©Edward J. Vajda
Introduction. The Eskimo are actually a vast group of related tribes who live in an area stretching from the Siberian Arctic across Canada to Greenland. Each small group uses its own self designation (the word Eskimo, popularly used in English to refer to the entire complex of these tribes, derives from Algonquin, the language of the Indians of Eastern Canada, and has the meaning "eaters of raw flesh"). Eskimo groups in Siberia call themselves Yupigyt, a term which means "authentic people" (from yuk, person) It has become more customary for ethnographers to refer to them as Siberian Yupik (instead of "Siberian Eskimo"). In the past they have also been known as Asiatic Eskimos. The Eskimos of Alaska's St. Lawrence Island belong to the same cultural group as Siberian Yupik.
Archeological and linguistic evidence suggests that the direct ancestors of the Eskimo tribes may have migrated over the Bering Strait (or over the Bering land bridge existing at that time) as early as 10,000 years ago. From their base in what is now Western Alaska, they diverged into what became two separate ethnic groups: the Eskimos proper and the Aleut, who populated the chain of islands stretching from Alaska almost to Kamchatka. This division apparently took place before the tribes developed their techniques of sea hunting. The terms for bow and arrow in both language groups derive from a common source, but words relating to maritime hunting are entirely different in Eskimo and Aleut and thus must have developed separately, and after the move into the sea zone.
The ancestors of the Yupik probably lived in a broader area of Siberia's Bering and Arctic Sea coasts before being replaced by Chukchi and Korak tribes moving north. The Coastal Chukchi (Anqallyt) are probably in large part "Chukchi-ized" Yupik.
Today the area inhabited by the Yupik has further dwindled to three small areas each named for a characteristic village, Naukan, Chaplino (Central Siberian Yupik) and Sireniki. Each village speaks a sharply divergent dialect. There are about 1,700 Yupik in Russia; only about 800 still speak a Yupik dialect with any fluency (most speak Central Siberian Yupik, the same dialect also spoken by a few hundred people on Alaska's St. Lawrence Island. Most Siberian Yupik are also fluent in Chukchi and Russian, and these languages seem destined eventually to replace what remains of the diverse Yupik dialects in Siberia.
Traditional lifeways. The Yupik, like their cousins on the other side of the Bering Strait, are famous for their sea hunting culture. The products of sea hunting and fishing satisfied all economic needs of the Yupik. Meat and fat, especially from whales, seal and walrus, were used for human sustenance and as food for the dogs employed as pack animals. The Yupik owned no reindeer.
Walrus were hunted in a flatbottomed, open leather boat (angyapik) as well as in closed, leather canoes (kayaks) with the help of a harpoon tied to a sealskin float. A special whalebone clapper was used to simulate the sound of a killer whale, which drove the walrus and seal onto land where other hunters were waiting with spears and clubs. Whale hunting occurred less frequently, as one whale supplied an entire village with oil and meat for an entire year.
The principal Yupik food was the meat of sea mammals. Walrus and seal meat was dried in strips; seal meat was frozen; walrus and whale meat were also stored semi-cold so that they fermented and could then be boiled up as food. A great delicacy was the elastic-like whale skin with a lining of pink blubber still clinging to it; this was eaten raw. Sometimes reindeer meat was bartered from the inland Chukchi. Certain types of seaweed were also eaten.
In winter the Yupik lived in walrus hide and plank tents similar to the Chukchi yaranga, though in the past they lived in semi-subterranean dugouts of ice and snow called nynglyu (the famous "igloo"). Summer dwellings were rectangular, a skeleton of wood covered with walrus skins; the roof sloped to the rear wall. Rocks, large bones or piles of earth were often piled around the edges of the dwelling.
The Yupik were composed of patriarchal exogamic clans, or lineages. Boat crews tended to be men from the same lineage; one's marriage partner needed to be from a different lineage. Each clan had a unique myth of its origin, and clan members were buried together in the same place. Products of foraging and the hunt were shared equally in the group. In the past each clan had a large communal dwelling which, according to legend, could house 200 to 400 people. The men's communal house, or kashim, so widespread among American Eskimos, was lacking in Siberia.
The Yupik were animists whose beliefs showed much similarity with those of the Chukchi. The killer whale, raven and wolf were considered sacred and could not be killed. The Yupik, like the Chukchi and Korak, believed that Raven had created the world. The swallow (bird) was particularly revered because it was thought to protect hunters at sea. Killer whales were also revered as protectors of hunters; it was also thought that the killer whale became a wolf in winter and devoured the reindeer unless some of the reindeer submitted to the hunters. Ritual meals were concluded by throwing a piece of meat into the sea to bless and thank the killer whales who had made the catch possible. More than among American Eskimo groups, Siberian Yupik shamanism was oriented toward placating the sea animals the clans depended on for sustenance. Special ceremonies were held before the departure of hunting boats.
Each village had a shaman, usually a man, who wore characteristic pendants, tassels and fringes but otherwise had no special clothing. The shaman served as healer as well as someone who contacted spirit helpers to ward off evil influences. Belief in witches was prevalent, and a person suspected of casting an evil spell might sometimes be killed by the supposed intended victim.
As among the Chukchi, tattooing of the face was common. Lines tattooed on a woman's chin were intended to fend off infertility. Women did the tattooing and were entrusted with important roles in religious rites as well as in the ritual preparation of food. Women were also charged with keeping the group's sacred amulets.
Eskimo clothing showed much in common with the Chukchi. Sealskin was widely used for footwear; mittens were also made of sealskin. Waterproof parkas were fashioned from walrus intestine.
As among the Chukchi, interclan warfare was common, and a sort of armor was made from double strips of toughened sealskin or dried whale baleen encased in sealskin. Shin guards were made of mammoth tusks. Wooden shields covered with dried animal skin were sometimes worn around the head and shoulders for defence. Warfare with the Chukchi was endemic, and there is evidence that over the past several centuries the Chukchi took over more and more territory from the Yupik, leaving them with only a tiny fringe of land along the Bering seacoast.
Like the Chukchi, the Yupik are famous for their bone carving, an art that became even more refined after the introduction of European metal engraving tools.
©Edward J. Vajda
Introduction. Most Aleuts live in the Alaskan Aleutian Island chain, but a small group live on Russia's Commander Islands (Bering Island and Copper Island) off the eastern coast of Kamchatka. (These islands have been unpopulated until the Russians imported Aleuts there in the 19th century.) The term Aleut was brought by the Russians, probably by extending the Kamchatka village name of Alyut eastward (the Koraks who lived there, called Alyutor, were marine hunters like the Aleuts). The Aleuts called themselves Unangan. Aleuts are thought to be distant cousins of the Eskimo, and most linguists recognize an Eskimo-Aleut language family, whose proto-form is thought to have been spoken in northeastern Siberia over 10,000 years ago.
Today there are only about 700 Aleut on the Russian controlled Commander (Komandor) Islands, and only about 100 preserve any fluency in the Aleut language. The Bering and Copper Island Aleuts are the descendants of a population moved there en masse by the Russians in the 19th century from more easterly islands in the Aleutian chain. The demographic situation on American territory is considerably different, with a few thousand Aleuts spread throughout the vast Aleutian Island chain; Aleut language maintenance on Alaskan territory is greater than in Russia.
Traditional lifeways. Like their Eskimo cousins, the Aleuts were primarily sea hunters, taking sea beaver, fur seal, sea lion, common seal, walrus and whales. Sea hunting was a collective endeavor. Spear throwers and harpoons with stone or bone tips were the common hunting implements. A type of poison made from the monkshood plant might be applied to the tips. Transportation was by skin boats (the closed kayak as well as a flatbottomed open type which resembled the Eskimo umiak). The turbulent waters around the islands, together with the almost permanent fog produced by the mixture of Arctic and southern waters, made navigation and sea hunting a treacherous affair. Using their detailed knowledge of the currents, the Aleuts were expert navigators even in dense fog. Astronomical knowledge was meager, as it was of little use in the foggy conditions. On the Aleutian mountainous islands, Eskimo-style dog sleds were impractical and not used. It is doubtful that the pre-contact Aleuts kept dogs of any kind, although evidence of a small, terrier-like dog has been unearthed on some of the Aleutian islands.
The winter dwelling was a large semi-dugout with room for up to 40 related families. These dwellings, called barabara (pronounced ba-RAB-u-ra) had stall-like quarters for the individual nuclear families. Sod or peat was piled around the outside walls for insulation; the entrance was through a roof hole and down a notched log ladder. In summer, each family lived in its own hut.
House utensils included wooden buckets and implements as well as beautifully woven wicker baskets (from the fiber of dune grass). Larger volume containers were more likely to be made out of light, flexible and waterproof materials such as cured sealskins with the flipper and head holes tied shut, or from the bladders and intestines of large sea mammals. Walrus intestines were also used to fashion waterproof parkas (called kamleikas) and a type of gut shirt used during damp summer weather. In addition to sea animal products, the Aleut menu included a large number of native plants as well as kelp.
The Aleut originally lived in patrilineal clans, several to a village. The clan elder was a man, and his sons and nephews were privileged in the group. Men could have multiple wives, and wives could have multiple husbands. In this society, there was no strict patrilocal custom. Before the coming of the Russians, there was considerable interclan warfare over fishing and hunting grounds. The taking of slaves was common and mistreatment and torture of prisoners endemic. In general, warfare and violence were a common occurence throughout the Beringia area even before the coming of the Russians.
Aleut medical practices, in addition to the spiritual intervention of shamans, included bloodletting to release the "bad blood" thought to cause illness (some ethnographers believe that the idea of bloodletting was borrowed only in the 18th century via Russian contact). The Aleuts had considerable knowledge of human anatomy, since they mummified the corpses of important people by removing the viscera, washing the body in a cold stream, and stuffing it with oiled sphagnum moss for preservation. The bodies of children might also be treated in this way. Mummies were wrapped in sealskins, tightly tied, and laid to rest in caves or even in a special compartment of the family dwelling. During mourning, the bereaved abstained from food and sex, gave away large numbers of possessions and occasionally even resorted to suicide (although the Aleuts generally didn't have the casual attitude toward suicide found among the Chukchi and some Eskimo groups). A man or woman mourned the death of a spouse for 60 days unless the loss had occurred at sea, in which case the mourning lasted only 30 days.