Lesson II: History of the Cup’ik People


General Objectives for Students

Activities for Students


Cup’ik and English Names

Origins of the Cup’ik People

The Anthropologists’ View

The Cup’ik View

Traditional and Biblical Views

Historical and Cemetery Sites

History as Told in Traditional Stories

Cangerlaagpiit (Epidemics)

A Cangerlaagpiit Story

Traditional Festivals

Qaygiq (Men’s House)

Construction of the Qaygiq

Seating and Sleeping Areas

Life in the Qaygiq

Elders’ Teaching

Background: The Season of Festivals




Ilvariq: The Bladder Festival


General Objectives for Students

The students will be able to locate on map where the Cup’ik people live.

The students will be able to explain the Anthropological theory of origination.

The students will be able to explain the Cup’ik people’s interpretation of origination.

The students will recall landmarks in Civuliaqatuk’s story and why they are important.

The students will define Cup’ik and how it is related to the Yup’ik people around Chevak.

The students will be able to describe the epidemics and the historical importance to Cup’ik people.

The students will be able to compose in their own words "How Chevak came to be."




Activities for Students

The students will discuss all theories of where Cup’ik people came from.

Students will illustrate pictures related to "My First Ancestor."

The students will illustrate pictures related to "Civuliaqatuk’s story.

The students will write their own interpretations of where they came from.

The students will make a video of the story of "My First Ancestor" as a play.

The students will videotape interviews of Elders as research on where they came from.

Students will go on a fieldtrip to old sites and draw diagrams where each family lived.

Students will identify water sources and types of food people subsist from the land.

Students will bring Elders to Kash project sites and record stories of the past.

Students will invite Elders into classrooms and record their stories of the past.

Students will make a map of historical use and cemetery sites.

Students will invite anthropologists who participated in site excavations into the classroom to help students understand and appreciate the history of the old sites.

The students will dramatize a real life situation that occurred in the Old Kashunak move of the old village after the great flood of 1948 with amellrutaq or the talking circle.

Students will write a script about the history and dramatize this event for parents and Elders.

Lesson II: History of the Cup’ik People


This lesson is intended to give students an overview of the history of the Cup’ik people. It is not intended to be comprehensive. Instead, I hope it will help students understand the critical role of traditional stories in Cup’ik history. These stories are history: they portray how our ancestors actually lived and important events in their lives. The genius of these stories is that they are able to reconcile and make sense out of what may at first seem to be conflicting Western and Cup’ik beliefs. Another important part of our history is reflected in the traditional festivals the Cup’ik people celebrated for hundreds of years before Western missionaries arrived in the region. Those festivals marked the change of seasons and other major events in the traditional Cup’ik life; the objects and rituals in those festivals reveal a lot about what was important in daily life.


Cup’ik and English Names

The Cup’ik people are Yup’ik Eskimos, but they have their own dialect and are a historically distinct group. The terms Cup’ik and Yup’ik have the same meaning ("the real people"), but different dialect pronunciations.

Today there are two Cup’ik tribes in Alaska—the people of Chevak, who refer to themselves as the Qissunamiut tribe, and the people of Mekoryuk on Nunivak Island, who refer to themselves as the Cup’ik people. The pronunciations of "Cup’ik" and other words vary somewhat in the two villages. Yup’ik people inhabit villages as close as Hooper Bay, twenty miles west of Chevak, and Scammon Bay, which is thirty miles north of Chevak. Overall, the Yup’ik people live from Elim on the Seward Peninsula to Egegik on the Alaska Peninsula.

The Cup’iks traditionally lived in the vicinity of the Kashunak River, a tributary of the Yukon River. The U.S. government census takers who came to this region in the late 1800s reported finding a village called "Kashunak" at the mouth of the Kashunak River. This was an English version of Qissunaq—the Cup’ik name for the river. Missionaries and traders called the Cup’ik people Kashunamiut, an English version of Qissunamiut—meaning, "the people of Qissunaq."

The documentation of these terms can be found in Edward Nelson’s book, The Eskimos of the Bering Sea. The people of the region called Nelson "a man who buys good-for-nothing things." The items Nelson purchased from the people of this region were not valued at that time. These included everything from old stone tools to carvings to clothing. However, today these items are highly valued. Nelson recorded many important historical sites of the Cup’ik people, as well as events such as feasts.


Origins of the Cup’ik People

The Anthropologists’ View

Anthropologists have at least two theories about how the Cup’ik people came to Alaska. One theory is that the Cup’ik people migrated from Asia long ago, following the animals as they crossed the Bering Land Bridge during the great Ice Age. Another theory is that they followed the coast, hunting sea mammals and fishing, skipping around the ice-covered areas. (More information about these theories and about archeological findings in the region can be found in Handbook of North American Indians, by William C. Sturtevant, published by the Smithsonian Institution, 1984.)

If the anthropologists are correct, it would seem possible that some of the traditional Cup’ik stories might verify the theory. The stories of our ancestors do not mention any migration routes. But some scholars of Cup’ik history believe that if such a movement from Asia occurred, it would have been so gradual that the Cup’ik people might not have thought of it as a migration. They might instead have simply thought that over time they were ranging further east than their parents and grandparents had. Some traditional stories do talk about re-locations of villages at times in the past. Villages were established in areas where animals and fish were easily accessible.

The Cup’ik View

The Cup’ik Elders do not talk explicitly about how our people came to be, but we have traditional stories related to the origins of our people. Here we provide (through audiostreaming) two of those traditional stories, narrated by Cup’ik Elders. One is "My First Ancestor," narrated by my grandfather, Joe Friday, who was a well-known Cup’ik storyteller. The second is Civuliaqatuk’s Story, told by Elders of Chevak community.

My First Ancestor

Civuliaqatuk’s Story


Traditional and Biblical Views

Historically, shamans were the spiritual leaders of the Cup’ik people. They had powers beyond the physical and could do things considered impossible for any human being. They provided the moral support for survival. Without them, the Eskimos would not have survived. Shamans are discussed in detail in a separate section of this curriculum; the point I am making here is that when the Western missionaries arrived in the region, the Cup’ik people had a belief system that had existed for hundreds of years.

The missionaries that came to this region around 1900 converted the Cup’ik to Catholicism and had a great influence on how our people lived. The priests became the authorities, shaping the lives of our people in ways that can be seen today. In the past, many of our people worked for the priests without pay. The first priests who came to this area were Joseph M. Treca, S.J. Father Fox, and Father Convert. (Students interested in reading about the missionaries in our region can refer to a number of sources, including Kingdom of the Seal, by Aloysius Menager, SJ, Chicago, Loyola Press, 1962; and Life on the Alaskan Mission, by Francis Barnum, SJ, Woodstock College Press, 1983.)

There was conflict between the shamans and the priests. The missionaries questioned our Cup’ik beliefs. In their eyes, we were nomadic and uncivilized people without beliefs. But it’s interesting that many of the teachings of the church were actually similar to the teachings of our Elders. I remember one Elder saying "When the priest first came and taught us the values, I thought back to my father, who spoke of things that were no different from those [now being taught] our people." My grandfather also once told some students, "If you want to learn the values of our ancestors, go to church and listen."

One such element of similarity is Cillam Cua, which refers to our Creator. Our Elders often told us to do things in the open because the being that is above all beings is always watching us. In some of the traditional masks made by our people, the "eye of awareness" indicates that someone is always watching us.

The missionaries banished many of our traditional rituals and feasts. Eskimo dances were abolished as well. As a result, many of our feasts and rituals no longer exist except as forms of entertainment of the people—for example, performances by Eskimo dance groups. While still recognizing the importance of traditional Cup’ik beliefs, our people now largely accept Biblical values and beliefs. In the last sections of this lesson, we talk about history as recorded in traditional Cup’ik stories and describe some of the major festivals.


Historical and Cemetery Sites

Historically, each Cup’ik and Yup’ik tribe had its own subsistence lands, which other tribes knew and respected without the need for written documents. Two tribes might have verbal agreements about lands, just as the first Native Americans did thousands of years ago. Our history has no record of Cup’ik or Yup’ik tribes fighting over land. A hunter from one tribe could trespass on lands of another tribe, as long as he was getting food for his family. Our traditional belief was that how we treat others is how they treat us; if we treat others with respect, they will treat us with respect.

The historic and cemetery sites around Chevak cover a radius of roughly 50 to 100 miles out from the village. The people of Chevak consider these our subsistence lands—lands that have no boundaries. There are many individual sites all over this broad area around Chevak. When the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act was passed in 1971, it required the Bureau of Indian Affairs to document these historic sites and turn them over to the regional corporations formed under terms of the act. If it had not been for that project, some of those sites might have been forgotten.

The project also helped me learn valuable information about my own ancestry. By acting as an interpreter for Elders who spoke no English, I learned many things. I learned that the Manokinak, Kashunak, and Aprun rivers were the direct ancestral lands of the Cup’ik people. I learned to locate sites on maps and discovered what historic events took place at various sites. I learned who had houses at individual sites and what kinds of activities took place at those sites. I also learned which types of subsistence foods people gathered most intensively at different sites—which showed me the types of food available in different areas.

One of the oldest sites recorded is Englullugmiut, estimated through carbon dating to be 4,000 years old. This site can be identified on maps.


History as Told in Traditional Stories

The Elders have passed on stories of our people from one generation to the next. Those stories are important for many reasons. They reflect the way our ancestors lived and important events that happened to them. They also teach us important survival techniques. Survival over the centuries for the Cup’ik people meant being knowledgeable about the land. And people became knowledgeable because they were spoken to, mentored, nurtured and well cared for. The Elders regarded a person with no teachers (an orphan, for example) as one who would likely perish in the harsh environment. In the view of the Elders, it is best to listen to advice—whether you agree with it at the time—because the knowledge may be useful for the future. The wisdom of our forefathers is precious; in the old days, sometimes orphans would listen at the doorways of other families, to hear the stories being told and so "steal" the valuable knowledge for themselves.

Some of the traditional Cup’ik stories talk about a time long ago, when the land was thin. The Elders said that in this time, men had specially carved walking sticks (legcik in Cup’ik) with barbs on the hook—because some parts of the land were quicksand. They used the sticks to pull themselves out of the quicksand, if they fell through the ground.


Cangerlaagpiit (Epidemics)

Epidemics (Cangerlaagpiit) periodically devastated our people over the years. The first was around 1840-42 and was a smallpox epidemic—in Cup'ik, arumeng, a sore of the body. Other epidemics were measles, mumps, whooping cough, diphtheria, tuberculosis, and influenza.

Some of our traditional stories talk about those epidemics. An especially bad one was the influenza epidemic (cangerliigpak) that swept through the villages in 1918-20. The shamans described it as "coming as fast as the blowing snow." Elders recall this period as the "dark days of our people." There were many heartbroken families. One story says, "The families in one household looked like they were sleeping, but they were all dead." In villages where many people lived before the epidemic, only a few survived.

Healthy people were forced to take care of the dead—and so many died at the same time that they had to be buried in a dugout sod house. The people from Scammon Bay and Hooper Bay would pile up many bodies into one grave during the winter. Some villages were completely wiped out. These places no longer existed after the epidemic: Cingigmiut and Amigtulirmiut (Black River area), as well as villages around the Kusilvak Mountain (Kassiglurmiut).

The influenza epidemic was especially hard on young adults, and as a result many children were left orphans. Traditional stories verify the high incidence of orphans in many villages at this time. The many orphans left after epidemics had no fathers to teach them how to survive in a harsh environment. But the value of the knowledge and wisdom contained in the Cup’ik stories became evident. The Elders tell us that orphans often acquired important knowledge by listening in on stories being told—and were able to survive.

Unfortunately, many children also died in the epidemic; an Elder from the old village of Kashunak recalled that about thirty children died in just one winter. Nowadays, many people believe that more children could have survived the epidemic, if their parents had known how to care for them. But because they had not encountered this kind of sickness before, many parents did not know what to do. For example, when temperatures of the children became extremely high, many parents did not attempt to cool them down. Some who did survive—and who are still alive today—may owe their survival to parents who had better information about how to care for them.


A Cangerlaagpiit Story

An old Kashunak story related to this period is about a great and intelligent hunter (nukalpiaq) who entered a qaygiq (men’s house, described later in this lesson). Inside the qaygiq were men who were gloomy and sad because they had lost their families in an epidemic. The man gave them this advice: "No matter how sad you may be, laugh with all your might—even if you may not want to." He added, "As soon as I complete the story I am going to tell you, burst out laughing." Everyone listened attentively as the man told them, "I saw a dog carrying the head of a small newborn with red hair." Then everyone pretended to laugh—and suddenly the fake laughs turned to real laughter.

The wise hunter advised the men to laugh because by laughing at death, the men wiped away the spirit of sickness and death. This story, told to me by Joe Friday, marks the end of the epidemic era and shows how traditional stories document important events in Cup’ik history. Even though there was little hope of survival during these times of epidemics, our people went through this dark period and did survive.


Traditional Festivals

Like the traditional stories we’ve just discussed, traditional festivals and rituals are also important in the history of the Cup’ik people. Those festivals and rituals marked the change of seasons, successful hunts, and other special occasions. They show the deep ties between the Cup’iks and the land that sustained them. They show how our people valued gift-giving and sharing. As I noted earlier, the Western missionaries suppressed traditional Cup’ik festivals—and as a result most are no longer celebrated. But it is important for our children to know those traditions that reflect our culture.

Below I describe some traditional Cup’ik festivals and rituals. The qaygiq (men’s house) played a big part in many festivals and also in the broader life of the community. So I first describe the qaygiq before talking about specific festivals.


Qaygiq (Men’s House)

The qaygiq (men’s house) was very important in the Cup’ik community. It was where boys and men received formal education. The Elders taught them about survival techniques and trades men needed to know in Cup’ik society. These skills included becoming good hunters, fishermen, carvers, Eskimo dance drummers, and leaders of dances and ceremonies. They also needed to learn about the land and the sea and traditional stories and legends.

Men ate, slept, and took firebaths in the qaygiq. They also practiced Eskimo dances for special celebrations like the bladder festival, described later in this lesson. During every day activities, the qaygiq was reserved for the men. Women showed their faithfulness to their husbands by bringing food to the qaygiq daily; men in turn showed their faithfulness by hunting and providing food for their families.

During festivals and special ceremonies, women were welcomed into the qaygiq. The women were the backbone of special occasions. Without their ability to prepare and weave grass, the ceremonies would not have been complete. In one special gift exchange festival (petugtaryaraq, described later in this lesson), the women took over the qaygiq and prepared dances and songs for the men.

Below we talk first about how the qaygiq was built and then describe more about the qaygiq’s role in Cup’ik society.


Construction of the Qaygiq

The qaygiq was a large, semi-subterranean sod house, with a dugout area below ground and a domed roof above ground. All men in the village participated in construction of the qaygiqs. They dug the ground down several feet and then lined the dugout walls by stacking and fitting large, heavy driftwood logs; this required good supervision and management. Then they built a dome-shaped roof with logs inlaid on the sides of the dugout walls. This wood frame is called qerratarutet.

In the center of the roof the men left an opening or window. The window was removable and was made of the intestines of a whale or walrus. The window was removed during firebaths to allow smoke out. During the winter, frost developed on the window, making the qaygiq dim. The men removed the frost by patting the window (pategluku). According to tradition, the men were not to put that frost from the window outside, but rather on the side of the underground passageway (described below). The reason for putting the frost there is not known.

After they had built the driftwood frame, the men would lay grass all over the domed roof, for insulation. The laying of grass is called eviutet. Then they cut strips of high-tundra vegetation, consisting of blackberry bushes and small willow plants, and put those strips on top of the grass, with the vegetated part on the inside. This method of extracting and using high-tundra vegetation is called pakigtaat. The builders placed pakigtaat all over the grass, leaving no large openings. Then they took brown sod, which they had previously cut and made into slabs, and laid the sod over the pakigtaat, starting from the bottom of the frame and working up toward the top. This tough sod, called kiitaat, kept the rain out of the qaygiq. Finally, they filled any remaining gaps with slushy mud (kataneraq).

The qaygiq had two doorways and a fire pit at the center. The kepneq was an above-ground door, used from early spring to late fall and closed off during the winter. The pugyaraq was an underground entryway, used during the winter. The pugyaraq had an opening on the ground level outside and then a passage below ground. At the entrance to the qaygiq from the underground passageway was a burrow step—a step elevated above the passageway floor and with both sides flattened. All qaygiqs had a burrow step, called tutemkaq; the significance of the tutemkaq is not known.

Ivory tusk handles were situated at both sides of the entrance to the qaygiq from the pugyaraq, so people coming through the passageway could lift themselves up into the qaygiq. Younger children had a hard time getting in. Most of the time, they had to grab the handles, put their heads to one side of the entrance, fling their body forward and roll sideways into the qaygiq. Men pulled the smallest boys in and out. Click on image to enlarge


Seating and Sleeping Areas in the Qaygiq

Each man had his place in the qaygiq. At the center was a fire pit, and men and boys of different ages had specific seating and sleeping areas along the walls. The entrance wall (ualirneq) was reserved for the Elders. The boys (ayaakutat or ayagyuga) sat along the walls, the older boy toward the corners and the younger boys toward the center of the walls on either side. The older men sat at the corners. The side walls are called nakirneq. The young unmarried men (nekevyuut) were seated along the farthest wall (egkuq), with the oldest of those at the corners (kangiraq) and the youngest toward the middle. All men learned the seating arrangements, and all men respected each other’s seating and sleeping areas. When a man was not in the qaygiq, others could use his place, but would move when he came in.

Seal oil lamps were put at the middle of both side walls. On either side of the lamps were seated two of the youngest boys. In the center of the farthest wall was another lamp, and on each side of the lamp the youngest nekevyuut were seated.

All the men in the qaygiq had grass mats to sleep on. Women braided the mats from tall bladed grass found around the ponds in highland areas of the tundra. The mats were well cared for, so they would last a long time. The men placed their belongings around their sleeping and seating areas, usually on the wall, or upper ceiling side of the qaygiq. These belongings included the tools each man had—such as carving knives, hand drills, hand chisels, and bow drills.

The drums, made of stomach membrane (intestine) of whale or walrus, had a special place in the qaygiq. Usually, they were placed at the corners, or in other areas where the heat of the fire pit would not affect them. The drums were used in practices for feasts, as well as for shamans’ rituals.Click on image to enlarge


Life in The Qaygiq

The men were required to sleep in the qaygiq without any bedding; they had just their parkas and sealskin boots. They trained to survive in the cold day in and day out. They got used to the cold as an everyday condition. Most important, they trained to make their spirits strong. A man’s spirit was critical to helping him survive the cold. Men strengthened their spirits by going through the many hardships of life.

After spending so much time hardening themselves to the cold, the men welcomed warmth as soothing to the body and spirit. They took firebaths in the qayqiq every day or at least every other day. Men donated wood for the firebaths. They chopped the wood in the qaygiq and stacked it in a special arrangement in the center of the fire pit.

When the fire was first lit, the whole building became very smoky, before the smoke escaped through the window at the top of the qaygiq. The men bit special mouthpieces that covered their mouths and noses and prevented the smoke from burning them and going into their lungs. These mouthpieces were made of the fine shavings of driftwood, usually spruce.

When the fire got hot, the men would turn to and fro to keep from being burned; sometimes they would be burned anyway, and would then splash on cold water to ease the pain. The intense heat penetrated deep, reaching the bones of the men. They felt very good after these penetrating firebaths, with clear minds that enabled them to solve problems. Often after a firebath they would talk in soothing voices, making plans for upcoming events. Firebaths were also used to heat the qaygiq before dance festivals or ceremonies.

Elders’ Teaching

Elders who could no longer hunt or do physical work advised the other men and boys. Elders were well respected, and younger men and boys shared their food with them.

The Elders are called teggneq (one) or teggneret (more than one). In every society, there were two wise men advising the other men and boys. This was true not only in Chevak but in Hooper Bay, Scammon Bay, Tununak, Newtok, and many other places.

The Elders advised the younger generation about their future and disciplined them for wrongdoing. When two Elders spoke, no one disturbed them, talked, or even asked questions. When men sought answers to things the Elders had said, they found these answers by searching within themselves rather than by asking the Elders.

The Elders often taught survival methods, especially about surviving on the ocean, where hunters had to go for the main source of food—seals. Elders taught how to survive in extreme conditions, and often Elders told the men: "Never panic, because it can kill you; always use common sense."

The Elders also made arrangements for various feasts and community activities. The qaygiq played a major part in community activities, as we will discuss below.


Background: The Season of Festivals

In old Qissunaq, the first village of Chevak, the people had many festivals before the winter solstice. The leaders of the village, the Elders, stated the reason this way: "We have to start our festivals before the sun sits down." That statement meant that they had to start their festivals before the shortest day of the year, which is December 21.

In the middle of the day, every day, the men measured the height of the sun. A man would extend his open hand toward the horizon of the sun, holding four fingers horizontally between the horizon and the sun. By closing one eye, he could determine when the winter solstice would start. If the sun landed between his index and middle fingers, this indicated winter solstice—or the "sitting of the sun." The sunrise and the sunset were also marked by a stick, since the horizon is outlined as the sun rises and sets.

In Qissunaq, there were two qaygiq where feasts, dancing, and firebathing took place. One qaygiq, called uniqullek, was in the northern part of the village, and the other, qaygicuaraq, was at the southern mount. The membership of each qaygiq was mostly determined according to family clans and by availability of space. Each year, Elders and other men from the two qaygiq took turns sponsoring the festivals, after consultation and agreement between them.


Among the first of the seasonal celebrations the Cup’ik people had long ago was Tengmiarun, which was held toward the end of the summer season. This festival is a form of potlatch. Food, clothing, and dances were prepared far in advance.

The people knew the season of the year when Tengmiarun took place, but the Elders usually decided which day the celebration would be held. They would tell a young man to announce the celebration by climbing on top of a qaygiq during the night and hollering: Aaaaah! Aaaaah! Avayaq nanguuq! Avayaq nanguuq! Sometimes they had a hard time finding a young man to holler for them, but if a young man was told to do this or that, he had to do it right away. When they heard this hollering in the night, the people knew they would be having Tengmiarun the next night.

The people used little birds as part of the Tengmiarun celebration. Before the celebration, children gathered birds they had caught, skinned them, and put them on sticks with their wings spread out.

In preparation for the festival, lots of young men then gathered in the two qaygiqs in the old village of Qissunaq. One qaygiq was for the Uniqullermiut, and the other one was for the Qaygicuaremiut. But since they were all from the same village, members of both qaygiqs did the same things for the festival. The young men and the ones with fathers at the qaygicuaraq brought in the bladders of birds they had caught. The bladders were hung and their contents removed.

After the young men gathered in the qaygiq, the little girls came in, bringing in bits of food and doing a little dance with motions. Most of the dancers were little girls, but if women wanted to dance, they could join the girls and dance as well.

Families of the boys involved in the festival brought clothing and utensils to give as gifts. The Elders received the best gifts and food, and the rest were distributed according to the age and status of the recipients and the availability of different items. Spiritually, the boys benefited by giving gifts. If the recipients were satisfied, their thankfulness had a positive effect on the boys, helping them become good hunters or live prosperous lives.



Itertaaq was a festival that took place in September and lasted five days. Itertaaq means "to go into the houses of the people." In some ways it resembled trick or treating during Halloween. Men and boys sang and went from house to house; the women and girls stayed at home, giving out food. The elders and men joined the boys on the first and fifth days of the festival, because those were the days when the best food was given out. In between the first and the last day the "not-so-good" food was distributed, and only boys went from house to house.

On the first day of the Itertaaq celebration, men and boys took bowls, went about 50 to 100 feet out of the village, and sang a song. In this festival, singing a song is called maruaq, although the literal meaning of that word is "howling of a dog." The eldest man led the men and boys in singing a song about the red fox and an old lady. After singing the song, the young men and boys started going around into the houses, one after another, crouching down low, stomping their feet and making oohing sounds. They always moved clockwise from house to house—never counter clockwise.

The houses were semi-subterranean sod houses, like the qaygiq, with underground passageways leading to the houses and acting as cold traps in the winter. (The sod houses are described in detail in Lesson III.) The houses smelled clean and fresh from the aroma of the Labrador tea, or ayuq. The entrances to the underground passageways were lit with seal oil lamps. The woman of each household dressed in her best clothing. On the first day of the festival, she passed out the best food she had—seal meat, dry fish, frozen fish, beluga skin, dried meat, dried herring, oiled poke, white or salmon fish, and Eskimo ice cream (akutaq).

The next three evenings, just the young men and boys went from house to house again, but received second-hand food—like small parts of food and small pieces of dried salmon fish eggs.

On the fifth and final day, everybody participating in the Itertaaq celebration painted their faces with white clay and imprints of black soot. The older men once again joined the boys going from one house to the next. Again, as on the first day of Itertaaq, the women passed out the best foods. The women again dressed in their finest clothes, and the air in the sod houses once again smelled of the sweet aroma of the Labrador tea.

The painting of faces on the fifth day is called urasqaq, and it commemorates the time the youngsters of Qissunaq encountered a supernatural event, which allowed them to walk underground. Every year before the Itertaaq celebration began, the Elders of the village told the story of the time the boys went underground and finally came back; they also advised the boys on what to do if they encountered a supernatural being or happening.

Here is the traditional story as told by the Elders. One Itertaaq celebration, the young boys were as usual going from house to house. But when they tried to get out of one particular house, they could not come back up to the surface from the underground passageway. On and on they walked in pitch-black darkness. The people in the houses nearby could hear them talking to one another. Everyone in Qissunaq tried to get the boys out, but no one succeeded. Their voices faded away as they moved along in the blackness of the tunnel.

The boys wandered off from their village, still trying to find their way out. One family miles away from Qissunaq heard the voices of the young boys. The family grew scared because they thought the boys were demons—the living dead. They covered their underground doorway and sprinkled animal blood to cast the demons away. The voices came closer and then faded away. The boys might have been able to get out, if that family had not covered the entryway.

After a few days, the young boys came out through a cave hole in the volcano mountains about 60 miles east of Chevak. When the youngsters came out, they could not see for a while because they had spent too much time in the darkness. They didn't know where they were and none of the landmarks were familiar to them. The eldest of the boys told the others what to do next: "Line up behind me and close your eyes. Hold onto the boy ahead of you. We will be taking five steps forward, and we must do it at the same time. If any of you open your eyes, we will never find out where we are. All of you promise me that you will do exactly what I tell you to do. When I give the signal, take five steps forward." All the boys did exactly as their leader told them to do, and they found themselves just a few feet from Qissunaq.

After that incident, the shamans found out why the boys had been trapped underground: they had not painted their faces. So the shamans made a rule, that on the fifth day of Itertaaq, everyone had to urasqaq their faces. The boys were encouraged not to wash off the white clay paint until the next day or risk getting diarrhea. They advised the boys about how to avoid being trapped underground: "If a house is unfamiliar, do not enter but walk backwards until you are out of the house. Also, if you encounter a demon—a living dead—walk backwards until you are out of the house."



Another Cup’ik festival from many centuries ago was Petugtaryaraq. This was the traditional exchanging of gifts that can be compared with the exchanging of Christmas gifts today. It took place in many villages of southwestern Alaska. It was held in December, before the winter solstice, which is on December 21. This was one of the last festivals the Cup’iks celebrated before the influence of the missionaries.

During the preparation for the Petugtaryaraq celebration, the men carved out small wooden images of the things they wanted the most—various types of clothing and food. One of the most wanted foods was uqnaq, which is soup made of greens and the blood of seals. They tied the carvings with tapraq (skin rope or string) and hung them on the wall of the qaygiq facing the entranceway.

When all the men had hung their carved images, the women were called in. The women looked over the carvings and picked out items they were able to afford or make. All the carvings would be taken. While the women chose the carvings, the men did not say anything—but they would know who had picked their carving. Often, the men did not want their mothers, grandmothers, wives, aunts, or sisters to pick their carved images. They preferred that their cousins take the carvings. That is because the Cup’ik people find it humorous and challenging to provide hard-to-find gifts for one another —and cousins would tease each other and take up the challenge. Cousins would lavish one another with gifts and challenge each other to return with even better gifts, until one was unable to continue the gift exchange.

When the women finished making the gifts they returned to the qaygiq. Usually two young men directed each woman to the man she had made a gift for. The woman gave her gift and then told the man what she wanted in return; this is referred to as aqngirqelluki.

After receiving their gifts, the men started practicing Eskimo dance songs that they would sing for the women to dance to. The women disguised themselves like men. Some wore humorous masks and others painted their faces with black soot. They all wore old clothing so they were unrecognizable. They danced all night, and everyone had an enjoyable evening.

The next day the women took over the qaygiq. Like the men, they carved miniature wooden objects representing gifts they wanted and hung them on the furthest wall of the qaygiq. The men came in and picked out what they could afford to make. Again, all the carvings would be taken. Some of what the women wanted might be hard to get, but the men would try.

Then the women start practicing Eskimo dance songs. When they were finished practicing, the men gathered in the qaygiq and brought the gifts the women had asked for. Then the men went into the underground passageway leading to the qaygiq and dressed up as women, but with humorous masks or painted faces of black soot. Their roles were reversed during the Eskimo dances. The women sang and drummed while the men danced. Everyone had a lot of fun, especially cousins, who would exchange humorous remarks.


Ilvarig: The Bladder Festival

One of the major festivals of the Cup’ik people was Ilvariq—the bladder festival, which took place in November or early December. The Cup’ik people traditionally believed that the spirit of the seal was in the bladder—and the bladder festival honored the spirit of the seals and returned them to the sea. By honoring the seals, the Cup’iks hoped to insure continuing harvests. The people believed the seals had a qaygiq under the ocean, where the spirits of dead seals lived until returning in live seals the following spring. Hunters kept and cared for the bladders of seals they harvested each year to use in this festival.

Preparations for the festival began when the Elders chose five young men to go after wild celery (ikiituggsuq), considered a sacred plant of the bladder festival. The young men would first take fire baths in the qaygiq. After drying off, they put on only their qaspeqs (outer lining of a parka) and sat solemnly, without saying much to each other. A seal oil lamp was placed behind the boys and two large wooden bowls were placed in front them.

Women then came in, bringing food and going from left to right, allowing each boy to have a bite. This was done until all the women of each household had presented food. The leftovers were then placed in the large wooden bowls. The boys had one bite at a time, eating until they became tremendously full and did not feel up to doing things.

When the women had stopped coming, the five young men dressed in all their clothes. Then a man with his face covered with black soot and wearing a sealskin cap (of the type used for fire bathing), faced the young men to sing. All the young men stood up to face him, with their arms extended up toward the ceiling. The young men were in a column, all in the same still stance, ready to dance.

The singer began beating his drum slowly and mumbling the first verse of the song softly to the young men. While the singer sang, the young men stood without dancing, still holding their arms extended up towards the ceiling.



Aaya-nga-ya iya-nga-rra-ya-nga-ya iyaang

Aaya-nga-ya iyaa-nga-rra-ya-ngarra ayaa

Yanga-rranga rairraa yaa-nga-rra

Aya-nga-ya iyaa-nga-rra aanga-rraingaa-aa-aa

The singer started singing the second verse and the young men began to notice the strain from keeping their arms extended up. If anyone dropped his arms lower than the rest, he was asked to keep them up higher.


Nunamiunun uulusqumaa

Nunamiunun uulusqumaa

Nunamiunun uulusqumaa, nunamiunun

Yanga-rranga rairra ya ngarai

Aaya-nga-ya iya-nga-rra-ya-anga-rranga-aa-aa-aa

Then three other men who sat beside the singer took up their drums and sang the first verse of the song to the boys, who started to dance in a pushing motion toward the sky. Their whole bodies were in movement and their legs were bent at each drum beat.

FIRST VERSE (repeated):

Aaya-riga-ya iya-nga-rra-ya-nga-ya iyaang

Aaya-nga-ya iyaa-nga-rra-ya-ngarra ayaa

Yanga-rranga rairraa yaa-nga-rra

Aya-nga-ya iyaa-nga-rra aanga-rraingaa-aa-aa

When the first verse of the first song was done, the boys turned in the opposite direction and the drummers start drumming faster and harder, singing this second song:



Agiya-a rragiya

Agiya rragiya, eggnarra

Agiya rragiya

Agiya-a rragiya

Rragiya rragiya, eggngarriaa-aa-aa-ai

The men paused here, but kept on drumming. The young men were fighting their tiredness to keep on dancing. The drummers then began to sing the second verse.



Ikitugaam qayaanganii

Tusquma kuggayuna rragiya rragiya eggngarra

Ikitugaam qayaanganii

Tusquma kuggayuna rragiya rragiya eggngarraa-aa-aa-ai Click here for video clip

After the second verse was sung, the singers and drummers sang the first verse again. While they sang, four of the five young men went out, one by one, to circle the village. One stayed until the song was done. The people giggled at how tired the remaining boy became.

While the young men danced, small boys who wanted to have a bite to eat from the two large wooden bowls waited stark naked for the young men to go out. Once they left, the boys rolled into the qaygiq one after another, side by side around the fire pit. The foods they were most likely to eat were oily white or salmon poked fish.

After all the boys ate their favorite foods, they ran a complete circle around the qaygiq. They lined up and danced as the previous young men had, with their arms extended up towards the ceiling. But these small boys ate with seal oil dripping from their mouths and made funny faces, trying to keep their arms up even though they were very tired. The men who sat observing and singing laughed and giggled at the boys. This was one event where everyone laughed laughter, and the Elders did not discipline the boys.

When the five young men chosen to gather wild celery had finished circling the village, they were seated in the ualirneq area (usually reserved for the Elders) and slept for the night. The bearded sealskin used for the container of wild celery stems was put beside them. The next morning they went out dragging a sled to gather wild celery stems.

The first wild celery they found they dug down to the root of the dead plant. They dug the snow around the plant by hand, and when they reached the frozen ground, they chipped away down to the very root. Then they placed a small piece of food where the root of the plant had been. This placing of a small piece of food was done for centuries, but we no longer know the meaning behind it. The young men cut the rest of the dead wild celery stems at ground level until they had a bundle.

When they returned to the village, the young men tied the bundle of wild celery and placed it by the window of the qaygiq. Then all the men in the qaygiq took a firebath. After everyone was relaxed and the qaygiq was warm, the bundle of wild celery was brought down and a selected person carried it clockwise around the qaygiq. When he reached the ualirneq wall area, the man carrying the celery stood the bundle vertically and evened out the stems. If the bundle leaned to one side, he picked it up and dropped it until the bundle stood straight. All the men had to agree on when the bundle was well leveled.

Then a bowl of seal oil—about one gallon—was poured evenly over the top of the wild celery bundle. A selected person then lifted the bundle and checked for any drops of seal oil. If he saw a drop of seal oil, this indicated hardship in finding subsistence food. But if he did not find any drops of seal oil, it indicated plenty of subsistence food and was a sign that the celery had accepted the gift of oil. Then the bundle was untied and spread out to dry in the elevated shelf beds of the qaygiq.

During the evening, the women brought in frozen fish with seal oil. The seal oil was contained in a dried seal-gut container. Each time a woman entered, the man beside the door announced her last name and pushed her bowl of frozen fish towards the furthest wall.

After that, the women brought in the bladders covered with grass mats (ikaraliitat). Then the women put on seal-gut raincoats and began to dance. After the women danced, the men opened their grass mats and worked on their bladders, to soften them enough so they could be blown up. They tied the opening of the bladder with a thin strip of leather and hung them up to dry. All the people who were closely related worked together.

Cords were strung across the qaygiq, with all the bladders prepared by closely related family members hung evenly on one cord. The cords might be either straight across the qaygiq or angled to one side, according to family traditions. Bladders of seals that had been injured but got away, or of seals that had been killed but sank underwater before the hunters could reach them, were represented by wing feathers of seagulls.

The bladders were strung across the qaygiq for five days. After the fifth day, the men took the bladders down and seated them (aqumlluki) by placing them to one side of the qaygiq in a large suspended column. The bladders were then seated for five days. After that, a harpoon was hung horizontally on the ceiling, and the bladders were then hung on the harpoon. Again, the closely related family worked together, hanging the bladders according to their family traditions, passed down over time. The bladders then hung on the harpoon to dry for five days.

At one time, the people only allowed the bladders to be seated for three days. According to tradition, the spirits of the bladders once took a boy back to where they were from. When the boy returned as a young man, he brought a message from the spirits—that the bladders should be seated for an additional two days, for a total of five.


The festivals we’ve just discussed here celebrated the seasonal life-style of the Cup’ik people—a life-style that in many ways continues today. Lesson III describes that life-style on detail.