“Ella-gguq allamek yuituq/They say the world contains no others, only persons”

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Ann Fienup-Riordan. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau7.2.016


“Ella-gguq allamek yuituq/They say the world contains no others, only persons”

Ann FIENUP-RIORDAN, Smithsonian Institution, Calista Education and Culture

Comment on Sahlins, Marshall. 2017. “The original political society.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 7 (2): 91–128.

In Sahlins’ hands, the fashionable phrase “local to global” takes on new meaning, as he sets out to present a number of so-called “egalitarian” human societies—the local—as they are understood by so-called “egalitarian” humans: that is, as part of a global community of beings including ancestors, animals, and other-than-human [134]persons (metapersons). Such “cosmic polities” come in many forms. What they hold in common is a view of humankind as dependent on and controlled by beings more powerful than themselves. Sahlins argues persuasively that even in so-called “egalitarian societies” (Woodburn 1982), all persons are not equal.

In his discussion, Sahlins has used precontact Inuit societies as one of several key examples. To do so, he has drawn from well-known and well-respected primary and secondary sources describing the Canadian Arctic, especially Rasmussen (1930), Oosten (1976), Merkur (1991), and Weyer (1932). In his closing paragraph, he notes wistfully that his focus has been on “disappearing or disappeared” cultural forms.

Yet Sahlins’ observations also ring true for the part of the world I know best, where such forms are far from disappeared. I cannot speak from experience for the Inuit of the Canadian Arctic, but their southern relatives—contemporary Yup’ik people in southwest Alaska—continue to understand ella (the weather, world, universe, depending on context) as many-layered and peopled by beings including human persons, nonhuman persons (animals), and a variety of other-than-human persons. Such metapersons, as Sahlins terms them, possess minds, sense, and awareness surpassing that of their human counterparts. “Animals,” they say, “have ears through the ground,” and they alternately allow themselves to be taken or withhold themselves (and are withheld), depending on human actions and intentions.

As Sahlins has accurately used historical descriptions of the Inuit to support his thesis, I will briefly use more contemporary descriptions of Yup’ik society as additional support for what he has to say. Their tales told to this day describe human, nonhuman, and other-than-human persons continually interacting reciprocally, in worlds on the earth, below it, and above it. Boundaries were thin and permeable, paths between them were multiple. In many ways, this is still the case.

I have worked with Yup’ik people in southwest Alaska since 1976. When I set out, Sahlins provided the single best piece of fieldwork advice I received: watch and listen and take the Yup’ik view of the world seriously—do not take apart what they have joined.

I soon learned that Yup’ik people differ in almost every respect from their northern neighbors. Living in the resource-rich Alaskan subarctic, their population was large by Inuit standards. Yup’ik people also give the lie to most aspects of the “Eskimo” stereotype—itself originating in encounters with Inuit in the Canadian Arctic (Fienup-Riordan 1990). Rather than peaceful, igloo-dwelling hunters eking out a living in a harsh, inhospitable homeland, Yup’ik people lived much of the year in semisubterranean sod homes, engaged in bloody warfare, participated in elaborate exchanges, and harvested rich resources along the Bering Sea coast, sometimes referred to as the “Cradle of Eskimo civilization.”

Yet in aspects pertinent to Sahlins’ description of a cosmic polity, Yupiit do indeed match their Inuit relatives. Though they had no “divine pantheon of anthropomorphic powers” (p. 95), Yupiit still refer to the all-seeing, all-knowing Ellam Yua (Person of the Universe), comparable in many respects to Sila in the Canadian Arctic. Aspects of the world around them, such as the ocean and mountains, are still viewed by many as having the capacity to react to human misdeeds. Though no myths are told of the seal-mother Sedna so prominent in the Canadian North, along the Bering Sea coast “the ocean knows” and reacts, breaking the sea ice with destructive force if a hunter or his kin ignore abstinence practices. To this day, so-called “natural events” are given a very particular cultural interpretation. Changes in the universe generally—and climate change in particular—are attributed not simply to inappropriate human actions, such as overfishing or burning fossil fuels, but also to inappropriate interactions among humans as well as between humans and metahumans: “They say the world is changing, following its people” (Fienup-Riordan and Rearden 2012).

What has always been formidable about the Yup’ik view of the world is that it includes so much more than meets the eye. Many understand the world as inhabited by a variety of metapersons. Although these nonhuman persons often have special traits, they are considered to be not supernatural but rather part of the world that may or may not be experienced. Many accounts describe encounters with such persons. Yup’ik parents continue to tell these stories so that young people will know how to act if they have such an experience.

Ircenrraat are perhaps the most commonly encountered extraordinary beings, and they are believed to possess a mixture of traits requiring special treatment. [135]Like human and animal persons, they have both minds and awareness and so merit careful treatment and respect. Stories of those who have visited their underground home describe a world both like and unlike its human counterpart, where a year is experienced as a single day. Although sightings of ircenrraat are not as common as in the past, their tracks and footprints are still found, along with an occasional tool or piece of clothing. People also sometimes hear the singing, stamping, and thumping of ircenrraat, proof that they are still present in the land (Fienup-Riordan 2016).

In May 2017, I traveled with Yup’ik elders and youth down the lower Yukon River and its tributaries between Russian Mission and St. Marys. This trip was part of work undertaken for Calista Education and Culture (formerly the Calista Elders Council), a Yup’ik nonprofit I have worked with for the last twenty years. Our goal was to document Yup’ik place names and the stories that accompany them. During our trip, men and women left offerings of food and water at beaches and grave sites to provision the dead. We visited rock outcrops where Raven the Creator had left his paddle marks and a small cave where, after killing her, he had buried his faithless daughter. Elders pointed out stone “doorways” in cliffs used by ircenrraat to enter and exit the hills along the Yukon, and we heard stories of men and women who had entered there. Elders interpreted a passing whirlwind as a friendly visit from a long-dead shaman. And I was warned not to walk beneath a cliff, as the rocks didn’t know me and might decide to hit me on the head.

Change is profound on the lower Yukon, and the language is as much English as Yup’ik, but a uniquely Yup’ik view of the world, in the Hocartesian tradition, is alive and well. While many predicted that globalization would put an end to distinctive traditions, instead indigenous people all over the planet have sought to appropriate the world in their own terms (Sahlins 2000: 193). In southwest Alaska as elsewhere, expressions of cultural distinctiveness have flourished alongside increased global integration. For all their new connectedness, the continued relevance of traditional admonitions, many feel, cannot be denied.

As noted, Yup’ik people differ in many respects from their Inuit relatives. I know of no “owners” of animals, though Ellam Yua would certainly qualify as the “One over Many” (p. 106). Yup’ik hunters solved the “animist predicament that people survive killing others like themselves” (p. 99) with masterful indirection. In the past, although its body died when hit by the hunter’s harpoon, the seal was said to experience the strike as the soporific breath of a small ocean bird. The seal’s life-force then fled to its bladder, which was saved and returned to the sea so that the same seal could be born again. In the well-known story of the boy who lived with the seals, the boy reported feeling the flensing knife as a kind of tickling after he had been hunted in this way. Seal bladders are no longer saved and returned to the sea in southwest Alaska, but hunting is still spoken of and carried out with respectful indirection. If a man is overconfident and brags that he will catch, animals will hear him and he will get nothing. When a person shoots a moose along the lower Yukon, he simply says (in English), “I knocked it down.”

While hunting per se is not a problem for Yup’ik people, what can be a problem is failure to follow the rules—both general and specific—guiding intra- and interspecies relations. Yup’ik people were as rule-bound as the Inuit whom Rasmussen (1930: 169–204) described—perhaps more so. Working with Yup’ik colleagues and [136]the Calista Elders Council, I have written three books, and am working on a fourth, documenting the elaborate proscriptions, prohibitions, qanruyutet (oral instructions), and abstinence practices guiding relations among humans and between humans, animals, and other metapersons, many still in use (Fienup-Riordan 1994, 2005; Fienup-Riordan and Rearden 2012).

Many rules were designed to create both boundaries and passages between worlds. While the Yupiit, like the Chewong, view the cosmos as all-inclusive and make “no meaningful separation between nature and culture” (p. 93), boundary-making—and boundary-breaking—activities were ubiquitous in the past: covering one’s hand and head when exiting the house following first menstruation; circling a house ella maligluku (in the direction of the universe) to ward off a ghost or evil shaman; refraining from cutting with an ax following a death to avoid similarly cutting the deceased’s passage to the other world. Still today when lost—when some other-than-human person tries to tether a traveler to a spot—men stop their snow machines, turn around, and urinate on their trail to cut the tether and return home.

Elders today suffer over the fact that many contemporary youth do not know these rules, and are thus unprepared for the dangers that encounters with metapersons entail. Elders meet this ignorance by actively sharing their view of the world in everything from books to museum exhibits to Facebook videos and an online Yup’ik Atlas. Before he passed away in 2015, Yup’ik elder Paul John compared the effect of our documentation of Yup’ik qanruyutet to the election of President Obama. He said that just as Obama’s election showed that African Americans are capable, “If white people see these books, they will think, ‘These Yup’ik people evidently know how to take care of their own affairs through their traditional ways.’”

Elders like Paul John have strong political agendas, seeking not merely to revive selected practices but also to vindicate them after a century of dismissal and condemnation. Here again, Yup’ik elders are not unique but rather join indigenous peoples worldwide who self-consciously counterpoise their traditions “to the forces of Western imperialism . . . not merely to mark their identity but to seize their destiny” (Sahlins 2000: 163). In southwest Alaska, tradition-bearing elders are truly leading the charge, as they have retained both knowledge of their past and a passionate desire to communicate it. For them, as for indigenous leaders elsewhere, “culture is not only a heritage, it is a project,” a demand for specific forms of modernity that can only be fulfilled if the next generation shares their view of the world: that is, their culture (ibid.: 200).

To conclude, in this essay Sahlins (p. 117) suggests we need “something like a Copernican revolution in the sciences of society and culture. I mean a shift in perspective from human society as the center of a universe onto which it projects its own forms . . . to the ethnographic realities of people’s dependence on the encompassing metaperson-others who rule earthly order, welfare, and existence.” Yup’ik people today continue to see themselves as living in a world of local, face-to-face relations radically different from the national and anonymous relations that characterize the non-Native world. A well-known Yup’ik oral instruction states: “They say the world contains no others, only persons.” Often this is used as evidence that all persons—human and metahuman alike—are related and thus should be treated with respect. But also—and here is the key to the “meta” in [137]Sahlins’ conception of personhoood—while persons may not be equal, there is nothing that is not a person.


Fienup-Riordan, Ann, 1990. Eskimo essays: Yup’ik lives and how we see them. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

———. 1994. Boundaries and passages: Rule and ritual in Yup’ik Eskimo oral tradition. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

———. 2005. Wise words of the Yup’ik people: We talk to you because we love you. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

———. 2016. “The past is old, the future is traditional: Ircenrraat, the DOT, and the inventiveness of tradition.” In A practice of anthropology: The thought and influence of Marshall Sahlins, edited by Alex Golub, Daniel Rosenblatt, and John D. Kelly, 182–202. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Fienup-Riordan, Ann, and Alice Rearden. 2012. Ellavut: Our Yup’ik world and weather: Continuity and change on the Bering Sea coast. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Merkur, Daniel. 1991. Powers which we do not know: Gods and spirits of the Inuit. Moscow: University of Idaho Press.

Oosten, J. G. 1976. The theoretical structure of the religion of the Netsilik and Iglulik. Groningen: Rijksuniversiteit te Groningen.

Rassmusen, Knud. 1930. Intellectual culture of the Hudson Bay Eskimos. Report of the Fifth Thule Expedition, 1921–22, Vol. VII. Copenhagen: Gyldendalske Boghandel Nordisk Forlag.

Sahlins, Marshall. 2000. “‘Sentimental pessimism’ and ethnographic experience; or, Why culture is not a disappearing ‘object’.” In Biographies of scientific objects, edited by Lorraine Daston, 158–202. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Weyer, Edward Moffat, Jr. 1932. The Eskimos: Their environment and folkways. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Woodburn, James, 1982. “Egalitarian societies.” Man (N.S.) 17 (3): 431–51.


Ann FIENUP-RIORDAN is an independent scholar who has lived and worked in Alaska since 1973. She earned her Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Chicago in 1980 and has authored and edited more than twenty books on and with the Yup’ik people of southwest Alaska.


Ann Fienup-Riordan
9951 Prospect Drive
Alaska 99507