American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
Teaser Image


"Yup'ik" means "Real People." The Yup'ik people were formerly known as Nunivak Inuits (or Eskimos), Saint Lawrence Island Eskimos, West Alaska Eskimos, South Alaska Eskimos, and Southwest Alaska Eskimos. They are also known as Bering Sea Yuits and, with the Alutiit (Pacific Eskimos), simply as Yuits. The Saint Lawrence Islanders were culturally similar to Siberian Eskimos. (See also Alutiiq.)

Yup'ik territory was located in southwestern Alaska, between Bristol Bay and Norton Sound, including Nunivak and Saint Lawrence Islands. The early nineteenth-century Yup'ik population was between about 15,000 and 18,000. The people spoke the Yuk or Central Alaskan Yup'ik (including Saint Lawrence Island or Central Siberian Yup'ik) branch of Yup'ik. With Inuit-Inupiaq (Inuktitut), Yup'ik (or Western Eskimo) constitutes the Eskimo division of the Eskaleut language family.

Religious belief and practice were based on the conception of spiritual entities found in nature and needing to be treated with respect. Most rituals focused on this belief, such as those that showed respect to an animal just killed. It was also the basis of most taboos as well as related objects and songs.

Souls were said to be reincarnated through naming. Spirits not yet reincarnated also needed to be treated with respect lest they cause harm. In some areas, secret, spirit-based knowledge, objects, and songs, all thought to bring success in hunting, were passed on from father to son. The people also believed in various nonhuman, nonanimal supernatural beings.

Male and female shamans (angakok) provided religious leadership by virtue of their connection with guardian spirits. They led group religious activities. They could also cure disease and see into the future. Illness was thought to be due to soul loss and/or the violation of taboos. Professional curing methods included interrogation about taboo adherence, trance-like communication with spiritual helpers, extraction (such as sucking), and dramatic performance, including masked dances. Shamans were relatively powerful people, in part owing to their ability to use their spiritual power to harm people.

The Messenger Feast, a major ceremony, included dancing and gift exchange between two villages. The Saint Lawrence Islanders held a spring whaling ceremony. When the successful crew returned, the umiak owner's wife offered the whale a drink of water as a token of respect. Then followed another feast and a thanksgiving ceremony. Some groups held memorial feasts about a year following a death.

In general, Yup'iks living along the Bering Sea had their main ceremonial season in the winter and early spring. The festivities featured spirit masks and dances. The Bladder Feast was another important ceremony dedicated to respect for animals, in this case, seals. This festival also underscored the ritual sexual division in society.

Nuclear families were loosely organized into extended families or local groups associated with geographical areas (- miuts). Local groups on the mainland occasionally came together as perhaps seven small, fluid subgroups or bands. From north to south, they were Kuigpagmiuts, Maarmiuts, Kayaligmiuts, Kukquqvagmiuts, Kiatagmiuts, Tuyuryarmiuts, and Aglurmiuts. Older men, with little formal authority and no power, led kashim (men's houses) and kin groups (generally the same as villages on Saint Lawrence Island). These leaders generally embodied Inuit values, such as generosity, and were also good hunters.

The family was the most important economic and political unit. Descent was bilateral, except patrilineal on Saint Lawrence Island. There, secret songs, ceremonies, house ownership, and hunting group membership were passed through patrilineal clans and lineages. Status was formally ranked within the kashim and depended on hunting and leadership skills.

People married simply by announcing their intentions, although infants were regularly betrothed. Men might have more than one wife, but most had only one. Divorce was easy to obtain. Both men and women remained respectful and distant toward their in-laws. Wife exchange was a part of certain defined male partnerships, such as mutual aid, "joking," and trade. Some of these relationships were inheritable. The alliance between the wife and the exchanged husband was considered a kind of marriage. Formal female partnerships existed as well.

Infanticide was rare and usually practiced against females. Children were highly valued and loved, especially males, and adoption was common. Life cycle events, such as berry picking and grass gathering by girls and seal killing by boys, were recognized by the community. Childbirth, girls' puberty, and death were the occasions for special taboos.

The sick or aged were sometimes abandoned, especially in times of scarcity. Corpses were generally removed through an alternate exit (not the door) and left on the ground with certain grave goods. Along the Bering Sea, some groups placed their dead in painted wooden coffins and erected carved wooden memorial poles to keep their spirits at bay. The mourning period generally lasted four or five days, during which time activities, including hunting, were severely restricted.

Work was fairly gender specific. Women made food and clothing and cared for children; men fished and hunted land animals. Use of a person's real name was generally avoided, perhaps for religious reasons. Tensions were relieved through games, through duels of drums and songs, in which the competing people tried to outdo each other in parody, and through "joking" relationships. Ostracism and even death were reserved for the most serious cases of socially inappropriate behavior.

The people created larger settlements in the winter to take advantage of group subsistence activities. Villages ranged in size from just two to more than a dozen houses, plus one or more kashim and storehouses.

There were several kinds of dwellings throughout the area, depending on location. Houses were generally semiexcavated, roughly twelve to fifteen feet by fifteen feet and made of sod, grass, and/or bark over wooden posts and beams. They were mainly inhabited by related women and children. Some might have plank walls with benches placed along them. Entry was via an anteroom connected to the main room by an underground tunnel. A hearth and cooking area stood at one end of the room, and raised sleeping platforms were at the other end. Windows were often made of sewn fish skins.

Except on Saint Lawrence Island, men worked, bathed, slept, and ate in kashim, which were also used as ceremonial houses, to which women delivered the food. Political decisions were made there as well. Some groups built cut-sod spring camp houses, about 100 square feet in size. Skin tents were generally the norm in the summer.

Yup'ik people were nomadic hunters with either a land or a sea orientation, although most people also exploited the region opposite their own. The most important game animals were seals, walrus (especially on Saint Lawrence and Nunivak Islands), and whales. Men hunted seals at their breathing holes in the winter. On Nunivak, men hunted them from kayaks in spring and with nets under shore ice in the fall. Some groups also hunted caribou (especially away from the coast and major rivers and on Nunivak Island until about 1900) and moose, especially in the fall.

Fish, especially salmon, trout, smelt, and white-fish, was the most important dietary item in many locations and was generally taken in all seasons but the winter. Fish were especially important inland, with marine mammals more important on the coasts and islands. Shellfish were gathered where possible. Birds and fowl, such as ptarmigan, were speared or netted and their eggs gathered. Some groups were able to obtain berries, roots, and greens.

Most tools were fashioned from caribou antlers as well as stone, bone, and driftwood (on Saint Lawrence and Nunivak Islands, many items were made from walrus parts). Men and women had their own specialty stone knives. People cooked in pottery pots and burned seal or walrus oil in saucer-shaped pottery lamps. They carved wooden trays, boxes, dishes, spoons, and other objects.

Various kinds of containers were made out of gut, wood, and clay. Saint Lawrence Islanders often used baleen as a raw material. Some groups made twined and coiled baskets of grasses and birchbark. In fact, grass was used extensively for items such as mats, baskets, socks, and rope, although some cordage also came from beluga sinew. The ceremonial tambourine drum was made of seal gut stretched over a wooden frame.

The people made finely carved wooden and ivory figurines. The Yup'iks engaged in a general coastal–interior interregional trade, including trade with the Unangan and Northwest Coast peoples. Saint Lawrence Island people traditionally traded and otherwise interacted with those from Siberia. Men hunted from one- or two-person sealskin-covered kayaks. Umiaks were larger, skin-covered open boats; several men could hunt whales or walrus in these. They were also used for trade voyages. Wooden sleds were used for overland winter travel. Some interior groups also used canoes.

Women made most clothing of caribou and sealskin. Yup'ik clothing tended to fit relatively loosely. Some groups used the skins of other animals, such as marmot and muskrat, as well as bird and even fish skins. Most people wore long hooded parkas and inner shirts and pants. Women's parkas were often shorter and featured front and rear flaps. Other items included sealskin (some groups used salmon skin) boots and mittens, skin or grass socks, fish skin parkas and pants in the summer, waterproof gut raincoats, and wooden snow goggles.

Men on Saint Lawrence Island wore distinctive hairdos in which they shaved the tops of their heads but retained a circle of hair around the forehead. Women generally tattooed three lines on their chins. Personal ornaments included labrets and other items of walrus and bird parts.

People have lived on Nunivak Island since at least 150 BCE, making pottery and using mainly stone tools. The mainland has been inhabited for at least 4,000 years, with cultural continuity since about 300 BCE.

Most groups avoided direct contact with non-Natives until Russian traders established trading posts in Yup'ik territory, generally in the early nineteenth century. The Russians exchanged clothing, metal tools, and beads for beaver pelts. The Inuits began spending more time trapping beaver and less time on subsistence activities, eventually becoming dependent on the posts even for food. In general, Russian Orthodox missionaries followed the early traders. Most Inuits had accepted Christianity by the 1860s.

This process was uneven throughout the region. Saint Lawrence Island people first met non-Natives in the 1850s, whereas people on the Yukon Delta did not do so until the late nineteenth century. About one thousand people (roughly two-thirds of the total population) of Saint Lawrence Island died in 1878 from a combination of natural causes combined with a high incidence of alcohol abuse. Nunivak Island was similarly insulated (contact occurred in 1821 but perhaps not again until 1874), in part owing to the shallowness of the surrounding sea. The first trading post, which included a reindeer herd, was established there in 1920; missionaries and schools dated from about the 1930s. The people experienced various epidemics throughout the early to midtwentieth century.

Little changed with the sale of Alaska to the United States until the advent of commercial fishing in Bristol Bay in the 1880s. Moravian missionaries appeared on the Kuskokwim River in 1885; those of other sects soon followed. Like most missionary schools, theirs forbade children to speak their Native language. In an effort to undermine the traditional lifestyle, the U.S. government introduced reindeer to the region around 1900.

In addition to commercial fishing, fox hunting for the fur trade plus the manufacture of baleen and carved ivory objects formed the basis of a local cash economy from the late nineteenth century through the early twentieth century. Nunivak Islanders experienced the full cash economy only after World War II. By then the people had incorporated under the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA). The Bureau of Indian Affairs managed their reindeer herd.

The far north took on strategic importance during the Cold War, about the same time that mineral reserves became known and technologically possible to exploit. Saint Lawrence Island became exposed to mainland life and tied to Alaska only after military installations were built there in the 1950s. Inuits generally found only unskilled menial labor. With radical diet changes, the adoption of a sedentary life, and the appearance of drugs and alcohol, health declined markedly. The Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corporation serves the people's health needs with culturally appropriate programs and care.

The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) was passed in 1971. Bilingual education has been in force since the 1970s, and most Yup'ik people still speak the Native language. Some communities have been more severely disrupted and are consequently less cohesive than others. Most Saint Lawrence Islanders had been converted to Christianity by the midtwentieth century, although many of the old ideas still resonate for the people.

The issue of subsistence hunting rights remains very important to the Yup'iks. Chignik area villages share certain concerns, such as the decline of the local caribou herd, possibly owing to excess sport hunting, and the threat to subsistence activities from industrial development. Togiak area villages seek to conduct a permanent annual walrus hunt on Round Island, and they seek funds to maintain their reindeer herd. They are also trying to prevent the desecration of ancient burial sites.

Local concerns in the Iliamna area include road improvement, bridge construction, and air links. Concerns in the Kvichak Bay area include the maintenance of subsistence fishing rights, the use and contamination cleanup of the former air force base site, the construction and management of a visitor center at Katmai National Park, and the decline of the local caribou herd. Issues in the Nushagak Bay area include the possible formation of a Nuchagak and Togiak area borough, land allotments within Wood-Tikchik State Park, and the proper management of the local caribou herd.


©2011 ABC-CLIO. All rights reserved.

  Chronological Essays
  People and Groups
  Southwest Nations
  California Nations
  Northwest Coast Nations
  Great Basin Nations
  Plateau Nations
  Great Plains Nations
  Northeast Woodlands Nations
  Subarctic Nations
  Arctic Nations
ABC-cLIO Footer