Alaska Native Heritage Center, 15th Anniversary

Education and programs

Yup’ik and Cup’ik Cultures of Alaska

ALASKA'S NATIVE PEOPLE ARE DIVIDED INTO 11 DISTINCT CULTURES, SPEAKING 11 DIFFERENT LANGUAGES AND TWENTY-TWO DIFFERENT DIALECTS. IN ORDER TO TELL THE STORIES OF THIS DIVERSE POPULATION, THE ALASKA NATIVE HERITAGE CENTER IS ORGANIZED BASED ON FIVE CULTURE GROUPINGS, WHICH DRAW UPON CULTURAL SIMILARITIES OR GEOGRAPHIC PROXIMITY.

Yup'ik & Cup'ik MapThe Yup'ik and Cup'ik People - Who We Are

The southwest Alaska Natives are named after the two main dialects of the Yup'ik language, known as Yup'ik and Cup'ik. The estimated population, at the time of contact, was: Nunivak 500, Yukon-Kuskokwim 13,000 and Bristol Bay 3,000. The Yup’ik and Cup’ik still depend upon subsistence fishing, hunting and gathering for food. Elders tell stories of traditional ways of life, as a way to teach the younger generations survival skills and their heritage.

Traditional House Types and Settlements

Many of today’s villages were ancient sites that were used as seasonal camps and villages for subsistence resources. Historically the Yup’ik and Cup’ik people were very mobile, traveling with the migration of game, fish and plants. The ancient settlements and seasonal camps contained small populations, with numerous settlements throughout the region consisting of extended families or small groups of families.

All males in some Yup’ik/Cup’ik communities lived in a qasgiq, or men’s house/community center. Boys old enough to leave their mothers joined male relatives in the qasgiq, where they lived, worked, ate, bathed, slept and learned how to be men. Women prepared and brought food to the qasgiq. Ceremonies, singing, dancing and events usually occurred in the qasgiq, thus making it a community center.

Women and children lived in an ena, which had architectural features similar to the qasgiq, although the qasgiq was twice as large. Bearded seal or walrus intestine provided a removable “skylight” window. Like most other winter dwellings, the qasgiq and the ena shared the distinctive, partially semi-subterranean winter entrance passageway – which in the ena also provided space for cooking.

Tools and Technology

Technology was highly adapted to survival in the sub-arctic environment, and was fine-tuned through the centuries by trial and error. Technology was mostly geared toward the marine environment along the coast and more riverine habitats in the delta regions.

Women’s important household items included the versatile, fan-shaped, slate knife (uluaq), stone seal-oil lamp and skin sewing implements made from stone, bone and walrus ivory. Men’s tools were associated with hunting and were elaborately decorated with appropriate spiritual symbols to aid in hunting success. These items included a variety of spears, harpoons, snow goggles, ice cane, and bow and arrows for hunting and warfare.

Culture and Social Organization

Social culture and behavior were all geared toward survival and compatibility among family-village groups. Cultural roles and social rank were largely determined by gender and individual skills. Successful hunters, nukalpiit, usually become group leaders. Women roles included child rearing, food preparation and sewing.

Role of shaman

There were good and evil shamans that had separate roles within the village. Good shamans would heal, search out animal spirits for the hunters, ask for survival necessities such as driftwood and good weather. The bad shamans battled good shamans for power, placed curses on people, generally made life miserable for others and could even kill. It is believed that some Yup’ik/Cup'ik people still possess shamanistic powers.

Clothing

Traditionally, skins of birds, fish, and marine and land animals were used to make clothing. Hunting clothes were designed to be insulated and waterproof. Fish skin and marine mammal intestines were used for waterproof shells and boots. Grass was used to make insulating socks, and as a waterproof thread.

Trade

Coastal villages traded with the inland villages for items not locally available. Seal oil was highly desirabed by inland villages who usually bartered moose/caribou meat and furs such as mink, marten, beaver and muskrat, for seal oil and other coastal delicacies such as herring and herring eggs.

Traditions and Ceremonies

Yup'ik and Cup'ik people, organized their lives according to the animals and plants that they hunted and gathered. Families came together and dispersed according to the seasons. Most settlements and camps were occupied by extended families or small groups of families. Elaborate winter ceremonies emphasized the relationship among humans, animals, and the spirit world.