The Yup'ik People and Their Culture
By Alice Aluskak Rearden (Yup'ik), 2009
(This is shortened version of a longer essay from the Smithsonian book Living Our Cultures, Sharing Our Heritage: The First Peoples of Alaska.)
Sea, Land, Rivers
The Yup’ik homeland in southwest Alaska extends from Bristol Bay to Norton Sound and centers on the great delta where the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers reach the sea. It is a country of treeless tundra, countless lakes and low mountain ranges. Almost seventy Yup’ik communities are situated along the Bering Sea coast and lower courses of the two rivers, including the Kuskokwim village of Napakiak, where I grew up.
Whenever I ask elders about the traditional way of life on this land, they always say, “Caperrnarqellruuq – how difficult, how daunting it was back then.” Previous generations had to master a wide range of specific knowledge that was critical to their survival. You can see the meticulous care they took in making their tools: with a harpoon, you had to know the right wood to use, where to attach the lines, and how to balance it perfectly so that it would be effective. The values they lived by—cooperation, generosity, diligence, humility and respect for others—were just as important as skill and knowledge in sustaining their communities.
The contemporary Yup’ik lifestyle is easier than the traditional one, although people still work incredibly hard to provide for their families. We have Western schooling and such amenities as store-bought goods and clothing, although the cost of those things is high in rural Alaska. The environment around us remains the primary source of what we need, but it takes less effort to subsist by hunting and fishing with the guns, snow machines and other equipment that we depend on today than it took with the equipment of the past.
My grandparents helped care for me during childhood, and they were hard-working people who taught us how to honor Yup’ik values and utilize the resources of the land. I remember my grandmother preparing and preserving the food that my grandfather brought home from the wilderness in different seasons—blackfish, whitefish, migratory birds, caribou and moose. He had a full-time job, but was an active subsistence hunter as well. My grandmother was very concerned that we never waste food. Although she did not explain it directly, I came to understand that she was concerned that such negligence would show disrespect to the animals and diminish my grandfather’s success as a hunter.
Community and Family
At a certain time a child becomes aware of life. A baby will be sitting and looking around when an expression of surprise and delight comes to her face. My mom will say “Ellangartuq – she has just become aware.” Ella is the word for awareness, but it also means weather, the world, the universe; as human beings we gradually wake up to a consciousness of all that exists. Different stages of awareness occur during a child’s growth. For that reason it is important to be extremely careful around babies; their early perceptions will shape the rest of their lives. They will be stronger people later on if they have a quiet environment where they are never startled, or scared, or exposed to inappropriate behavior.
I grew up speaking Yup’ik as my first language and was also one of the first children to benefit from the bilingual education program that was started in the Napakiak schools. From kindergarten through elementary school I took classes that were taught in Yup’ik, and during those years I learned to read and write the language. Later on I took a Yup’ik course at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and after graduation used my training to work as a Yup’ik transcriber and translator. The work was extremely difficult at first! I was not an expert in the subtleties of grammar and structure, and the speakers used terminology that was new to me. I had to ask many people about some of the words and to check that I fully understood their meanings. I was excited by what I was doing and found it rewarding to learn new aspects of Yup’ik culture and history.
In listening to elders’ words, I have been impressed by the passion they feel about young people learning to appreciate the traditional values so that they can lead better lives and contribute to the health of their communities. Elders see how much has been lost as a result of cultural and material change and the shift away from Yup’ik ways of learning, being and speaking. Alcoholism, loss of respect for others, broken families and hopelessness come from losing that vital connection to cultural knowledge and identity.
Ceremony and Celebration
Our traditional spiritual life was based on the recognition that all things have ella, awareness. Elders were taught that if you are out walking and see a piece of driftwood sticking out of the mud, you should pull it out and turn it over so that the muddy part can dry. That piece of wood is alive and aware, and it will feel gratitude for your kindness.
Elders have told us about the masked dance ceremonies of the past. The winter celebrations honored the yuit, or inner persons, of the animals, and the dances were a kind of prayer that asked for these spirits to give their physical bodies to meet the needs of the community. Shamans made carvings or masks representing animals – walrus, caribou, seals and others. When the masks were danced in the qasgiq (community house), it was a petition for those animals to return in the spring. During Nakaciuryaraq, the Bladder Festival, the bladders of seals that had been taken by hunters during the year were returned to the sea through a hole in the ice, allowing those seals to be reborn in new bodies.
Kevgiq, the Messenger Feast, was a spring festival for sharing and bringing communities together. People worked hard throughout the year, gathering plants, hunting furs and harvesting food, and Kevgiq was a time to distribute some of what they had earned to others. Parents were especially proud if one of their children had contributed to the family’s effort for the first time – a son who brought home his first game or a daughter who caught a pike through the ice. Those events were recognized as rites of passage that meant the child was beginning a lifetime of providing for kin and community. By giving away at Kevgiq, a family ensured the future success of its children and the prosperity of the whole group. Villages still carry out the Messenger Feast tradition of inviting guests from other places and distributing presents to them. The dancing and gift-giving represent the same values as in the past, even if some of the items are store-bought goods. It is about giving generously to others and celebrating the success of the subsistence harvest.
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