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Yupik Peoples: History, Language & Tools

Instructor: Sunday Moulton

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

This lesson introduces students to the Yup'ik people, one of the 11 native peoples of Alaska. With such a rich culture, this lesson focuses on Yup'ik history, their fascinating language, and the tools used to survive in a harsh climate.

History of the Yup'ik

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to live in Alaska? While parts of the state have been developed into bustling cities, much of the land is still remote. Winters are cold, long, and dark. The distance between these remote communities is great, so living here would require a source of heat, plenty of manmade light and a dependable mode of transportation to cross the vast distances between communities. While this may sound like something out of a history book, many indigenous people still live this way in parts of Alaska. And how have they learned to survive in such extreme conditions? Their ancestors have been living this way for thousands of years. One such group is the Yup'ik people. While today, many live in homes with more modern conveniences, they still celebrate many of their traditions and their rich history.

Traditional Yupik Kayak
Kayak

Arrival

The earliest ancestors of the Yup'ik people first arrived in Alaska more than 3,000 years ago, settling along the western, coastal shores. Growing populations caused them to slowly migrate upriver around 1400 C.E., settling inland. Eventually, through intermarriage and their growing occupation of the land, they absorbed many of the Ingalik Athapaskan people, displacing others.

Contact with Non-natives

In the first half of the 1800s, the Yup'ik encountered their first non-native people, Russian fur traders, expanding into Alaska. Shortly after that, Russian Orthodox priests and Catholic missionaries came to preach to the region's inhabitants. The discovery of gold in the Yukon River however started the frenzied Yukon Gold Rush between 1900 and 1920, bringing thousands of prospectors to Alaska. While Western Alaska, home to the Yup'ik, never yielded gold, disease epidemics brought by the influx of non-natives severely decreased the Yup'ik population who did not share the European's resistance to viruses like influenza.

Permanent Settlements

With the loss of so many, and the influence of European religion and culture, decimated Yup'ik communities consolidated into permanently settled villages, combining populations from the remains of numerous nomadic groups. The central features of these communities included schools, churches, and post offices with some communities featuring grocery stores and industrial canneries to process and package fish.

Language

Interestingly, the division of Alaska's native people comes from the 11 different languages associated with their local cultures. The Yup'ik speak the Yup'ik language, which has a large number of sounds not used in English. This can make learning their language, as a non-Yup'ik, very difficult. Today, many Yup'ik also speak English out of necessity but elders fear the youth will lose their traditional language if they do not make efforts to preserve that part of their heritage.

Tools

The development and use of tools among the Yup'ik generally focused on survival in an extreme habitat. Inland Yup'ik technology focused on hunting land animals and river fishing while coastal Yup'ik communities used technology based on hunting marine animals. Both community types developed clothing technology to stay warm in winter and negate the eyestrain of sunlight gleaming off snow.

Hunting, Fishing, and War

Traditionally, Yup'ik society divided work between the sexes, assigning hunting, fishing, and warfare to men. They did not use fishing poles and hooks to catch their dinner because they usually went after large fish, seals, walruses, and even whales. On the water, they used spears and harpoons to catch their food. When hunting on land, they primarily used spears. To combat snow-blindness, a condition caused by bright sun reflective off snow, they used snow goggles with very narrow slits to block out most of the intense light. While they did use bows and arrows for some hunting, these tools were mainly used in warfare.

Yupik Walrus Hunting - Photo by Konstantine Savva and National Park Service
Walrus

Household

In the home, women used a fan-shaped knife made of slate called a uluaq for many purposes. Today, however, the knives are usually made of steel. They also used sewing needles made of stone, bone, and ivory to making clothing. For light, especially during the Arctic winters with limited daylight, stone oil lamps, filled with seal fat, lit the home.

Uluaq - Photo by Photo by National Park Service
Uluaq

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