Yuit - Orientation

Identification. "Asiatic Eskimos" refers to those living on St. Lawrence Island in the north Bering Sea and on the adjacent Siberian shore. "Yuit" means "the real people" or "authentic human beings" and is comparable to "Inuit" (used among North American Eskimos); both are indigenous terms. In the 1970s the St. Lawrence Islanders applied the name "Sivuqaq" to both the entire island and the town of Gambell, and a derived term, sivu.qaxMi.t, could mean either "St. Lawrence Islanders" or "people of Gambell." Specific locality-based names were more commonly used in differentiating people from the various areas and clans. The Yuit are those Eskimos who speak one of the two major language groups in this broad ethnic category, namely, those living in Southwest Alaska and eastern Siberia, including St. Lawrence Island. This entry deals only with the latter two groups, the "Asiatic" (Yuit) speakers of the language variant "Yup'ik."

Location. For over two thousand years the Asiatic Eskimos have lived on St. Lawrence Island and in several Scattered villages rimming the easternmost tip of Siberia, the nearest point being forty miles away. Archaeological remains have provided a rich store of artifacts highly significant in theories dealing with Eskimo origins. The topography is treeless tundra alternating with spectacular mountain scenery (especially in Siberia), and the climate is wet, cold, and frequently stormy.

Demography. In the middle 1980s the population of the Asiatic Eskimos was approximately two thousand, about half living in the Siberian villages. Because of the relocation policies of the Soviet government, the Eskimos since the 1960s have been grouped with other ethnic minorities, such as the Chukchees, in larger villages intermixed with Europeans. It is impossible to estimate the precontact population with any degree of assurance. What is known is that in the late 1880s there was a calamitous decline brought on primarily from sickness and contact with crews of whaling ships. St. Lawrence Island was especially affected, its population dropping from an estimated sixteen hundred in the 1870s to barely six hundred following the Great Starvation of 1878-1879.

Linguistic Affiliation. Asiatic Eskimos speak three dialects or distinct languages of the Yup'ik branch of the Eskimo language: Sirenikski, Central Siberian Yup'ik, and Naukanski. All are spoken in Siberia, with Central Siberian Yup'ik also found in virtually identical form on St. Lawrence Island.

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