The Siberian Collection – A New Perspective


"An Aleut drum used for performances on the Commander Islands."

This note was left for us by Benedykt Dybowski, a man who knew the most about this object, because he brought it to Krakow himself. After nearly 150 years, we take the object out of its box. We can see only its skeleton, which is probably typical of all finds of that age. Mostly skeletons are left. Where does it come from? From a place called the Commander Islands. That commander was Vitus Bering, who in mid-18th century ended his terrestrial or rather his naval journey there. He died of scurvy as a survivor on an island later known as the Bering Island. In addition to it, there is a second island called the Copper Island. Two islands in a faraway lonely sea, seen from space, resemble shreds into which, over time, the membrane of the drum kept in our museum has changed.
It is not that these islands were completely empty then. It was true that there were no people there, but they were swarming with arctic foxes, fur seals and sea otters. The English name of the fur seal suggests how valuable the fur of these animals was in the nineteenth century. That is why people finally appeared in Commander Islands and they took the furs away from the animals and sold them for cash. The client was the so-called Russian-American Company, a corporation managing property on the Russian shores of America for over a hundred years. The contractor were the indigenous inhabitants of the nearby archipelago of the Aleutian islands. They were settled in the Commander Islands with one task: to get as many furs for the company as possible. This is how Aleut history began in the Commander Islands. The story, which continues to this day, it is true, but ... Despite the fact that currently a vast majority of the inhabitants of the Commander Islands are of Russian and Ukrainian origin, and despite the fact that only a few people speak the Aleut language. Nobody remembers about the drum anymore. The one in our museum and other drums from the past. Drums used once by the Aleut people "in performances". However, the very term “performance” may have many meanings here. First of all, because every ritual and rite, from regular annual celebrations through personal spiritual experience, to shamanic rituals is also a performance. Especially in the eyes of a stranger from the west.
For all these reasons, the Ethnographic Museum in Krakow has never conducted research in the Commander Islands. And yet we managed to see the drum, hear it, learn about it, somewhere else. In Chukotka. Why there? Primarily because this is where the instrument still resounds in human hands. In the hands of the Yupik Eskimos who live there, also the Naukan Eskimos and in the hands of the Anqa'lit – the sea people. The Anqa'lit are coastal Chukchi people who have for hundreds or even thousands of years been living on the coast of the Bering Sea, the same as Eskimos and the Aleut peoples who are related to them linguistically and genetically.

The Aleut drum from Dybowski is no different in form from drums used by Eskimos and the Chukchi. It is characteristic for the coast of the Bering Sea on both sides. So it must have sounded similar. The Aleut separated barely four thousand years ago from the main arctic trunk, of which the Eskimos are also part. And their drums reach into the past much further, perhaps to their common roots.
Let's move for a moment to the Uelen settlement, just by the Bering Strait. There the drum was and still is something special. Let us not be fooled by appearances. It's not important that it’s played at rehearsals of a local song and dance group. In the times of collectivization, there was no other way to call what the inhabitants of this place had always done with the help of the drum. That's how they communicated with one other, their ancestors, gods and the world.

Doughter song

In the Aleut language, the drum is called the chayak(h), in the Eskimo dialects it is the soyak(h), sayak(h), sauyak(h).

Let's listen to the story of a Naukan Eskimo, Pasha Tulum about the drum. Maybe someone wants to make a similar one? Pasha makes drums himself. Like his father. He remembers that one night he woke up and heard the voices of his parents singing. When he got up and crept up to them, he saw that they were asleep. They were singing the same song in their sleep.

Soyak(h), Sayak(h), Sauyak(h)

Pasha mentions drums which were made as a gift for the dead, so that they would serve them also after death. They were put next to the body, on the slopes of a stony hill and left. Previously, however, the membrane of such a drum was always pierced or cut. Why? Everything that is broken here, is fine in the world of heavenly people and it serves its owner. Everything that is fine here, is broken in the world of heavenly people and won’t serve anyone, and it can’t be fixed there. The drum in our museum has a cut membrane. We don’t know when it happened, but if the membrane had been pierced already at the time that it found its way to the museum... doesn’t it mean that it plays constantly to someone out there, in the world of aurora and heavenly people?