Beyond Ethnographic Snapshots: Mabel McKeague’s Ecological Portraits of Yup’ik Communities
by Meghan Angelos
Department of Art History
University of Delaware
[i] Hereafter, any mention of “McKeague” refers to Mabel McKeague alone.
Finding Alaska much larger than we expected at the end of the 3 months we decided to stay through the 4 seasons, to travel and see more of this beautiful scenic land. When we had completed the stay of the 4 seasons, there still remained parts of Alaska we wished to visit. With the high cost of living we felt we should work and use our leisure time traveling an[d] enjoy another hunting season.[i]
As a result, the pair began working for the Alaskan Bureau of Vital Statistics, stationed in Anchorage. “From there,” McKeague writes, “Harley was to fly to some of the most remote Eskimo Villages about 2 weeks out of every month. I was to accompany him occasionally on field trips to become familiar with the villages and the interviewers who acted as our interpreters.”[ii] In addition to meeting the local Yup’ik interviewers for the Morbidity Reporting Project and familiarizing themselves with the communities, the McKeagues were also tasked with photographing each village from the air so that they could create maps of all the buildings (fig. 1). Outside of this official task, Mabel McKeague photographed the villages and their inhabitants—both human and animal—for her own purposes.
While representing ecological relationships in Yup’ik communities was not McKeague’s goal, her preexisting commitment to photographing nature influenced how she represented her new subjects. A self-taught photographer, McKeague was recognized for her photographic work before moving to Alaska. She took up color photography as a hobby in 1950, with a preference
[i] “Adventures in Alaska” by Mabel B. McKeague, 25 October 1961, Folder 6, Pamphlets and Newspapers, Mabel and Harley McKeague collection of Yup’ik art, University Museums, University of Delaware.
[ii] “Five Years with the Alaska Eskimos,” Folder 6, Pamphlets and Newspapers, Mabel and Harley McKeague collection of Yup’ik art, University Museums, University of Delaware.
Many of the notes and captions that accompany McKeague’s slides reveal that despite close interactions and even friendships with Yupiit, the McKeagues continued to view them as friendly, less advanced “Others” working against the hardships of their climate. In the mid-twentieth century, outside views of Alaska Natives were heavily influenced by Robert Flaherty’s ground-breaking 1922 film Nanook of the North. Cultural anthropologist Ann Fienup-Riordan explains that this film established the popular impression of the “Eskimo” as “the noble savage” whose “harsh environment was his enemy.”[vi] Fienup-Riordan cites her own childhood-learned understanding of “Eskimos” as “happy smiling folk, living peacefully in igloos in small, nuclear family groups including noble hunter, wife and child. Their environment was harsh and
[i] “Nature Slides Win Honors for Mrs. McKeague,” The Rhinelander Daily News, April 7, 1956.
[ii] “Nature Slides Win Honors for Mrs. McKeague.”
[iii] Lands of Ice, Hearts of Fire: Inuit Art and Culture (Newark: University Gallery, University of Delaware, 2003), 13.
[iv] “Mabel and Her Pictures,” The Rhinelander Daily News, December 1, 1959.
[v] “Adventures in Alaska” by Mabel B. McKeague.
[vi] Ann Fienup-Riordan, “Frozen in Film: Alaska Eskimos in the Movies,” in Films on Ice: Cinemas of the Arctic, eds. Scott MacKenzie and Anna Westerståhl Stenport (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2015), http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.3366/j.ctt14brwjm.10, 61.
Eskimos are a happy and friendly people, some rather shy. First of all you must win their confidence. The first year not many pictures were taken, but those that were we projected on a screen at a mass meeting in the school which thrilled them after that they looked forward to our visits…I’ll try to give you a story of the villages and the people how primitive they live and survive in a flat tundra almost treeless area where white man could not survive.[ii]
Despite “learning 2,500 Eskimos by name” and entering “every house,” McKeague continued to see her Yup’ik neighbors as peculiar, friendly Others whose lives merited documenting.[iii]
Although McKeague’s sense of connection with the Yup’ik communities she photographed was clearly limited, the photographs themselves retain value—both aesthetic and documentary. Beyond the biases evident in their accompanying texts, the images can be read as forming an ecological portrait, revealing the interconnectedness of people, animals, and environment. In this way, McKeague’s slides can be reinterpreted as an unwitting precursor to the more politically motivated photographs of Indian-born photographer Subhankar Banerjee. Like McKeague, Banerjee is best known for his photographs of the Alaskan landscape, animals, and people. Specifically, he photographs in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in northeastern Alaska, and United States Senators have used his images as compelling visual evidence to advocate against drilling in this area. Banerjee’s photographs are meant to be artistic—they are exhibited in museums and galleries—but they are also documentary. He explains, “In essence, my Arctic study is both documentary, because it documents the important ecological and cultural aspects of the refuge, and at the same time it is art, because it is a meditative study of the fragility
[i] Fienup-Riordan, “Frozen in Film: Alaska Eskimos in the Movies,” 59.
[ii] “Five Years with the Alaska Eskimos.”
[iii] “Five Years with the Alaska Eskimos.”
Most importantly, both McKeague and Banerjee show people embedded in relationships with their environments.[iii] Writing about Banerjee’s photographs, historian Finis Dunaway describes how they present Indigenous people as active agents within their environment, forming “bonds of exchange and interdependence with the nonhuman world.”[iv] McKeague’s photographs can be read in the same way. The sub-Arctic landscape in her slides is almost always peppered with signs of human presence, if not focused on humans specifically. In her slide labeled “King Salmon Eggs” (fig. 3), McKeague captures men and women handling fresh fish with confident, capable movements. Within the frame, Yupiit and their salmon combine with the human-made buildings and receding shoreline behind them to create a single, cohesive image that mimics the relational unity between humans, animals, and land. By including the village on the horizon behind the Yupiit, McKeague also grounds her subjects within the land that is their home, situating this activity within the realm of daily life. “Nightmute Village Scene” (fig. 4) functions similarly; the natural and built environments intertwine, extending into the distance. From this
[i] Finis Dunaway, “Reframing the Last Frontier: Subhankar Banerjee and the Visual Politics of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge,” in A Keener Perception: Ecocritical Studies in American Art History, ed. Alan C. Braddock and Christoph Irmscher (Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 2009), 262-262.
[ii] Dunaway, 263.
[iii] Dunaway, 265.
[iv] Dunaway, 265-266.
In addition to highlighting these interconnections, McKeague’s photographs reveal Yupiits’ familiarity with and embrace of seasonal effects on the landscape. For example, “Spring Breakup Kuskoquim” (fig. 6) frames four Yup’ik adolescents among the broken, icy masses of the thawing river. While the scenery may be startling to many viewers, the depicted four are unfazed; they are familiar with the changes that each season brings. As a group, the images offer a visual corollary to the Yup’ik concept of ella—alternately translated as weather, world, universe, atmosphere, environment, or climate.[i] According to Yup’ik elders, ella changes based on humans’ interactions with the world around them, including ethical relations with other people.[ii] Thus, maintaining good, respectful relations is of the utmost importance, and it is this aspect of the Yup’ik communities that McKeague highlights most in her photographs. With her particular eye for smiling groups of children, equally at home both indoors and rooted within the landscape (fig. 7), she captures the way in which community relations are built from childhood. Young children play in groups, older children help the adults hunt and prepare food, adults teach their successors in the community, and people congregate in many settings. All the while, the
[i] Ann Fienup-Riordan, “Yup’ik perspectives on climate change: ‘The world is following its people’,” Études/Inuit/Studies 34, no. 1 (2010): 57.
[ii] Fienup-Riordan, “Yup’ik perspectives on climate change: ‘The world is following its people’,” 65-66.
Apart from their value in capturing the daily lives of Yupiit in the mid-twentieth century, McKeague’s photographs also form an archival “before” picture of people and places that are on the frontlines of climate change. Climate change can be described as slow violence, defined by literary scholar Rob Nixon as “a violence that is neither spectacular nor instantaneous, but rather incremental and accretive, its calamitous repercussions playing out across a range of temporal scales.”[i] As Nixon acknowledges, slow violence is notoriously difficult to represent visually, because its effects are gradual, exponential, and long-lasting. McKeague’s photographs represent an unintended method for circumventing this challenge: by photographing these communities almost sixty years ago, McKeague produced a visual record of communities “before” climate change was a pressing issue that can be compared to today’s “after.” An “after” portrait is perhaps best exemplified in the 2015 film We Are All Related Here.[ii] The documentary film focuses on the village of Newtok, Alaska, where climate change is no longer an imminent threat, but an alarming reality: it has accelerated rates of erosion and the land beneath the town’s central hub, the school, is rapidly diminishing. As the film underscores, relocation of the village by the deadline of 2017 seemed unlikely, due to the lack of institutional frameworks and funds for this kind of relocation in the United States; the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act does not include climate change as a disaster that requires an emergency response.[iii] A year after this ominous deadline, the land continues to disappear into the river, while Yupiit continue their efforts to survive amid the ongoing, violent effects of climate change. Whereas this slow violence is impossible to capture in the moment, its effects become clearer through a comparison of images over time—one which McKeague unwittingly made possible with her ethnographic snapshots.
[i] Rob Nixon, “Introduction,” in Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011), 2.
[ii] Eyal Weizman, Forensic Architecture: Violence at the Threshold of Detectability (New York: Zone Books, 2017), 102.
[iii] Brian McDermott, director. We Are All Related Here. 2015. DVD.
Museums Collections, Gift of Mabel & Harley McKeague