The southwest Alaska Natives are named after the two main dialects of the Yup’ik language, known as Yup’ik and Cup’ik, residing primarily in the Yukon-Kuskokwim area, and also in the Nunivak and Bristol Bay areas. The Yup’ik and Cup’ik still depend upon subsistence fishing, hunting and gathering for food. Elders tell stories of traditional ways of life, as a way to teach the younger generations survival skills and their heritage.
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. Many of today’s villages were ancient sites that were used as seasonal camps and villages for subsistence resources. Historically the Yup’ik and Cup’ik people were very mobile, traveling with the migration of game, fish and plants. The ancient settlements and seasonal camps contained small populations, with numerous settlements throughout the region consisting of extended families or small groups of families.
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. 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 relocations of villages at times in the past. Villages were established in areas where animals and fish were easily accessible. The Bering Sea coast supports abundant resources, including sea and land mammals, waterfowl, and fish. Some scholars have called the coast the cradle of Eskimo civilization.
Qasgik usually translates “men’s house”, the place where men and boys worked, slept, ate, and bathed. It was also the community’s main meeting place. Every man’s place in the qasgiq reflected his social position. Moreover, the social structure of the qasgiq mirrored that of the natural world. Ordinarily the qasgiq was a sod and wood structure without decoration. All males in the Yup’ik/Cup’ik community lived in a qasgiq, or men’s house community center. Boys old enough to leave their mothers joined male relatives in the qasgiq; where they lived, worked, ate, bathed, slept and learned how to be men. Women prepared and brought food to the qasgiq. Ceremonies, singing, dancing and events usually occurred in the qasgiq, thus making it a community center. Women and girls lived in an ena, which had architectural features similar to the qasgiq, although the qasgiq was twice as large. Bearded seal or walrus intestine provided a removable skylight window. Like most other winter dwellings, the qasgiq and the ena shared the distinctive, partially semi-subterranean winter entrance passageway, which in the ena also provided space for cooking.