The Bering Sea and Me
By Larry Merculieff
Summary: For at least the last ten thousand years, indigenous peoples connected to the Bering Sea have been partially or wholly dependent on the Bering Sea for their subsistence, cultural, nutritional, medicinal, spiritual, and economic well-being, and it continues to this day. Bering Sea peoples have a worldview substantively different from that of western and industrialized societies. This article is a window in to this worldview and Native ways of knowing.
Presented at a Public Gathering sponsored by the Alaska Oceans Network, circa 2007
There are about 65,000 Aleut, Athabascan, Inupiat, Kamchadal, Chukchi, Koryak, Ittleman, Siberian and Yupik peoples living along the Bering Sea coasts, rivers, and islands. For at least the last ten thousand years, indigenous peoples connected to the Bering Sea have been partially or wholly dependent on the Bering Sea for their subsistence, cultural, nutritional, medicinal, spiritual, and economic well-being, and it continues to this day. Bering Sea peoples have a worldview substantively different from that of western and industrialized societies. The worldview of Bering Sea peoples is subjective, where the observer and the observed are connected. Indigenous peoples experience the Bering Sea as multi-dimensional, multi-faceted, and profoundly mysterious. It can be described through words, but it can be known only through experience, wisdom and awareness.
Words and definitions inadequately describe the essence and meaning of the Bering Sea to its indigenous peoples. In fact, in the minds of indigenous peoples, words and definitions often act to limit (not increase) human understanding and appreciation of Mother Earth and her ways, in stark contrast to the science that seeks to define everything.
For thousands of years the seafaring Alaska Natives have had a relationship of reciprocity with the Bering Sea, based on the ancient understandings that the Bering Sea and all of her children have a consciousness and intelligence which must be respected and honored. Most Native peoples know that through active silence, we could communicate with her consciousness, her intelligence. To communicate or commune, Native peoples use all their senses to listen. These subjective, sensate ways of knowing are complex and multi-faceted, allowing one to gather information from many sources simultaneously. All coastal cultures, understanding the great significance of knowing how to listen to the Bering Sea, teach these ways to their seafaring hunters and fishers.
This sensate way of knowing is shared through the words of wisdom of our Elders who would teach with few very directed words: “Use all of your human gifts to connect to her’. ‘ You have eyes, ears, smell, hearing, taste, intuition, and an inner knowing-use them all and let your body wisdom help you hear the guidance of the great Sea.’ ‘ She will always show you how to be safe, and where to find food if only you know the ancient ways of listening.’ ‘ You cannot hear the guidance she gives if you are filled with thoughts.’ ‘ Thoughts can interfere with hearing what she is saying’. ‘ She communicates through your heart and inner knowing, and so you must stay in touch with these parts of you or you will miss it’. ‘Feel her movement and rhythms-like the human body, each part of the Sea is different and moves according to the circumstances -this knowledge can help you know what to do.’ ‘ Watch the changes in her color at different times of the day, different times of the seasons, in different locations, and in different weather condition.’ ‘ Smell the difference in her essence near shore and offshore, and in different times of the year.’ ‘ Feel the textures of the water because it is different under different circumstances.’ ‘ Watch the animals-where and how they move, because they are doing so in response to what she is saying to them.’ ‘ All of these ways are her language and the way she will speak to you.’ ‘Clear the mind of any thoughts and she will fill you with a deeper understanding of her teachings and the mystery of all Creation.’ ‘ Know that to understand and connect with her, you must know yourself first, in the deepest way, otherwise your understanding will always be superficial.’ ‘ If you do not have proper respect for her, you will die or you will not find food.’ ‘ She will give warnings to you before she acts in a way that might hurt you, because her nature is compassionate’. ‘ If you do not hear these warnings, it is your doing, not hers’. ‘Understand that she is part of the Great Mystery, and thus can never be fully known or understood.”
As a teacher, the Bering Sea provides native peoples with knowledge and wisdom. This Traditional Knowledge and Wisdom has fostered a sophisticated science with profound understandings and insights that western science and quantum physics research is just beginning to acknowledge in theories. For example: Coastal indigenous peoples understand that all parts of the Bering Sea are connected and that the relationships between these parts are complex, chaotic, in a constant state of flux, always striving to achieve equilibrium, and therefore can never be fully understood. Physicists have only recently begun debating complexity and chaos as scientific theories. Outcomes in nature can never be truly predicted except in the broadest sense because of the seemingly limitless variables involved. The Bering Sea is more than the sum of its parts because the parts act synergistically (every part affects every other part and therefore it is impossible to isolate any single component to understand the whole.
Coastal peoples have always understood what quantum physics only recently discovered with the Heisenburg Principle-that the power of human intention affects and even transforms what is being observed. Other studies by scientists confirmed the inexplicable power of prayers to accelerate healing -something Bering Sea Natives have always known and practiced by conducting prayer ceremonies, and ceremonial song and dance (these are forms of intention). In the spirit of reciprocity, hunters return parts of the animals back to the Sea so their spirit may return again to take physical form. These rites, ceremonies, and practices are a form of directed intention (or prayer) so that the Bering Sea can continue to provide.
By gathering information through all the senses, Native peoples have created sophisticated weather forecast systems that modern day forecasters are only beginning to understand. Weather can be predicted by Native peoples who observe the subtle nuances of sea movement and color, types of clouds, aspects of the sun and moon, animal behavior, behavior of wind, and even how stars may appear to change their movements.
These aspects may not be articulated in the specialized language of western science, but all can be found in the context of the cultures, teachings, and ways of living of coastal peoples. This kind of holistic science has evolved through experiential lessons that come from daily interaction and intimate relationship with the Bering Sea.
As a significant result of the intimate relationship between human and Sea, Native peoples know the Bering Sea is much more than just physical. She has moods and emotions. Elders teach that one must be aware of what mood the Bering Sea is in and therefore the emotion that will manifest, be it calm, anger, rage, tempestuousness or playfulness. In all cases, she gives notice of her impending emotions. Those who do not heed her warnings end in disaster. Each year the Bering Sea takes as many as seventeen commercial fishing boats down to her depths. She can create waves as high as sixty feet, and ten-foot seas can be created from flat calm waters in fifteen minutes.
The Bering Sea’s moods and emotions can touch the human being in profound ways through the magic of her color, movement, rhythm, sound, and smell. She can mirror our feelings of joy, melancholy, playfulness, introspection, awe, and childlike wonder. She brings back memories through experience of the familiar. Her endless mystery fosters a feeling of humility and reverence. Her rhythms teach about cycles and how to create music and dance. She teaches how to be in the present moment-to do otherwise can mean certain death or failure to secure food. She is a direct link to our ancestors because the Bering Sea is where we became rooted, and so the Bering Sea is our history book.
Through intimate relationship, the Bering Sea helps us to know who we are as individuals, and as Native peoples. Native peoples know themselves as individuals through connection with Creation, and in contrast, Western society learns about connection through individuality. For example, Native peoples name their tribes, clans, and family members after places on, or relations to, Mother Earth (eagle, raven, and bear clans, the people of the sea lion, etc.). Western Society members name places on Mother Earth after themselves (Seward, Baranof Island, Pribilof Islands, Mt. McKinley, etc.)
Through daily interaction with the Bering Sea, unique opportunities are provided for teaching our young people. Our young are immersed in the cultural understandings of the Bering Sea beginning as early as five years of age. Young boys are taken out on hunting or fishing excursions and learn not so much by words, but by observing the action and behavior of the adults. The young boys learn what it is to be a man and a successful hunter-quiet, observant, respectful, present in the moment, alert, aware, caring for others, supportive, cooperative, patient, and intuitive, in contrast to what we see on TV, men who are aggressive, impatient, prideful, and macho. He learns how to respect, honor, and regard animals and the Bering Sea. He learns the ethic of sharing what is taken, and giving back in return for what is taken. As a direct consequence of this way of learning, the young man becomes a seaman and provider with unparalleled expertise and skill. Going out into the Bering Sea with the adults is a rite of passage into adolescence; bringing home food from his first hunt or first fish caught is a rite of passage into manhood. Young women learn equally in the receiving of the Bering Sea’s bounty. The qualities of patience, caring, sharing, paying attention, being respectful and cooperative is learned by the young girl in the gathering, care, preparation, cooking, and serving of natural foods taken by the women on the shoreline or received from the hunters. Young boys and girls both learn about the spirit of cooperation that is essential for survival and well being of the Bering Sea, wildlife, and human beings. They become true stewards and Wisdom Keepers. The Bering Sea is, in every respect, a natural and comprehensive school where one is taught not just how to make a living, but how to live in harmony with oneself, one’s family, one’s community, animals, and Mother Earth. It is an experiential school that measures performance not by grade level or score, but by levels of self-mastery (wisdom), and degree of skills and knowledge.
It is in these ways, provided through daily interactions and relationship, that Russian and Alaska Natives have come to know the Bering Sea in its many forms, seen and unseen. It is a knowing that is subjective and objective, physical and spiritual, scientific and intuitive, external and internal. The Bering Sea is provider, teacher, source of culture and language, source of physical and emotional sustenance, and guide into the mysteries of Creation and self-knowing. Is it any wonder then that our ancestors viewed the Bering Sea as a divine being?
It is my firm belief that we must create opportunities to foster understanding of the differences between cultures, and a respect for those differences. Perhaps these differences are more perception than reality if one sees them as the gifts they truly are-ways that can complement and supplement one another. For example, one might consider the Native ways of knowing the Bering Sea as feminine in construct. The feminine (Mother Earth) based cultures see things in circles and cycles; their systems are organic because they adapt to circumstances; and they are qualitative and subjective (body centered). By contrast, the western worldview is predominantly masculine in construct. The masculine based cultures see things as linear and in lines; their systems are mechanistic in that it views the natural world (and the human body) as machines that can be fixed or controlled, and they are quantitative and objective (mind centered).
No single way of knowing is better than the other, but both in union can be better than either. Our Elders teach that masculine and feminine must come into balance before harmony can be achieved, and in harmony comes understanding. The place of bringing the two together is the wisdom of the heart.
Human beings can learn to live in harmony with her as taught by Native Elders of every generation. The Elders of many traditions teach that nothing is created outside until it is first created inside. Perhaps humility in the face of the unknown and the unknowable is something that must be restored first. Then, perhaps, the Native worldview (feminine) can come into union with the western worldview (masculine) to heal the Bering Sea and Mother Earth.