Alum shares Eskimo tales

“Udak” is an Inuit greeting, something like the English “good morning.”

About 50 children and adults gathered at the Peabody Museum of Natural History on Monday afternoon at the feet of John Houston ’75, master storyteller and arctic adventurer, rolling the word off their tongues. Some were barely old enough to speak but “Udak” rang with an icy clarity across the room.

Houston, who is part Inuit, held the crowd of children rapt with traditional Eskimo tales about blind boys, loons and talking mosquitoes. Part Hemingway, part Shackleton, he described how he learned the stories: He spent long nights in igloos, fostering a love of folk tales.

Houston’s storytelling was part of a three-day celebration of indigenous peoples that also featured a mini film festival on Inuit life and a celebration of Inuit art, dance and music.

Yale had already been treated to a dose of the documentary filmmaker at a Silliman College Master’s Tea last Thursday, where he recalled his personal experiences of Eskimo culture. He told of the communal love for art in Inuit communities and how he was surprised, upon arriving at an English boarding school, that there was little creation of art in the community.

Last Friday, the Whitney Humanities Center gave a showing of his 1998 directorial debut, “Songs in Stone: An Arctic Journey Home”. The film tells of his rediscovery of the North and the story of his parents, James and Alma Houston, who introduced Inuit art onto the world stage.

Monday’s festival brought polar life to the children of New Haven.

“I came because I like animals,” said one of them, Harlow, an 8-year-old who attended.

His favorite bit of the festival was the talk on arctic wildlife by Caleb Pungowiyi, a Yup’ik Eskimo and a former president of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference. Pungowiyi’s speech featured slides with pictures of the different mammals and marine wildlife that inhabit the region.

“I really enjoyed the event and Caleb’s presence is an unexpected delight,” Houston said in an interview. “The multifaceted aspect is great, there are people here from 3 to 93 and that’s how Inuit culture works: embracing a full range of people. If we didn’t, it’d be hypocritical and I think this event is a shining example of doing it right.”

The festival also included the yearly “Celebration of Native American Cultures” exposé in the Peabody’s Great Hall. Here, children swarmed past the dinosaur skeletons to tables where Native American wares were shown. Feathered figures with tomahawks and booming voices strode past the stands showcasing arrowheads and fabric-making.

But the filmmaker’s presence upstairs caused a temporary lull in the festivities.

“It’s been well-attended, but when they have a storyteller like [Houston] upstairs, the hall tends to empty out,” said Victoria Da Palma, a public schools volunteer.

One of the Peabody’s high school volunteers said she felt the event was a necessity.

“This year’s event is a little slower than last year’s, but it still has plenty of people,” said Eevee Herazo, a student at the Cooperative Arts and Humanities high school. “We’re celebrating Native American culture because Columbus was a killer.”

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