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ETHNONYM: Asiatic Eskimos


Identification. "Asiatic Eskimos" refers to those living on St. Lawrence Island in the north Bering Sea and on the adjacent Siberian shore. "Yuit" means "the real people" or "authentic human beings" and is comparable to "Inuit" (used among North American Eskimos); both are indigenous terms. In the 1970s the St. Lawrence Islanders applied the name "Sivuqaq" to both the entire island and the town of Gambell, and a derived term, sivu.qaxMi.t, could mean either "St. Lawrence Islanders" or "people of Gambell." Specific locality-based names were more commonly used in differentiating people from the various areas and clans. The Yuit are those Eskimos who speak one of the two major language groups in this broad ethnic category, namely, those living in Southwest Alaska and eastern Siberia, including St. Lawrence Island. This entry deals only with the latter two groups, the "Asiatic" (Yuit) speakers of the language variant "Yup'ik."

Location. For over two thousand years the Asiatic Eskimos have lived on St. Lawrence Island and in several Scattered villages rimming the easternmost tip of Siberia, the nearest point being forty miles away. Archaeological remains have provided a rich store of artifacts highly significant in theories dealing with Eskimo origins. The topography is treeless tundra alternating with spectacular mountain scenery (especially in Siberia), and the climate is wet, cold, and frequently stormy.

Demography. In the middle 1980s the population of the Asiatic Eskimos was approximately two thousand, about half living in the Siberian villages. Because of the relocation policies of the Soviet government, the Eskimos since the 1960s have been grouped with other ethnic minorities, such as the Chukchees, in larger villages intermixed with Europeans. It is impossible to estimate the precontact population with any degree of assurance. What is known is that in the late 1880s there was a calamitous decline brought on primarily from sickness and contact with crews of whaling ships. St. Lawrence Island was especially affected, its population dropping from an estimated sixteen hundred in the 1870s to barely six hundred following the Great Starvation of 1878-1879.

Linguistic Affiliation. Asiatic Eskimos speak three dialects or distinct languages of the Yup'ik branch of the Eskimo language: Sirenikski, Central Siberian Yup'ik, and Naukanski. All are spoken in Siberia, with Central Siberian Yup'ik also found in virtually identical form on St. Lawrence Island.

History and Cultural Relations

Asiatic Eskimos are the cultural and biological descendants of highly successful hunter-gatherers who for at least a couple of millennia had been well adapted to the Arctic ecosystem. First contacts with Europeans came during Russian explorations of the seventeenth century and later (such as that of V. J. Bering, who in 1728 "discovered" and named St. Lawrence Island), and navigators of other nationalities soon followed. The opening of the North Pacific whale fishery after the Middle of the nineteenth century brought many whaling ships, disease, new hunting equipment, and liquor into the lives of the Asiatic Eskimos. With the U.S. government's purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867, a formal political boundary separated the St. Lawrence Islanders from their closest cultural relatives in Siberia, a boundary that was only infrequently observed until post-World War II animosities between the Soviet Union and the United States resulted in hostility sometimes and an "ice curtain" preventing centuries-old patterns of trade and intermarriage. In the late 1980s there occurred several friendship visits of Alaskans (including St. Lawrence Islanders) to the Siberian villages, where long-unseen relatives greeted each other and ties of common identity were renewed.


Aboriginally, the Yuit lived in permanent settlements, which they left as the season dictated for hunting, fishing, or bird-catching camps nearby. For centuries the basic dwelling was a semisubterranean sod-covered, driftwood structure with a below-ground tunnel entrance designed to conserve heat. Such structures were large enough to house an extended Family. During the nineteenth century Yuit living on the Siberian shore began to use the walrus-hide-covered winter structure of the nearby Maritime Chukchee, and this type of housing spread to St. Lawrence Island. For both groups, the typical summer dwelling was a skin tent in both the permanent settlements and seasonal subsistence camps. Houses constructed of imported lumber began to appear early this Century in a style and of materials much less well adapted to the severe winter weather than had been the aboriginal dwellings.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Subsistence was based primarily upon sea mammals: seals, walruses, and whales. Flesh of polar bears was only infrequently eaten, the animal being valued more for its fur and the prestige accruing to the successful hunter. Fishing, bird hunting, and gathering plants and littoral edibles supplemented the meat diet. Today the bulk of food still comes from hunting, but there is also much use of store-purchased food. All edible parts of the animals are eatennot only flesh but also internal organs (heart, lungs, liver, intestines) and, in the case of whales and male walruses, the skin and attached fat (blubber). Animals also provided other materials vital to subsistence: from seals and walruses, skins for clothing, housing, boat covers, and ropes; from walruses, ivory for harpoon heads and sled runners; from whales, baleen for hunting toboggans and jawbones for house frames. Driftwood and various types of stones provided other principal raw materials needed for tools and housing. Except for the dog, aboriginally there were no domesticated animals. Among the St. Lawrence Island Yuit dogs are no longer kept. Today, features of the emergent material culturerifles, aluminum boats with high-powered motors, snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles, electronic communication equipment, airplane service, the occasional calling in of helicopters and government vessels to aid in the search for lost hunters, offshore exploration for oil and other natural resourcesillustrate the magnitude of change from former times.

Industrial Arts. Carving and shaping of stones and ivory were highly developed for use as harpoon, lance, and arrow heads and other tools, such as knives. Sewing animal skins for clothing was principally the task of women, who used ivory or bone needles and thread derived from animal sinews. In Modern times sewing and carving are done primarily for the tourist trade. The St. Lawrence Islanders, in particular, are renowned internationally for their ivory carving.

Trade. Aboriginally trade between the Siberian villages and St. Lawrence Island took the form of exchanges of Reindeer skins (from Siberia) for walrus hides and other animal products from the island. Because of distance, little contact occurred with Alaskan Eskimos. With the advent of European-American exploration and whaling in the North Pacific, the intensity of trade increased, the Eskimos wanting rifles and whaling gear (and, for wealthy boat captains, wooden whale boats), tools of various types, and food and liquor. The whaling and commercial ships bartered for baleen, walrus ivory, skin clothing, and the services of Eskimos during the summer whaling voyages. In the present day, trade patterns are predominantly those of a modern consumer culture based on monetary exchange and, to a limited extent, use of subsistence products.

Division of Labor. The division of labor was simple. Because of their greater physical strength, men were the hunters on the winter ice and in whaling and walrus open-boat hunting. Women contributed significantly by picking leaves, roots, and stalks of vegetal products, fishing through holes chopped in the ice, and collecting anything edible found along the beach. The man's job was to provide the bulk of food (primarily meat); the woman's, to distribute seal and walrus (and other) meat brought home. Once inside the house, it was the woman's rightand responsibilityto give some meat to whomever came asking, and such distribution was always in accordance with the Yuit ethos of communal sharing. Elders, both men and women, contributed to subsistence as long as they were able; and children began early on to emulate their parents' economic activities. In today's world, much the same pattern obtains, with the exception that children, school-bound for most of the year, cannot regularly participate in subsistence pursuits.

Land Tenure. Aboriginally land was not "owned" de juris by a person or family. "Use-ownership" is the best term to apply to the habitual use of a particular camping site or residential location in a village by a given family, and such proprietary interests were socially recognized and accepted. The sea and its faunal bounty, not the land and its products, were the key environmental features elaborated in the culture.


Kin Groups and Descent. The Asiatic Yuit are unique among Eskimo groups in having clans. On St. Lawrence Island the clanseach with a distinctive namecontinue to function in selection of marriage partners, composition of boat crews for hunting, transmission of the "name soul" to newborn clan members, and social support of all kinds. Clan names usually were derived from traditional camping areas; for example, the "Meruchtameit" are the "people of Meruchta," a hunting site used for centuries by a particular family group. One of the St. Lawrence clans, the "Aimaramka," is composed of people whose forebears migrated from Siberia, and extended family relatives and fellow clansmen are still found in the nearest coastal Siberian village. Descent was and continues to be patrilineal. Through life a Person remains a member of his or her clan of birth. Even though marriage was clan-exogamous, women maintained certain Social and religious ties and practices with their natal group.

Kinship Terminology. In addition to clans, the overall pattern of terms used to designate kin also significantly separates the Yuit from most other Eskimo groups. Although the more widespread Eskimo pattern designates all cousins by a single termas is done in American societythe Asiatic Yuit follow a different model, that of the Iroquois terminological System. Behavior toward one another expected of cross cousins is culturally structured to be the familiar "joking relationship," and patrilineal parallel cousins show unstinting support and help for one another. So close is that relationship, in fact, that the terms for brother and sister are used interchangeably with those for a patrilineal parallel cousin. Relations Between a person and his or her mother's sister's children, although not as close as those with patrilineal parallel cousins, are still supportive and nurturant. The Yuit also had the institution of fictive "brothers," by which two unrelated men engaged in drumming and singing contests as well as exchange of goods and sexual access to the partner's wife.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Traditionally marriage, clan-exogamous, was arranged by elders of the two families involved, an agreement for the union sometimes being formalized during the childhood of the two young people. There was no formal marriage ceremony, marriage had no religious connotations, and the only ritual involved was that the groom's family customarily took a sledload of gifts to the home of the bride. Residence was matri-patrilocal. For the first year or so the groom lived with his wife in the house of his parents-in-law and performed "groom-work" by helping his father-in-law in hunting and household maintenance. After a year the young coupleaccompanied by a reciprocal sledload of giftsreturned to take up permanent residence in the groom's family's Household. Divorce was socially recognized although not marked by any formal ritual. The wife simply moved out of the husband's (or husband's family's) house. A divorce posed problems of affiliation and loyalty for children involved, since they belonged to their father's clan. A woman usually would Return to the home of a clansman, sometimes with younger children accompanying her.

Domestic Unit. The household was usually composed of an extended family of parents, younger married sons and their wives and children, and unmarried children. Older married sons would usually establish their own households as demands on space in the parental home expanded. They would always, however, build their dwelling close to the parents' home. Thus a settlement would consist of several enclaves or neighborhoods of clansmen, a pattern still found, although changing.

Inheritance. Material objects, such as tools, weapons, sewing and cooking utensils, and clothing, were passed on to appropriate users in the family. A boat was inherited by the eldest son. Nonmaterial property was also recognized; for example, the composer of a song was considered its "owner" and it could not be sung without his permission.

Socialization. Child rearing among the Yuit conformed to the pan-Eskimo pattern of extreme permissiveness in the first two to three years. Few demands were made on the child for adherence to toilet training, obedience, or delaying of gratification; and the implicit goal was that of building deep self-confidence and self-reliance. From four to five years of age onward, the child gradually internalized models for appropriate behavior and self-restraint observed in the familial environment.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social and Political Organization. No autonomous institutionalized political or legal system existed. There were no formal "chiefs" or communitywide leaders, and "legality" inhered in diffuse, established norms for conduct understood by all. Clans were the principal social mechanism by which interpersonal predictability and control of disruptive behavior were accomplished.

Social Control. If a dispute did not appear resolvable amicably by the disputants themselves, elders of the extended family or clan groups involved would adjudicate the issue in an effort to prevent its escalating into interclan violence. Great respect was accorded age and seniority. Sometimes, as in other Eskimo groups, an argument would be settled by a "song contest" (the famous "nith" contests), in which the plaintiffs, in front of an audience, performed newly composed songs insulting their opponents. The winner of the argument was decided by the relative plaudits of public acclaim. In addition to song duels, wrestling matches between two male disputants were also commonly used in the service of justice. Such controlled fighting was never allowed to lead to the death of the opponent. A less overt form of anticipatory behavior control was verbal. In any small community, gossip and innuendo critical of a person's actions always get to the ear of the offender. The basic value all such means of social control implemented was the overriding importance of maintaining intragroup harmony and ties of supportive social reciprocitythe stern challenges to survival presented by nature itself underscored the need for cooperation rather than conflict. The most tangible social value contributing to group cohesiveness was sharing food if another household was in need, no matter how small the animal. Clansmen customarily still share the goods of life with relatives without waiting to be asked. Such widespread sharing practices constituted a form of social insurance against the unpredictable fortunes of the morrow.

Conflict. Beyond relations among clans within a single settlement, there were occasional armed conflicts between Villages. In the past such conflicts periodically occurred between the St. Lawrence Islanders and Siberians from the nearest Villages (during lulls in the otherwise amicable trading relations). Informants' accounts still tell of raiding parties, walrus-hide armor, and special bow-and-arrow fighting techniques. In the years immediately following World War II, such animosities were inflamed by cold war politics on each side of the strait, and only recently have visits celebrating friendship and common cultural identity been possible. Since establishment of national political infrastructures in both the Soviet Union and the United States and the gaining of state-hood for Alaska, local legal and governmental structures reflect national policies and processes.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The Yuit world was highly animistic. Almost everything observable had an indwelling spirit as its real substance, its owner. Not only did humans have a name soul, an immortal personality that could pass into the body of a newborn infant and become that person; but there were other spiritual dimensions as well, such as the breath soul, whose leaving marked the material death of the person. All animals important to survivalseals, walruses, whales, polar bearshad humanlike souls, which had to be appeased before and after the hunt to keep their goodwill. Aside from souls inhabiting living bodies, there were spirits of rocks and other natural featuresa flame, the air, the sea, a mountainas well as disembodied, free-floating spirits, some of which were malevolent to humans. Frequently they were the instruments of misfortune and disease (one cause being theft or wandering of the soul). Sometimes they acted on their own volition; sometimes they were directed toward evil ends by a witch or sorcerer. In modern times, Christian (or, in the Soviet Union, atheistic) beliefs and practices have largely replaced aboriginal spiritual conceptions.

Religious Practitioners. The principal spiritual protagonist against witches or the threat of disease was the shaman. (In Yup'ik, the term for this familiar religious figure is aliginalre). The shaman was the religious functionary who had obtained power through a period of deprivation on the tundra during which he was visited by spirits who would agree to become his helpers in the seance that was part of every healing or divinatory ritual. At the end of such a ceremony (always attended by the patient's family), the shaman would sacrifice tiny bits of valuable goods offered in payment by the familyfor example, walrus-hide rope, seal blubber, reindeer hide, tobacco. The shaman's spiritual helpers as well as the supreme being (familiarly called Apa, or "grandfather") were paid for their assistance by the small pieces of payment goods being thrown into the flame of a seal-oil lamp and accompanied by prayers.

During the seance, which was conducted in a darkened room, the shaman would sing to the beat of a tambourine drum. The language used, mainly archaic words and neologisms, created an aura of belief in the shaman's powers. The purpose of such drumming, singing, and dancing was to transport the shaman's soul into the spiritual world to discover the cause of the problem. Once the soul had returned from the search, there would be a dramatic struggle between the shaman and the witch or spirit causing the disease or misfortune. The entire scenedim and eerie light, other-worldly singing, the throbbing drum, ventriloquially produced sounds appearing to come from all corners of the roomwas highly conducive to belief in the shaman's powers. It strongly reinforced compliance with instructions laid down for the patient's and the family's behavior, such as not working for a given period of time and wearing particular amulets on clothing. Aside from using the (unbeknownst to him) powers of psychological medicine, the shaman might also prescribe eating certain types of foods or using particular folk medicinal remedies.

Ceremonies. Aside from social rituals accompanying trade gatherings, ceremonialism was largely directed at maintaining proper relations with the animal world and preventing or ameliorating baleful actions of witches and malignant spirits. Proper treatment of the souls of animals was particularly important, both in small-scale and major ceremonies. If, for example, animals were not implored prior to the hunt to offer their flesh for human consumption and were not properly thanked after the kill (say, by a seal's not being given a drink of fresh water by the wife of the household when the carcass enters the house), that soul would tell other seals not to let themselves be killed by humans. Offering prayers, practicing taboos and behavioral restrictions (by both the hunter and his wife), and wearing special clothing and amulets were important accessories to the hunt. Major ceremonies of thanks-giving were conducted after the killing of walruses and polar bears; and for whales, elaborate rituals in preparation for the forthcoming hunt, presided over by the boat captain and his wife and attended by the entire boat crew, were enacted as well.

Arts. Drumming, singing, and dancing were not confined to the shamanistic seance. They were common forms of entertainment generally, along with telling stories and myths. Ivory carving and needlework were highly developed, as were such children's amusements as string-figures.

Medicine. Folk medicine used both plant and animal products to relieve symptoms and assist curing. For example, a widespread remedy for aches and pains was an infusion of willowbark in water; the salicylic acid thus obtained is the active ingredient in aspirin. Pieces of blubber were applied to a wound to staunch the flow of blood, as was fresh human urine. Prior to contact with outsiders and the contagious diseases they brought, death and disability came primarily from hunting accidents and aging. Since the turn of the century the Yuit have been served by modern Soviet and American medicine.

Death and Afterlife. There were no consistent beliefs about an afterlife. The reincarnation of the name soul into a newborn's body was the single most important (and most uniformly held) belief relating to an afterlife.


Hughes, Charles C. (1984). "Saint Lawrence Island Eskimo." In Handbook of North American Indians. Vol. 5, Arctic, edited by David Damas, 262-277. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution.

Hughes, Charles C. (1984). "Siberian Eskimo." In Handbook of North American Indians. Vol. 5, Arctic, edited by David Damas, 247-261. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution.

VanStone, James W. (1984). "Southwest Alaskan Eskimo: Introduction." In Handbook of North American Indians. Vol. 5, Arctic, edited by David Damas, 205-208. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution.

Yevtushenko, Yevgeny. (1988). Divided Twins: Alaska and Siberia. New York: Viking Penguin.