People, Place, and Culture

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People

The overall population in the area is approximately 82% all or part Alaska Native. Approximately 50% of the population is under 18 years old. The area is considered one of the poorest in Alaska with the lowest per capita income in the United States. Many of the people continue to practice a traditional subsistence lifestyle.

Place

Bethel is a town of approximately 6,400 people (based on 2017 Census review) in western Alaska, located on the Yukon Kuskokwim Delta about 400 miles west of Anchorage. The Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corporation (YKHC) serves approximately 28,000 people spread across an area roughly the size of Oregon. There are no roads connecting the 56 rural communities of the area that range in size from 25 to over 1,000 persons each.

From the villages, Bethel is only accessible by airplane, boat, and (in winter) snowmobiles (known in the area as snow go’s or snow machines) and four wheelers. Cars often use the frozen rivers as roads during winter. During spring, summer and fall seasons, large shipments (of vehicles, household items like furniture and other commercial goods) are brought into the area by barge. Year-round air cargo companies offer transportation of larger, bulk shipments as well.

Traditionally, the people living in the area lived as nomadic hunters and fishermen. Today, they live in modern-like houses and apartments. Houses are built off the ground due to the poor foundation permafrost provides. Multiple extended family members live in each house. Many homes still use honey buckets for toileting and collect snow/rainwater. Many also have wood burning stoves as their primary heat source in the winter. Wooden boardwalks provide areas for pedestrians, bikes, and four wheelers to ride rather than dirt or paved roads.

Bethel has many businesses, restaurants, and churches. There are 2 general stores, several convenience stores, a post office, 3 banks, a farmer’s market, a library, a fitness center, and cultural center. Most mail is delivered to p. o. boxes at the post office with UPS service delivering packages to doorsteps.

Maps

Click to download service area maps of Bethel and the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta Region

Culture

The region is home to three cultures – Yup’ik, Cup’ik, and Athabascan. Yup’ik means “real person.” Traditionally, Yup’ik have lived throughout the region; Cup’ik call Nunivak Island and coastal villages home; and Athabascans have resided along the Yukon River and interior villages. The Yup’ik language is the first language of more than 14,000 men, women, and children in our area, making it the most widely spoken Alaska Native language today.

Subsistence is important to the traditions of the people of this area. Spring and Summer subsistence includes drift netting for salmon that is cut, hung, dried, smoked, and jarred for eating throughout the year; berry picking used predominantly in akutaq (eskimo ice cream); collecting bird eggs from the tundra; and collecting greens. Fall and winter subsistence includes hunting for caribou and moose and ice fishing.

Many of the people have maintained a strong cultural identity by keeping alive many of the traditional craft making skills including basket weaving, skin sewing, ivory and bone carving, beading, and qiviut (musk ox fur) knitting. They also enjoy traditional dancing, which they share with the Bethel community and all visitors during the spring dance festival, Cama-i.

“Eskimo,” is it offensive? It depends on who you ask. Some consider it insulting while others will use it themselves. It is not a Native Alaskan word, but thought to have come from a non-Native word for “eaters of raw flesh,” or “snowshoe lacers.”

Clothing is modern with people wearing jeans and tee-shirts. Quspuks are a traditional hooded tunic-length shirt with a large front pocket often worn for special occasions (such as the Cama’i Dance Festival) with jeans and occasionally mukluks (fur boots) and headdresses, but is not uncommon to be worn on a day to day basis.

Storytelling is very important to the culture, along with Yup’ik lore. People of the area will talk of the little people that live in the tundra who are mischief and try to lure people out in the winter to freeze. There are also stories of Hairy Man (the local big foot) sightings that are written about in the local newspaper.

Cultural Pearls

  • slightly raised eyebrows means yes
  • eye contact can be seen as a sign of disrespect
  • respect for elders is important
  • ”poor” is a slang equivalent to the American “that sucks”
  • Breakup – when the river ice breaks up in Spring with an impromptu free hotdog and “festival” occuring at the seawall
  • ”Lower 48” – said in reference to the contiguous 48 states

Father Michael Oleksa

Father Michael Oleksa, Ph.D., was born in Allentown, Pennsylvania. He came to Alaska in 1970 from St. Vladimir's Seminary in New York at the invitation of the Alutiiq village of Old Harbor on Kodiak Island. Over the next three decades he served as a Russian Orthodox priest in over a dozen Alaska Native villages. Dr. Oleksa is a storyteller who seeks to foster greater understanding across boundaries of race and culture. Father Oleksa is a leader in the development of cross-cultural education in Alaska, an educator of Alaskan teachers, and a student of Alaska Native languages and cultures. Check out these videos.

Calricaraq

Calricaraq graphic.jpg

Review this presentation for an overview of Calricaraq, a program to strengthen families and prevent suicide by reaffirming the traditional Yup'ik way of understanding the world and our place in its cycles.

Link to article about Rose Domnick and Calricaraq

Yup'ik Language Common Phrases

Click the Yup'ik word in italics to hear the pronunciation

KYUK – the regions public media radio station

The Delta Discovery – local newspaper published weekly