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Fred George is a sixty five year old Yup'ik elder. He lived with his wife Mary in Akiachak, until she passed away from cancer in November 2001. Fred and Mary have eight children and numerous grandchildren. Most of them live in Akiachak and visit their parents daily.
Nearly every day, Fred leaves to tend to his subsistance responsibilities and returns home with large quantities of fish, and sometimes, caribou or ptarmigan. Fred works very hard for his immediate and extended family. His subsistance activities feed not just his family, but his extended family and sometimes his friends.
Fred is a highly skilled navigator of the tundra. He ventures ninety miles to his winter fish camp on the Yukon River, in November, December, February and March. He begins his travel across the tundra on November 10th, at 10:00pm each year. This is the time when Tunturyuk (The Big Dipper) is hovering over the North direction.
With funding from the National Science Foundation, a group of Yup'ik elders, Yup'ik teachers and teacher aides, and University of Alaska Fairbanks Professors meet to discuss the stars and subsistence hunting and fishing in the Kuskokwim and Bristol Bay region of Alaska. Several meetings were held throughout the year, sometime meeting on the Fairbanks Campus, sometimes meeting in a village school.
The Yup'ik teachers and teacher aids helped translate between Yup'ik and English, since the Elders had difficulty speaking English, and the University faculty did not speak Yup'ik. Everything that in one language had to be translated into the other.
Fred would describe his travel across the tundra in Yup'ik, and it would then be translated into English. When a question arose from an English speaker it was translated into Yup'ik for Fred and the other elders. I could ask questions of Fred to gain more clarity in my understanding, or to have him explain what I preceived as gaps in my understanding of his understanding.
For instance, when he said he measured the distance of Tunturyuk to the horizon, I asked witch star was he using in Tuunturyuk. is answer was unclear at first, but when I presented him with a pipe cleaner version of Tunturyuk, he was able to point to the position of the star that was used for the measurement.
Making physical models of the stars and their constellations was very helpful in having Fred explain and demonstrate how he navigates. I mounted the pipe cleaner constellations onto the inside of a black umbrella. I carefully placed them in postion using their lattitude and longitude coordinates. Polaris was the very top of the umbrella, so I placed Kavairat (Little Fozes) at the inside top of the umbrella. Tunturyuk is 30 degrees south of Polaris, as is Kenogarek. Since the Akiachak lattitude is 61 degrees. I places Tunturyuk half way between the inside top and the umbrella's edge. I decided the umbrella's edge was 60 degrees south of Polaris. Kenogarek (Casseopia) is also 30 degrees South of Polaris, dircectly opposite the Tunturyuk. Fred enjoyed rotating the umbrella to represent how the sky rotates. He would point to the postion of stars relavent to the earth, and then turn the umbrella as the time progressed.
After a year, I had the opportunity to fly to Akiachak and go out on the turndra with Fred George his brother-in-law and search party trainee, James. We left Achiachak the first day in March, travelling thirteen miles. We traveled 45 miles out the second day. In the day time he was able to show me the frozen grass, the wind-blown trees, the snow waves, and how he navigates.