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Texts and Testimonies Tell the Tale

Drawing on community partnerships developed with Yup’ik Eskimo villagers, a new book combines research with indigenous perspectives to create a comprehensive understanding of colonialism in Alaska.

Research  |  Aug 7, 2017  |  By Caroline Funk
Group of indigenous women

Indigenous women and girls cut fish at the Akulurak Jesuit mission boarding school summer fish camp in Alaska, circa late 1920s. (Jesuit Oregon Province Archives, Gonzaga University)

Editor's Note: 

Liam Frink is an anthropology professor; executive director of the UNLV Office of Undergraduate Research; and author of A Tale of Three Villages: Indigenous-Colonial Interactions in Southwestern Alaska, 1740-1950, published by The University of Arizona Press in 2016. He researches Arctic prehistory and colonial history, exploring technological changes and the socioeconomic contexts in which such changes take place.

A Tale of Three Villages details how and why Yup’ik culture in three villages in the region, Qavinaq, Kashunak, and Old Chevak, changed over a 200-year period that includes life prior to and through Russian and North American involvement. The book explores trade, religion, warfare, and social negotiation from a comprehensive interdisciplinary perspective that employs archaeological, ethnological, oral historical, and archival source materials. The book also examines interactions between indigenous Yup’ik and colonists, and intra-Yup’ik relationships.

This review by Caroline Funk, research assistant professor of anthropology at SUNY University of Buffalo, explores Frink’s contribution to the field. 

Liam Frink’s A Tale of Three Villages is a contribution of theoretical, methodological, and regional significance. Frink partners academic scholarship with indigenous voice to create an important advancement in anthropological approaches to colonial encounters in the Arctic and more universally.

Few scholars have made the effort to establish the necessary breadth of knowledge that spans multiple fields of anthropological inquiry while also developing relationships with local communities. Frink employed participatory field research, oral history, ethnohistory, and archaeology to create nuanced interpretations of social, economic, and cultural shifts during this dynamic period of Yup’ik history that link more broadly to the history of colonialism on a global scale. In the process, Frink set a new standard for holistic research, challenging all in the field to equitably include Native perspectives and community partnerships as part of the research process and scholarly outcome.

Frink identified and systematically explored interdependent, complex historical processes as he tracked intersections between Yup’ik Native Alaskan cohorts and colonial pressures. Frink focused particularly on women and young people in his study, recognizing the power of these social groups to respond to and enact change. As a result, A Tale of Three Villages provides a deeper understanding of the dynamic negotiations and competitions for social, political, and economic benefits to individuals, families, lineages, and groups during the process of colonialism.

A Tale of Three Villages provides new insight into Yup’ik culture specifically but also relates to today’s social negotiations. Frink explored family- and community-scale adaptations to global processes, and the patterns and systems he describes may serve to inform us about the fundamental life processes we too negotiate in our increasingly connected lives.