Alaska Native Collections – Sharing Knowledge

 

The Yup’ik and Cup’ik People

Joan Hamilton

For cultural groups to be successful and survive, the people must adapt to their environment, and more importantly, must create rules of conduct to govern their behavior for the benefit of the community. Two Alaskan Eskimo peoples, Yup’ik and Cup’ik, continue to live in the area known as the Y-K (Yukon-Kuskokwim) Delta, as they have for at least ten thousand years. The Yukon River to the north, the Kuskokwim River to the south, and the Bering Sea to the west encompass this Oregon-sized part of western Alaska. There are 56 villages in the region today, as well as the central hub of Bethel. More than 23,000 people make their home in the Y-K Delta, while many other Yup’ik and Cup’ik people live in Anchorage, Fairbanks, and all over the world.

The Y-K Delta is a seemingly endless, treeless expanse of tundra that has often been labeled as a “barren wasteland.” However, to the Natives, the land is vibrantly alive, a stunningly abundant resource. We believe that all things in this world and universe have life, as humans have life. The land provides birds, animals, perennial berries, vegetables, and grass for weaving. In addition, we know it as a pharmacopoeia of medicinal plants. Lakes, rivers, shallow creeks, and the sea provide a variety of fish, birds and marine mammals.

Life that follows the rhythm of the seasons is not without its stresses, but it definitely has its rewards. The benefits of this way of life come from learning and practicing a discipline of centuries-old knowledge that strikes a chord of harmony in the village and on the land. It is understandable how the people and culture have survived when these values are examined.

We are expected to improve ourselves by observing and listening to Elders. Life’s lessons are best learned this way. As we watch, we are expected to continually analyze the activity. Elders then guide our attempts to follow what we have learned. They evaluate us by stressing what was done right and what methods may improve our next steps. They stress that teaching is based on personal experience. We are also expected to help our families with daily chores and to contribute to the needs of the people around us, and are rewarded for this. We are taught to show good behavior and to respect others’ belongings and all the sources of our food. We believe we live well to old age when we maintain a balance of leisure, learning and work—with work being our first responsibility.

Mrs. Kanrilak (left) and a friend gather taperrnaq [coarse seashore grass] in Tununak.

Photo by Larry McNeil, National Museum of the American Indian, P26512.

There have been major changes in our region over the last one hundred years. Many of the Elders were born in sod houses and lived their lives harvesting from the land and sea. By foot, qayaq and large skin boats, people moved with the seasons in search of what they needed to survive. Today we continue our subsistence activities with the use of fuel-powered snow machines, motorized boats and occasionally, small planes.

People now live in villages most of the year, leaving home only for summer fish and berry-picking camps. Children must attend school, and many people have 9-to-5 jobs to generate cash to augment subsistence living. Elders no longer gather in the communal men’s house (the qasgiq) to speak to our young people, and many of our time-honored traditions are in danger of being forgotten.

But even with all the changes we have experienced through the years, we continue to do the things that are most important to us. Men and women hunt and gather from the land, the rivers, and the ocean. And we teach our children that if they respect the land and sea, it will provide for them. Family members still gather every day to share meals and laugh and tell stories.

Despite more than a century of outside contact that brought devastating epidemics and attempts by government, educators and missionaries to “Westernize” our way of living, the people held, dearly and often secretly, to their languages and ceremonies. Today, at the insistence of the indigenous population, many of the schools and mass media are incorporating Native language use. Children are learning regional and local histories in the language of their own people. Non-profit agencies further this effort with annual cultural camps to immerse younger people in the lives and times of the elder generations. Villages are re-creating annual rituals and festivals that were and are once again important benchmarks in the seasonal cycle, such as Kevgiq (the Messenger Feast) and Bladder Festivals.

Regional museums and cultural centers, which are more accessible to rural residents than urban museums, play a key role in preserving and providing a safe home for artifacts of yesterday. Museums are approached as places of reverence that sustain our time-honored traditions. It is not uncommon for an Elder viewing museum artifacts he used as a child to do so with a tear in his eye and a prideful smile that reflect a treasure trove of personal memories.

 

Joan Hamilton, Cup’ik, is originally from Chevak. She is Director of the Yupiit Piciryarait Cultural Center and Museum in Bethel, Alaska.

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