For generations, oral traditions have played a key role in the Yup’ik village of Scammon Bay, Alaska. Storytelling connects older generations with younger ones and helps community members cope with tragedies and societal ills. A prominent story from Scammon Bay’s oral tradition is the ominous fireball tale.
Scammon Bay villagers describe a dangerous fireball sea creature (or Itqiirpak) that first appears over water as a large fiery ball or burning hand. It then comes ashore to kill ill-mannered villagers or warn the community of an impending death.
Discovering the stories
Researcher Katrin Annemarie Simon became interested in Yup’ik fireball stories while working on her master’s degree at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. With support from the National Science Foundation, she embarked on a journey to learn more about the roles the narrative plays in modern-day society.
“I was mainly looking at the significance of storytelling for Yup’ik people,” Simon explained. “When I started the research on the fireball it was more to find out what Yup’ik stories tell us about contemporary socio-cultural circumstances in Yup’ik society and how people use stories to create their own social reality.”
Simon first encountered the fireball story in the summer of 2007 when a local used it to explain the tragic drowning deaths of two local children. Two weeks before the accident, several villagers described seeing a crimson fireball flickering over the water. Many believe too much noise in the villages causes the fireball’s appearance. In this instance the fireball presence not only signified that a tragedy was about to befall the community, it also served as a coping mechanism as people tried to grapple with and explain the loss.
Simon is now completing her doctorate in social anthropology at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland and recently submitted a draft of her dissertation.
A Story with Different Meanings
The fireball narrative has two variations in Yup’ik culture. In the contemporary narrative the fireball appears just before a tragedy, serving as an omen. The older version—usually told by village elders—carries valuable moral lessons for the youth. In either case, the stories serve a similar purpose: to reinforce morals and traditional values.
The historic fireball story tells of an attack on a male fireball by nearby villagers long ago. For older generations, this older version of the story is more of an instruction tool, teaching children the importance of manners and good behavior and the consequences of bad behavior.
During her research Simon came across the following historical fireball story that was recorded in 1976. It’s very familiar to all villagers, regardless of their age.
“One day, while [the villagers] were out hunting, the children were playing and [making lots of noise] in the qasgiq [men’s house] […] All of a sudden, a hand came in the tunnel, a hand with a large mouth with teeth in the palm of the hand. The children ran to the opposite wall, frightened; except for two [orphan] boys who remained calm. The hand caught the children and ate them one by one, dragging them out of the tunnel, so that all they could hear was the crushing of bones.
After all children but the two [orphan] boys had been eaten, the [orphan] boys ran; one to underneath a large dried skin; the other to underneath a large wooden bowl [….]. The hand felt and searched but it could not find them.
Once the hand gave up searching for the two boys, it left. The two boys went out to see what the monster was. But all they could see was sheer ice […].
When the hunters returned, they were shocked and blamed the two boys for killing the children. The hunters looked for the children […] in the qasgiq, but all they found was skulls. […] One of the hunters suggested that they reproduce the sounds that the children [had made before the attack of the hand] to see if there was really a monster-hand. They did so and soon a fire appeared out over the ocean. The men then began to believe the story and began to attempt to kill the monster-hand […].
As they were making preparations, the hand was jumping up and down on the ice—coming closer each time and looking like a fire on the ice. First, the hand tried to come in through the window. One man told the monster to go in through the lower tunnel. The hand did so and when it came through the tunnel, a large blade, especially prepared as a trap, was loosened from its mounting and it cut off the hand from the arm before it could reach the men inside the qasgiq.
A wall of clear ice remained where the arm rotated. The cut off hand [looked] like a dying animal. [...] Afterwards, the men put the hand up in the qasgiq […] and kept it there until it deteriorated.
The monster’s hands’ name was Itqiirpak and it was the husband of another female hand-monster. This other monster still exists […]. When the female hand appears, it is a sign that someone will die. […] The people say that the she-hand still lives by the ice-grave of her slain husband. The grave is a large block of shear- clear ice”.
--Kupanik, 1975 (ANCSA 14 (h) (1) collection. Fairbanks: Rasmuson Library)
An Important Tool
Today villagers weave modern content into the traditional fireball tale, making it their own. Although the stories may seem dark and foreboding, they help villagers communicate, overcome tragedies and cope with societal ills.
“In Scammon Bay this narratives plays a very important role to the people. Outsiders often underestimate this role. These stories are more than just fairytales. They have morals behind them and they help the community right now when they are struggling,” Simon pointed out.
The Youngest Generation’s Take on the Fireball Legend
As part of her 2008-2009 field work in Scammon Bay, Simon taught a video production and editing workshop for local students. The students were assigned to record elders telling stories and then reenact them, putting their own spin on things.
The students were not actively engaged in the elders’ stories, but they did enjoy telling their own versions. In many cases aspects of the older version of the fireball story appeared in their tales.
“This demonstrates how, although many young people may not appear to show much appreciation for Yup’ik traditional teachings and values, the fireball story speaks to them and remains relevant to their lives,” Simon wrote. —Alicia Clarke