RAVEN'S CHILDREN: An Alaskan Culture at Twilight by Richard Adams Carey

RAVEN'S CHILDREN: An Alaskan Culture at Twilight

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A compassionate, elegiac, and unsparing account of a way of life that's being irretrievably lost, if not heedlessly destroyed, in one of the remotest regions of the US. Alaska hired Carey shortly after his 1973 Harvard graduation to teach high-school English in Kongiganak, a village near the mouth of the Kuskokwim River in the southwestern comer of the state. Less than two generations ago, this backwater hamlet was far removed from the cash economy's mainstream; its inhabitants survived in their bleak, beautiful environment by dint of subsistence fishing and hunting. Today, the men still go to sea--in manufactured boats, not sealskin kayaks--and they rely on selling their catch to Japanese food-processing ships that hover offshore. The modern world has intruded in other, more damaging ways, e.g., through alcohol, bureaucratic insistence on fishing permits, consumer goods like VCRs or refrigerators, and installment debt. Here, Carey offers an affecting appreciation of an indigenous people, the Yupik Eskimo, who are caught in a sort of 11th-hour time warp between an isolated past and a future that promises only the colder comforts of Western culture. He does so by focusing on the workaday lives of a single couple grappling with sociopolitical and economic forces beyond their control. Without patronizing or romanticizing his subjects, Carey conveys the harsh, desperate realities of their existence--e.g., how the husband's self-esteem depends, frustratingly, on being able to survive on terms established by storied forebears. There's also fascinating detail on Yupik legends and folkways, plus briefings on the role missionaries played in vanquishing shamanism and opening the area to the increasingly dubious benefits of civilization. Engrossing perspectives from a thoroughly engaged observer on Native Americans whose humanity still fits no stereotypical molds.

Pub Date: June 29th, 1992
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin