Unungan, The Uuloxtaan (meat boat)/Iqyaq (single hatched kayak)/Nixaalaax (large skin boat): The Practical and Spiritual Sides
By Larry (Kuuyux) Merculieff
The Aleut kayak is widely acknowledged to be one of the most sophisticated high seas kayaks in the world. It is fast, quiet, and designed for relatively safe movement for days at sea regardless of weather and sea conditions. With such craft, Unungan traveled between the Russian side of the Bering Sea and the U.S. side, throughout the thousand-mile coastline of the Aleutians, up to Tanax Amix and throughout the Bering Sea to the Gulf of Alaska without being able to navigate by the stars and frequently the sun because of the constant overcast skies.
Unungan were people of the sea more than people of the land. According to a forensic anthropologist from the Smithsonian, Bruno Froelich, the average Aleut male had the physique of a world-class Olympic athlete, with biceps twice as big as an average modern male. He derived this information from studying the remains of Unungan at the Smithsonian. Boys trained beginning at an early age by sitting in the water on the Bering Sea shoreline every day, including winters; and, engaging in weight training by holding large rocks with extended arms while running up and down a hill every day. Physical fitness was essential for survival and going out on the skin boat able to deal with any kind of weather condition for days on end. Mental and physical discipline was absolutely a regular part of each day.
It took almost a year, without modern tools, to make an Iqyaq. Each aspect of making the craft was done with the same mental, physical, and emotional discipline. Care taken in finding the remnants of the right kind of tree for the body and the paddle, preparing the right kind of implements to work on the craft, properly killing and taking the hide from a sea lion, preparing the chixtaalaax (rainproof outer garment), carefully carving and adding designs to the hunting hat, preparing the hunting implements which were composed of a walrus or sea lion bladder, the throwing board or atlatl, the carefully carved and balanced spears with various bone and ivory carved spear points, rope made out of sinew and seaweed, and hunting charms.
Ingeniously, the Unungan craft had the first known “ball bearings” in a kayak. These ivory pieces were strategically located in the joints of the craft to allow it to flex with every movement of the sea. Additionally, since the craft is so narrow (specifically designed to fit the width of the user), the bow is split to prevent submerging when going into an on-coming sea. The water would hit the split, and the top of the split buoys up the craft so it does not become a submarine. Likewise, the stern was wider to allow the use of the energy from a following sea to propel the craft.
But, for girls and boys, men and women, the physical aspects of life were grounded in the spiritual in all thoughts, actions, deeds, and feelings. If one studies the Unungan sea craft, constructs such a craft as I did, and actually go to sea in such a craft, one realizes how much our people had to be literally “one with the craft and the sea”. The craft was considered the first wife of the Unungan hunter and the hunter was spiritually bonded to his craft. On board the craft is usually a carved sea otter, placed in the front, inside of the craft. Sea Otters were considered our relatives and helped us when at sea.
Unungan did not see themselves as separate from the sea or the animals they hunted. Indeed, the understanding was that we must merge with that which we connect with in creation. This is what the spiritual leaders from many traditions call “becoming one with all”. This understanding is easy to see in the construction of the watercrafts designed by the hunters. When one goes out to sea in an Iqyaq, for example, one is as close to the sea as one can be without bodily being in the water. The kayaker can feel every movement of the sea through the skin of the craft, and the craft itself moves with every motion of the sea because of the ball bearings. This helps the kayaker get as close in touch with the sea as possible. Additionally, because the craft is so thin, and given the paddle design, one can move swiftly and very quietly in the water…allowing the hunter to come very close to what he is hunting. The craft and the hunter become literally like the seal, sea lion, or the sea otter in the ability to move on the surface of the water.
Words and definitions inadequately describe the essence and meaning of the Bering Sea to Unungan. In fact, in the minds of our ancestors and some living today, words and definitions often act to limit (not increase) human understanding and appreciation of Mother Earth and her ways, in stark contrast to the westerner that seeks to define everything.
For thousands of years the seafaring Unungan have had a relationship of give and take 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. Unungan all knew that through active silence, we could communicate with her consciousness, her intelligence. To communicate or commune, the Unungan used 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 provided Unungan 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: Unungan understood that all parts of the Bering Sea are connected and that the relationships between these parts are complex, chaotic, constantly changing and therefore can never be fully understood.
In the spirit of give and take, 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, Unungan created sophisticated weather forecast systems that modern day forecasters are only beginning to understand. Weather was accurately predicted by observing the movement and color of the sea, 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 the Unungan. This kind of holistic science has evolved through experiential lessons that come from daily interaction and intimate relationship with the Bering Sea.
Because of the close relationship between human and Sea, Unungan knew that 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 what kind of emotions are coming. This allowed the kayaker to stay safe and get out of upcoming storms in time to get to shore. 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 big ways through the magic of her color, movement, rhythm, sound, and smell. She can mirror our feelings of joy, sadness, 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 a very close relationship, the Bering Sea helps us to know who we are as individuals, and as Unungan. Unungan knew themselves as individuals through connection with the land, sea and air, and with Agox (Maker). 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 were provided for teaching our young people. Our young were immersed in the cultural understandings of the Bering Sea beginning as early as five years of age. Young boys were 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 WisdomKeepers. 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 Unungan 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?
And so, it is in this way that our ancestors created the iqyaq, nixaalaax, and uuloxtaan, as well as their hunting technologies and relationship and understanding of plants, animals, birds, and fish. It was rooted deeply in a spiritual understanding of the human being’s place in the world that served them so well that Unungan had developed a highly sophisticated culture and thriving communities. The success of the hunting technologies, centered on the skin watercraft, allowed the hunters and fishers to secure enough food to support hundreds of communities and camps in the Aleutians. In fact, the Aleutians were the most densely human populated shorelines of North America prior to European contact.
The Yupik elders of Alaska call this the “inside out society” or “reverse society” because we have reversed the laws for living:
—–The heart used to tell the mind what to do and now we have the mind telling the heart what to do.
—–We used to contemplate the mystery of death and now we contemplate the mystery of life. We must have one foot in death and one foot in life in order to live. We are so afraid of death that we light up everything out of fear of the dark, such that we no longer can see the stars; we place our loved ones in funeral homes and have someone else euthanize our pets, and we place our elders in senior homes out of sight and mind so we are not reminded of our own mortality.
—-We used to focus on process instead of goal and now that is reversed. The elders say that how we get to where we are going is more important than getting there. It was understood that if we put the process together properly, the outcome always far exceed individual expectations.
—- We used to listen more than talk, and now we talk more than listen. In fact we have forgotten the teachings around listening without agenda where it is understood that everyone has their own truth and one’s truth is as equally valid as another’s…and if we listen to everyone’s truth, we will be able to see from more perspectives than just our own limited views of the world.
—-We used to understand that the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts, and now, for example, the world’s scientists try to take parts from the whole to understand the whole. The traditional epistemology is that the parts interact synergistically, creating something entirely new from the collection of parts.
—-We are more focused on what we are trying to get away from rather than what we are moving towards. The elders teach that we create our own reality and that what we choose to focus on becomes our reality. As difficult as it may be to grasp, when one chooses to move away from something like injustice, violence, racism, etc. we feed that reality if it dominates our thinking consciously and subconsciously.
—-We have created societies focused on symptoms and not root causes…another reversal. So, much of our modern medicines are geared to deal with the symptoms, not causes, thus the people from the industrialized world are consuming pills. Now our seas and oceans have a new source of major contamination: antibiotics, antacids, and hormones flushed down the toilet from our bodies.
—-We used to honor the sacred in the feminine and now we only honor one form of masculine, creating a great imbalance in our lives and in the world and systems that are imbalanced on the masculine side such that all life support systems of Mother Earth are now compromised.
To paraphrase Einstein, we cannot solve the problems with the same consciousness that created the problem, but that is exactly what we are doing when we discard the wisdom of our cultures.
Thoughts from An Aleut of the Bering Sea 2
One of the beautiful aspects of being an Alaska Native is that we have incredibly wise elders. We call certain people “elders” because of their life wisdom that is informed by their life experiences, the traditions they carry that are passed down for countless generations, and stories which may go back perhaps thousands of years. An older person is not necessarily an elder in this context. There are acknowledged elders who are young by most peoples’ standards.
I have been blessed to have such elders in my life. They say we live in an “inside-out” society, or a “reverse” society. We have turned around all the paradigms for living in our modern world, according to them. We used to contemplate the mystery of death and now we contemplate the mystery of life. We used to teach how to live and now we teach how to make a living. We used to have the heart tell the mind what to do and now we have the mind telling the heart what to do. We used to focus on how we “get there”, and now we focus on just “getting there” or the goal. The elders say that if we focus on how to get somewhere in attempts to find solutions to anything, and if the process is put together correctly, the outcome always far exceeds individual expectation. They also say that what we focus on becomes our reality and that nothing is created outside until it is created inside first.
If we choose to focus on the problems, then the problems become the reality. We come from what we perceive to be “the problem” and this “problem” is created inside first. For example, we trash the environment on the outside because we trash the environment on the inside. We are in conflict on the outside because we are in conflict on the inside. We judge others on the outside because we judge ourselves first.
So, if one accepts such wisdom, what does that mean in terms of climate change solutions? I think that it means what the elders always have been saying, and that is that we can’t offer the world that which we do not have. Einstein says something to the effect that we can’t solve problems with the same consciousness that created it. To put it another way, Gandhi says, “We must become the change we wish to see in the world”. Thus far, from these perspectives, much of the solutions we have heard to date about the solutions to climate change has focused on the “outside” and not on the inside where it originated. What is it inside of us that continue to result in dysfunction in the harmony of the natural world? I agree that we need external solutions quickly, but concurrently we must examine ourselves and what we have wrought in the world. From the indigenous perspective, it is our disconnection from ourselves that creates our disconnection from “all that is”. And the result of this disconnection is to see the world as separate from us. Fish and wildlife become “resources” and “game”. Oil, precious minerals, etc. become “natural resources”. We have created a language of disconnection, symptomatic of our disconnected consciousness. The elders say we are asleep in spirit and to find the answers we must wake up or we will create solutions from this sleeping state that will not solve anything and likely will make it worse.
According to my Elders, time began when we slipped from the present moment-where we used to spend all of our time- into thought, and memories that brings up unresolved feelings and emotions. Time began when we dysfunction ally learned to store strong feelings and emotions of the past because we forgot how cultural practices were geared to move them out of us, including such things as guilt, shame, remorse, anger, sadness, grief, and rage. We forgot the wisdom of our cultures which understood that heavy emotions and feelings must move energetically so that they do not become stagnant pools of darkness within us. When we do not face, process, and move strong emotional and body memories, these feelings constantly drag us into thoughts of the past and/or color our experience of the present. A common symptom that a person has accumulated a lot of emotions into these stagnant pools is depression. And we lose the present moment when we project into the future out of fear about something that hasn’t happened.
We simply slipped into the stream of time from the infinite moment because we forgot the ancient teachings of the real human being.
Thoughts can be useful when we seek to actualize what is in our hearts, or when we access past experiences to assess the probability of imminent danger to ourselves and/or others- and so we act accordingly. Fear is useful to keep us out real danger, but unreal fears keep us constantly projecting into the future…and each time we do that, we escape the present moment.
Our cultures understood the wisdom of acting only from the heart- as it guides us impeccably into correct behavior, thought, conduct, action, and use of words. Human created laws backed by threat of punishment become unnecessary.
When we no longer can tell what stems from thought or from one’s heart, we become “confused” and we lose alignment with who we really are. We are out of alignment when we think one thing, feel another thing, say and/or act out something else. When we are out of this alignment, we are disconnected from ourselves and our bodies. It is the root cause of separation from self, others, Mother Earth, and all Creation.
The Elders teach that nothing is created outside until it is created inside first. When we are separated within, it is easy to separate without. We are in conflict outside because we are in conflict inside. We judge others because we judge ourselves. We criticize others because we are critical of ourselves. And we trash outside because we trash inside. Nothing is created outside until it is created inside first.
When thought, feelings, words, behavior, and actions are all in alignment with our hearts, we step back into our true being-ness. It is the way of the real human being.