Routledge on Cusack-McVeigh, 'Stories Find You, Places Know: Yup'ik Narratives of a Sentient World'

Author: 
Holly Cusack-McVeigh
Reviewer: 
Karen Routledge

Holly Cusack-McVeigh. Stories Find You, Places Know: Yup'ik Narratives of a Sentient World. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2017. 328 pp. $24.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-60781-582-2

Reviewed by Karen Routledge (Parks Canada) Published on H-Environment (January, 2021) Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (Texas Tech University)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=54714

This book is a thoughtful summary of Holly Cusack-McVeigh’s observations on place in Hooper Bay, a Yup’ik community on the Alaska coast. Cusack-McVeigh worked on several community projects in Hooper Bay over more than two decades and conducted her own research there. This book is about how Yupiit interact with places; how places respond to Yupiit actions and suffering; and how Yupiit have extended their understandings of place to make sense of, and resist, new types of places—specifically churches, schools, and other kass’aq (White person, outsider) buildings.

In chapter 1, Cusack-McVeigh states that for Yupiit, places are actors that “learn about people” and “react to human actions and states of being” (p. 1). She situates herself within the work of other scholars of Yup’ik folklore, cosmology, and worldview. Chapter 2 explains how Yupiit in Hooper Bay relate to each other through places, partly by talking about the land instead of discussing painful social issues directly. Cusack-McVeigh introduces readers to a local shaman’s grave, a site she returns to several times throughout the book. Her friend, who had recently lost a close family member, took Cusack-McVeigh to this grave and told her that it was getting lower on the land. The friend believed starvation would occur in the community when the grave sunk to the level of the tundra. Cusack-McVeigh interprets this as the friend letting the land talk for her. When the friend spoke of the shaman’s grave and other changes in the land, she was indirectly talking about changes in Hooper Bay, and how the land responded to these changes. Later in the book, Cusack-McVeigh describes this grave as “a barometer of the current social and physical health of the community and the world at large” (p. 192).

Chapters 3 through 7 consider stories about places and supernatural beings around Hooper Bay. Chapter 3 is about sites out on the tundra that are, or used to be, passageways to the spirit world. Many Hooper Bay residents have told Cusack-McVeigh that the land used to be “thinner” than it is today: the boundary between living and spirit worlds was more porous (p. 40). In some places, visible marks on the land remind Yupiit of these old stories and their teachings. Chapter 4 is about water and includes stories of the shape-shifting water creature paalraayak, and the dangers posed by humans who are careless, ignorant, or disrespectful. In a brief discussion at the end of the chapter, Cusack-McVeigh raises some good questions about the potential impacts of toxic waste on Yup’ik relationships to place. Chapter 5 is about cautionary tales and the consequences of people not understanding or respecting the rules for living well in Yup’ik homelands. These homelands are places where people sometimes disappear and are never found, and where there are “no well-marked boundaries between the world of the living and the world of the dead” (p. 142). In chapter 6, Cusack-McVeigh talks about how warfare and feuds between shamans were common in the past, and how “contacting and appealing to the spirit world” was once a routine, everyday occurrence (p. 167). In chapter 7, citing Julie Cruikshank’s work with the late Elder Angela Sidney, Cusack-McVeigh urges scholars engaging with oral histories to pay attention to variants in stories, and think about why stories are told differently for different audiences. As an example, she recounts several different tellings of the “teakettle ghost” story, about a White man who removes a teakettle from a grave and becomes ill as a result.

At the end of chapter 7, Cusack-McVeigh shifts the focus of the book to talking about colonial buildings. She comments that many Yup’ik ghost stories take place in schools and churches and argues that these stories reflect the “the ‘ghosts’ of tensions and conflicts that Yupiit have experienced since the time of contact” (p. 193). She argues that sharing these ghost stories has empowered Yupiit both individually and politically as a group. In my opinion, chapter 8—about ghost stories in the old Catholic church in Hooper Bay—is the strongest in the book and would likely work well as an assigned reading for students. Cusack-McVeigh explains that while Yupiit traditionally chose high ground for graves, early missionaries wanted the same high ground for their churches, so Yupiit graves were often moved during church construction. In Hooper Bay, the former Catholic missionary John P. Fox also collected and shipped out human remains. The old church became an “anchor” for collective memories and ghosts, especially stories of Brother Oscar, a missionary who died in the community. In chapter 9, Cusack-McVeigh points out that when they were first built, churches and schools would have dominated the village skyline, whereas old Yupiit homes blended in. She argues that these new structures “mark[ed] the tundra” (p. 255) and were ascribed meanings in similar ways as other landmarks. Chapter 10 recounts some mission history of Hooper Bay, and reiterates that government or mission buildings are common sites of ghost stories because of their painful past. In the words of a Hooper Bay community member: “The Catholic Church is haunted. The place that is haunted with all these bad memories and bad experiences of the past” (p. 256). Cusack-McVeigh also wonders if Yup’ik storytellers have chosen to adopt aspects of kass’aq ghost stories and tell these stories to outsiders as acts of resistance. 

Stories Find You, Places Know is innovative in bringing together stories of the land, abandoned traditional dwellings, and colonial-era buildings. Indeed, Cusack-McVeigh’s work blurs the distinction between landmarks and buildings by showing that a landmark can be “built” in part by human actions, and that a building can be understood as a landmark. Cusack-McVeigh asks what these various sites can tell us, when considered together, about Yup’ik ideas of place.

I appreciated how Cusack-McVeigh weaves ideas about colonialism and resistance throughout the book. These themes are present throughout, not just in the later chapters that are specifically about colonial buildings. She asks how Yupiit are reinterpreting and understanding old sites in light of present-day realities and discusses how they have used stories and places to resist outsiders and warn others. Yupiit also see the land responding to their pain, and Cusack-McVeigh argues that while “outsiders may see a community suffering,” they often fail to appreciate how much strength Yupiit draw from the land (p. 260).

This is a rich book, and one that is hard to summarize. Readers interested in any aspect of Yup’ik culture would do well to check the index, as many topics and stories are mentioned that I did not have space to cover here. This richness is also at times a weakness: so many topics are covered that I found it hard to follow the main thread in a few of the chapters. The number of cross-references to material in previous and subsequent chapters was also distracting. That being said, Cusack-McVeigh learned a lot during her time in Hooper Bay and I find myself thinking back on her observations. For example—of particular relevance in 2020—she returns several times to the history of epidemics and how close to the surface memories of sickness and dying are here, as they are in many Indigenous communities.[1]

This book is well rooted in Hooper Bay. As a reader who is not familiar with Yup’ik history and culture, I would have welcomed a deeper discussion of how Cusack-McVeigh’s work fits into a broader context, for example with other northern histories or Indigenous responses to colonialism and place, or with the explosion of scholarship on ghost stories and spectrality. As for shamanism, Frédéric Laugrand and Jarich Oosten have come to similar conclusions as Cusack-McVeigh about shamanism and its enduring importance in the Eastern Arctic, and I would have liked to see her engage with their work.[2] I realize, though, that there are always more bodies of literature authors could engage with, and at some point we just need to publish our books. 

I recommend Stories Find You, Places Know to historians interested in Yup’ik history, in ideas of place, and in Indigenous responses to colonialism. This book is a respectful and thought-provoking reflection on what Cusack-McVeigh learned from Yup’ik friends, acquaintances, and co-workers in Hooper Bay over more than twenty years.

Notes

[1]. For one recent public reflection on epidemics, see the Facebook post by the Da Kų Cultural Centre (Champagne and Aishihik First Nations) from May 7, 2020: “Epidemics in Dákeyi,” https://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=3064587130274856&id=637608892972704.

[2]. Frédéric Laugrand and Jarich Oosten, Inuit Shamanism and Christianity: Transitions and Transformations in the Twentieth Century (Montréal: McGill-Queens University Press, 2010). See also Jarich Oosten, Frédéric Laugrand, and Cornelius Remie, “Perceptions of Decline: Inuit Shamanism in the Canadian Arctic,” Ethnohistory 53, no. 3 (June 2006): 445-77.

Citation: Karen Routledge. Review of Cusack-McVeigh, Holly, Stories Find You, Places Know: Yup'ik Narratives of a Sentient World. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. January, 2021. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=54714

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