Asiatic Eskimos found in Russia are virtually the same as Eskimos that live in Alaska. They are also very similar to the Inuit in Canada and Greenland. There is an indigenous population of Asiatic Eskimos on the southeastern shore of the Chukchi Peninsula in the Russian Far East. They call themselves the Yupik. Depending on where they are found they are also known as Nevuga Yupiga, Singhinem Yupiga, Sivugam Yupiga.
There are 1,300 Asiatic Eskimos in the Chukotka (Chukchi) region. Their language is called Yupik. In the old days Asiatic Eskimos ranged over a much larger area than they do today: across the Bering Sea and the Arctic Ocean. In the 1920s, the lived in 13 exclusively Eskimo settlements. Today most of them lived in five settlements along with Chukchis and Russians. Another 1,500 or so Eskimos lived on the St. Lawrence Islands in Alaska.
History of the Asiatic Eskimos
People are believed to have arrived in Chukotka from Central Asia about 2,500 years ago. They lived in underground houses insulated from the cold and moved in seasonal hunting camps. It is believed that these early people may have been the source of both Eskimos and the Chukchi. Later the culture of these two people was tied closely together. They often fought, with the Chukchi starting most of the fights. Eskimos regard the Chukchi as hot tempered and emotional and themselves as good-humored.
Early Asiatic Eskimos were very adept at exploiting their environment. They hunted walrus, seal and whales and harvested animals in waters around the peninsula which contains 25 species of marine animal and 450 species of fish, mollusks and crustaceans. They also collected eggs from seabirds and gathered greens, berries and mushrooms from the tundra. Later the Siberian Eskimos became more efficient hunters when they were introduced to European style harpoons.
In the Soviet era, the Eskimos were provided with schools and health care facilities but their culture was denigrated. During “the campaign for the struggle against religion” nearly all of their shaman were arrested and shot.” In the 1940s and 50s many of the Eskimo’s settlements were closed and their residents were forced to live in larger collectivized communities in places where food sources were not as plentiful;. They became more dependent on the state and their self esteem declined.
The number of Eskimos dropped from 1,400 in 1989 to around 700 in 2002. Some tried to resurrect the old ways but there were no elders who knew how to hunt. Some who tried died in storms and accidents.
Asiatic Eskimos and Eskimos in Alaska
Finally with he help of their cousins in Alaska, who provided them with boats and lessons, the Asiatic Eskimos learned how to hunt walrus, seals and whales. Just when it seemed the old ways had returned the Arctic ice began disappearing and thinning making hunting more difficult and reducing the numbers of animals they hunted.
The Eskimos in Russia and the United States traditionally have had very close relations. In the old day Eskimos made the 50 mile trip from St. Lawrence Island in the United States to Chaplino in Russia by seal skin boat. Every year three or four boats would make the trip and trade furs, reindeer skin clothes, tobacco and winter supplies. During the Cold War interaction was forbidden. Contacts have gradually been renewed since 1988.
In 1988 Alaskan Eskimos made the journey in an Alaskan Airways flight from Nome, Alaska to Provideniya, Russia and brought pictures of relatives, Yupik dance tapes and reindeer meat. After 40 years of being denied the right of visitation, members of the Siberian-Yupik speaking Eskimos from Alaska were allowed to visit their kin Russia.
Before the contact was made Asiatic Eskimos suffered from a lot problems: high mortality and child mortality rates and large number of single parent families. After contact was made these problems were reduced.
Asiatic Eskimo Life
The shores of northeastern and southern Chukotka, where Asiatic Eskimos live, features medium-size mountains and lagoonlike lakes. The Eskimos and the Chukchi have traditionally made their settlements along small bays with the highest concentrations of animals and biological resources. In the old days they wintered primarily in semi-subterranean nenglus and walrus-skin tipis like those used by the Chukchis Tipis were also used in the summer. Now they live in modern-style wooden homes with stoves or steam for heat and electric lighting.
Eskimos have traditionally used two kinds of boat: a one-seated, leather-skinned kayak and a large walrus-skin craft with a capacity of four tons. Dog sled were used for transport on land. Eskimos have traditionally been very skilled at making clothes and footwear from animal skins and reindeer hides. Today they wear mostly Western clothes but in the past they wore seal skin pants and a sleeveless top made from the intestines of sea mammals. A hunter wearing these garments could survive a fall into the frigid ocean.
Asiatic Eskimo Religion
Asiatic Eskimos believed in a number of benign and evil spirits that inhabited objects in their world. The highest ones were the Masters of the Sky and the Mistress of the Sea. Evil spirts were regarded as the source of disease and misfortune. Amulets were worn to ward them off. They also believed in an Upper World, People’s World and Lower World.
Meals started with an offering of a piece of food to the spirits. The food has traditionally been a piece of meat that was thrown into a cooking pot. Now anything from candy to alcoholic beverages can be used. There are prohibitions on killing certain animals such as wolves, ravens and swallows. North Asians traditionally have not killed birds because they were regarded as messengers between heaven and earth. Some people have “secret” traditional names which they do not to pronounce aloud out of fear of attracting evil spirits.
Traditionally, every village had a shaman, who presided over religious ceremonies, getting rid of evil spirits and was involved in the healing of the sick. Shaman used spell song and held seances and went into trances. . They became shaman are spending a considerable time alone in the tundra or a sacred burial place. After many of them were killed in the 1930s, they performed their activities underground.
Disease was often believed to be the result of a theft of the soul sometime associated with breaking of a taboo. Treatments prescribed by a shaman generally included avoiding certain foods, wearing an amulet or practical treatments such as treating fevers or wounds
After someone died their body was placed on a raised area of a dwelling. A large feast was organized and the dead was carried to a cemetery and left there. An effort was made to make sure everything done properly so the dead would not return to the world as a spirit and cause trouble. In the old days the dead were placed under piles of stones (digging a grave in areas with permafrost is difficult). Now they have graves in the ground but not deep ones.
Asiatic Eskimo Men and Women
Eskimo men traditionally did the hunting and house building while women did the sewing, food preparation, house work and child rearing. The men often belonged to hunt groups, with each member in charge of a specific task. Marriages were traditionally arranged by parents and took place in stages beginning with an exchange of gifts and bride service by the groom to the bride’ family. The groom joined the bride’s father’s hunt group during the bride service. Sexual relations usually began while the groom lived with the bride’s parents. When the couple went to live with the groom’s parents the marriage was regarded as validated.
Divorces was easy to obtain. Hunting “brothers” sometimes had sex with each other’s wives. If one them died his wife went to the youngest brother.
In the 1930s, when Eskimoes were forced to move into collective communities their traditional marriage patterns were disrupted. By one count three fourths of all children were born out of wedlock to “temporary fathers.”
Asiatic Eskimo Hunting
Eskimos have traditionally hunted walruses, seals, and gray, humpback and white whales. Their food consisted mainly of food from these animals, supplemented by fishing and hunting or land animals and birds and collecting eggs and edible plants. In the winter they hunted small seals; in the spring and autumn they took to the sea in sea-going canoes to hunt whales and large seals and walrus. In the summer they collected eggs and plants. The well-being of the group was often dependent on the success of the spring and autumn hunts.
The hunting of whales and walruses has traditionally been done with a “swing harpoon,” with blade that was turned on one side when entering the animal and swung out after it entered the body and was almost impossible to dislodge. Inflated skins of harp seals attached to the harpoon acted as floats. After the animal was sufficiently weakened it was finished off with spears. Sometimes a hunt of this kind took several days. The use of firearms made the process quicker. Hunting of this kind was frowned upon in the Cold War era out of fear that Eskimos might contact American spies while they were out at sea.
In the old days products obtained from the hunts such walrus tusks, whale bones and skins were traded with reindeer herders for other goods. The Chuckcchi often acted as middlemen with Americans and Russians, helping them obtain tobacco, basic foodstuffs and items they needed for hunting.
Asiatic Eskimo Culture
Rituals, holidays. athletic events, feasting and singing and dancing were generally associated with the cult of sea animals and were held to ensure a successful hunt in the future or to offer thanks for a successful hunt in the past. Activities held during festivals included running and wrestling and tossing one another in a walrus hide.
Eskimo art includes sea otter charms made from walrus ivory kept in kayaks while at sea; wooden masks with raven claws; ivory shaman necklaces; walrus man doll representing a legendary figure that lives the bottom the sea and communicates with walruses; and ancient lip plugs made from walrus ivory. Some artwork contains Japanese and even European motifs.
Singing, dancing and carving with bone and embroidery with reindeer hair and beads were all developed. History and folklore have traditionally been handed down orally from one generation to the next through clan elders.
The Aleuts have traditionally lived in the western tip of Alaska and the Aleutian Islands. In the late 18th century and early 19th century when Russians entered their homeland, some of them resettled in the Pribilof Islands and the Commander Islands, which now lie in Russian territory, where they are known as the Komandorskiye islands. The term Aleut is used ro describe someone who is descendant of the original inhabitants of the Aleutian Islands. The Aleuts are also known as Unangan.
In the old days the Aleuts engaged in frequent raids. Early Russian explorers described islands that had been depopulated by raids. The Aleuts also battled with the Russians, often with great loss of life. In one incident four Russian trading vessels were destroyed and there were only 12 survivors. The Russians retaliated and later forced the Aleuts to engage in forced labor and fight against other groups. Aleut weapons included animal skin armor, sinew-backed composite bows, war lances and sea darts.
The Aleuts that settled on the Komandorskiye islands did so primarily to earn money from the fur seal trade. They were joined by Kodiak Islanders and Atkans and Attuans, All of these groups converted to Orthodox Christianity and were collectively known as Aleuts. They stayed there after Alaska was sold to the United States. They were employed mostly as sea otter and whale hunters.
There are about 500 Aleuts on the Komandorskiye islands. They live in sheltered bays near spits that are easy for animal skin boats to land on. Access to freshwater streams, salmon rivers and beaches where driftwood washes ashore and can be collected are also important. Communities traditionally lived in semi-subterranean loghouses that could sometimes accommodate around a hundred people.
The Aleuts have traditionally lived off what their sea environment could provide them: seals, walruses sea lions and fish. They caught salmon in rivers and the sea and hunted birds. Clothes were made from sea mammal fur. The only sources of wood were driftwood and trade with other peoples. Today they have been absorbed into the cash economy. Some communities have done well by selling fish.
In the old days sister-exchange marriage, polygamy and polyandry were all practiced. Society was arranged with high nobles, nobles, commoners and slaves (mostly captive of war). Today, marriage customs are in line with those of the Orthodox church, the ranking system has been abandoned and most Aleuts live in nuclear families.
Even Aleuts that lived in the United States are mostly Orthodox Christians. Easter and Christmas are big holidays. During Christmas young men bring stars to the church to be blessed. This is followed by a ritual bath in a stream. St. Peter and Paul Day is celebrated by Aleuts in Alaska who are ancestors of people who were shipped there generations ago from Siberia. Services are conducted in Aleut, Chukchi and Russian.
The Aleut language is relegated mostly to church services. Russian is used at home and in everyday life. Aleut men are known as skilled carvers of ivory and bones. Women create garments from fur and bird skin adorned with gut-on-gut applique and hair embroidery. Interest in these art form has declined.
The Yukagirs are one of the smallest minorities in Russia and the former Soviet Union. There are only around 600 of them. They have traditionally been reindeer herders, fishermen and hunters who lived in the tundras of the Yakutia and Magaden region. They are largely Christianized but in the old days they practiced animism and dismembered deceased family members and kept the body parts as amulets and regarded animals they captured in hunting guests.
There used to be a lot more Yukaghirs. The have a legend that there were once so many Yukaghir bonfires the smoke in the sky darkened the wings of birds flying south, and that the northern lights were nothing but reflections of their campfires. Their population was decimated by disease after the first contact with Cossacks and Russians in 1633.
The Yukagirs have traditionally endured a tough life. They spent the winter in camps living off food the collected in the summer. They hunted when they migrated, often going after deer or elk that they tracked in the snow. In the summer they hunted wild reindeer by driving them into lakes where hunters with spears, waited and stabbed them. They also collected berries, wild mushrooms and the inner bark and juice of red poplars. They used to consume hallucinogenic fly agric mushrooms. The spring was a tight time for them, after their food supplies ran out. It wasn’t uncommon for them to starve to death or freeze to death after their hearth went cold.
The Yukagirs have a pictorial system for writing on birch bark. In the 1980s an effort was made to create an alphabet for their language so they could publish books in their native tongue. Yukaghir author Semen Kurilov one jokingly said he is the only writer in existence who knows all of his readers by sight. Responding to the fact the first printing of one of his Russian books was 100,000 he said, "that means each of my countrymen can have 125 copies!" [Source: Yuri Rytkheu, National Geographic, February 1983]
Text Sources: Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia, China, edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K. Hall & Company, Boston); New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated May 2016