arrows for Hunting and War
Third Day: More Tools for Hunting and Fishing
Fourth Day: Wooden and Clay Containers
Fifth Day: Containers of Skin, Gut, and Grass
Sixth Day: Tools for Working on Objects and Materials
Seventh Day: Tools of Daily Life
Eighth Day: Personal Adornment and Human Figures
Ninth Day: Women's Sewing Tools and Belts and Men's Hats
Tenth Day: Ceremonial Regalia
Eleventh Day: Dancing with Masks
Twelfth Day: Toys and Clothing
Thirteenth Day: Heavenly and Ceremonial Cycles
Fourteenth Day and Return to Alaska
Visual Repatriation
Appendix: Additional Masks

"Taken together, Yup'ik Elders at the Ethnologisches Museum and Things of Our Ancestors are extremely well done, both as products and as examples of a successful collaborative research effort. For those with an interest in northern indigenous communities and cultures the two books are moving accounts of a research partnership that joined indigenous knowledge bearers with academic and museum professionals, the result of which was to place indigenous knowledge at the center rather than at the periphery of the research enterprise and the resulting volumes."
-Museum Anthropology Review

"A handsomely illustrated, very readable volume."
-H-Net (Am-Indian)

"A remarkable story and one of 'firsts'. . . . [a] handsomely illustrated, very readable 337-page volume."

"Every so often a book is published that is meticulously researched, well written, beautifully photographed and illuminating throughout the totality of its contribution. This is just such a book."
-Seattle Art Museum Native Arts of the Americas and Oceania Council

"This is a remarkable story and one of 'firsts:' the first delegation of native people (eight in all) to a European museum to systematically examine an entire collection of objects from their culture; the first critical biography of the collector, Adrian Jacobsen; and, the first systematic study of his Yup'ik collection. It is all put together in this handsomely illustrated, very readable volume."
-H-Net Reviews