Yup’ik Museum, Bethel, Alaska

I’m a sucker for museums large and small, and in Bethel, we found a good one–the Yupiit Piciryarait Cultural Center, which celebrates the history and traditions of the Yup’ik, an Alaskan Native people who have occupied the Bethel region for centuries.

The Yup’iks are one of several cultures that, until recently, were grouped under the term Eskimo, which was used to designate all arctic peoples around the world.  Today, it applies only to Alaskans, while Inuit is most commonly used for those who live in Canada and Greenland.

Alaska’s Eskimos are further divided into three groups:

  • Inupiat: applies to the north and northwest of Alaska
  • Yup’ik: includes those in the Alaskan southwest (including the Bethel region)
  • Siberian Yupik: encompasses those living on St. Lawrence Island near the Bering Strait.  There is also a small group of Siberian Yupik living in far east Russia.

Eskimos occupy the entire Alaskan coastline except that of the Southeast region and the Aleutian Islands, and they have a large, vibrant community.  Native traditions are celebrated and passed down from one generation to the next through immersion schools, festivals, and other events.

The Yupiit Piciryarait Cultural Center contains around 5000 artifacts and pieces of art from Yup’ik society.  Here are a just a few of the items we saw:

Masks

Dance has long been an important part of Yup’ik ceremonies, and masks are integral to the performances.  They’re used for storytelling, oral history, and prayer.  Each mask is created from wood and painted with colors extracted from coastal materials such as clay.

Ceremonial masks were meant to be discarded after use, but traders and others from the Outside often collected them, and artifacts can be found in museums as renowned as the Smithsonian and as far away as Berlin.  Most of the masks in the Yupiit Piciryarait Cultural Center, however, were made by a 20th-century Yup’ik artist named Nicholas Charles, who worked with others to preserve a tradition that was in danger of dying.  In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Protestant missionaries brought Christianity to the Bethel region while also squelching Native rituals, and in many places, the Yup’ik dances and traditions almost disappeared.

Charles, who was born in 1910 on an island near Bethel, learned the traditions of hunting, fishing, and carving from his father and others.  As an adult, he and his wife Elena were instrumental in revitalizing the Yup’ik mask-making tradition.

The masks captivated Dale and I:

 

 

 

 

 

 

Other insights into Yup’ik culture

From a series of photos taken in the 1920s, by E. S. Curtis

The museum highlights other aspects of Yup’ik life, including the subsistence lifestyle of hunting, fishing, and gathering that has long sustained Alaskan Natives, and upon which many still rely today.

Photo of a seal hunter
Fish trap (center) used for catching black fish in the Kuskokwim River.  The curved tools toward the bottom of the picture are uluaq, knives that have been used by Eskimos for thousands of years to skin and clean fish.

In the Yup’ik villages, wood was used for everything—from making kayaks, sleds, and homes to fueling fires—and yet all of it had to be collected from the sea shore.  Very few trees grow on the tundra, so villagers relied upon driftwood to meet their numerous needs for wood.

Traditionally, families would spend spring, summer, and fall hunting and fishing and then gather together in the village for the winter.  It was during the winter months that the elders taught their children vital life skills.  Men and women had different skill sets, with the men being responsible for hunting, toolmaking, and woodworking while the women managed cooking, weaving, and skin sewing.  Children started learning these skills at a young age, the boys training with the men and the girls, with the women.  The children did, however, cross-train so to speak; for several weeks each winter, the boys were required to study under the women, and vice versa.

 

Seal skin boots and handmade tools
Jacket made out of fish skin
Parka made from various types of fur, next to seal-skin boots
Baskets
A basket used for fishing
Toys
I’m not sure what this is, but it’s lovely and I want one

About the cultural center

In addition to the museum, the cultural center contains a library and art guild,  but our time was limited so we focused on the museum.  When I approached the curator, Eva, to ask about the price for admission, she told me that admittance was free and then promptly took Dale and I on a guided tour.

The museum consists of two small galleries displaying permanent collections and a third gallery used for temporary exhibits, and as Eva took us through the museum, she demonstrated obvious pride in the collection that she had curated.  It gave us a wonderful overview of Yup’ik culture.

Because there is only one curator, the museum has limited hours (call in advance to check the times), but it’s worth a visit.  The museum is small and easy to explore in an hour or so, but allow time to visit the art guild and gift shop, which display Alaska Native artwork and goods.  Dance performances and other cultural events are also held at the center, so check the calendar of events for more information.