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The Case for the Qasgiq

September 21, 2017

Qasgi-gguq una nunauguq ciuliamteni. Qasgiilkuneng nunanek apaamangaunateng.

 

During our ancestors' time, they said that the qasgi was the foundation of a community. A place without a qasgi wasn't recognized as a community.

--Frank Andrew, Kwigillingok (Yupikscience.org, Qasgimi, In the Qasgi)

 

Imagine a community where men have a place specifically for men. Where they have a purpose, a place they can go to every single day. In this place they build things, they repair things. They identify problems in the community, and without waiting for anyone else, they go and fix them. In this place, men learn to be men. Boys work and learn the lessons every boy should learn from their uncles, grandfathers and fathers. They steam every night, they dance every night.

 

The qasgiq or “men’s house” could be considered the defining aspect of a Yupik community. The qasgiq was gone by the time I was born in 1977. The qasgiq was not even on my radar until much later in life when I was doing research on traditional governance. This task was not easy, I had in my head preconceived notions about what governance looks like. I went to school for political science and for me, governance meant constitutions, bicameral legislatures, presidents, senators and judges. In order for me to understand traditional governance structures I first had to abandon these notions and take a much broader view of governance. I thank my elders, family, and community, specifically Oscar Kawagley and Harold Napoleon’s books for my development in this area.

 

The thing that first struck me was our environment. When I read and heard the stories of our Ancestors, one thing became clear: that life was hard. It always bugged me from a strictly anthropological perspective to say that we have been here since time immemorial. The evidence seems to indicate that we all share common ancestors in Africa. However, we were not the Yupik people until we got to this place, it was in this place that the Yupik people were born. The crucible in which our culture was formed. We came into existence here and never existed anywhere else.  

 

In this environment, we fish, hunt, and gather when the weather and seasons permit. We ate the foods available to us, and used the tools the land provided to us. The environment in which we made our home governed much.

 

The other part was harder to winnow out. The general narrative is that we had no governance structure, we lived in small family groups and loosely affiliated clans with no leadership. In some ways this was correct, we did not have any governance structures that were easily recognizable to a Westerner. Yuuyaraq was the way in which a human being conducted him or herself. These rules dictated how you interacted with one another and the environment. Our governance structure was yuuyaraq itself. Yuuyaraq was the governance structure, but it was also more than simply governance. Yuuyaraq was the ongoing process of developing yourself as a human being. With a governance structure such as this, one did not need to have centralized structures. A large part of yuuyaraq was governing oneself, and failing that to hold one another accountable.  

 

It was within this context that the qasgiq existed. This was an institution within the larger institution of yuuyaraq. It is a bit of a misnomer to call it just the men’s house. Yes it was a place for men, and from what I have heard and read women mostly stayed away from the qasgiq but the role that the qasgiq played in the community meant that women were very often there. The qasgiq was the social, political, economic and spiritual center of the community.

 

The last qasgi fell in the mid-50’s, my mom and most of my aunts and uncles on that side remember it. They remember this as the place where my great grandfather Joe Seton spent all his time. My mother once told me that she never once heard him raise his voice in her entire life. Even when he was clearly angry about something, he never raised his voice but when he was mad she said it was as though he was thundering down on her. My aunt Sue told me a story of being tasked to deliver something to the qasgiq, and being terrified to even enter this place. Harold Napoleon remembers sneaking off to this place to be close to these same men, and when he speaks of them you can hear the reverence in his voice. I never recorded any of the conversations I’ve had with various people about the qasgiq but it nevertheless left a lasting impression on me. This was a place of power.

 

The qasgiq was the social center of the community. This was the place where the community received visitors, and the place for many ceremonies. If anything needed to be discussed, or decisions needed to be made they took place in the qasgiq. This was the place where the men worked, they built and repaired the various implements used in all aspects of life. This was also the place where they danced, and dance was prayer.

 

When the qasgiq went away it was because the missionaries who came saw it as a threat to conversion. In many ways it was, but in my heart I believe that we would have converted anyhow. I hold no resentment in my heart for those people.

 

When they tore down the last qasgiq, they took with it many important institutions within the community that were not replaced. The cultures clashed and in the aftermath nothing was left. There is a vacuum left where yuuyaraq once ruled, and a vacuum where the qasgiq once stood. Our people were not savages, we were in fact astonishingly civilized. Perhaps now, more than any other time in our history, have we become savages.

 

The statistics are there for anyone who is interested, I don’t like looking at statistics because to me this is my family. My brothers and sisters, my parents and uncles, my grandparents. I didn’t need those statistics to tell me what we already know about the state of many of our communities.

 

The truth is we can trace most of our problems to colonialism, we didn’t do this to ourselves. The people responsible for what happened are dead and gone, and some of their ancestors want to help but they can’t. They don’t even know how, decades of Western intervention has done little to alleviate our dysfunction. We are the only ones who can bring ourselves out of this. Our ancestors would not want us to point fingers and wait for someone else to come and clean up the mess.

 

The pareto principle, also known as the 80/20 principle states that, for many events, roughly eighty percent of the effects come from twenty percent of the causes. This manifests in many ways, eighty percent of accidents are caused by twenty percent of the hazards. Eighty percent of the berries can be found in twenty percent of the patches. You can very often use this principle to solve eighty percent of a problem: by finding the right twenty percent to focus on.

 

When we look at the problems our communities face it is clear that men account for much of the dysfunction and young men in particular. Even when we look at some of the biggest problems our women face, they are related to men. Sexual violence, domestic violence, homicide, broken families. These are also related to dysfunctional men. I believe that if we focus our efforts on men, we will solve much of the problem we face. The qasgiq is the vehicle for this change. This is not my idea, I did not make this up. Nor am I even the first to advocate for its return.

 

If we want to return the institution of the men’s house we need to ensure it serves the same purposes that the men’s house once did. The men’s house was in some respects just a sod and mud hut. Qasgiq have been built in some attempt to reclaim what it used to be, but the institution is so much more than the materials used to build it. I have used my research to envision a men’s house that functions the same as the men’s house of the past. This place will be a community center, it will be the center of dance and celebrations. The men’s house will be an economic engine, a place for men to work, and to provide for their communities in the way they used to. It will be the place where men teach men how to act, and hold each other accountable for their actions, the return of yuuyaraq. The men’s house will be the catalyst for men to reclaim their rightful place in our society and to do our part in returning our communities to balance. I have seen it.

 

 

 

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