Englarstaisgnukut - Humor
As an antithesis to the somber countenance of prayer, the ability to laugh and find humor is a strong value within the Alutiiq heritage. In the face of sorrow or the hard times that life can bring, humor makes it bearable or can be what saves us. Joking and teasing within Alutiiq culture is pervasive. In storytelling today there is nearly always laughter and play on words, and so it would be extremely unusual for this same jovial nature common and highly valued as a character trait not have been a major part in storytelling during ancestral Alutiiq times. We do have reference to this where Davydov noted in his critique of ancestral Alutiiq poetry in 1805 how the stories and songs he witnessed were only either love poetry or satire (Davydov, 1977, p. 184).
Among the unigkuat, humor is interwoven into stories, although in their English form it is diluted or absent as the Alutiiq language has humorous connotations that are lost in translation or enigmatic for modern audience to pick up on. Thankfully some ironic elements remain to hint at the humor implied in the story. In the written English it is easy to miss that a situation was supposed to be humorous, for example as in the story “Raven and His Grandmother” (Golder, 1903a). In this story, Raven is angry at the stingy and greedy people of the village, including his ungrateful first wife who ran away from him because she thought he was too stinky. Upon his delivery of a whale to the village his first wife is showing off their child, now that she thinks he is important. Raven is disgusted by her behavior and calls her nearer. His revenge is to defect on them as he flies overhead. This leaves her speechless and drives her away. Likely the original telling of this tale was full of laughter at imagining the ungrateful wife covered in filth and the selfish villagers punished by their own gluttony after being so stingy to Raven and his family. I suspect this story was an uproarious one when told in Alutiiq.
Within the same story publication by Golder (1903a), the story of “Two Inquisitive Men” appears to also have once been a very humorous tale. At the end when the two men are paddling for home, the old man P’tingyuwaq (Petingyuwock) plays a trick on them by tying a line to their boat to pull them back to shore each time they think they have set off. The two men were too curious and nosey, yet are oblivious to the trick being played on them. In the end when their boat tips over they transform into two capes or points of land, thus explaining why capes are always so noisy and bothersome to get around, just like overly inquisitive people. As in the previous Raven story though, the humor is not readily apparent in the English written form, removed from an oral performance.
Another example of silliness within Alutiiq literature is a humorous and playful traditional song still sung today. The song and dance is called Neresta, or Louse, about lice taking banya and making a big show of taariq-ing or whisking as they splash water on the rocks and sing (Alutiiq Museum & Blanchett, 2007). The song is sung with great humor and verve, bringing laughter to the dancers and audience for those who understand what this playful song is about.
There are many Elders and leaders known for their humor. Two Elders remembered fondly, and widely known for their storytelling and good humor, were Sven Haakanson, Sr. of Old Harbor and Dennis Knagin of Afognak. Those who knew them both remember fondly their irreverent comments that would make you laugh even at inappropriate times. Sven’s wife Mary Haakanson recently described life with Haakanson in an interview when she said, “I used to try to get mad at him and he would say, ‘You won’t be mad long, I’ll make you laugh.’ And he did” (KANA, 2012). Humor was a great part of their life together.
In storytelling reclamation efforts that hopefully will develop in the coming years, the traditional stories that have been documented in English text only will need particular attention paid to re-imbue the humor that likely was a major part of many of the stories.
Excerpt from Alisha Drabek, Ph.D. (2012) dissertation:
Liitukut Sugpiat'stun (We are Learning How to be Real People):
Exploring Kodiak Alutiiq Literature through Core Values