by Oscar Kawagley


An estimated 86,000 Native people inhabit 87 percent of the Alaskan land mass, or 493,461 square miles. Approximately one-fourth of the Alaskan Native or Yupiat (pronounced "yu-pee-at") live in the southwest area of the state. This floodplain of the Yukon and the Kuskokwim Rivers composes the Arctic and Subarctic region. Villages are located along the Bering Sea and Bristol Bay coasts as well as the delta of the two rivers. There are approximately 21,415 Yupiat living in 62 villages, although the majority are concentrated in the villages of Bethel and Dillingham. Approximately 40 to 50 percent of the populace are non-Native in these two villages.

The Native people of Alaska migrated from Asia. Anthropologists theorize that they originated in Mongolia because their physical features resemble those of Mongoloids. According to Yupiat creation mythology, the Yupiat were created by the Raven in the area in which they are presently located.

Approximately 32 percent of Alaska Native people have migrated to Anchorage (the biggest city in Alaska) and the Matanuska-Susitna area. Most of these people are looking for opportunities for a better life and living. Many live in poverty because they do not possess marketable skills. Many Alaskan Native people are now campaigning for an educational system that respects their own languages, ways of knowing, skills, and problem-solving methods and tools. They feel this will lead to a Native state of well-being with a positive identity and cultural pride leading to self-reliance, self-determination, and spiritual strength.

Acculturation and Assimilation

The Yupiat people did not readily accept education in the coastal, Yukon and Kuskokwim delta villages. The resistance was lead by shamans, village leaders, and elders. It was not the superior knowledge, weapons, or methods of non-Natives that defeated the leaders, but the diseases that members of the dominant society brought with them. The Yupiat people had no resistance to these new illnesses. The shamans, who treated ailments using spiritual methods, stood by helplessly while many of their people succumbed to these foreign diseases. Whole villages were wiped out, orphaning many children and young adults. It was during this time that the missionaries were able to establish their churches and orphanages, building schools to teach a different language and way of life. The cognitive and cultural imperialism of the dominant society forced the Yupiat to conform to this system. Under the teachings of the missionary-teachers, the youngsters were faced with corporal punishment for using their mother tongue and practicing their strange ways. Being told their language and ways were inferior mentally scarred many students. To this day, the Yupiat people suffer many psycho-social problems.

The goal of traditional Yupiat education was to teach the youth to live in harmony in the human world, as well as the natural and spiritual worlds. It was their belief that everything in the universe (plants, animals, rivers, winds, and so forth) had a spirit, which mandated respect. Everything possessing a spirit meant that everything had a consciousness or awareness, and therefore must be accorded human respect. The Yupiat did not practice pantheism; they merely treated everything with respect and honor. Such a way of life led the Yupiat to possess only that which was absolutely necessary and taught them to enjoy to the utmost the little they had. The Yupiat people have been bombarded by Western society's institutions for a little over 100 years. These strange outside values and ways have wreaked havoc with their world view. Most Yupiat are aware of who they are and where they came from, but the continuing barrage of foreign values and ideas causes confusion. The clash of Western and Yupiat values and traditions has caused many Yupiat people to suffer from a depression that is spiritual in nature. There is a need for them to regain harmony with Nature. This is what fosters their identity.


In the past, Yupiat clothing was made from the pelts of such animals as Alaskan ground squirrels, muskrat, mink, land otter, wolf, beaver, red fox, caribou, and moose, in addition to fish and waterfowl skins. Yupiat women made parkas, pants, boots, and gloves from these skins. For special occasions, the women wore squirrel-skin parkas with many designs and tassels on them. A well-made parka shows that the owner has fine skills; if a woman with a beautiful parka is of marrying age, parents of young men assess her as a possible wife for the son.

The Yupiat people observe the Western holidays, although they practice Yupiat singing and dancing. In this way they have begun to Yupiakize many of the Western holidays. Of the several original ceremonies, it is only the Messenger Feast that is still observed. The celebration, which takes place in the spring, experienced a resurgence around 1990. None of the other traditional ceremonies are practiced anymore. The reason may be that few elders remain remember the songs and dances. All traditional ceremonies required singing songs in a prescribed order, and making changes was taboo. Often these require very elaborate paraphernalia such as masks, drums, clay lamps, food, and designated leaders with special costumes. Much time was spent in preparation for the performances. The rehearsals for traditional ceremonies were not to be observed by the villagers.

The Yupiat people have returned to practicing their songs and dances, which are a form of prayer. Since Yupiat culture is based on oral traditions, songs have been passed down from generation to generation for centuries. Five dominant ceremonies and several minor ceremonies are observed throughout the year. The dominant ceremonies are: Nakaciuq (Bladder Festival), Elriq (Festival of the Dead), Kevgiq (invitation ceremony), Petugtaq (request certain items), and Keleq (invitation). These were ceremonies of thanksgiving to the Ellam Yua (Spirit of the Universe) and Mother Earth for the many gifts. Ceremonies focus on three things: centering or balancing within oneself and with the world; reciprocation to the plants and animals that must be killed in order to live; and expression of joy and humor. All Yupiat rituals and ceremonies incorporate meditation on the integration of the human, natural, and spiritual worlds.


The Yupiat region is rich with waterfowl, fish, and sea and land mammals. Salmon are a staple source of food and are caught in setnets, or drifting downriver. The nets are let out of a boat perpendicular to the river shoreline and allowed to drift downriver for approximately one-half mile. When the net is pulled in, fishers remove their catch. The fish are taken to the fish camp, where they are unloaded into holding boxes. The fish are beheaded and split by the women. The split fish are hung to dry. When the surface of the flesh begins to harden, they are moved to the smoke house where they are smoked and preserved for winter use. Some of the fish are salted, frozen, or buried underground for later use. Today about half the food is supplied by subsistence activities; the other half is purchased from the commercial stores.

The tundra provides berries for making jams, jellies, and a Yupiat delicacy commonly called Eskimo ice cream—a concoction of vegetable shortening, berries, and sugar. Today there are many variations of this dessert. Yupiat women have incorporated many new ingredients, such as raisins, strawberries, dried peaches, apples, and mashed potatoes to create innovative and tasty mixtures.


Traditionally the Yupiat people were a healthy people in spite of occasional famines and diseases. Presently, the two biggest problems with the growing population are water and sewage. Water from the rivers and lakes is no longer potable as a result of pollution. Wells must be drilled and sewage lagoons built, but there are inherent problems as well. The land on which this must take place is marshy and presents difficulties for control. Federal and state agencies are constantly asked to grant more funding for these activities. However, the matter becomes more problematic each year. The solutions require expensive undertakings.

Suicide among young Yupiat men is high. This is generally attributed to problems Native youth have with identity and finding a meaningful place in society. The Bethel and Dillingham region has a wide range of chronic health problems, including otitis media, cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, tooth and gum disease, obesity, and sexually transmitted diseases. The Yupiat people are only now beginning to have a role in stemming these maladies.


The language of the Dillingham and Bethel regions is Yupiat. There are four dialects: Yupiat of the delta region; Cupiaq of the coastal; Suqpiaq of the Alaska Peninsula; and Siberian Yupiat of St. Lawrence Island. These dialects are becoming grammatically impoverished. There has been much debate among the Yupiat over whether their language should be taught at home or in the schools. As a result, English is becoming the dominant language. Some villages still prefer to speak primarily Yupiat and regard English as the second language. Even these villages, however, are losing pieces of language. The younger generation communicates mainly in English. For the first time in the history of the Yupiat people a generation gap is steadily widening. The Yupiat people realize their world view is imbedded in the language; that its webbing is ineluctably intertwined in the nuances, inflections, and subtleties of the words. Therefore many Yupiat people wish the language be revived, retaught, and maintained by parents, village members, and the schools.

Family and Community Dynamics

According to Yupiat tradition, the father is the head of the family but the mother's role as preparer of food is equally important. She tends to the plants and animals, giving proper care and observing taboos. In Yupiat culture, plant and animal foods have consciousness and are aware of how the woman takes care of them. If pleased with the care, they give of themselves to the hunter again after reincarnation. Some of these beliefs are still observed by traditional families.

Many traditions are being lost, however, due to the pressure to make money and to satisfy advertisement-induced "needs." As with the dominant society, divorce and one-parent families are on the rise among Yupiat people. The number of single teenage mothers has increased. The nuclear family, which was once very important to Yupiat people, today is crumbling. Few Yupiat youth really know who the members of their extended family are. This knowledge was important for survival in the past.

Traditionally there was no dating among the Yupiat people. Marriages were arranged by parents. Today many Yupiat people date and fall in love. Only very traditional families arrange marriages. With new modes of transportation, such as, three- and four-wheelers, snow machines, airplanes, and boats with powerful outboard motors, Yupiat people can visit loved ones in distant villages.

In times past, men and women had very distinct roles in the village. The men were providers, the women were caregivers. Children were treasured by the parents, as they were insurance that the elders would be taken care of in later years. Father, grandfather, and males of the extended family and community educated the boys. Mothers, grandmothers, and women of the extended family and community taught the girls. It was said that the community raised the children.


Today education of the young is haphazard. Many young people do not want to learn and do not see the value of traditional ways. The schools provide inferior schooling for Native youth. They graduate without mastering either the Yupiat language or English. They are usually very weak in mathematics and the sciences. Many do not pursue higher education, which accounts for the growing number of high school graduates in the villages who are unable to acclimate to the subsistence way of life and the outside world. The majority of the few who enter the universities end up as drop-outs. Only about 2.3 percent have made it through institutions of higher learning. Nevertheless, they are taxing the village need for housing, subsistence products, recreational facilities, health services, general assistance, and so forth.

All village schools are publicly funded by the state of Alaska. Ancillary funds are received from the federal government, required by such laws as the Indian Education, Johnson-O'Malley, Title VII Bilingual, and the Migratory Education acts. Today, there is a growing number of Yupiat students dropping out of elementary and high schools because they do not see any value in the knowledge and skills taught there. The cognitive and cultural imperialism of the dominant society is alive and well. Those few that do make it through the universities do not return to their villages for their new knowledge and skills cannot fit into the community nor does a position exist. It might be said that there is a brain drain from the delta. Many students who enroll in the University of Alaska system will register in education programs. When successfully completed they have the opportunity to return to their home villages to teach. Most graduate students will continue in education, working for a master's degree in administration (for a principal's certificate) or in cross-cultural education. A few will enroll in anthropology. There are very few Native students who enroll in mathematics and the sciences.

The Yupiat elders, community members, parents, teachers' aides, teachers, and university professors have been pioneers in exploring mathematics and the sciences in Yupiat thought. This effort attempts to use the Yupiat skills and ways of thinking as the basis for mathematics and sciences curricula. Yupiat people have begun to realize they have knowledge which is not understood by the dominant society. Schooling has been based on the outside world with a concomitant feeling that what the Yupiat know is of little importance. Today the Yupiat are challenging this train of thought and have taken a keen interest in changing it. They are promoting education that focuses on their language, knowledge, and skills from elementary through high school. Making their community their laboratory will edify and strengthen the identity of the Yupiat youth. This will be their most important contribution to education, arts, mathematics, sciences, industry, and government.


The Yupiat people believe in a Ellam Yua ("thlam yu-a"), a Spirit of the Universe. The most important god, however, is the Raven, the creator of earth and human beings. The Raven-god is given powers of the spirits, yet has the weaknesses of human beings. It has provided many wonderful things for the Yupiat such as the sun, moon, and stars for light, and life for all the earth's inhabitants. But the Raven possesses human frailties such as greed, making mistakes, hurting others and itself. It is the indomitable trickster and often has other animals and humans play tricks. The Raven is a survivor. It, as a pronoun designating the Raven, is fitting because it changes in form to a human, a plant, and is often a messenger in its existing form.

The Yupiat people believe that everything of the earth possesses a spirit. Having a spirit means that all things possess consciousness or awareness; having awareness means that they are mindful of who they give themselves to and how they are treated. A hunter who cares for and heeds taboos, and whose wife does the same, will be a successful provider. The animals will give of themselves to the hunter knowing that they will be well taken care of. Since the Yupiat people believe that everything in nature has a spirit, some anthropologists say that they are pantheistic. This is not the case. Because animals and other things possess spirits means they are honored and respected, but not necessarily worshipped. The purpose of this spirituality is to live in harmony with everything of the human, natural, and spiritual worlds. To live in harmony is to be balanced in living and doing things that feel right in the heart.

Medicine people were specialists among the Yupiat people. Some specialized in bone healing, others used herbs for curing diseases, still others called upon spirits of animals, such as the bear and eagle, or spiritual beings for aid. Yupiat people believed that animal spirits and spirit helpers lived on the moon. Powerful medicine people would experience out-of-body travel to the moon, the sea, the spiritual world, other villages, animal kingdoms, and other far-off places. They were citizens of two worlds—the earth and places where the spirits dwelled. They travelled readily and learned much from their experiences, which they conveyed to their village.

The Yupiat people believed human beings were inherently good, which is quite different from most modern day religions. If a person did something wrong, the community would seek out some activity to help the wrongdoer correct his or her behavior, to become rehabilitated, and again become a positive member of the community. This differs from the punishment that is dispensed by the modern-day justice system.

Since the Yupiat people had to kill living things in order to survive, they developed rituals and ceremonies to regain a sense of peace with the world and its creatures. This was their method of reciprocation to Mother Earth. The Yupiat people could never become vegetarians because they needed the animal protein and fat to live in a harsh environment.

Land is important to the Yupiat people, for human beings and spirits occupy the same space. The land is described in action words, therefore it is a process, on-going and dynamic. By careful and patient observation the Yupiat people learned how they are to interact with other people, nature, and the spirits. Nature became their metaphysic. Today, the Yupiat people are not living as close to nature and, as a result, suffer from a spiritual depression.

Employment and Economic Traditions

Well over 50 percent of villagers qualify for government assistance. Yupiat unemployment is as high as 80 percent in some villages. Jobs are scarce and the Alaska Native Commission claims that the few subsidized public service positions are generally occupied by transient or permanently settled non-Natives. The regional and village corporations, created by the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, are barely surviving, unable to develop business ventures from natural resources that are accessible to transportation and do not require a large initial capital investment. The main industries in the Bethel and Dillingham regions are seasonal fisheries and government-funded jobs. These regions are not rich in natural resources. Some small pockets of gold, platinum, and cinnabar exist. Profiting from such resources, however, conflicts with the Native concept of living in harmony with nature. Mining activities require that the surface of the environment be altered and make it unproductive for animal habitats, berries, and edible plants. Thus corporate leaders in the Yupiat community are reluctant to invest in ventures that will alter the environment.

Since the women's role requires them to stay in the village, some have assumed leadership roles as village corporations' presidents. The men's role requires them to leave the village for subsistence hunting and trapping. Traditionally a man and woman have always been a team. It makes sense that women assume some of the modern roles, which a growing number are doing. Many women have become bilingual teachers and counseling aides in the schools. Others are community health aides and practitioners. These women generally receive a rudimentary introduction to health practices, including diagnosis, medication, and emergency care from the Kuskokwim Community College in Bethel. As they advance, they receive more training. If they encounter a situation about which they know little, they call a physician in the Public Health Service Hospital in Bethel. Critical situations require the patient be transported to the hospital with one of the many local air services. The female aides with their nurturing ways and knowledge of traditional healing practices are well suited to this service. If modern treatment and pharmaceuticals do not work, the Yupiat practitioners often try Yupiat treatments. Often, the two treatments will work in concert to heal the patient. The health practitioners are the bridge between the patient and the medical doctor.

Politics and Government

The Yupiat people were governed by egalitarianism whereby each member of the village had the same rights and responsibilities. They had a traditional council composed of elders who held meetings to address problems and issues affecting the village. They chose a chief, a servant-leader who often was the best hunter-provider in the village. The chief and council would address a problem, striving for consensus to arrive at a solution. Sometimes there would be an issue that no one agreed upon. It would be tabled for the next meeting. If, at the succeeding meeting, there still was no agreement, the matter would be dropped. The chief was kept in power as long as he or she used common sense and did not become arrogant or try to make decisions on his or her own. The chief was strictly a servant of the people and was expected to uphold their will.

Several forms of governmental entities usually operate within the modern village, which is confusing to the local people as well as agents of other institutions. Villagers and agents wonder with which entity they are supposed to work. Each village has a traditional or Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) council, a municipal office funded by the state of Alaska, a health center funded by the federal government, and a village corporation. Each has a prescribed function within the village. The IRA or tribal council was established under the auspices of the federal government, the health center is under the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation funded by the federal Indian Health Service, and the village corporation established under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) has responsibilities for business ventures and village lands.

The Indian Self-Determination and Education Act has had the biggest impact on the Yupiat villages. This law allows the Yupiat villages to contract services operated by the federal government, including schools, social services, general assistance, child welfare, health services, and game management. Many of these services have been taken over by regional corporations or by organized clusters of villages. Funding for these activities is always a problem. The sources are consistently looking for ways to cut programs.

The Yupiat region belongs to the Alaskan Federation of Natives, Inc. (AFN), which is a statewide organization representing all Native regions. This organization functions year-round with one annual meeting of representatives from every region. They try to address all issues affecting the Alaskan Native people. They present many resolutions to various government agencies and institutions whose activities affect the Native people. The Yupiat people are always well represented. Being from a region where there are many elderly people who do not speak English, they have purchased communications technology that translates English to Yupiat for the duration of the meeting. They are the only native group to use translators. This shows the importance given to the AFN annual meeting by the Yupiat people.

The people of the Bethel and Dillingham regions vote heavily democratic. The majority of the Alaskan Native people belong to the Democratic Party.


Since World War II, many Yupiat men have joined the armed forces. Today, many young men are members of the Army National Guard. Most villages have a guard unit. The headquarters of the 297th Infantry Battalion is in Bethel. It provides opportunities for income as well as training. Many Yupiat young men have become officers.



KYUK-AM (640) and KYUK-TV (Channel 4).

Has many tapes of Yupiat songs, myths, legends and stories, and videotapes of the Yupiat people.

Contact: Joe Seibert, General Manager

Address: 640 Radio Street, Pouch 468, Bethel, Alaska 99559.

Telephone: (800) 478-3640; or (907) 543-3131.

Fax: (907)543-3130.

E-mail: joe_seibert@ddc-alaska.org.

Museums and Research Centers

Alaska State Museum.

Address: 395 Whittier Street, Juneau, Alaska 99801-1718.

Telephone: (907) 465-2901.

Fax: (907) 465-2976.

Anchorage Museum of History and Art.

Address: 121 West Seventh Avenue, Anchorage, Alaska 99501.

Telephone: (907) 343-4326.

Institute of Alaska Native Arts, Inc.

Address: Box 70769, Fairbanks, Alaska 99707.

Telephone: (907) 456-7406.

Fax: (907) 451-7268.

Sheldon Jackson Museum.

Address: 801 Lincoln Drive, Stika, Alaska 99835.

Telephone: (907) 747-5222.

Fax: (907) 747-5212.

UAF Museum.

Address: 907 Yukon Drive, P.O. Box 756960, Fairbanks, Alaska 99775-6960.

Telephone: (907) 474-7505.

Fax: (907) 474-5469.

Yugtarvik Museum.

Address: Bethel, Alaska 99559.

Telephone: (907) 543-3521.

Fax: (907) 543-3596.

Sources for Additional Study

Alexie, O., and H. Morris. The Elders' Conference 1984. Bethel, Alaska: Orutsararmiut Native Council, 1985.

Barnhardt, R. "Administrative Influences in Alaskan Native Education," in Cross-Cultural Issues in Alaskan Education, edited by R. Barnhardt. Fairbanks: Center for Northern Educational Research, 1977; pp. 57-63.

Bielawski, E. Cross-Cultural Epistemology: Cultural Readaptation through the Pursuit of Knowledge (paper presented at the Seventh Inuit Studies Conference). Fairbanks: University of Alaska Fairbanks, 1990.

Darnell, F. "Education among the Native Peoples of Alaska," Polar Record, 19, No. 122, 1979; pp. 431-446.

Fienup-Riordan, A. Eskimo Essays Yup'ik Lives and How We See Them. New Brunswick and London: Rutgers University Press, 1990.

——. The Real People and the Children of Thunder: The Yup'ik Eskimo Encounter with Moravian Missionaries John and Edith Kilbuck. Norman and London: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991.

Henkelman, J. W., and K. H. Vitt. Harmonious to Dwell. Bethel: Tundra Press, 1985.

Kawagley, O. "Yup'ik Ways of Knowing," Canadian Journal of Native Education, 17, No. 2, 1990; pp. 5-17.

Napoleon, H. Yuuyaraq: the Way of the Human Being. Fairbanks: Center for Cross-Cultural Studies, University of Alaska Fairbanks, 1990.

Oswalt, W. H. Bashful No Longer. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990.

——. Mission of Change in Alaska: Eskimos and Moravians on the Kuskokwim. San Marino, California: Huntington Library, 1963.

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