Michael Kleven, Producer Director
who live today on the land that reaches for Russia,
will go down in history for keeping in memory stories that change history.
Sandra Kleven, Producer
Michael Kleven, Director
The work of discovery to be done in making “Jumping Russian Rope” will push back the date of contact between Russians and the Natives of Alaska. It will establish an earlier date for Russian explorers achieving landfall on the North American continent. It will do this through an examination of language and stories. There are no obvious remnants of early Russian contact in Hooper Bay, Alaska. Not like other villages of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, with Russian names and customs; where churches , with their unmistakable onion dome, mark the early influence of Russia. There is none of this in Hooper Bay.
In the Bering Sea village of Hooper Bay, Alaska references to long ago Russians surface naturally in conversation. Historians have not recorded this story, but the people in Hooper Bay remember – through oral history – long distant contact with Russian traders and minors. They also believe they are part Russian. When an early teacher arrived in 1917, he made notes in his journal about the pale complexion of the people he found there.
Neva Rivers gave the first clue to this hidden history. She was born in the Village of Hooper Bay in 1920. When she was about ten, she and her sister were playing at home, mimicking the English speaking teachers. Bored with this, they asked their father how to speak Russian. He said, “You are speaking Russian.” He pointed out the many common items around them that carried Russian names.
Throughout the Y-K Delta (an area as large as the state of Oregon), where 95% of the population is Yup’ik Eskimo, Russian words are still used for sugar, flour, table, book, and other items introduced through trade. As many as three hundred “loan words” from the Russian are listed in the Yup’ik dictionary. Loan words have been dredged from the vocabulary of Kuskokwim River villages – the obvious place to find embedded Russian words, as they are all Orthodox villages. The words to be found in Hooper Bay are older because they did not come from contact with Orthodox priests; they came from the traders who brought the goods. In 2006, the year before her death, the Russian/Alaskan anthropologist, Lydia Black, looked at a list of words Neva Rivers produced and, while many could not be identified, Black said, “You have a few gems here. Some of these are archaic Russian.”
Archaic Russian words could establish an earlier date of
first contact with Russia. This would
change known history in the same way as the discovery of early Viking
settlements on the other side of the North American. Undocumented contact for trade and tribute
may have occurred in the period after 1648, the date that marks Simeon
Dezhnev’s transit of the Bering Strait – the first, historically. Dezhnev sailed south from the Arctic Ocean,
through the straight and settled on Russia’s Anadyr River – due west of what is
now Hooper Bay. The discovery in spoken
Yup’ik of phrases, poems or songs of Russian origin will provide a linguistic
carbon dating – an approach never taken before in attempting historical
Long ago the children in Hooper Bay jumped rope to “songs.” Neva Rivers remembers the words. Did the one who brought manufactured rope also bring the songs the children chanted? Jump rope jingles. Russian linguists are set now to examine the songs for remnants of Russian.
The dance, the subsistence activities will ground the inquiry in the life of the people. DNA testing can validate the people’s claim that they are part Russian. This project will explore the language and the stories, the search for the wreck, recording all activities in high quality digital video and sound, to produce a documentary film.