Indigenous peoples throughout the globe are custodians of a unique, priceless, and increasingly imperiled legacy of oral lore. Among them the Ainu, a people native to northeastern Asia, stand out for the exceptional scope and richness of their oral performance traditions. Yet despite this cultural wealth, nothing has appeared in English on the subject in over thirty years. Sarah Strong's Ainu Spirits Singing breaks this decades-long silence with a nuanced study and English translation of Chiri Yukie's Ainu Shin'yoshu, the first written transcription of Ainu oral narratives by an ethnic Ainu.
The thirteen narratives in Chiri's collection belong to the genre known as kamui yukar, said to be the most ancient performance form in the vast Ainu repertoire. In it, animals (and sometimes plants or other natural phenomena)--all regarded as spiritual beings (kamui) within the animate Ainu world--assume the role of narrator and tell stories about themselves. The first-person speakers include imposing animals such as the revered orca, the Hokkaido wolf, and Blakiston's fish owl, as well as the more "humble" Hokkaido brown frog, snowshoe hare, and pearl mussel. Each has its own story and own signature refrain.
Strong provides readers with an intimate and perceptive view of this extraordinary text. Along with critical contextual information about traditional Ainu society and its cultural assumptions, she brings forward pertinent information on the geography and natural history of the coastal southwestern Hokkaido region where the stories were originally performed. The result is a rich fusion of knowledge that allows the reader to feel at home within the animistic frame of reference of the narratives.
Strong's study also offers the first extended biography of Chiri Yukie (1903-1922) in English. The story of her life, and her untimely death at age nineteen, makes clear the harsh consequences for Chiri and her fellow Ainu of the Japanese colonization of Hokkaido and the Meiji and Taisho governments' policies of assimilation. Chiri's receipt of the narratives in the Horobetsu dialect from her grandmother and aunt (both traditional performers) and the fact that no native speakers of that dialect survive today make her work all the more significant. The book concludes with a full, integral translation of the text.