A while ago, Grant saw an irrcinraq (pronounced ick-tin-[flem]hawk) footprint on his front porch. We crunched our way to his house to take a look—and sure enough, there was a little barefoot human-shaped print settled into the frost on the wooden step.
Irrcinraq* are mythical little people who live out on the tundra; they’re thought by the Natives to come in the village at night to steal things. Whether this is a legend like the one of Santa Claus or whether it’s a story they all actually believe to be true, I’m really not sure. Grant always jokes about how gullible his people are, and Kim says that the Natives really believe in the irrcinraq. If you ask the kids what they know about the irrcinraq, they’ll tell you with a straight face and serious demeanor about the little people on the tundra. “So, is it kind of a joke?” you might ask them. “No,” they say. But however much I’d love to see elf-like creatures bounding barefooted through the snow and stealing trash from our porch, I can’t believe the earnest statements of the Yupiks who say, “They really do exist.”
But the irrcinraq is just one of the many “stories” that keep this culture unique and alive. Oral stories, superstitions, dances set to story-songs, and legends of long ago are just a few of the ways the Yupiks keep the spoken word alive and honor their elders, the ones who seem to keep record of all the stories.
A few nights after the irrcinraq footprint, which we soon found out was just a kid’s bare print, Grant called to tell us to meet him outside. A few minutes later we were standing in our front yard looking up into the dark sky. It was about 10:30 pm. He pointed straight above us to the streak of light in the sky and told us a story about how a raven once became a baby so that he could steal the light from the sun, and that illuminated strip across the black sky was the trail he left behind after collecting light from the sun to take home. We stood for about twenty minutes outside in the cold listening to Grant’s stories; by the time he finished, he looked at me (shivering like crazy, teeth chattering, red face) and told Kim, “You should take her inside. She’s not used to this cold.” That was when it wasn’t even in the negative temperatures yet– I’ve adapted quite a bit, and now I’m nervous about going back to Texas’s warm winter weather.
There’s a native lady here who works at the school and is taking an online class, and I’ve helped her edit all of her essays and papers. They are comparisons between her life and the life of people in books she reads, so I get to read about some pieces of Yupik culture from a native woman’s perspective. In one paper, she talked about the hunger of her people in the old days, and how her mom used to tell her the story about how in one particularly harsh winter with little to no food, the grandmother swept the floor at their home and they poured the contents of the dustpan onto the table and searched through it find edible crumbs. She said one day her mom found an old dried black fish in the corner, and nothing had ever tasted so delicious to her because her stomach was empty and her tongue had tasted nothing but crumbs for days.
She also wrote about how the village is, sadly, full of many alcoholics and drug addicts. She remembers how when her parents used to be alcoholics when she was a kid, she and her two siblings would sit on the dock and try to make each other laugh just to block out the pain and try to find some comfort. They would walk together, and she says she remembers the wind more than anything, and how after a gust of wind she would talk seriously to her brother and sister and say, “tomorrow everything will be ok.”
Many people in this village have seen harder days than any of us can imagine. The kids face their own set of difficulties and challenges. And even though there have been many changes for the better over time, there are still hardships the Natives have to face and hopefully overcome.
* Irrcinraq is Kim’s Yupik name! It’s pretty fitting since she is often a little person out on the tundra.