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To Breathe is to Create

March 19, 2015

It was with great sadness that I found out last week that Yup’ik elder, Paul John, had passed away. I never met Paul John in person and I have never been to Toksook Bay, but his stories and visions of the world have had a great impact on my own thinking and actions in the world. He was an inspiring and prolific intellectual–a quick google search of his name brings up dozens of hits of his stories: written, told, and collaborations–and he was also an innovative and motivated educator in Yup’ik culture and language.

I first encountered Paul John in the work of Ann Fienup-Riordan, her brief gloss of his telling of the story “The Boy who went to Live with Seals” in Boundaries and Passages. A few years ago, she worked with Paul John to create a bilingual Yup’ik-English repository of many of his stories. It is an amazing volume. Stories for Future Generations contains the entire version of “The Boy who went to Live with Seals,” which was first spoken in an educational setting at the high school and later transcribed and translated.

The setting of its recitation is important to me in the context of this particular story, because the story is also set around the education of a young boy who learns how to be a proper human through the teachings of his host, a bearded seal. At moments in the story, audiences blend–young seals, young humans; seal behavior, human manners. I have thought about this story a lot, as has Fienup-Riordan in her work. I am not an anthropologist, however, and I wanted to think about the literary qualities of the story, but in a way that would not erase the story with the imposition of terms and theories developed for other time periods, genres, and nationalities.

I remember working to a point that I couldn’t cross with this story. I knew there was something I should be recognizing in it, but I wasn’t quite there yet. I took my dog for a walk in the woods near our house. We ambled among the trees, the sun and a light breeze in our faces. And then I knew what it was, I knew the hinge of the story. It was breath. The breath of the storyteller, the breath of the singer, the gasps of breath as the boy cries, the breath of air seals need as mammals, like humans, the breath of air released from the dried and stored seal bladders. The physical and metaphysical, the imaginative and the material, the human and the animal, the sea and the land, all meet and cross boundaries in the act of storytelling. With breath, one creates worlds.

Paul John helped me create new worlds; he continues to help me think about categories, what Fienup-Riordan calls boundaries and passages in Yup’ik thought and action. The story of “The Boy who went to Live with Seals” still has much to teach me about the dynamism of Yup’ik oratory; traditional does not mean that the stories are not modern, just as Yupiit who continue to live and advocate a traditional lifestyle are also, at the same time, modern people.

Paul John was a worthy host who taught his students well. While we draw breath, we can carry on his legacy.

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