Pacific Eskimo

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Pacific Eskimo

ETHNONYMS: Aleut, Alutiiq, Pacific Gulf Eskimo, Pacific Yup'ik Eskimo, South Alaska Eskimo


Identification. The three major groups lumped under the label "Pacific Eskimo" live on the south coast of Alaska, from the Alaska Peninsula, where they border the Aleut, east to the Copper River, where they border the Tlingit and Eyak. The Pacific Eskimo include the Koniag (Kanagist, Kanjagi, Koniagi, Kychtagmytt, Qiqtarmiut), Chugach (Chiugachi, Shugarski), and the inhabitants of the lower Kenai Peninsula, now called the "Unegkurmiut." Locally, the groups were called the "Aleut" as the Russians lumped the two together. More recently, "Alutiiq" has been used as a collective name for the three groups.

Location. The Koniag live on Kodiak Island and the Eastern section of the Alaska Peninsula. The Chugach live along the coast of Prince William Sound and on offshore islands. The Unegkurmiut live on the lower Kenai Peninsula. Aboriginally and today all settlements were either on the coast or on inlets, as the economy is based on the exploitation of sea mammals and fish. The region is a major center of earthquake activity with at least twenty-two occurring in historic times Including a major one in 1964.

Demography. At the time of first contact in about 1784 there were an estimated nine thousand Pacific Eskimo. By 1800 the population had dropped to six thousand and then, following a smallpox epidemic, three thousand in 1850. Today, there are about two thousand Pacific Eskimo, with the Koniag the largest group and the majority living on Kodiak Island.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Pacific Eskimo speak Pacific Yup'ik, one of the five Yup'ik languages. There were dialect differences from one locale to another. Today all Pacific Eskimo speak English and only about 25 percent speak Pacific Yup'ik.

History and Cultural Relations

The Pacific Eskimo were first sighted by Vitus Bering in 1741, which led to some forty years of limited and often hostile Contact until the Russians established trading posts beginning in 1784. By 1800, posts were established in various locales and the Pacific Eskimo were drawn into the fur trade as workers in procuring and processing salmon meat and furs. The Russian Orthodox church was also established during the Russian period and remains an important influence today. After the close of the Russian period, Americans moved into the region and by 1880 had established canneries that led to a consolidation of the Pacific Eskimo into cannery villages and made them economically dependent on salmon fishing and wage labor. Overfishing led to a demise of the canning industry after 1900. The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 and the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980 resulted in eligible villages being incorporated as landowning business corporations. In precontact times, the Pacific Eskimo traded with as well as fought with the Aleut, Tlingit, and Tanaina.


Traditionally, the Pacific Eskimo had winter and summer Villages, the latter usually more temporary in nature and located near salmon streams. Dwellings were semisubterranean lodges with a common room and private rooms that housed up to twenty people. Villages typically had from one hundred to two hundred inhabitants. Today, modern housing has replaced traditional forms. Since the cannery era, there has been considerable shifting, abandonment, and development of new villages, a process recently fueled by the earthquake of 1964, the act of 1971, and the use of South Alaskan towns as oil industry terminals.


The traditional subsistence economy was based on the hunting of whales, sea otters, and seals and fishing for salmon in streams and saltwater fish in the bays. These activities were supplemented by the hunting of land animals and the collecting of berries, roots, and bulbs. The material culture included the two-hatch kayak, harpoon arrows, darts, twined baskets, and stone, bone, and wooden utensils. Beginning with involvement in the Russian fur trade and then through the cannery period up to the present the Pacific Eskimo have been involved in the cash economy. They usually worked for cash and provided the canneries with salmon, and later crabs, as well as working in the processing plants. The incorporation of the villages as corporate entities has involved them further in the state, regional, and national economies.

Kinship, Marriage and Family

Marriage was marked by a gift exchange followed by a period of matrilocal residence. Polygyny and polyandry were permitted. The nuclear family was the basic social unit, with four or five families occupying a dwelling. Descent was matrilineal, with kin groups above the clan level absent. The Russian Orthodox church introduced godparent relations, which remain important today.

Sociopolitical Organization

Aboriginally, none of three Pacific Eskimo groupings formed a cohesive group. Rather, the local village was the basic sociopolitical entity. There was a class structure of nobles, Commoners, and slaves, and the village leadership was inherited by men of the noble class. Some chiefs evidently ruled more than one village. In 1980, the Pacific Eskimo lived in fifteen villages, five towns, and cities in Alaska. Incorporation as business entities has involved the village corporations in new forms of social and political relationships with one another and with American Indian groups, the state government, the federal government, and various business interests.

Religion and Expressive Culture

The traditional religion was evidently similar to Eskimo Religion in general with an emphasis on spirit owners of the air, sea, and land, and shamanistic diviners who used spirit helpers to foretell the future. The Russian Orthodox church has had a major affect on Pacific Eskimo life. Each major settlement has a church and lay leaders who conduct the services, and major social events are scheduled around the church calendar. Baptists have been active since the late nineteenth century, though all villages except one are predominantly Russian Orthodox.


Birket-Smith, Kaj (1953). The Chugach Eskimo. Nationalmuseets Skrifter, Etnografisk Raekke 6. Copenhagen, Denmark.

Clark, Donald W. (1984). "Pacific Eskimo: Historical Ethnography." In Handbook of North American Indians. Vol. 5, Arctic, edited by David Damas, 185-197. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution.

Davis, Nancy Y. (1984). "Contemporary Pacific Eskimo." In Handbook of North American Indians. Vol. 5, Arctic, edited by David Damas, 198-204. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution.

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Pacific Eskimo

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