Inupiag & Yup’ik Hunting & Culture
~ Article and research by Thomas Baurley, Technogypsie Research, August 7, 2017.
The indigenous First Nation’s people in the area known as Modern day Alaska are divided into eleven distinct cultures, with over 11 different language groups and 22 different dialects. The Iñupiat (or Inupiaq) is one of the larger groupings of indigenous culture in the region, with territories expanding from Norton Sound/Bering Sea to the US/Canadian border. There are seven villages in the North Slope Borough, eleven villages in the Northwest Arctic Borough, and 16 villages in the Bering Straights Regional corporation today.
They originated in the Thule Culture dating to approximately 1000 B.C.E. (Before Common Era) and believed to have migrated from the Islands to the mainland by the Bering Sea what is now called Alaska. These original peoples share common language groupings with the Inuit. It is believed after exposure to Euro-American whaling explorers the Inuiaq contracted an influenza epidemic and simultaneously went through a period of starvation forcing them to migrate to the mainland between 1890 and 1910. Some moved on to the mountains by the 1930s. Many Nunamiut such as the Killikmiut moved their peoples to Anaktuvuk Pass in north-central Alaska today. Others remained nomadic until the 1950s.
Animism was common as well as spirit worship based around reincarnation and recycling of spirit forms from one life to the next for all living creatures. Those who pass will have their names assigned to recent newborns. It was important to respect the kill of the hunt, releasing the animals spirit so it would return for future hunts. All life was highly respected because of this belief.
The Inupiaq and Yupik dress was pretty similar to neighboring peoples, consisting of large outer/inner pullover tops called parkas (kuspuks/qiipaghaq); inner and outer pants, socks and kamiks (boots). Tops and pants were commonly made from caribou skin with fur facing inward on the inner garments, outwards on the outer garments. Female pullovers often had a larger hood to help carry children (except St. Lawrence Island as they did not carry kids in the parkas). Animal skin gloves with fur turned inside with a leather strip were also common. They made waterproofed clothing out of sea-mammal intestines.
The Native populations created a variety of housing types but most involved an underground tunnel entrance below the living level to trap cold air, consisted of a semi-subterranean structure utilizing the ground as insulation, and was heated/lit by a seal-oil lamp made from pottery or soapstone. These also were used for cooking. Most houses were made of sod blocks laid over walrus/whale bone or driftwood frames in a dome or rectangular shape. Circular shaped homes were common on St. Lawrence Island as the rectangular shape (12-15′ x 8-10′) was common everywhere else. Most of these houses were used in winter months and the families would move to nomadic camps during summer months. A community house called gargis was where the tribe gathered, did community projects or work.
Hunting and Subsistence:
The peoples depended on seasonal gatherings and hunting expeditions varying by location. Commonly hunted were whales, seals, walruses, pink / chum salmon, cod, inconnu, whitefish, herring, halibut, crab, birds, eggs, caribou and the gathering of plants.
Families in the tribe would divide labor and chores by gender and conducted barter with one another in a very respectful and peaceful manner. They released their tensions in competitive games that would focus on strength and stamina of the contestants, and would also have song duels with one another exchanging stories, myths, and culture.
The Inupiaq and Yupik had their two common tool kits consisting of various tools made of stone, wood, and bone that were used for hunting, tanning, carving, butchering, drilling, hiding, inscribing, sharpening, and flaking. They also used the bow drill for starting fires and drilling holes in wood /bone /ivory. The processing tool kit included the above while the hunting tools including lances, toggle-headed harpoons, lines, and marine mammal bladder floats (seal bladder floats for the bowhead whale hunts and seal skin floats for other whale hunts which when filled with water attract and lead the whales closer to shore). Other tools used included scratching boards to attract seals to breathing holes, bows, arrows, spears, spear throwers, bolas (hunting birds), snares, nets, wooden traps, and hooks. The tools used were varied, and consist of various items such as Harpoons and Toggles. Sometimes they made figurines of beings or creatures they wanted to successfully hunt, like Sculpin figurines or a representative Totem is involved. They were also known to create Seagrass Weaving & Basketry and Baleen Crafts.
The Inupiaq and Yupik often had large open skin boats called Umiaq/Angyaq for their hunts and to get around from village to village. These boats were roughly 15-25 feet long (some upwards of 50′) and are common on walrus or whale hunts, trade routes, and long distance travel holding up to 15 passengers. Single riders would use a closed skin boat kayak. Basket sleds were common for travel over the land and flat sled to haul the boats across the ice. Snowshoes were common for foot travel.
The North American Northwest and Columbia Plateau Tribes as well as Pacific Coast Tribes have very intriguing “hunting tools and weapons” in their culture and archaeological record. The Artwork of the Native American Pacific Northwest Cultures is phenomenal, embedded with myths, legends, and spirituality that empowers their people.
- Alaska Native Heritage Center n.d. “INUPIAQ & ST. LAWRENCE ISLAND YUPIK CULTURES OF ALASKA” website referenced 8/7/17.