The Way We Live
Assistant Professor blends indigenous wisdom with modern technology
from the Record
By Alexandra Evans
On the windswept Y-K Delta, where the Yukon and Kuskokwim Rivers meet, in the southwest corner of Alaska, Yup’ik peoples have subsisted for nearly 3,000 years: hunting seals, fishing salmon, foraging berries. Yupiit (pl.) understand better than most that the fate of man and nature are inextricably linked as they rely on ancestral wisdom and customs to survive in a bleak and challenging terrain.
As global temperatures warm, permafrost melts, and seawaters rise, Yup’ik ancestral lands only become more volatile and the future more uncertain, with their fishing camps and berry patches being swept away into the ocean from erosion and their annual subsistence calendar becoming more and more unpredictable.
Elliott Assistant Professor of Rhetoric Sean Gleason is in his fifth year working with Yupiit in the Y-K Delta. Joining a team that includes partners from all over the world, Dr. Gleason is devoted to helping the Yup’ik people study “yuuyaraq,” which means “the genuine way we live,” preserving the tribe’s knowledge for generations to come.
Using his expertise in oral history and ethnographic field methods, Dr. Gleason aims to blend indigenous Yup’ik wisdom with modern technology to develop bespoke solutions that will help Yupiit maintain their quality of life in the changing landscape today and plan for the future.
“The oral histories have always acknowledged that erosion happens,” Dr. Gleason says. “One of the oral predictions is that the community [in Quinhagak] will move five times. We can’t stop the erosion; it’s about acknowledging that it’s happening at a much more frenetic pace because of climate change. With the toolkits we develop with Yupiit, we are communicating the results of our findings to the population in real time, equipping them with data to make informed decisions, and augmenting traditional knowledge in ways that are useful to them today and in the future when they inevitably have to move again.”
The work in the Y-K Delta originally began as an archaeological excavation in 2009 when the sun began to reveal what was once buried and preserved by ice. In 2007, as permafrost thawed, centuries-old cultural artifacts like intricately carved bone and ivory figurines, ceremonial driftwood masks, and woven grass baskets began washing up on the shore of Kuskokwim Bay, and further investigation unearthed a circa 1600 preserved Yup’ik village called Nunalleq. A 2017 National Geographic article about the project notes that Yup’ik oral tradition tells of a time that historians refer to as the Bow and Arrows war, when a “550-year chilling of the Earth now known as the Little Ice Age—that coincided with Nunalleq’s occupation—led to a scarcity of food which caused fighting between Yup’ik communities.”
Leveraging the tribe’s oral tradition is where Dr. Gleason’s expertise comes in. He performs in-depth interviews with Yup’ik elders to gather oral histories about places of cultural importance surrounding the small village of Quinhagak, Alaska—just north of Nunalleq— where approximately 750 members of the tribe live today. Using remote sensing technology, Dr. Gleason and a team of archaeologists and anthropologists cross-reference the oral histories to identify possible locations of the places mentioned in the stories. The team then assesses environmental threats to the cultural sites and uses this data to inform their preservation efforts, focusing on the most endangered sites first. The excavation efforts have unearthed a monumental 100,000 artifacts—making the dig the largest of its kind—which are then cleaned, preserved, and held at the Nunalleq Heritage and Cultural Center in Quinhagak, ensuring that the tribe’s heritage remains with the Yupiit where it belongs.
With excavation efforts at Nunalleq slowing, Dr. Gleason is turning his attention to the more contemporary challenges facing the region today. He leads research and development for Nalaquq, an Alaskan Native-owned organization working to preserve and protect ancestral lands. “Half of my work in the Y-K Delta is on the cultural preservation side—working with the archeologists on heritage management and the collection of artifacts. The other half is on the land management side and working with the Yup’ik people to develop toolkits to combat the pressing problems caused by climate change vis-à-vis coastal erosion, increased search and rescue operations, and local infrastructure concerns,” Gleason explains. “In both cases, I use interviewing to glean ancestral Yup’ik knowledge and then incorporate modern technology to develop solutions that work well with traditional cosmologies and belief systems.” He calls it yuuyaraq for the future. And he’s recruiting all the help he can get, including Hampden-Sydney seniors Daniel Marsden and Izac Olatunji, who joined Dr. Gleason as research assistants.
Dr. Gleason mentors students interested in working with the Yupiit through at least one semester of independent study before they join him in the field. The first semester focuses on the student gaining cultural knowledge; the second semester is more methodological and tailored to the student’s unique interests.
A history major, Daniel has been working with Dr. Gleason since he was a freshman. He first joined the field team in the summer of 2021 as a research assistant and returned this past summer as an intern with Qanirtuuq, Inc, which is Quinhagak’s Alaska Native Village Corporation. This summer, Daniel worked on a differential GPS unit to track exactly where the erosion along several rivers important to the tribe’s subsistence is happening and then translate that information into orthomosaic maps that communicate those landscape changes from a top-down perspective. This information is invaluable to the tribe as it monitors traditional land use area, applies for land management grants, and plans for the future when the village will inevitably have to relocate.
“Several villages have already had to move further inland in recent history,” Daniel says. “Having information about how the landscape is changing and being able to track how fast it’s changing is really helpful to the tribe when it applies for grants to help combat erosion or for government assistance when it comes time to relocate.”
Izac, a biology and fine arts double major, completed his independent study in the spring semester and joined the field team as a research assistant this past summer. He delved deep into the ethnobotany of the area, learning about plants that are harvested during the summer and traditional food preservation methods, documenting the people, plants, and processes through photography—his preferred artistic medium. Izac also created a user guide through photographing controller settings of the drone set ups, better equipping tribe members to use the technology on their own to continue the efforts when outside team members are away. He coupled his research with a Compass experiential learning component and is parlaying his research into a year-long distinction project during his senior year.
Both students experienced some of the rigor that daily life in the Y-K Delta demands, learning to fish and forage for their food as conventional groceries are scarce and prohibitively expensive. “I saw a soccer ball-sized watermelon for $50 one day,” Izac says. “Hunting and gathering not only connects the Yup’ik to their roots but also is a more practical way of sustaining life.”
“So many people helped teach us to fish and forage,” Daniel adds. “I was very appreciative of their patience.”
“It’s not every day that you have a chance to learn to fish from some of the best fishermen in the world,” Izac continues. Much of Izac’s time was spent creating inroads into the community to aid his ethnographic inquiry. Earning the nickname “Tengualria,” which means flying fish, thanks to his prowess as a budding snag fisher at the instruction of some of his new friends, Izac is careful to ensure that his work is not exploitative of the Yup’ik openness and generosity of spirit. “You have to be careful to not romanticize or impose your own Western infliction on the subject,” he explains. “There’s a close relationship between the scientific documentation of a culture or landscape that can also result in a beautiful image.”
Dr. Gleason points out that Daniel’s and Izac’s experience is only possible because of Hampden-Sydney’s support of undergraduate research. “Having that level of access as an undergrad to cutting-edge technology on a project that has the eyes of the world with a team that’s publishing in the best journals is only possible because we’re a small liberal arts college,” Gleason continues. “I would expect a Ph.D. candidate to do what Daniel did.”
Daniel and Izac both worked with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to deploy technology like remote sensing and differential GPS to inform the team’s bespoke solutions. UAVs present an interesting intersection of ancestral Yup’ik cosmology and modern technology. “The top-down perspective is inherent in the Yup’ik tradition,” Gleason explains. “In Yup’ik lore, they used bird masks in dancing and transformed into birds to share stories about the landscape; seal hunters donned hats with bird motifs and painted bird patterns on their kayaks to help them better navigate ice floes.”
Dr. Gleason notes that while the UAVs are an invaluable tool in the effort to stay one step ahead of climate change, the team still relies heavily on traditional knowledge when developing toolkits. “If you’re trying to develop a solution and bring it into somewhere like the Y-K Delta, you’ll always run into problems if you don’t have that local knowledge,” he explains. “The ecological knowledge runs the gamut from practical knowledge that someone can intuit just from being there to the more complex traditional knowledge that’s been passed down through 10,000 years about different species and how to hunt and take care of them or the traditional subsistence calendar.”
This intersection of traditional knowledge—known as Yup’ik science—and Western technology supports the Yup’ik in not only restoring their cultural heritage but also maintaining yuuyaraq for generations to come. Despite having no word for science in their language, Yup’ik methods and customs are incredibly sophisticated and inarguably scientific.
In Western science, taxonomies are vast and comprehensive; in Yup’ik science, taxonomies are hyperspecific. Distinctions in classifying wood, for example, are made based on use rather than species. Some wood is good for smoking food; some is good for bending; some for making a “maqii” (a communal sauna), and so on. Yup’ik science is unique to yuuyaraq and provides important insight into how the indigenous people subsist in the tundra. As Dr. Gleason puts it, “Yup’ik science can develop the systems, and Western science can explain why they work.”
Despite the challenges ahead, the future of the Yupiit isn’t all dark in the Land of the Midnight Sun. As the permafrost melted, so did the cultural chill that kept some of the Yup’ik customs frozen in time. For example, after nearly 70 years of silence, the ceremonial drums began to beat again in 2013 as the Quinhagak Dancers performed for the first time in several generations after the custom was outlawed by the Moavian Church.
“The younger generation is seeking out their ancestral cultural traditions,” Izac says. “They’ve grown up alongside the Nunalleq Culture and Archaeology Center and are infused with a curiosity about where these artifacts are coming from.”
When artifacts began washing up on the shore of the Kanektok River 15 years ago, some Yup’ik elders were skeptical that unearthing more artifacts might disturb the ancestors and hasten the downfall of the tribe. Instead, the artifacts have served as a beacon to younger generations, renewing their interest in the ancestral ways.
Just as the boy who lived with seals emerged from the icy waters to share his newfound wisdom with his people, these artifacts have spread rediscovered wisdom among the Yup’ik and brought together a global community to a remote corner of the world to preserve a truly unique culture—proving that mankind is indeed interconnected.