Yup’ik (pronounced YOU-pik). The name Yup’ik, or Yupiaq, applies not only to the people but also to the language. It comes from two words—yuk, meaning “person” or “human being,” and pik, meaning “real.” The plural is Yupiit, the “real people.” When Yup’ik is spelled with the apostrophe, it refers only to the Central Alaskan Yup’ik and shows that the “p” sound is long. The Siberian and Naukanski Yupik do not use the apostrophe. The Central Alaskan Yup’ik who live on Nunivak Island call themselves Cup’ig (plural Cup’it). Those who live in the village of Chevak call themselves Cup’ik (plural Cup’it). Their names for themselves also mean “real people.”
The Yup’ik live in western, southwestern, and southcentral Alaska and the Russian Far East. Although the ancestors of the Yupik in Russia may have once inhabited a large territory along the Bering and Arctic Sea coasts, in the early twenty-first century they reside mainly in three small areas—Naukan, Chaplino (Central Siberian Yupik), and Sireniki.
Before the Europeans arrived the estimated population in Nunivak was five hundred; in Yukon-Kuskokwim, thirteen thousand; and in Bristol Bay, three thousand. According to statistics from the U.S. Bureau of the Census, the population count for Yup’ik in 2000 was 21,937. Prior to European contact the Sugpiaq numbered around twenty thousand; afterwards, their numbers fell to less than five thousand. The 2000 census showed 2,355 Sugpiaq. There are about 1,700 Yupik living in Russia in the early twenty-first century.
Origins and group affiliations
About six thousand years ago the Inupiat spread through much of the Arctic and Greenland. The Alutiiq (or Sugpiaq), Aleut, and Yup’ik descended from the Inupiat. Groups such as the Tlingit, Haida, Athabascan, and Eyak broke off from these earlier groups and became migrating hunters. In Russia the Chukchi and Korak tribes moving north displaced the Siberian Yupik, and the Yupik engaged in frequent warfare with the Chukchi (Anqallyt). In modern times the groups that speak related branches of the Eskimo-Aleut language include Sugpiaq, Central Yup’ik, Naukan or Naukanski Yupik, and Siberian Yupik. The Sirenikski of Siberia are sometimes included in that grouping, but their language and culture are now almost extinct.
Alaska has many diverse habitats, and the people who dwell there are as unique as their landscapes. Spread across great distances, many Yup’ik villages are cut off from their neighbors and cannot be reached by land, except in winter. The nearest town may be hundreds of miles away, so people rely on boats or planes for outside contact. This isolation, however, has helped the Yup’ik maintain their way of life for centuries without interference from outsiders. Throughout the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, however, they have adapted to many changes. Small towns have replaced winter communities, and jobs for wages or government funds have replaced the subsistence lifestyle for many. In spite of modernization, however, the Yup’ik have retained much of their traditional culture, religion, and language.
Researchers believe Siberian hunters were the first humans in the Americas. During the Ice Age (a time lasting thousands of years during which the Earth was very cold and largely covered by ice and glaciers) Native Americans also crossed the Bering Land Bridge in pursuit of animals. When the ice melted, the seas rose and covered the strip of land between Alaska and Siberia. The earliest artifacts found in Alaska are about twelve thousand years old.
The Inupait culture developed in western Alaska about six thousand years ago. These peoples spread south and west to the Aleutian Islands and as far east as Greenland. They, and their descendants—the Alutiq, Aleuts, and Yup’ik—hunted sea animals and, occasionally, caribou. Oral traditions and artifacts indicate that there were clashes as well as frequent trade among these groups and with those in the Pacific Northwest. Some Alaskan Athabaskan (see entry) men traveled as far as Siberia to obtain coral jewelry for their brides.
1741: Vitus Bering leads first expedition to Alaskan territory.
1784: Russians establish a settlement on Kodiak Island.
1867: Alaska is sold to the United States.
1884: Congress passes the Alaska Organic Act, making Alaska a territory of the United States.
1959: Alaska becomes a state.
1971: The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) creates for-profit corporations to be owned by Natives, but not tied to any specific entities.
For centuries the Yup’ik lived in groups called tungelquqellriit (“those who share ancestors”). People in the group were part of an extended family of several generations living together. Each group had its own dialect (variety of language), social and religious ceremonies, and seasonal routine of hunting, fishing, and gathering. In times of war neighboring societies became allies.
The first Alaskan contact with whites occurred in 1741 when the Danish-born explorer Vitus Bering (1681–1741) led a Russian expedition to the area. Their mission was to see if Siberia and North America were part of the same continent. Although that was not the case, the explorers brought back sea otter furs.
Russian merchants soon funded fur-trading expeditions. Most traders did not establish settlements, but some traveled along the coast as far south as California. They enslaved Aleut hunters and forced them to bring in more furs. In 1784 the first Russian settlement was established on Kodiak Island, and the Russian American Company had the sole right to all fur trade. A fort at Sitka served as the Russian capital in the United States until Alaska was sold to the United States in 1867.
Russian Orthodox missionaries, who came to convert the Natives, arrived soon after the fur traders. Because of their isolation, the Yup’ik were one of the last groups to come in contact with Europeans. The missionaries worked on Kodiak Island and then in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, where they encountered the Yup’ik in the late 1800s. Though the Yup’ik accepted some Christian teachings, they also retained many elements of their traditional beliefs.
In 1884 Presbyterian minister Sheldon Jackson (1834–1909) asked American churches to support his efforts to start schools. The Moravians (members of a Protestant church that originated in Moravia, present-day Czech Republic) opened Bethel mission in 1885, and the Catholics built Holy Cross in 1888. The missionaries tried to change Yup’ik life. They banned many traditional religious practices and insisted that families live together in homes of their own rather than living in separate men’s and women’s quarters.
At first the Yup’ik did not comply, but after a measles outbreak killed many of their people, some agreed to the white’s demands. Because many children had lost their parents, the Catholics and Moravians opened orphanages. Although many parents were reluctant to send their children to mission schools, they had little choice once education became compulsory.
Then gold was discovered just north of Yup’ik territory in 1906. Within a few years a trail opened from Seward to Nome. Mail and people could now get to the area even in winter. The first plane landed in Bethel in 1926, and contact with the outside world increased.
By 1950 the Bureau of Indian Affairs began flying students to distant high schools, where they stayed for nine months of the year. Parents worried that, because their children were gone so long, they would not learn traditional skills. One family filed a lawsuit that led to the establishment of local high schools in 1976. In the early twenty-first century all villages had schooling for K–12.
Looking toward the future
In modern times the Yup’ik, along with other native groups, are struggling to balance the many innovations of modern society with traditional culture and values. New technology like snowmobiles, outboard motors, CB radios, and telephones have made life easier, but have also increased pollution and altered the environment.
Other changes have been a result of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) passed in 1971. Under this act the Natives gave up their rights to any future land claims. The people received 44 million acres and $962.5 million. The land, however, was divided among nonprofit corporations, and the people were given shares. Although owning land conflicts with Native beliefs, the Yup’ik had to develop skills to run the corporations and follow government rules.
Since then the people have worked together to improve their community economies. Various Yup’ik village corporations merged to lower their costs. One of the largest groups, Calista Corporation, represents 56 villages, many of them Yup’ik. Originally the group lost a great deal of money, but they have since turned the corporation into a profitable venture.
So many rapid changes in such a short time have resulted in many social problems among Alaskan Natives. Alcoholism, suicide, and domestic violence are problems many Native communities face.
The Yup’ik believed that everything had a soul. Souls never died, they entered a new body. For this reason the people returned the seals’ innards to the sea at the annual Bladder Festival (see “Festivals”) and named new babies after someone who had recently died.
Because they believed dead animals would return, the people never broke their bones, and only cut the meat apart at the joints. To show their respect for seals they caught, hunters offered them a drink of fresh water. After a man caught a whale, he treated it as a guest, entertaining it with drumming and music and offering it good foods. If the dead seal or whale was pleased, it would return, ensuring successful future hunts.
The Siberian Yupik considered many animals sacred. The killer whale, which they believed turned into a wolf in winter, protected hunters. At the end of ritual meals the people threw a piece of meat into the sea to thank the killer whales who helped them by driving the walrus to shore. Before hunting boats departed, the Yupik held special ceremonies to placate the sea animals they were about to hunt. They also threw tobacco into the sea for the whales.
Amulets protected people against harm and insured successful hunts. Some of these small figures, such as walrus or dog heads, were carved from stone and worn by individuals. Hunters attached wooden whale carvings to their belts. Some people hung a carved raven’s head in their homes for protection. Besides Raven, who created the world, other sacred animals included the swallow and the spider.
In the late 1800s Russian Orthodox missionaries arrived to convert the Yup’ik. Although other denominations, such as the Moravians and Catholics, later set up churches in Yup’ik territory, the Russian Orthodox influence remained strong. This is especially evident in the Yup’ik tradition of celebrating Selaviq, Russian Orthodox Christmas. This festival lasts for ten days and nights after January 7. People get together to sing, pray, and feast.
As a result of missionary influence, many people adopted Christianity. Some, like the Sugpiaq, were forced into baptism to escape slavery. Those who accepted the Russian Orthodox religion and let the priest baptize them became Russian citizens. Russian fur traders could no longer force them to work as slaves. To prevent this, some traders imprisoned the priest so he could not baptize the Natives. Other Yup’ik accepted Christian teachings, but combined them with their traditional beliefs.
The four main dialects of the language include Alutiiq (Sugpiaq), spoken on the coast of the Gulf of Alaska; Central Yup’ik, used on the Alaskan mainland and some offshore islands; Naukanski, with a few speakers on the Siberian side of the Bering Strait; and Siberian Yupik, which is used on both St. Lawrence Island and in Chukotka in Siberia.
Central Yup’ik has the largest group of speakers. The two main dialects of the Central Yup’ik are Cup’iq (or Cup’ik) and Yup’ik. One-third of the children learn it as their first language. In modern times, though, most people in Alaska also speak English, especially the young. In Siberia the majority of Yupik also speak Chukchi and Russian; some people believe these languages will eventually replace Yupik dialects.
Yup’ik was not written until a missionary, John Hinz, worked with some of the people to translate the Bible and other religious texts. In Siberia most people learned to write Yupik using the Cyrillic alphabet, which is used to write Russian. In the 1960s a group of Yup’ik met with scholars at the University of Alaska and updated their alphabet so it could be written on a keyboard.
Yup’ik words are often more descriptive than English words. For example an American might say someone is a liar. In Cup’ig (a Yup’ik dialect) different words may be used: iqlungar- is “to have a tendency to tell lies,” whereas iqluqu- means “to lie constantly.”
In English people say they feel sick, but the Cup’ig word explains the circumstances. If a person uses the word kiinguaqerte, everyone not only knows that the speaker feels queasy, but that he or she has that “sudden eerie feeling from seeing someone with a large flesh wound.” Americans might say someone is humming, but the Cup’ig word, uyurua-, means “to hum or sing a wordless tune, especially when going out in the morning to check the weather.”
The Yupik can use one word to describe things precisely that take many words in other languages. Another example would be the identification of seals. Not only does one word give the seal breed, it also pinpoints its gender and activities. Thus qalzrir is a “bull [male] bearded seal ‘singing’under water” and qamuqatag2 is a “mother bearded seal swimming with a cub on her back.” A few other Cup’ig words and phrases are found below:
- aana … “mother”
- aang … “yes”
- Cangacit? … “How are you?”
- cass’ar … “clock”
- elissar- … “to teach or study”
- ellallug … “rain”
- iqallii- … “to fish”
- nacar … “hat”
- napa … “tree”
- quyana … “thank you”
- Uss’ur … “Hey, you!”
- wigtua- … “to try”
- yaani … “over there”
Most early settlements consisted of extended families or small groups of families. An individual’s skills largely determined his social rank in the village. The most successful hunters, nukalpiit, usually became group leaders. Some Yupik traders used their wealth to gain positions as village chiefs. Most leadership roles were based on generosity and abilities. Although the Yup’ik did not have formal leadership, a chief might open and close the hunting season, mediate quarrels, and decide when to go on trade journeys. In the early twenty-first century most villages have elected officials who work as part of tribal or city councils.
Yup’ik Population: 2000 Census
In 2000 U.S. Census takers asked Alaskan Natives to identify the groups to which they belonged. Those who identified themselves as Yup’ik said they belonged to the groups listed below; these numbers do not reflect the 1,700 Siberian Yupik living in Russia.
|Group||Population in 2000|
“2000 Census of Population and Housing. Matrix 7: American Indian and Alaskan Native summary file.” Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, Data User Services Division, American FactFinder, 2004.
Traditional Yup’ik economy was based on the sea. The people hunted seal, whale, and walrus from boats or from the shore with harpoons, and later guns. They also fished and dried their catch for winter, hunted fur-bearing land animals, and gathered plants and berries.
Coastal villages traded seal oil, herring eggs, and other products from the sea with villages further inland for moose, caribou, and furs. In the late 1800s the people began trading with the Russians. Some peoples, like the Sugpiaq, were enslaved and forced to work for the Russians. The Central Yup’ik traveled seasonally, migrating in search of game, fish, and plants.
The Siberian Yupik hunted sea mammals and fished. Some also bred reindeer cooperatively with their neighbors, the Chukchi. Under the Soviet government, new equipment and occupations were introduced, which improved the economy. Soviet policies, however, also forced people to leave “unproductive” villages. This meant the Naukanski Yupik were forced to leave their homeland and move to the mainland.
In modern times many people still practice their subsistence lifestyle of hunting and fishing, but find it harder to make a living (see “Current tribal issues”). Many villages are hundreds of miles from towns, so people must leave their homes and move to cities to work for wages. Those who stay in their villages sometimes face poverty and must rely on government aid.
Most groups were family-based clans, each with their own seasonal patterns and lifestyles. Society was patrilineal (descent traced through the father). In a life geared toward survival, cooperation played an important role in both community and family life.
Respect for elders was also important. Older people who were feeble and needed to be cared for like babies and those whose minds reverted to childhood were said to be moving to the next stage of life. They were preparing for rebirth. Family members considered it a privilege to chew up food and feed it to an elder who had lost his or her teeth.
Eskimo Branch of Eskimo-Aleut Speakers
Alutiiq, or Sugpiag
The Alutiiq, who speak Sugpiaq, live on Kodiak Island and around Prince William Sound in Alaska. The name Alutiiq came from the Russians, who mistook them for Aleuts, so many prefer to be called Sugpiaq. The majority of the people accepted the Russian Orthodox religion during the 1800s (often to escape slavery), and in the early twenty-first century quite a few have Russian names.
The two Sugpiaq dialects and cultures, Koniag and Chugash, are quite different from each other. The Koniag live on Kodiak Island and the upper Alaska Peninsula. Before the Russians arrived, they were warlike. In modern times the Koniag support themselves by fishing. The Chugash, though, were influenced by other groups such as the Athabascan, Tlingit (see entry), Aleut, and Eyak. At one time they were skilled sea mammal hunters, but today their five villages have become assimilated (more like whites).
About four hundred of the three thousand Sugpiaq speak their Native language, but the people are working to restore their heritage.
The largest group of Yup’ik speakers—thirteen thousand out of about eighteen thousand—is found in the southwestern area of Alaska. Some live along the Bering Sea; others live inland along the rivers. Many still fish and gather berries as their ancestors did, but more people have turned to wage labor to support themselves and their families. The Central Yup’ik have retained much of their culture because they were one of the last groups to have contact with the Europeans. In the 2000s they have the most villages of any Native group in the United States, although many of their villages are small.
Naukan or Naukanski Yupik
On the Russian side of the Bering Sea, Naukan was a large town dating from two thousand years ago. It was once a busy place with pit homes that housed as many as six hundred people. The homes were about 30 feet (9 meters) in diameter and had driftwood and whalebone roofs.
During Soviet times the government closed down “unproductive” villages, so the people were relocated to the mainland. Of the remaining 350 people, only 75 spoke the Naukan language in 1990. In the mid-2000s the language was almost extinct.
In Alaska the Siberian Yupik live in two villages, Savoonga and Gambell, on St. Lawrence Island. Because they are only 50 miles (80 kilometers) from Siberia, they have close ties with the Russian Yupik. For many years they could not communicate with relatives and friends because of the Cold War (1945–91; an intense political and economic rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union falling just short of military conflict). In modern times they continue to fish, hunt sea mammals, and gather berries and plants. They have kept their language vital; almost all children learn it from their parents.
In Siberia the people are named for their main village, Chaplino, and they and their language were called Yuit, a name assigned by the Soviet Union in 1931. The Yuit live along the coast of the Chukchi Peninsula in the northeastern area of Russia.
In Alaska, about 1,050 of the 1,100 Siberian Yupik speak their Native language. In Russia, only 300 of the 1,200 to 1,500 people speak Siberian Yupik.
All males in a Yup’ik village lived together in a qasgiq, or men’s house. Boys stayed with their mothers until they were about six years old. Then they joined the other men in this communal building. Women carried food to the qasgiq, and the building also served as a dance hall, meeting place, and community center.
Women and children lived in an ena, which was smaller than a qasgiq. Light came in through a skylight window made of seal or walrus intestine. One Yup’ik woman said that the windows made a lot of noise when it was windy. Both the qasgiq and the ena had a partially underground passageway that kept snow from blowing into the house. In the ena this entrance was also used for cooking. Food caches were built nearby; they were either on stilts to keep them out of reach of animals or in underground storage areas. Carved stone bowls held seal oil. When these were burning, they served as lamps.
To build the sod houses, the Yup’ik dug a round hole about 3–4 feet (1 meter) deep, then made a frame from driftwood or whalebone. They cut sod and put it on the frame with the grass inside. Sometimes more grass was added for insulation. The seal or walrus gut skylight could be removed as needed to make a smoke hole for the fire.
In Russia the early Yupik lived in dugouts of snow and ice (sometimes called igloos); later walrus hide and plank tents served as homes. In the summer they made rectangular homes of wood and stretched walrus skins over them. The roof sloped toward the rear. They often piled rocks, large bones, or dirt mounds around the edges of the hides.
In the early years of the twenty-first century most Yup’ik people live in modern houses with electricity and central heating systems.
Tools and transportation
The tools a Siberian Yupik used for hunting dated back thousands of years. He went out in a baidara, a boat made of split walrus hides and used a toggling harpoon tied to a sealskin float. His whalebone clapper made a sound like a killer whale, which frightened walrus and seal onto land, where other hunters would kill them with spears and clubs. The Yupik also used ice canes, bows and arrows, and snow goggles. They decorated many of their tools with special symbols for good luck in hunting.
The most important tool a Yup’ik woman used was a fan-shaped, slate knife called a uluaq. She needed this for skinning animals and scraping hides. She also had sewing implements made from stone, bone, or walrus tusk.
For transportation the Yup’ik used kayaks (one-person, closed canoes made of skin or leather), bidarkas (open, flat-bottomed boats), and whaleboats. On land, they used dog teams and sleds. Umiaks (boats made from walrus skins) are still used, but now instead of oars or sails, most boats have outboard motors. Land transportation is mainly by all-terrain vehicles and snowmobiles.
Clothing and adornment
Women used the skins of birds, fish, sea mammals, and land animals to make clothing. Hunting clothes had to be warm and waterproof. They usually made boots and mittens from sealskin. Grass insulated socks and served as waterproof thread. Furs like muskrat made warm winter hats.
Fish skins and seal or walrus intestines were used for waterproof jackets and boots. Because animal intestines do not let liquid through, women washed and scraped the guts, then filled them with air and let them dry. Afterwards they sewed the strips together to make lightweight, see-through parkas. The process took a long time, but when a jacket was finished, it was water-repellent.
Sugpiaq whalers were often shaman who used secret rituals and poisons. They wore special wooden hats to show their high status. These tall hats were ornately decorated and usually had a brim that shaded their eyes from the sun so they could spot whales more easily. Other than that, most shaman did not wear any special clothing and could only be distinguished by their pendants, tassels, and fringes.
The Yup’ik diet centered around fish and sea mammals. They kept walrus and whale meat semi-cold so it fermented, then later boiled it. Walrus and seal meat might be dried in strips; seal was sometimes frozen. For a special treat, whale skin with pink blubber on it was eaten raw. Most people fed walrus to their dog teams. They turned the meat into tuugtaq (meatballs) and stored it in underground caches
In addition to sea mammals, men caught salmon, cod, halibut, and herring. Shellfish, large game (moose, caribou, and bear), birds, bird eggs, edible greens, and berries were also important. People also ate seaweed. Sometimes they bartered for reindeer meat from inland people.
In modern times many Yup’ik still follow the traditional hunting patterns of migrating with the seasons, but most people also supplement their diets with store-bought foods. Most villages have grocery stores that sell canned and packaged goods. One item that is always well-stocked in stores is soda. The availability of soft drinks and candy has greatly increased the number of children who need to have their teeth filled or capped.
Because many people now eat large amounts of sugared foods, obesity (being very overweight) has become a major problem. The change in lifestyle has also contributed to this problem. People who were once very physically active are now using snowmobiles and planes. Children no longer have to haul water or chop wood, so they do not burn excess calories the way they once did. In the 2000s many health professionals are encouraging Natives to return to their traditional diets.
Akutag Eskimo Ice Cream
While this ice cream is tasty, it is not the traditional recipe for akutag, which calls for shredded fish, lard, and oil to be beaten together until fluffy. Then berries, usually salmonberries, and sometimes raisins are folded into the mixture. In some places reindeer tallow (fat) is used in place of lard and fish. This ice cream recipe reflects the change in Yup’ik diets now that many people are no longer catching fish every day.
- 1 c. Crisco
- 1/4 c. water
- 1/2 c. sugar, more if desired
- 1/2 c. raisins, soaked
- 4 c. berries
Soak raisins in hot water. In a bowl, whip the Crisco and water until smooth and creamy. Add sugar and mix well until it dissolves. Add berries and raisins; mix. Chill before serving. Salmon berries, blueberries, raspberries or strawberries may be used.
“Akutag Eskimo Ice Cream.” Cooks.com. (accessed on on September 9, 2007).
Every village had shaman (pronounced SHAH-mun or SHAY-mun). Most often they were men, but sometimes women served in this role. Shaman could be good or evil. Those who were good healed illness, fought off curses, asked the spirits to provide necessities such as food and water, and helped hunters find animals. Evil shaman placed curses on people and could even kill them. Shaman who were suspected of casting evil spells were sometimes murdered.
The Siberian Yupik are known for their ivory and whalebone carvings. Some of them create moving sculptures using pulleys to make scenes, such as walrus hunting or traditional dances, come alive.
Skillful carvers also used wood to create masks for winter dances. Some were very realistic looking, like a wolf’s head with its tongue protruding or other animal masks, such as fox, bear, and caribou heads. Some masks represented spirits. Raven, the creator of the world in Yup’ik stories, often appears on these ceremonial masks. Although many of the subjects are the same, however, each mask tells a different story. Only the mask’s creator could share the meaning behind the mask he had made.
Colors have special significance as well. Red, which means life or blood, can protect the wearer. Black often represents death or the afterlife, and white might symbolize life or winter. Painted spots on the masks can stand for snowflakes, stars, or eyes. Most masks were made in pairs but, although they were similar, they never matched exactly.
Masked dancing took place during the winter in the qasgiq or men’s house. To prepare, the Yup’ik carved masks under the direction of the shaman. They also created theatrical devices that they hung from the roof. Women sewed special costumes.
The people danced and sang to the beat of a drum. A musician held the drum in his left hand and beat it with thin wood rods called drum handles. These were usually highly decorated.
After the missionaries arrived in the late 1800s they banned masked dancing, telling the people it was sinful. It is not done in modern times as often as it once was, but some villages still get together during the cold months to dance. Most of the time, though, masks are no longer used. In the late 1990s many of these masks were collected and shown in a traveling exhibition, Agayuliyararput (“Our Way of Making Prayer”), that also featured dancing and drumming.
Birth and naming
Pregnant women had to get up quickly and leave their homes each morning to guarantee that their labor would be short and that their babies would enter life quickly. Babies received the name of a relative who had recently died. The gender of the person did not matter. At the naming ceremony, a little water was put in the baby’s mouth or on its head. The Yup’ik believed that the dead person’s soul went into the child’s body.
Some Yup’ik tattooed the wrists of teens with the motif of a dot within a circle that represented an eye. This design not only helped to catch game, it also symbolized passing from one world into the next and enhanced the ability to see into the spirit world.
When menstruation began, a girl was isolated. To avoid spoiling the hunts, she stayed indoors. If she had to go out to go to the bathroom, she kept her hood up and her head bowed. After her first menses, a girl gave her dolls to a younger relative.
Marriage and divorce
The Yup’ik had arranged marriages, and pre-teen girls were often given in marriage. Because they married so young, many marriages did not last. Serial marriages were common and accepted, especially if the couple did not have any children. When they did have children, they kept strong kinship relationships with their former spouse’s family.
Men used the smoke of wild celery, Labrador tea, and blackberry bushes before they hunted to give them the smell of the land and to attract animals. They also avoided women, since the female smell was said to repel game. They carried hunting fetishes (objects which represent the spirits of animals or the forces of nature) because these could help hunters sight game even at great distances. Tools often had the traditional design of a dot inside a circle painted on them. This represented an eye to help them see the animals. Men guarded their vision carefully so they would not miss seeing game. They practiced this by keeping their eyes lowered when talking to others and never looking at women.
In Siberia warfare was common. Men made armor from double layers of toughened sealskin or from whalebone covered with sealskin. Shin guards were made from mammoth tusks. To cover their heads and upper bodies, they used wooden shields covered with dried animal skin.
When someone died, the Yup’ik first placed the corpse in each of the four corners of the house, then pulled it through the smoke hole. Going through the smoke hole symbolized the passage between life and death. Afterwards, they placed the body in a fetal position with knees to chest. They wrapped the arms around the knees and bound them together at the wrists. Because this is the position a baby takes in the womb, it showed that the dead person was now ready to be reborn into another body. The corpse was then covered with driftwood or rocks. Sometimes a canoe or kayak was overturned with the body inside.
The Yup’ik had five major traditional ceremonies that they celebrated each winter. Festivals began in November after the freeze-up. The first and most important of these was the Bladder Festival.
The people believe that animals watch to see what happens to their bodies and bones. Game will only reappear to be hunted if the remains have been treated with respect. To show their respect for the animals they have killed, the Yup’ik held the Bladder Festival.
Because the Yup’ik believed bladders held the seals’ souls, they hung them on the back wall of the men’s house and treated them as honored guests. To start the festival, young boys had their bodies painted and went from house to house, where they were given food. Next two older men (called “mothers”) dressed up in gutskin parkas and led boys (called “dogs”) around the village to collect bowls of akutag (a type of Alaskan ice cream).
During the five days of the festival, men purified themselves with sweat baths and with smoke from wild celery plants. No one worked; instead they competed in sports, sang songs, and feasted to entertain the seals. On the last night everyone gathered in the men’s house. Parents gave gifts to celebrate their children’s achievements. Then a big giveaway was held; fish and seal oil were given out. This ensured that no one would go hungry during the long winter months.
Afterwards pairs of young men took the inflated bladders out the smoke hole to an opening in the ice. There they deflated them and returned them to their underwater home. Everyone hoped the seals would tell their kin how well they had been treated, so that many seals would let themselves be caught the following season.
The Feast for the Dead was a time to invite the spirits of the ancestors back for a feast. Children who had the names of deceased relatives wore clothing of that person’s sex.
Before the Gift Festival, men made little replicas of things they wanted—grass socks, fish-skin mittens, bird-skin caps. They hung them from a stick and took them to the women. Women each chose one and made that item. When everyone gathered, the women gave the men their gifts, and the men had presents for them. Since no one knew who had chosen their replicas, they had fun finding out who they were paired up with for the evening.
Messenger Feasts were a time to invite guests from another village to a dance and giveaway. Villages took turns hosting these and, when they did, they made up songs about each gift. One of the purposes of this festival was to ensure that everyone in the village received an equal share of wealth and food.
The last festival of the year was Agayuyaraq. The people sang songs to the animals and performed masked dances led by shaman. Masks with special powers were made for this ceremony and represented the various spirits, including the shaman’s helper spirits. By remembering past spiritual encounters, the people hoped to attract them again in the future.
Current tribal issues
The biggest difficulties the Yup’ik face is the erosion of their culture. Although modernization has benefited them, they have also suffered many losses to their traditions. Sometimes it is difficult to strike a balance between the old and new. Perhaps Paapi Merlin Koonoka, an elder from St. Lawrence Island, quoted in James H. Barker’s book, Always Getting Ready, expressed it best: “And as I see it now, it is important for our children to get a modern education. By doing that they will be in a stronger position to preserve our culture and tradition.”
Angayuqaq Oscar Kawagley (1934–) teaches at the University of Alaska. He was a member of the Executive Committee of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference and has written many articles on indigenous education. Another educator, Helen Slwooko Carius (1928–1998), overcame many hardships, including a childhood bout with polio, to become an internationally recognized Siberian Yupik dollmaker. She wrote and illustrated two books—one on Yupik culture, the other a dictionary of her language. Storyteller Chuna McIntyre (1955–) is an artist and a musician who has performed throughout the world. He shares traditional stories he learned from his grandmother along with different sounds and images from the Yupik culture. He is also the founder and director of Nunamfca (“Of Our Land”) Yup’ik Eskimo Dancers.
Ayagalria, Moses K. Yupik Eskimo Fairy Tales and More. New York: Vantage Press, 2006.
Barker, James H. Always Getting Ready: Upterrlainarluta: Yup’ik Eskimo Subsistence in Southwest Alaska. New York: University of Washington Press, 1993.
Fienup-Riordan, Ann, ed. Yup’ik Words of Wisdom: Yupiit Qanruyutait. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2005.
Fienup-Riordan, Ann. Wise Words of the Yup’ik People: We Talk to You because We Love You. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2005.
Guthridge, George. The Kids from Nowhere: The Story Behind the Arctic Education Miracle. Anchorage: Alaska Northwest Books, 2006.
Inupiaq and Yupik People of Alaska. Anchorage: Alaska Geographic Society, 2004.
Jenness, Aylette, and Alice Rivers. In Two Worlds: A Yu’pik Eskimo Family. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1989.
Jolles, Carol Zane. Faith, Food, and Family in a Yupik Whaling Community. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2002.
Kawagley, Angayuqaq Oscar. A Yupiaq Worldview: A Pathway to Ecology and Spirit. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, 2006.
Kerttula, Anna M. Antler on the Sea: The Yupik and Chukchi of the Russian Far East. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2000.
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“Yupik (Alutiiq, Sugpiaq, Cup’ik, Chugach Eskimo).” Native Languages of the Americas: Preserving and Promoting Indigenous American Indian Languages. (accessed on September 9, 2007).
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Gordon L. Pullar, Director, Department of Alaska Native and Rural Development College of Rural and Community Development, UAF, Anchorage, Alaska