Central Yup'ik Eskimos

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Central Yup'ik Eskimos

ETHNONYMS: Aglurmiut, Akulmiut, Askinarmiut, Bering Sea Eskimos, Canineqmiut, Kiatagmiut, Kuigpagmiut, Kusquqvagmiut, Marayarmiut, Nunivaarmiut, Pastulirmiut, Qaluyaarmiut, Southwest Alaska Eskimos, Tuyuryarmiut, Unaliqmiut, West Alaska Eskimos.


Identification. The name "Eskimo" probably originated from Montagnais, although the belief that it was a pejorative term meaning "eater of raw flesh" is erroneous. The people refer to themselves as "Yup'ik" or "Cup'ik" (the real people). This self-designation derives from the word for "person" (yuk ) plus the postbase piak, meaning "real" or "genuine."

Location. The physical environment of the Central Yup'ik Eskimos is a rich and varied one, and not at all the frozen wasteland of popular imagination. The Yup'ik occupy the lowland delta of western Alaska, including the drainages of the Yukon, Kuskokwim, Togiak, and Nushagak rivers, as well as the Bering Sea coast lying between them. Innumerable sloughs and streams crisscross the coastal tundra, covering close to half the surface of the land with water and creating the traditional highways of its native population. Along the coastline between the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers, the sea is shallow and the land is flat. Volcanic domes provide relief on Nelson and Nunivak islands, and mountains meet the coast in the vicinity of Bristol Bay and the Togiak River.

Demography. In early postcontact times, the Central Yup'ik Eskimos may have numbered as many as fifteen thousand persons. This number was reduced by over one-half by the smallpox epidemic of 1838-1839 as well as subsequent epidemics. Close to eighteen thousand Yup'ik Eskimos live in western Alaska today, as well as several thousand living outside the region.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Central Yup'ik speak the Central Alaskan Yup'ik language, which aboriginally was one of five Yup'ik languages. Together with the Inupiaq language, spoken by the Eskimos living to the north and east across Canada and Greenland, they constitute the Eskimo branch of the Eskimo-Aleut family of languages. At present, Central Alaskan Yup'ik is internally divided into four major dialects, all of which are spoken in western Alaska today.

History and Cultural Relations

The ancestors of the contemporary Yup'ik Eskimos were originally shore dwellers, settling primarily on the coastal headlands of western Alaska three thousand years ago. Population pressure combined with the need for a more reliable food supply produced migrations of these shore dwellers up the drainages of the coastal rivers around a.d. 1400. At the beginning of the 1900s, Yup'ik Eskimos were still moving slowly but surely upriver, intermarrying with and gradually displacing the Ingalik Athapaskan population that bordered them on the west and with whom they shared largely friendly relations.

The first nonnatives to make a direct impact on the Region were Russian traders and explorers who sought to expand the fur trade into western Alaska prior to 1850. The traders were accompanied by Russian Orthodox priests. After the purchase of Alaska by the United States in 1867, the hegemony of the Orthodox mission was challenged by the establishment of a Roman Catholic mission along the Bering Sea coast in 1888 and a Moravian mission on the Kuskokwim River in 1885. Together the missions constituted the major nonnative influence in the region until 1900, when the discovery of gold on the Yukon River inspired a dramatic increase of traffic on both the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers.

Although rich deposits of gold were never discovered in western Alaska, the decades between 1900 and 1920 saw a steady increase in the nonnative population at the same time the influenza epidemics of 1900 and 1919 continued to undercut the region's native population. Government and mission schools, regular steamship and air transportation, and, in the 1960s, increased federal and state subsidy of housing, health care, and social services also worked to increase nonnative influence. But the region's geographical isolation, as well as the lack of large amounts of commercially valuable resources, limited nonnative activity. The region is at present dominated by Yup'ik-speaking natives, and the only significant populations of nonnatives live in the regional centers of Bethel and Aniak on the Kuskokwim River and Dillingham on Bristol Bay.


Prior to the arrival of the Russians in the early 1800s, the substantial population of western Alaska was socially divided into a number of overlapping extended family networks, which in turn were united into territorially centered village groups, ranging in size from 50 to 250 people. At various seasons family groups, married couples, or groups of hunters moved to outlying camps for resource extraction. During the more settled winter season, extended families gathered Together into large permanent winter villages, residentially Divided between a communal men's house (qasgiq ) and smaller individual women's houses. The population moved annually, but within a fixed range; it was thus relatively settled compared to other Eskimo peoples. Exchanges of food, women, names, feasts, and visits also served to unify village groups into at least thirteen larger, more comprehensive regional confederations, which alternately traded and warred with each other.

The population decline owing to diseases introduced from the early 1800s on put an end to interregional warfare and undercut interregional social distinctions. Beginning in the early 1900s along the rivers and somewhat later along the more isolated Bering Sea coast, people began to gather into permanent year-round villages focused on a school, cannery, store, church, and post office. At present the population is Divided into some seventy year-round villages ranging in size from one hundred to six hundred, along with two major Regional centers, Bethel and Dillingham.

The aboriginal Yup'ik winter dwelling was a semisubterranean sod-insulated log structure with a central smokehole and underground tunnel entryway. These well-insulated but damp sod houses began to be replaced by airier log cabins along the rivers where timber was more accessible beginning in the early 1900s and somewhat later along the coast. Beginning in the 1950s, cabins were replaced by frame houses, often government-subsidized. Although log cabins are still used in timbered areas, standardized frame dwellings are the dominant form of housing in the region today.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities . Traditionally, the Central Yup'ik Eskimos were hunters and gatherers, relying on the region's varied ecology to support a social and Ceremonial complexity unmatched in any other part of the Eskimo world. The shallow coastline is rich in seals, walrus, beluga whales, and saltwater fish including herring, halibut, and cod. The rivers were the spawning grounds for no less than five species of salmon. The coastal wetlands hosted Millions of migratory waterfowl during the summer season. Small furbearers including fox, muskrat, mink, and otter were trapped, and caribou were hunted along the river drainages. From the establishment of Russian trading posts in the early 1800s, trapping provided supplemental income to native residents. Reindeer herding was also introduced around 1900 but had disappeared everywhere by the 1940s except on predatorfree Nunivak Island. Commercial fishing began to play a major role in the economy of the region in the 1890s in Bristol Bay and by the 1930s along the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers. The rich salmon fishery and the relatively new herring and bottom fisheries are the most important private-sector commercial activities in the region today. Along with the commercial fishery, income is largely derived from employment in state and federally funded jobs and public assistance programs on which the regional population is markedly dependent. This cash income is in turn used to support the substantial harvest of fish and game for local use.

Except for dogs, there were no important domesticated animals in aboriginal times. Reindeer herding was introduced by missionaries at the end of the nineteenth century but continues only on Nunivak Island. Musk-oxen were also introduced onto Nunivak Island in the 1940s and a small herd subsequently begun on nearby Nelson Island. Both of these herds have prospered and are now the subject of regulated hunting by both nonnative and local hunters.

Industrial Arts. Aboriginally, all men carved both wood and ivory, and all women were adept at sewing skins and weaving grass into articles for household use. Today some men continue to carve ivory jewelry and wooden fish traps and women to knit and sew skins both for home use and for sale. Men also carve decorative wooden masks, and women weave grass baskets for sale to tourists and collectors.

Trade. Precontact trade in native articles, including furs and sea mammal products, was maintained between riverine and coastal groups within the region as well as between the Central Yup'ik Eskimos and the Athapaskan peoples to the east. Russian trade goods first entered the region by Siberian trade routes across the Bering Strait, and in the mid-1800s Russian trading stations were established along the rivers. During the nineteenth century, trade largely consisted of luxury goods, including tea, tobacco, and beads. By the early 1900s, the increased river traffic resulting from the Klondike gold rush along with rising fur prices dramatically increased both native buying power and the inventory of goods that were available for trade.

Division of Labor. Just as men and women lived and worked in different social spaces in the traditional winter Village, they were responsible for different productive activities. Men hunted and fished during the day. In the men's house they carved and repaired tools, kayak frames, and objects of everyday use, as well as training young men and boys in these tasks. Women's work included processing their husbands' catch, preparing food, gathering plant materials, making clothes, fashioning pottery, weaving grass, and rearing Children. Ritual and medicinal activities were assigned to both men and women. This basic division of labor remained in effect until the modern era. Today women are increasingly employed outside the home, although they retain primary responsibility for food preparation and child care. Men also continue to actively harvest fish and game.

Land Tenure. Aboriginally, land tenure and land use were based on prior use. An individual had the right to use a particular site because of his relationship to previous generations of users who had harvested at that site in the past. Early nonnative interest in the region focused on small mining claims and trading and cannery sites, and these claims rarely conflicted with traditional patterns of land use. In 1971, the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act created regional and village native corporations, which were given corporate title to a portion of their traditional holdings, while substantial acreage was retained for state and federal use. At the same time, federal and state laws increasingly regulated the harvesting of fish and game in the region. These regulatory constraints and new legal boundaries are increasingly in conflict with historic patterns of land use and are the focus of considerable controversy in the region today.


Kin Groups and Descent. Aboriginally, the bilateral extended family was the basic social unit. This unit consisted of from two to four generations, including parents, offspring, and parents' parents. Married siblings of either the parents or their offspring might also be included as family members. These extended family networks lived in a number of territorially centered village groups, members of which were joined by overlapping ties of blood and marriage. For the larger village groups, most marriages were within the village. Although the extended family continues to be an important social and productive unit in western Alaska today, increased emphasis on the nuclear family household, intermarriage with nonnatives, and a decline in the importance of intrafamily sharing and Exchange networks have undercut its importance.

Kinship Terminology. The Yup'ik Eskimos follow the Iroquois system of kinship terminology. Although many nuances of the traditional system have been abandoned, Yup'ik kinship terms continue to be used in both reference and address. The traditional practice of addressing persons named for a deceased relative by the kinship term (in either English or Yup'ik) appropriate to that relative is also still widely employed.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Traditionally, marriage was encouraged Between descendants of cross cousins. Most marriages were monogamous, with occasional polygamy, and serial marriages were common. Before the advent of Christianity, the Marriage ceremony consisted of the bride serving food to her new husband in the men's house while wearing newly made clothing presented to her by the family of the groom. Duolocal Residence was the norm. A woman raised her daughters in the house where she was born, while at age five her sons went to live in the men's house with their father. When a young man was married, he moved into the men's house of the father of his bride while the woman remained in her mother's house where she in turn would raise her children. Traditionally Marriages were dissolved easily by either spouse failing to provide for and/or moving away from their partner. Missionaries Report that a number of "trial marriages" ending in divorce were usually preliminary to a stable union.

Domestic Unit. Aboriginally, men lived in a communal men's house while the women and children resided in separate dwellings. The nuclear family lived together in the same house only at the fish or hunting camp. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, missionaries worked to replace this residential separation. Today, the nuclear family household predominates, but owing to increasing costs of maintaining a household as well as increasing rates of illegitimacy, three-generation households are also common.

Inheritance. Traditionally the goods of the deceased were either left at the grave site or distributed among members of the community outside the immediate family of the deceased. The turn-of-the-century missionaries did their best to discourage this practice, and at present property is retained by the deceased's immediate family.

Socialization. Contrary to the general perception of Eskimo child rearing as permissive, Yup'ik children from their earliest years were carefully trained in a multitude of prescriptions and proscriptions circumscribing culturally appropriate thought and deed. These they learned through the observation of adult behavior as well as through countless lessons introduced by their adult care givers. Failure on the child's part to follow the rules was and still is met with teasing, ridicule, and finally the threat of abandonment. At present, as in the past, child rearing discourages overt and direct expressions of hostility and aggression to avoid injuring the mind of the offender. With the recent emphasis on public education, Socialization is increasingly in the hands of nonnative teachers in the public schools.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. In aboriginal times, class distinctions were absent. An individual, male or female, achieved standing within the community from a combination of factors including age, family connections, generosity, and demonstrated skill and knowledge. These same factors control status within the community today. Women occupied a position of equality with men. Slavery did not exist, although during the historic period, orphans were often required to perform innumerable menial jobs within the community. Intermarriage with nonnatives has not resulted in marked class distinctions and at present accounts for fewer than one out of ten marriages.

Political Organization. Traditionally, Yup'ik Eskimos had no formal organization to make political decisions. Leadership was vested in the elder heads of large and well-respected families. When major decisions were required or serious problems arose in a village, residents responded in unison but only when numerous extended families were affected. In the case of interregional hostilities, two or more villages might form an alliance for the purpose of a retaliatory raid against the opposing group. Although interregional alliances changed over time, their relative stability prior to the arrival of the Russians indicates their strength and importance in organizing interregional relations. The arrival of the Russians did little to alter the principles of village and regional political organization, although the subsequent population decline decreased the size and influence of leading families.

Federal oversight of the region expanded in proportion to the growth of the nonnative population after 1900. Under the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) of 1934, traditional councils, as well as IRA councils, were formed in some villages and began to act as governing bodies within the community. Permanent villages began to acquire municipal governments in the 1950s, and city councils were established. Recently a number of villages have disbanded their municipal governments in favor of the traditional and IRA councils. By this action, they hope to divest themselves of state control and reassert their sovereign rights in a nation-to-nation relationship with the federal government.

Social Control. The moral guidelines for life, which were taught to children from their earliest years, produced a high degree of social control within traditional Yup'ik society. If these rules were broken or ignored, gossip, ostracism, teasing, ridicule, and social withdrawal were traditionally important mechanisms of social control, and they still are today. Fear of retribution by a member of either the human or the spirit world was also a powerful control mechanism. In the case of homicide, blood vengeance by a close relative of the deceased prevailed. At the turn of the century, Yup'ik Eskimos were for the first time subject to American civil and criminal law, and formal sanctions began to be levied against offenders. Civil offenders were brought before the city council. Later regional magistrates were employed to decide local civil offenses, while more serious crimes were referred to the state and federal judicial systems. At present, local village public safety officers and state troopers take offenders into custody. Individual villages and regional organizations are working to regain local jurisdiction over civil issues and increased community control.

Conflict. Interregional hostilities, including bow-and-arrow warfare, were a regular aspect of traditional life in Western Alaska. Ironically, warfare was brought to an abrupt halt by death itself when the epidemics of the early 1900s dramatically reduced the native population. Neither Russian nor early American activity in the region produced an organized aggressive response by the Yup'ik people, and the history of native-nonnative interaction in the region has been largely peaceful. In 1984, however, villages along the middle Kuskokwim and lower Bering Sea coast organized into the Yupiit Nation, a political entity representing a nonviolent but nonetheless aggressive response to increasing nonnative control over their lives.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The traditional worldview of the Yup'ik Eskimos has encompassed a system of cosmological reproductive cycling: nothing in the universe ever finally dies away, but is instead reborn in succeeding generations. This view was reflected in elaborate rules circumscribing naming practices, ceremonial exchanges, and daily living. These rules required careful attitudes and actions to maintain the proper relationship with the human and animal spirit worlds and so ensure their return in successive generations. Over the past one hundred years, the Yup'ik Eskimos have become active practitioners of Russian Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and Moravianism. Although they have abandoned many traditional practices, many have been retained and the traditional generative worldview remains apparent in many aspects of contemporary village life.

Religious Practitioners. Traditionally, shamans exercised considerable influence as a result of their divinatory and healing roles. When the missionaries arrived in the nineteenth century, they viewed the shamans as their adversaries, and many of the shamans actively resisted the new Christian Influence. Others, however, converted and went on to become native Christian practitioners. Today the major Christian denominations in western Alaska are run by native pastors and deacons.

Ceremonies. The traditional winter ceremonial cycle consisted of six major ceremonies and a number of minor ones. Individually, the ceremonies served to emphasize different aspects of the relationships among humans, animals, and the spirit world. Among other things, the ceremonies ensured the rebirth and return of the animals in the coming harvest season. Through dramatic ritual reversals of the normal productive relationships, the human community was opened to the spirits of the game as well as the spirits of the human dead, who were invited to enter and receive recompense for what they had given and would presumably continue to give in their turn. Masked dances also dramatically re-created past spiritual encounters to elicit their participation in the future. Together the ceremonies constituted a cyclical view of the universe whereby right action in the past and the present reproduces abundance in the future. Over the years, Christian missionaries would dramatically challenge the expression of this point of view, although they have never fully replaced it.

Arts. Singing, dancing, and the construction of elaborate ceremonial masks and finely crafted tools were an important part of traditional Yup'ik life. Although the ceremonies are no longer practiced, traditional recreational dancing and intervillage exchange dances continue in many coastal communities. A rich oral literature was also present traditionally. Although many of the stories have been lost, the region still possesses a number of knowledgeable and expert orators.

Medicine. The Yup'ik people traditionally understood disease to be the product of spiritual malevolence brought on by a person's improper thought or deed in relation to the spirit world. Curing techniques consisted of herbal medicines, Ritual purification, and the enlistment of spirit helpers to drive out the malevolent forces. At present, Western clinical Medicine is the primary means of handling sickness and disease, although traditional herbal remedies are still often employed.

Death and Afterlife. Death was not viewed as the end of life, as some spiritual aspects of each man and animal were believed to be reborn in the following generation. The traditional Yup'ik Eskimos also believed in a Skyland as well as an underworld Land of the Dead, both of which housed the souls of dead humans and animals. It was from these worlds that the spirits were invited to participate in the ceremonies held in their honor in the human world.


Fienup-Riordan, Ann (1983). The Nelson Island Eskimo. Anchorage: Alaska Pacific University Press.

Lantis, Margaret (1984). "Nunivak Eskimo." In Handbook of North American Indians. Vol. 5, Arctic, edited by David Damas, 209-223. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution.

Nelson, Edward W. (1899). The Eskimo About Bering Strait. U.S. Bureau of American Ethnology, 18th Annual Report (1896-1897). Washington, D.C. Reprint. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1983.

Oswalt, Wendell (1966). "The Kuskowagamiut: Riverine Eskimos." In This Land Was Theirs, edited by Wendell Oswalt, 106-147. Mountain View, Calif.: Mayfield Publishing Co.

VanStone, James W. (1984). "Mainland Southwest Alaska Eskimo." In Handbook of North American Indians. Vol. 5, Arctic, edited by David Damas, 224-242. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution.


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Central Yup'ik Eskimos

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Central Yup'ik Eskimos