The art of the wooden passin

by K.J. Lincoln

Grandma’s Gift: Lizzie Neng’uryar Chimiugak of Toksook Bay with her wooden passin or ciamcissuun, made for her by her grandson Qaugyaar. He made it as part of a school woodworking project. On the Cover: A wooden passin made by Frank Andrew of Kwigillingok. (Photo by K. Lincoln)

Lizzie Chimiugak of Toksook Bay remembers the day when she first made fish egg akutaq. She was a young woman and what she was making didn’t turn out so good, she said in Yugtun. She had poured in too much seal oil.

In Yup’ik the fish egg akutaq is called mak’aq. Lizzie, whose Yugtun name is Neng’uryar is approximately 91 or 92 years old but still has clear memories of her childhood and of growing up.

A woman named Qengaralria saw Lizzie’s first attempt and told her that there was too much oil – uq’uqercimaluni. She taught her how to make the mak’aq properly.

It is traditionally made first by smashing up the fish roe with a wooden pestle, a passin also called ciamcissuun. For Lizzie, she used the roe of qaurtuq, a whitefish. The egg sac membrane is removed during the smashing process and seal oil is added, little by little. Then comes stirring it and stirring it with your hand for a very long time. It becomes like a thick paste. When it is ready, salmonberries are added, also blackberries if available. Then lastly, water. Today sugar is also used.

These two passitek are from Bethel. photo by Kelly Lincoln

The result is a tasty, shortening-free, creamy berry dessert.

Most of the women had a passin back then to make their delicious mak’aq akutaq.

“Passitet muraullruut. Qaurtut meluitnek mak’itullruukut,” Lizzie said. “The passin were made from wood. We would make fish egg akutaq with whitefish roe.”

Another dessert that is made with fish roe is qerpertaq, which calls for tundra cranberries.

Lizzie told stories of how she would bring a flat-bottomed cup with them on their family camping trips to a place called Cakcaaq so that she could make mak’aq with the qaurtuq roe. The qaurtuq are very rich with oil and fat. Her family loved it.

In place of a genuine wooden passin, some use drinking cups like Lizzie.

“When I want to make mak’aq I use a cup,” said one woman from a different village.

Lizzie remembers her mom’s passin. She does not know what happened to it throughout the years. It was the same size as the one she has now, which was made by her grandson at school. He gave it to her as a gift last year and she cherishes it.

Today Lizzie says she is the last surviving member of her and her siblings. She had two older sisters – Pulaviilnguq and Cacungaq.

In Ann Fienup-Riordan’s book Yuungnaqpiallerput The Way We Genuinely Live – Masterworks of Yup’ik Science and Survival published in 2007 she writes this, bringing forth the other traditional uses of the passin by the Yup’ik people:

Pestles made of ivory or wood were also essential tools for food processing. Marie Moses (of Toksook Bay) noted: “They used wooden mashers on all kinds of berries. Fish liver can also be mashed. They use them on anything that was mashable, and if salmonberries were frozen, we would mash them.” A passin or massiarcuun (pestle) could also be used to mash needlefish, removing their bones. Frank Andrew (of Kwigillingok) noted that pestles were used on fish roe and wild celery to make broth. Margaret Andrews (of Kotlik) concluded: “We used them to crush food for the sick, and they also mashed meat long ago. It’s really handy.”

We need to bring back the passin and the skill of making mak’aq. It is part of our traditional Yup’ik culture.