Source of Information: Fienup-Riordan, A. (1990). Eskimo essays. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
The Yup'ik Eskimos of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta area in Western Alaska lived in an environment that was very different from our stereotyped images of a barren, icy, harsh existence. They lived on a mostly flat, marshy plain crisscrossed by many waterways, which the Yup'ik used in place of roads. Because this region is below the Arctic Circle, temperatures are more moderate and hunting and fishing continued most of the year. Temperatures can range from -80F in winter to 80F in summer.
During the summer edible greens and berries grow prodigiously, and spruce and birch trees are common along streams. Unlike far northern Eskimos, who built igloos for shelter, the Yup'ik used these trees and driftwood to build partially subterranean, permanent winter homes. In the spring and summer groups of families moved to sealing and fishing camps, but returned to the permanent camps for the winter. These permanent communities were large groups of up to 300 persons. Men lived together in a communal house (qasgiq), and women and children lived in groups of from four to twelve in smaller sod houses (enet). During the winter months, the qasgiq was the center of the community where the traditional ceremonies were held, such as the Bladder Festival.
Due to the relatively moderate climate, a wide variety of vegetation grows in the area, supporting a rich population of birds and mammals, and larger game animals including bear, moose, and caribou live inland. The sea and various waterways provide whales, seal, walrus, and many varieties of fish. The abundance of food enabled the Yup'ik in the region to form a more settled lifestyle with larger groups of people, although yearly fluctuations in food availability and weather conditions necessitated some degree of mobility. Village groups, tied together by blood and marriage, varied in size from 50 to 250 persons. Marriages also occurred beyond the village, but remained within the bounds of the larger regional group. Prior to the arrival of Russian explorers and missionaries in the 1800s, bow and arrow warfare between regional groups was a regular part of Yup'ik life.
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The Yup'ik believe that no one ever truly dies, but that their soul is part of a cycle in which it is reborn in another generation. This cycle of life extends to animals in the traditional belief that the souls of seals killed by hunters must be properly cared for so that they, too, can be reborn. They believe that a seal recognizes the merits of a hunter and allows itself to be killed; when this happens, the seal's soul retracts to its bladder. Although its body dies and provides food for the hunter, its soul will stay alive in the bladder until it is returned to the sea.
Although it is no longer practiced, the Bladder Festival celebrated the Yup'ik belief
in the cycle of life and their relationship with their environment. The Yup'ik hunter
collected the bladders from seals killed during the season. When the Bladder Festival was
held in the winter, all of the bladders caught by hunters were inflated and hung together
in the qasgiq, where they were celebrated for five days. On the fifth day, each family
took the bladders of the seals they had killed to the sea and pushed them through a hole
in the ice, allowing the souls of the seals to be reborn.
The stereotypical image of Eskimos who subsist in a harsh life, living in igloos made of ice blocks and killing seals to eat them raw, actually accounts for only five percent of Arctic dwellers in the nineteenth century. The remainder of the population live in a diverse range of environments from Alaska to the northern Arctic. However, this romanticized image has continued to cloud the way we look at Eskimo life and traditions. In fact, even the error in the translation of the word "Eskimo" has affected our perception of this group of people. Rather than the correct translation "snowshoe netter," the inaccurate translation "eaters of raw flesh" has perpetuated the image. The negative connotation associated with the name was one factor behind its replacement with the word Inuit, meaning "people." In Western Alaska, Yup'ik-speaking Eskimo cultures have designated themselves "Yup'ik," meaning "real person."
The Yup'ik Eskimos had contact with outsiders much later than their northern Arctic counterparts. It was not until the 1800s that Russian explorers encountered the Yup'ik. This late contact is largely the result of the lack of resources deemed commercially valuable by outsiders. Consequently, change inherent to outside contact did not happen until the late 1800s. Unlike earlier explorers of the sixteenth century, who characterized the northern Arctic Eskimos as savages, the Russians described the Yup'ik in more favorable, but romanticized, terms. Russian Orthodox missionaries came to live among the Yup'ik in the late 1800s, introducing the Yup'ik to Christianity. The Yup'ik were selective as to the elements of Christianity they accepted, depending on whether or not they were compatible with their traditional beliefs.
Because contact with the outside world was relatively recent, the Yup'ik were able to retain many of their original ways of living. The traditional Yup'ik language is still spoken, and the focus on the extended family as the center of social life remains. Communities are still located along water, and much of their subsistence comes from traditional harvesting of these resources. Recent interest in documenting and maintaining cultural traditions has led to a focus on the Yup'ik way of life, resulting in support of scholarly study and performances and demonstrations intended to explore, record, and share Yup'ik life.
The Yup'ik have also seen major changes. Modern houses with electricity have replaced
the qasgiq and enet. Small towns with churches and schools have replaced the traditional
winter communities, and airplanes supply the residents with modern supplies. While many
residents fish and trap for a living, the economy of the communities is also dependent on
public monies in the form of wages and salaries to government-employed workers, creating a
situation of dependence on government rather than the traditional practice of