Minuk: Ashes in the Pathway

Author: Kirkpatrick Hill

Illustrator: Patrick Faricy

Publishing Year: 2002

Setting: Yup'ik Eskimo Village, Alaskan Territory, 1890


When a missionary family of three from the United States east coast arrive in Minuk's village, she and her best friend Panruck are very curious about them. The father seems a bit dismissive of the Yup'ik ways, while the son (David) is more interested in learning about them. Minuk and many of the other children spends lots of time with the mother Mrs. Hoff, who explains a lot about their way of life. Some of it makes no sense to Minuk, like corsets and taking a Sabbath day to do nothing, but others like writing seem wonderful. She can see that the Hoffs are as sincere in their beliefs as she is in hers, but isn't convinced that they're right. For example, David gets very sick and the Hoffs refuse to have a shaman visit because they say the shaman does evil things. But the shaman heals people. However, the Hoffs' medicine (which they willingly share with the Yup'ik, who gladly accept it), ends up healing David. She also doesn't understand why the loving god the Hoffs tell her about would allow a place like the hell they describe to exist.

Minuk starts to wonder about the various beliefs she's been taught, by the Hoffs and by the elders in her village. She notices that both are sometimes unsure why their traditions exist. Things have just always been that way. And both agree that a man should be the head of a household, to the point that Mr. Hoff thinks it would be a bad idea to teach Minuk to read, lest she think herself above her future husband if he can't read.

Shortly after the Hoffs arrive, Panruk has her menarche, becoming a woman. After a ritual lasting several days, including throwing ashes in a pathway, she and Minuk (who is about a year younger then her best friend) can't play together anymore. Soon Panruck is married, though it doesn't work out and she leaves him, a simple procedure for the Yup'ik people. Mr. Hoff hears about this, and says that people shouldn't divorce (but it's not like they had a sacramental wedding, and Panruck's reason for leaving her husband--that he would kill any girl babies--would be totally acceptable in most any church except crazy ones, although Mr. Hoff isn't privy to that information). Minuk hasn't yet had her menarche, but a boy about her age, Mellgar, expresses interest in her, and she agrees that when she's a woman, they can marry.

While the Yup'ik appreciate the medicine and some other amenities the Hoffs provide, Mr. Hoff makes his family quite unwelcome by disrupting an important ceremony, the mask dance. He decries it as heathen superstition, interrupting the ritual so critical to enduring success and good luck in the coming year. The elders agree that they should stop associating with the Hoffs, although they agree to let Minuk help the white nurse who stays with them, as she's only interested in saving lives, not converting souls and lifestyles. Minuk learns a lot from her, not just medicine, but also that women are gaining more and more opportunities in the world.

But the nurse's expertise can't help when an influenza epidemic rips through the Yup'ik. Only Minuk and her five-year-old brother survive out of their family. Panruck dies too, and so does Mellgar and his whole family.  Discouraged not only by the lack of conversions but by the tragedy, the Hoffs prepare to leave. The nurse offers to take Minuk back with them, so that she could learn to be a nurse or even a doctor. Minuk knows that her heart is with her people, and stays with what's left of her tribe. But she's grateful for all she's learned from the visitors.

Then and Now: A Girl's Life

When European explorers arrived in what would become Alaska, they brought with them exotic diseases that ravaged the native population. Thanks to smallpox, influenza, and measles, the Yup'ik were reduced to just over a tenth of their previous population. Older generations were hit hardest, making it difficult for the younger people to keep up with the traditional way of life. The influence of Christian missionaries, who often urged converts to give up their former way of life entirely, didn't help. But today the Yup'ik population (and that of other tribes) has rebounded, and they strive to strike a balance between enjoying the modern conveniences of the twenty-first century while still passing along important cultural traditions.


Dedicated "fondly to three Alaskan women: Sylvia Olson Boullion, my friend of almost 60 years; Ruth Olson, her mother; and the late Pat Oakes, who loved Alaskan history." The author also acknowledges the "explorers, travelers, and anthropologists who carefully observed, asked questions, and wrote about what they saw...sav[ing] what might have been lost forever, so that we...can understand a little of [Yup'ik life] more than 100 years ago." She also thanks explorers Lr. Lavrentiy Zagoskin and Edward W. Nelson, Moragian missionaries John and Edith Kilbuck and Herman and Ellan Romig, a Russian priest named Iakov Netsvetov who recorded Yup'ik history in the 1800s; writers Wendell H. Oswalt (who also critiqued the book), Ann Fienup-Riordan, James W. VanStone, and Dorothy Jean Ray.

The author grew up in Fairbanks, Alaska. Her (step) grandmother, an Alaska native, remembered meeting Russian travelers when they first came to Alaska, and told fascinating stories of her first experiences with a new culture.

This is a very interesting and well-written book.

It sounds like the Hoffs are some variety of Protestant, from the way they try to change so many aspects of Yup'ik life and "civilize" them, and how they're compared to the Orthodox priests who used to come from Russia when Russia owned Alaska. Catholic missionaries to the American west tended to not do that, and had higher conversion rates. My (Protestant) history teacher, at the Christian school I attended, said Catholic missionaries were more successful because the had 1500 years more practice than Protestants.

One reason the Hoffs leave is that they open their Bible to a random page and the verse they first see is about leaving, which they take as a sign. This reminds of a dark joke another teacher at my school told, wherein a man did the same thing. First he opened his Bible to the passage about Judas hanging himself, then to a verse reading, "Go ye therefore and do likewise." Context is important.

My great-grandmother was five when this book was set. My great-grandfather was four (he died in 1930 so I never met him, but I was able to meet my great-grandmother, who lived be 103). My great-grandfather and his brother-in-law (Great-Grandma's brother) had a seafood company run out of Alaska, the Alaska Glacier Seafood Company. It was one of the first such businesses in the area, specializing in shrimp. And one of my cousins is married to a man who's Alaska native...I'm godmother to their daughter; I wonder if she'd like this book. She likes the Caroline books...

One of my favorite quotes is one I read at the Woodland Park Zoo, in the section with Arctic animals. It's from an Ojibwe guide named Satatha, spoken to a missionary priest in 1890: "You have told me that Heaven is very beautiful. Is it more beautiful than the country of the musk oxen in the summer, when sometimes the mist blows over the lakes, and sometimes the water is blue and the loons cry very often? That is beautiful. If Heaven is still more beautiful, I will be content to rest there until I am very old."

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