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The Yupiks (singular Yup’ik and plural Yupiit) are Indigenous people who live on the Nunivak Islands, St.Lawrence Island, Diomedes Islands in the Bering Sea, Bering Strait, and southwest Alaska.

Yupik means “real person”. They are related to the Chukchi and Inuit of Canada and Greenland.

The Yupik live in multi-generational family groups. Such groups are called “those who share ancestors”.

They think that nothing dies in the universe but reborns into different forms. Thus death does not represent the end of life because some spiritual parts of man and animal are reborn through subsequent generations. From that point of view their vision is somehow close to the Buddhist impermanence (character of what is not permanent, does not last, and constantly changes).  

The Yupiks are animists, they believe that every living or inanimate entity has an immortal spirit and an invisible shadow that has the shape of the human body.

There are spirits of sickness, injury, misfortune, or unhappiness. The sickness enters and leaves the body in the form of spiritual essence. The spirits may become weak or strong depending on the fears or forces humans instill in them. All shamans can communicate with spirits.

In each village lives a shaman (man or woman) who assumes a leadership role.

He heals diseases, sees the future, keeps in touch with guardian spirits, and, during ceremonies, can interact with the spirits. Women generally play an important role in all their rituals.

The Yupiks believe the disease is due to the loss of the soul or the violation of taboos. The shamans who heal sick persons wear a mask of the animal spirit that must “eat” the disease of the body. The healing methods consist of questioning the adherence to taboo, the communication in trance with spiritual beings, disease extraction (such as suction), and masked dances.

The shaman can be good or bad. The good shaman cures diseases, fights curses, and asks spirits to help the community. The evil shaman curses people and can even kill them.

Yupik shaman
Yupiks wearing masks

The shaman or the sculptors carve ceremonial masks of various sizes from finger masks to large masks (which must be worn by many people). The masks are created for specific occasions following the dreams of the shaman.

The Yupik wear masks during shamanic rituals and dances. Each one is unique and symbolizes the spirit with which it communicates. It is also possible that it is the spirit of an animal.

The individual who wears the mask transforms himself during the ceremonies into a spirit manifested in the material world.

Fingers masks

Women often use finger masks. After the ceremonies, the masks are burnt, which explains their rarity.

Death represents, at the same time, a departure and a beginning. During a decease, the life force leaves the body and begins its journey underground towards the World of the Dead (for humans and animals). There, the soul waits for his next reincarnation. The souls of those who died naturally (humans and animals) descend underground to the World of the Dead, and those who died violently or the shamans go toward the World of Heaven.

When someone dies, they have to prepare the body for the journey. They dress it in new clothes, adorn it with jewels, and place some food at its feet. Sometimes, they add ashes on the face of the deceased and put objects on his eyes to keep them open ( the deceased can thus continue to look at the living).

Fingers mask
Yupik Cemetery

The body is placed in a fetal position with the knees bent towards the chest and then wrapped in a sheet or a skin. A rope surrounds it five times. The body is thus tied to prevent an evil spirit from coming to revive it. They wrap their arms around the knees and tie them together to their wrists.

This position represents the baby in the womb and means that the dead person is ready to be reborn in another body. Moreover, it is customary to name the newborn in honor of the last deceased person in the community.

Until the funeral, they keep a lit lamp behind the body to help the shadow or soul find the way toward the land of the dead. The body is removed from the house through a side entrance into the wall or the central hole through which usually exits the smoke . Passing the body through the smoke hole symbolizes the passage between life and death.

Shortly before the funeral, they cut the rope to allow the soul to move.

The body can be placed in a tomb in the form of an ice hole form, on the surface of the ground, in a shallow circular tomb and then covered with stones and wood, in boxes made of wood planks and then laid directly on the ground or elevations. Sometimes a canoe or kayak is knocked over with the body inside.

The deceased’s goods are placed next to him in the tomb. These are generally composed of hunting equipment for men and cooking or sewing utensils for women.

Man's grave
Graves and stakes to call the dead

The family receives offerings from other members of the community. Several years after the death, they continue to make offerings in memory of the deceased. If food or water falls to the ground, it is a sign that the dead are thirsty.

The mourning period lasts five days. To mark the end of this period, relatives wear a waist belt and attach a small bag containing ashes. Some may coat their bodies with ashes or paint their faces with charcoal to protect themselves from evil spirits.

Mask "The windmaker"

The mourners must refrain from sexual relations for twenty days and eat last. Some other restrictions may be observed, such as not washing, not cutting the hair, or changing clothes.

The widow can’t remarry for a year.

The not reincarnted spirits are treated with respect because, otherwise, they can harm the community. The spiritual entities found in nature are treated with respect too. Yupiks consider some animals and birds to be sacred: the killer whale (which turns into a wolf in winter), the whale, the seal, the swallow, and the spider. Because they believe that dead animals come back, people never break their bones and cut meat only at the joints.

Those who have been cruel to dogs on earth, in the other world, will be licked forever by dogs.

Amulets carved in stone protect people from evil. Yupiks wear some of these little figures, like walruses or dog heads. To protect themselves, some hang in the house the head of a carved crow.

Sources :

Wikipédia Yupiks (https://fr.wikipedia.org)

Etats-Unis : Le peuple Yup’ik de l’Alaska

(http://cocomagnanville.over-blog.com)

Ann Fienup-Riordan, Boundaries and Passages: Rule and Ritual in Yup’ik Eskimo Oral Tradition, University of Oklahoma Press (1994)

Yup’ik (Native Americans of the Arctic)

(https://what-when-how.com/native-americans)

Yupiit people (https://www.britannica.com/topic/Yupik)

(https://www.travelalaska.com)

Paula Ayunerak, Deborah Alstrom, Charles Moses, James Charlie, Sr., and Stacy M. Rasmus, Yup’ik Culture and Context in Southwest Alaska: Community Member Perspectives of Tradition, Social Change, and Prevention (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)

Koray Koto, Yupik Shamanism and Interesting Yupik Masks (https://ulukayin.org/yupik-shamanism)

Dmitriy Oparin, La commémoration des morts dans l’espace rituel des Yupik asiatiques contemporains (https://www.erudit.org/en)

Yup’ik (https://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities)

Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank, North Wind Mask (https://smarthistory.org)

Spiritualité Autochtone