The following is an excerpt from: Animal Essays: They say they have ears through the ground by Ann Fienup-Riordan and Alice Rearden.
The lowland delta of the Yukon and Kuskokwim Rivers is home to millions of birds. Close to half the land’s surface is covered with water, and the numerous lakes, ponds, and streams that criss-cross the marshy coastal wetlands provide ideal breeding habitat for birds from five major flyways covering the Americas, the Pacific, and Asia. More than a million ducks and half a million geese breed there annually.
Over the years elders have shared countless stories and admonitions about yaqulget (birds, lit. “ones with wings”) during CEC (Calista Elders Council, now Calista Education and Culture) gatherings and culture camps. We learned a great deal from coastal elders, but there was much more we did not know about these important animals, especially along the Kuskokwim and Yukon Rivers, as well as in the Akulmiut area west of Bethel.
In September 2018, CEC staff had the opportunity to meet in Bethel, at the Yukon Delta Fish and Wildlife Refuge, with four exceptionally knowledgeable elders for a detailed conversation about the most important birds in their areas.
Our group included Nick Andrew from Marshall, Nicholai Pavilla from Atmautluak, John Andrew from Kwethluk, and Moses White, originally from Eek and now living in Kasigluk.
Each had intimate knowledge of birds from lives lived out on the land. Mark John from Toksook Bay led the discussion, adding comments about birds found along the coast. CEC’s student intern, Corey Joseph from Kwigillingok, also attended, and gracefully accepted friendly teasing by the older men. After the gathering, Corey worked with Alice Rearden to transcribe and translate our discussion about the qanruyutet (oral instructions) surrounding birds–knowledge that not only reflected the elders’ personal experiences but that of their own elders and those who came before them. All in our group had worked together many times and knew each other well. After an opening prayer and brief introductions, we began.
Our discussion over the next few days was rich not only in details of bird appearance and behavior but in the meanings people attribute to them. Our group repeatedly described birds as takulluut, signs that alert people to future events.
John remarked: “There are many birds that give signs of what is to come. They say they allow themselves to be seen by people when misfortune is in their future… When common loons dance in front of people, as you’ve said, there is some misfortune for one of the watcher’s relatives. And if they see swans sitting on their eggs in their nests and they are not scared off, it’s also not a good sign.”
Great gray owls also foretell death, and great horned owls sometimes talk to people when someone is going to die: They notify people by speaking to them, pointing out future misfortune.
Unusual bird behavior generally is considered significant, and to recognize what is abnormal requires an expert understanding of what birds normally do. For example, Nicholai said that king eiders, common eiders, and emperor geese don’t normally come to the Akulmiut area:
“These birds that usually don’t come up inland only show themselves to a person when one of his relatives is going to pass away. It’s the same way when we see mountain birds that usually don’t come down. They say they are signs of when their relatives are going to die.”
Not all unusual happenings are viewed as signs of misfortune. A redpoll’s red breast is seen as a good sign–the blood of animals that will be caught in the future. Small birds landing on a person or eating from that person’s hand take away illness. And gulls can appear as people and give aid in times of need.
As Nick said, animals know, they look into a person’s future and only show themselves to one who is pure and clean. Birds also help people in unexpected ways, as when harlequin ducks show travelers a safe path down rivers in spring, or when geese flying downriver alert people to spring flooding.
Birds are also viewed as reliable weather indicators. Cranes arriving first in spring indicate that warm weather is imminent, while when swans and geese are first to arrive cold weather will continue and summer won’t be early.
Not only do birds predict the weather to come; gray jays, Nick said, could be plucked to change the weather. Nick’s good friend, Francis Charlie (November 2014:116) of Scammon Bay, had eloquently expressed this view of birds’ knowing and responsive character when describing a ptarmigan’s full pouch as an indicator of approaching bad weather:
“[Ptarmigan] prepare because it’s their world. They know when something is going to happen… All living things and birds probably prepare after seeing how it will be in the future in the place where they live. These small animals are smarter than we are.”
As we have seen, birds also indicate the arrival of other animals, as when Nick uses an abundance of snow geese to predict an abundance of sheefish on the Yukon. Mark noted that the arrival of white-crowned sparrows on Nelson Island indicates the arrival of herring in coastal waters. And Nick said that birds arriving slowly mean that fish will be slow in arriving as well. Birds show us not only when but how other animals will arrive, as when birds flying high are said to indicate that king salmon and smelt will pass low in the water, while birds flying low indicate that the king salmon will swim close to the water’s surface.
Birds are, first and foremost, messengers–bringing people signs of what is to come in their future. As John noted, in the past shamans employed birds such as ravens and owls as their servants, to travel to distant villages, bringing home news of what they encounter there. Birds were well suited for this task because of their ability to travel between worlds, flying through the sky, on the earth, and in the water. Great gray owls sometimes talk to people, while ravens and cranes respond when people talk to them.
Finally, birds are much more than passive signs of what is to come; there is a dynamic relationship between people and birds, who are persons in their own right. Many birds are thought of in human terms–gulls as compassionate, cackling Canada geese as mischievous, ravens as smart, swans as strong, cranes as comedians, harlequins as life-saving helpers.
Moreover birds can react to inappropriate actions and disappear, as when those who should be abstaining participate in bird drives or fail to wait for the grebe’s call before hunting in the ocean. Birds can also retaliate, like the mistreated swallow or loon that causes the death of a person’s offspring. Birds know, and it behooves us to pay attention to them. They are small, as they say, but their payback is big.
In fact, no bird lacks special significance, and many have the potential to warn us about or affect our future lives. Speaking about birds for three days makes this abundantly clear. Hearing anecdotes and observations from other areas, our group members were reminded how valuable this knowledge can be.
John concluded: “There are actually quite a few qanruyutet concerning birds. The stories of our ancestors are fascinating. They lived by what they knew and passed them down to us. And they used to tell us this: We should make them available to the people of our villages so that they will not disappear.”
Quyana for this preview: How Birds Notify Us. Readers, you can learn more when the “Animal Essays: They say they have ears through the ground” publication by Ann Fienup-Riordan and Alice Rearden is in print.