April 21, 2010
Yup’ik elder Paul John and his ancestors didn’t have motorized cars or electric tools to survive their home in the sub-arctic tundra of Southwest Alaska. For hundreds of years, his people lived without technology, “using their arms and legs” to build homes and villages, hunt for food, cook, perform spiritual rituals, and “simply live.” There was no dependence on corporations or stores—only the land, and each other.
“We had to do with what we had,” he said, in the Yup’ik language. “It wasn’t always easy.”
At 82, Paul John is part of a dwindling group of Yup’ik elders who fear young Yup’iks will grow up without understanding or even knowing the traditions that have guided his community and allowed it to thrive. But last week at the opening of a new exhibit at the National Museum of Natural History that explores the past two centuries of Yup’ik history, Paul John had hope.
“I’m very thankful,” he said, with the help of translator Mark John, president of the region’s elders council.
Paul John and more than a dozen other Yup’ik people traveled thousands of miles for the opening of the exhibit, “Yuungnaqpiallerput (The Way We Genuinely Live): Masterworks of Yup’ik Science and Survival, which brings together 18th and 20th century objects—from squirrel bone needles to the skeletons of early canoes—as well as photos and videos of Yup’ik traditions and dances from the collections of 13 museums.
The exhibit travels through the different Yup’ik seasons, including those for seal and fish hunting. It features clothing like the atkuk, parka, sewn from arctic ground squirrel pelts and caribou fur, that women used to keep warm in the winter; and the elqiaq, bentwood visor, that men crafted from wood, animal skulls and feathers, both to keep the sun out of their eyes and, according to the culture’s oral tradition, helped villagers to “transform into birds” as they hunted.
Before the museum opened that morning, Paul John brought the objects to life with a traditional purification ceremony, used to bless hunting tools before the start of each season. Mark John lit an herb called ayuq, commonly known as Labrador tea, in a large shell bowl. With the plant burning, Paul John and other Yup’iks led the crowd through the exhibit with large hide drums, singing as a team of Yup’ik dancers floated their arms behind them. (Listen to part of Paul John’s blessing.)
“The name of the exhibit is very true,” Paul John said. “This is the way we genuinely live.”
After the exhibit closes at Natural History on July 25, Mark John hopes the exhibit will return to Alaska, so more Yup’ik youth can explore their own ancestors.
“They don’t have that firsthand experience,” Mark John says. “But now they can hear it from the people who lived through it.”
“Yuungnaqpiallerput (The Way We Genuinely Live): Masterworks of Yup’ik Science and Survival” is on view at the National Museum of Natural History through July 25.
Sign up for our free email newsletter and receive the best stories from Smithsonian.com each week.