The Yupik Peoples traditionally and still today live in Western, Southwestern, and Southcentral Alaska. They include—the Central Alaskan Yupik people of a) the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, b) the Kuskokwim River, and c) coastal Bristol Bay in Alaska; the Alutiiq (or Suqpiaq) of the Alaska Peninsula and coastal areas of South Central Alaska; and St. Lawrence Island in Western Alaska. They are of the ‘Eskimo’ Peoples and are, therefore, related to the Inupiaq and Inuit Peoples. Bethel is the unofficial capitol city of the Yupik People.
Traditional life of the Yupik meant following semi-nomadic cycles, seasonal variations of the environment. Hunting—sea mammals along the coast, caribou or even moose more inland—and fishing were the primary subsistence resources and activities. The Yupik also developed trade, first with neighboring groups, and later with the Russians at the end of the nineteenth century. Yupik Peoples believed living creatures go through a cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. This lead them to give newborns the name of a recently deceased member of the community, and directed them to practice offerings, in which parts of animals that had been killed for food were returned to the ocean/ river/ land so that they too could be reborn. Yupik People practiced shamanism, recognizing both benign and evil spirits, and the shamans were able to communicate with each. Due to contact with the outside world being relatively recent, the Yupik have been able to retain many of their traditional ways of life. Communities are still located along the water—coastal or river—and many families still harvest traditional subsistence resources, particularly salmon and seal.
During the twentieth century, however, as Western schools and Christian churches were built, the Yupik stopped telling their beliefs and offering their traditional stories. The children were educated in Western languages and cultural ways; Christian churches taught their children the new religion. As the last shamans passed away, new ones no longer took their place. In the 1990’s however, Yupik elders recognized that their cultural ways were being lost and chose to start sharing their long held back memories of how things once were. This revival of traditional wisdom is now available, not only to educate Yupik young people and thus continue their culture, but also for the benefit of human society, everywhere in the world.
Siberian Yupik on St. Lawrence Island are known for their skillful carvings of walrus ivory and whale bone, along with the baleen of bowhead whales. Yupik masked dances play an important role in ceremonies, traditionally performed inside the gasgiq. Representing animals—particularly wolves, seals, and loons, as well as legendary creatures—these masks inspired collectors and artists alike. Yupik group dances often perform with individuals staying stationary, particularly the women, with all movements done with rhythmic upper body and arm motions, accentuated with hand held dance fans. The limited movement actually dramatizes the expressiveness of the dances, which cover a range from—graceful flowing to energetic-lively to wryly humorous.
The Yupik People, as a whole, might be described as reserved and soft spoken. Do not judge them for this unless it is to assume that their thoughts go deep, their hearts wide, and their sense of being spans far more than the current moment.