The Yupik or the Eskimo is famously known for its ice dwellings known as igloos. Their adaptive characteristics to environment especially in the snow caps are very extraordinary. This paper shows the background including the origin and expansion of this group of people. It also tackles the culture and the composition of the Eskimo tribe as well as their ways of living. Background on the Yupik People The Eskimo is a group of interrelated tribes who occupies the location from Siberian Arctic up to Canada and Greenland.
The word Eskimo comes from the Algonquin language which means “raw flesh eaters”. The Yupik are classified as a sub-group of the Eskimos and also referred to as the Siberian Yupik or Siberian Eskimos (Vajda). The Yupik people spend their time living in the along the watershed coasts of the rivers of Yukon and Kuskokwim Rivers. These rivers flow towards to the west passing by southwest Alaska and ends at the Bering Sea. The Yup’iks are regarded as the most numbered groups among the Inuit groups in Alaska.
Origin and Expansion. The ancestors of the Yupik people are believed to have reached the ice caps of Alaska and Russia during the third and final migration from Asia which occurred ten to eleven thousand years ago at the latter part of the Ice Age. Edward Vajda cites that archeological and linguistic evidences show that the direct ancestors of the Yupik people over the Bering Strait through the presence of the Bering land that time. Their ancestors are said to have lived in the areas of Siberian Bering and Arctic Sea coasts before the arrival of Chukchi and Korak tribes from the South.
From their base in the current location in West Alaska, they separated into two (2) distinct groups: (1) the Eskimos, and (2) the Aleuts. After some time, explorers, traders and settlers from Europe and Russia came during the 1800’s. However, this event created setbacks to the Yupik because their communities suffered deadly epidemic diseases like smallpox, influenza, and tuberculosis. Ways of Living The homes of Yupik are designed to be flat, with treeless tundra landscapes with multiple numbers of lakes. In the previous times, they were found residing in houses made of wood and whalebones as the fundamental structures.
The walrus skins are covered into the sides and the insides were lightened by bowl shaped clay lamps, or those made of carved stones. During winters, they stay in walrus hide and plank tents although before, they lived in the so-called igloos which are also known as “nynglu”. At summer time, their homes are made of wood covered with walrus skins forming the shape of a rectangle. Today, the Yupik now live in modern houses powered by electricity and petroleum oil instead of seal oil which was used by them previously. They also have glass walls around their houses.
One difference between the American and Siberian Eskimos as pointed out by Vajda is the presence of men’s communal house or commonly known as “kashim” which is common among the American Yupik rather than the Siberian Yupik. For their livelihood, the Yupik people rely on the oceans and rivers since there are located along the shores. They still continue to hunt and get their own food even if there are suppliers of food on stores coming from ships and planes of other countries. Hunting fish is the major source of food for the Yupik especially for those living on the islands.
During summer, salmons caught from rivers are dried for the winter season. Walrus meat were dried and stored in a semi-cold temperature so that they can be fermented and boiled up as food. (Vajda) Other varieties of available fish include: (1) cod, (2) halibut, and (3) herring. For additional dietary supplements, they also hunt down seals and walruses which are very common along the Bering Sea and they also consume shellfishes, terrestrial mammals (moose and caribou), birds, bird eggs, and plants.
According to Vajda, they hunt the walruses by using open leather boats known as “angyapik” and small canoes known as “kayaks”. They use a whalebone clapper which produces the killer whale sound that drives the walruses and seals towards the shore where the hunters with spears are awaiting for them. Whale hunting was also a routine but only rarely because one whale can feed the whole village of Yupik. The Yupik people use dogs as their pack animals. (Vajda) They store their food in underground caches located in their houses. For their transportation, the Yupik people use land vehicles and snow mobiles.
For sea transportation and hunting, they use the “Umiaks” which are boats made from walrus’ skins. Before, snails and oars were used in propelling the boats but as the world modernizes, so are their boats which use outdoor motors. Culture and People Characteristics Yupik are said to be well adaptive to new surroundings and strong individuals. On the other hand, upon going with the flow to new ways of living, the Yupik customs and culture remained strong and intact. Their customs are mainly focused on the rituals of hunting and sharing.
Their relationship with other groups such as the Chukotka brought back the practices of trade and intermarriage. The Yupik are composed of male exogamic clans or lineages. Each clan or lineage has a unique myth or origin of existence and every clan member who dies is buried in a single location exclusively for the clan. The returns from hunts and foragings are equally shared among the clan members. According to studies, the clans in the pasts owned large dwelling houses which can house around 200 to 400 members of their respective clans.
(Vajda) Language, Writing and Education. The language being used by the Yupik people belong to the Yupik branch of the Eskimo family. The Yupik language and writing were developed by the missionaries in the 1800’s who formulated a way of inserting the Latin alphabet (shown in Figure 1) in writing Yupik. The language was named after a missionary named John Hinz and was also used in publishing translations of the Bible and other religious scriptures. In Siberia, the use of Cyrillic language (shown in Figure 2) was developed by scholars although some who know the way of writing Yupik tend to write in Russian instead.
By 1960’s at the University of Alaska, a group of scholars with the assistance from native Yupik speakers gathered together in order to formulate a new orthography for Yupik. One of their objectives was to devise an orthography that could be encoded on an English keyboard, without the presence of accent marks or extra letters. Aside from that, they also desired to symbolize the individual sounds or the pronunciation of the language with separate letters. (Vajda) The Yupik language is spoken by approximately 11,800 people who live at Alaska and Siberia.
The Yupik writing is composed by the Latin alphabet in Alaska and Cyrillic alphabet in Siberia. In Russia, 800 of the 1700 Yupik speak the Yupik language fluently. Most Yupik also speak the Chukchi and the Russian language fluently. (Vajda) According to Ray Barnhardt (1999), the education is reaching the people on Alaska particularly the Yupiks. One of the good signs that were reported by Barnhardt (1999) is the enhancement of knowledge and skills of teachers and soon to be teachers in the region through short education courses.
These developments are essential for personal growth for the Yupiks through education aside from lessons learned from experiences. Figure 1 (Latin Alphabet for Yupik) Figure 2 (Cyrillic Alphabet for Yupik) Beliefs and Religion The Yupik according to Vajda are animists whose beliefs in resemblance with those of the Chukchi people. For them the killer whale, raven and wolf are considered sacred and must not be executed. The Yupik, as well as the the Chukchi and Korak, believes that Raven had created the world. The swallow (bird) is also paid respect and honor because it was thought to protect hunters at sea.
Killer whales are also revered as protectors of hunters; it was also thought that the killer whale turns into a wolf in winter and devoured the reindeer unless some of the reindeer submitted to the hunters. Ritual meals are concluded by throwing a piece of meat into the sea to bless and thank the killer whales which are believed as the cause of their catches. More than among American Eskimo groups, Siberian Yupik shamanism is inclined toward placating or giving importance to the sea animals in which the clans depended on for nourishment.
There are also special ceremonies which were held before the departure of hunting boats as asking for guidance and bounty for food. (Vajda) Conclusion The culture of the Yupik / Eskimo people is amazing because of two things. One is because of their ability to adapt to environment for survival. Surviving in a low temperature location like in Alaska, Greenland or Siberia requires expertise in keeping oneself warm at all occasions. The supply and availability of food is not that high in lower temperature places but the ability of this group to find ways in order for them to adapt and be well versed in this kind of environment.
This paper has shown way beyond the pictures of igloos and the Eskimos on textbooks of students. Second and most importantly is their ability to retain its culture and customs despite the adaptive measures and global changes that happen frequently. This is manifested through their religion and beliefs which if compared today’s beliefs and the existing religion will make theirs primitive. Beyond these changes and adaptations, the notion of keeping ones identity despite changes is what people and clans can admire and imitate from the Yupik people.