Always Getting Ready: Yup’ik Eskimo Subsistence

June 25, 1999–August 22, 1999

Seal Hunters John Abraham and George Chimugak Study Ice Conditions at Toksook Bay, 1980.
Pulling a Beluga Whale Onto Shore, Black River Fishcamp, 1980.
Fancis Usugan Holding Dried Seal Gut, Toksook Bay, 1980.
Harvey Alexi, Mountain Village, 1983.
George Chimugak and James Charlie working through the ice at Toksook Bay, 1980.
Helen, Maggie, and Shirley Wasuli picking Salmonberries, Kotlik, 1982.
Toksook Bay dancers Martina John, Paul Agimuk, and Francis Usugan at the Saint Mary’s Dance Festival, 1982.

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The Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta is a flat, virtually treeless, tundra plain covered by a dense web of rivers, sloughs, and meltwater ponds. For its 2,000-year history, the Central Yup’ik Eskimo population has remained unusually high, sustained by the great amounts of salmon that enter Alaska’s two largest rivers. Over 20,000 people now live in 52 villages in a region the size of the state of Oregon. This is the highest population of Native Americans living continuously on their traditional lands, and their culture and language remain intact.

The gathering of subsistence foods is still an essential theme in this region, where average incomes are the lowest in the nation. Yup’iks, faced by the demands of a difficult climate where hunger is a constant threat, have always been pragmatic and technologically adaptable. Outboards, snowmobiles, and CB radios are used because food can more easily and safely be procured with these means. Villagers now harvest an average annual total of over 700 pounds of fish, land and sea mammals, waterfowl, greens, and berries per person. This enormous ongoing effort provides an adequate, productive living in a cash-poor economy.

Central Yup’ik Eskimos call themselves yup’iit which means “real people.” Yup’ik is the central language, although children learn English in school and from television, and many middle-aged people in the community are bilingual. Activities on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta revolve around the transportation and service center of Bethel. Although roadways are nonexistent over the soft tundra, the Yup’iks remain highly mobile, travelling by snowmobile and airplane in the winter. Boats are used when the extensive waterways are navigable.

When the cold weather turns and the river ice breaks up, villagers flee their settlements and set up fishcamps. One of the larger camps is Umkumiut, where the people of Nightmute and Toksook Bay go each summer to catch and dry their yearly supply of herring. Umkumiut is situated on the south side of Nelson Island, which lies halfway between the mouths of the Yukon and Kuskokwim Rivers. The island’s rocky shoreline, covered with seaweed, provides a rich spawning area for the herring.

Traditionally the Yup’iks were semi-nomadic, with family groups moving from one camp to another procuring various foods. During the winter months, families would congregate at home village sites. This was a time of great feasts and dances in celebration of being reunited as a community. During early contact with missionary groups, dancing was suppressed, but recently there has been a revival, with traditional village festivals, or potlatches.

Agnes Kelly Bostrom, who grew up in Mountain Village, puts it this way:

“All through the year we are getting ready—getting ready for fishing, for berry picking, for potlatches, getting ready for winter. We are always getting ready to go somewhere to get foods. And because we are so spiritual, you know, we are always getting ready for the next life.”

Being ever prepared, upterrlainarluta, is a common caution from Yup’ik elders to young people.

THE JAMES H. BARKER PHOTOGRAPHS

These photographs are all about upterrlainarluta—from seal hunting in the spring to winter dancing in celebration of life.

During the winter of 1970, James H. Barker spent three weeks in the hub community of Bethel. One day while travelling across the intimidating, barren tundra by himself on a borrowed snowmobile to a village eighteen miles away, he encountered another gentleman with his sled dogs. The man was quite happy and content driving his sled while protected from the harsh elements by a blanket made from some kind of animal pelt. Astonished that these people lived comfortably in a place he perceived to be cold and desolate, Barker wanted to know more about the Yup’ik people and their land.

Three years later, he was hired by the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation to do a photographic survey of several regional villages. The next year, Barker moved to the delta and was known not only as a photographer but also as a neighbor and friend. From 1973 to 1992, Barker photographed these remarkable people—participating in seal hunts, steam baths, and other everyday activities. It is the finding of common ground—family, work, play, a boy and his dog—which forms the connection to such a remote culture and initiates understanding.

“Photographing people and representing them truthfully is difficult work. Although I like to shoot quickly once I begin, I prefer to take time before I get my camera in hand to become a part of what is going on so that I can begin to think like a participant. I make these pictures not to show something new or foreign. Rather, I hope instead to strike a chord of familiarity.”

—James H. Barker

The exhibition contains eighty-six photographs taken by James H. Barker between 1973 and 1992. Their coverage depicts an annual subsistence cycle from spring seal hunting to winter dancing.