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Yupik People of Alaska: Culture, Food & Traditions

Instructor: Sunday Moulton

Sunday recently earned a PhD in Anthropology and has taught college courses in Anthropology, English, and high school ACT/SAT Prep.

What kind of people can thrive in the harsh, but beautiful Alaskan wilderness? The Yup'ik. They are one of Alaska's native populations and we will be learning about their culture, how they found food and their fascinating traditions.

A Strong Heritage

To thrive in the Alaskan wilderness, you have to be tough. That is especially true if you have no access to electricity, grocery stores, automobiles, or other modern conveniences. The Yup'ik people, one of Alaska's native cultures, may use some of these conveniences today, but for nearly 3,000 years, they survived the Alaskan climate using only what they could make for themselves and a culture developed to utilize every survival resource they could find.

Culture

The Yup'ik are one of eleven different native Alaskan people. While each group is different, their languages are somewhat related and they often trade and intermarry with one another. The Yup'ik are most closely associated with the Alutiiq tribe of the coast, but they also trade with the Aleut and Tlingit.

Settlement and Housing

Yup'ik communities reside in permanent villages today. Historically, the Yup'ik people lived as nomadic hunters and fishermen, following their food supply. Their homes had to be mobile, easy to set up, and easy to disassemble. They constructed tent-like structures of sealskin mats over a light, wooden frame. They were large enough to hold extended families, usually separating housing for men and women but connecting the two with a long hallway which also served as an area for communal cooking and eating. The men's tent was called a qasgiq and the women's tent was called an ena. Both tent-houses included a dug-out space to utilize the ground's protection from wind and cold, making the interior wall of several feet of earth before the sealskin dome.

Traditional Earth and Sealskin House - Photo by National Park Service and Konstantine Savva
Yupik House

Clothing

While the Yup'ik people today tend to wear contemporary, mass-produced clothing, traditionally they wore clothing made out of sealskin and animal hides. Men and women wore similar clothing of hooded parkas, loose pants, and tunic-style shirts. They also wore socks made of thickly woven grass, sealskin gloves and mittens, and sealskin boots called mukluks.

Food

Although commercially manufactured food is more available through grocery stores, the cost of shipping pre-packaged food to remote parts of Alaska significantly increases the price at the checkout counter. This is why many Yup'ik still hunt and fish for a large portion or their family's food, as well as a way to maintain their cultural heritage and traditions.

Meal Preparation - Photo by National Park Service and Konstantine Savva
Meal Preparation

In coastal communities, Yup'ik men, in the past, would sail out in kayaks made from a wooden frame covered with animal skins. Using harpoons, they speared seals, walruses, large fish, and even whales. Inland, they used spears, bows, and arrows to hunt caribou, birds, and smaller mammals like rabbits.

Yupik Traveling by Kayak
Kayak

The Yup'ik people followed the source of available food, usually migrating herds, spawning fish, and seasonal plants.

Religion

The traditional religious beliefs of the Yup'ik people falls into the category of animism, a belief that spirits inhabit everything in nature. Shamans are spiritually gifted practitioners of animism who communicate with these spirits and practice magic. Among the Yup'ik, there are good shamans and bad shamans. The bad shamans send misfortune and disease to villages, but good shamans fight against their magic to protect the village.

Traditions

The Yup'ik people still engage in many of their cultural traditions, including the potlatch, storytelling, and the arts of song, dance, and carving. Many of the different communities gather at annual festivals to engage in their traditions and ensure they continue for generations to come.

Gatherings

Potlatch gatherings today are regional gatherings more than the ceremonial events of the past. Back then, the hosting village would invite one or more neighboring villages to visit for a large feast, celebrations including singing and dancing, and a competitive form of gift-giving. Each host village would try to outdo the gifts given in previous potlatch gatherings, often giving food, clothing, weapons, tools, and other useful items. This competition was a way to ensure generosity during potlatches and share one village's prosperity with other villages who might be struggling.

Story Telling through Song, Dance, and Art

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