Alaska and the Eskimos
The United States is known for its diversity — diversity of land and diversity of people. People have immigrated from all over the world to join what has been dubbed “the melting pot”. Since acquiring the region of Alaska from Russia, the U.S. has gained a marvelous addition to this melting pot of cultures and societies.
The natives of Alaska called, Eskimos, are the proud descendants of nomadic travelers, brave sailors, and explorers who have learned to survive in the land of the midnight sun. The first visitors to this harsh environment of the north are thought to be the Tlingits and the Haidas (settlers of British Colombia), the Athabascans (inhabited the Alaskan interior), the Aleuts of the islands, and the Inuit (Eskimo). These people came from Asia across the land bridge which linked Siberia and North America approximately 3000 years ago1.
The Inuit are the remnant of those nomadic tribes who passed through the area — the remnant that decided to stay and live in the arctic area of present-day northern Alaska. The Inuit people can be separated into seven related but distinct cultures. The Inupiat are one of these seven cultures found on the Alaskan North Slope.
These seven distinct cultures speak variations of Inupiaq or Inupik (the word for human) language which links them by accent to their particular territory2. The linguistic similarities are close enough that a speaker can be understood across several territories along the Arctic Circle. For example: A man who knew the Greenlandic Eskimo tongue of Inupik delivered an address to the Eskimos of Point Barrow (Inupiat) after he had been there only one day. There was no difficulty in comprehension for the listeners2.
The Eskimo language is a polysynthetic language2. Polysynthetic means the combination of many elements of a sentence or phrase into one utterance3. Eskimo words are often long and combine many syllables to say what would take an entire sentence of words in English.
Possessiveness is part of the very language of the Inuit. In Inuit culture from the very least object to the vast land, everything has a living owner. Thus, the word for person, inuk, is used in the possessive form inua, ‘its owner’2. The Eskimos by Danish author Kaj Birket-Smith gives another example of the passive and possessive Eskimo tongue:
A sentence such as ‘the woman sees the dog’ cannot be expressed in our way. In Eskimo it is “arnap qingmeq takuva”, actually: “with reference to the woman, the dog, its appearance before her”(2).
The possessiveness can be seen in referring to the viewer (the woman) and the appearance of the dog before her. Also, take note of the lack of a noun/verb distinction. This is one example of the differences between Inupik and the English language.
According to the Summer Institute of Linguistics, in 1990 there were about 3,500 total speakers of Inupiat or Inupik out of a population total of 8,000 and most were over 30 years old4. Most of the younger speakers tend to prefer English.
Into the early 1960s the Inupiat were socially much like their ancestors had in the past. Instead of having a governing chief to make decisions, the Inupiat relied on a the council of elders, who were respected for their age, and skilled hunters. They discussed when to hunt and made the major community decisions in a quasi-democratic manner5. By working together in the fight for survival, the Eskimo have been able to overcome the difficult odds of daily life in the Arctic. The Inupiat are known for their self-sufficiency. Centuries of life in the arctic wild taught the Inupiat to value courage, aggressiveness and bravery.
The basis of the social structure in Eskimo culture has always been the family. During the late 18th and early 19th century, the Inupiat local families were led by a male umialik, translated “boss” or “rich man”6. The umialik was in charge of the local family of hunters and skin sewers who voluntarily joined together for mutual benefits. Note: a family consisted of “autonomous, segmental groupings…” with no external “chief or government…”6. The umialik and his primary wife* were in charge of distributing the food which had been acquired from the hunt 6.
The unwritten law of the Inupiat defines survival as not being an individual act but a collective action of a group5. Even when the meat cellars were full and inter-family assistance was minimal, the Inupiat were helping each other, because one family knew if they helped in one situation; when they needed help, others would help them. Unlike many of today’s modern standards in the U.S., the Inupiat measured the skill of a hunter by how much food he gave away
* According to the more recent information I have gathered, I found no evidence that the Inupiat continue topractice polygamy although it was common into the 19th century.
to those in need, not how much he kept for himself5. A skilled hunter would be able to give much away and still have plenty for himself.
Today the Inupiat continue hunting whale and other arctic animals as part of their culture and for their subsistence even though other food sources are now available. Hunting has long been a form of social interacting and promotion of unity among a group. Continuation of this
tradition helps unify the Eskimos and carry a common bond from generation to generation.
The fifty to sixty-five ton bowhead whale is one of the highly sought after animals among the Inupiat5. Whale oil was used for light or heat while the meat and blubber or muktuk Present day cutting and distribution of muktuk and whale meat by the Inupiat.provided food for the long winter5. A whale hunt was not just for hunters, but involved everyone in the community who was physically able to participate. Once the whale was killed by the hunters, the entire community would take part in cutting it up, and distribute the meat, oil, and muktuk to the respective families. The Inupiat know that unless they work together, they could not accomplish the task of overcoming the whale, cutting it up and storing the food for winter.
Dances and festivals
Arctic towns still hold dances and festivals which originated in celebration of successful hunts. In the past the Inupiat would gather in the meeting house or qargi during the winter for dancing and various contests. These dances often portray stories of a joke, a hunt, or merely mimic something6. Drummers beat out a rhythm on tambourine-type drums and chanted in punctuated “auu yah iah” as the dancer took the floor5. Probably the most famous dance is the nalukatak or blanket toss which celebrated successful whale hunts5 .
Sometimes athletic contests were included in winter celebrations. In Hugh Steven’s book Good Broth to Warm Our Bones, an Inupiat described some of the Christmas athletic contests:
“…the games centered around strength, endurance, and resourcefulness of the kind needed to live and survive in the Arctic. Games like ten-mile round-trip foot race in minus thirty-five degrees. Or standing broad jumps (often across open [ice] leads)”5.
All these activities provided an intimate interaction between the Inupiat Eskimo and fellow members of a village. The Inupiat social structure has built a society very accepting of one another and supportive of everyone. Togetherness is a necessity for survival.
Historically the Eskimo have seldom differentiated between natural and supernatural. They consider what other societies would define as supernatural as being as normal as the world they have come to know so well.
According to the Inupiat, the Great Raven was the first living being. He made the earth from darkness, created the human race (some legends argue whether this was an accident or on purpose) and enjoyed helping the humans by creating fish from alder leaves and making rivers and streams for water7. The Raven is also known as a magical trickster who tricked other mystical beings to help the humans2. The Raven mythology is in no way unique to the Eskimos. The Raven appears in rituals and myth in many ancient societies on both sides of the Pacific2.
Ancient Eskimo beliefs about nature and animals hint of animism. They believe that both man and animal had a soul — sometimes more than one. The concept of reincarnation has been widespread in Alaskan Eskimos. This concept can be seen in many of the New Age beliefs which have been surfacing within the last 50 years.
The Inupiat believed in both bad and good “shadow-people” who were rarely seen by man and would sometime help and other times torture their human discoverers. For the most part they were thought to be dangerous beings although they sometimes helped the religious shaman (angatquq) with sorcery2. The shaman were held in much the same status as the umialiks who were the leaders in the village6. The Eskimo held a belief that an “underworld” existed where the dead went and lived in warmth and comfort2.
The word sila is Inupik for an unseen force. It is sometimes called Pinga, that is “he up there”. A shaman once described Pinga as, “ so indescribably mighty that his speech is not heard in ordinary words, but through gales, snowfall,… — through all the forces feared by man.” But sila is also powerful enough to speak to a child without causing the child to fear6.
Other powerful forces ruling religious beliefs include semi-deities like the “lady under the sea” who controls the animals coastal Eskimos need for survival. She must be appeased when angry or the people will starve. The “man in the moon” was thought to rule the land animals and punish man’s disobedience2.
Russians in the late-1700s settled in Alaska as fur traders where they set up an outpost on Kodiak Island in 1784 8. Following the traders in the early 1800s came the Russian Orthodox priests with efforts to spread the Orthodox creed2. Even, today in the city of Sitka, typical Russian Orthodox churches stand as distinct monuments of this era8.
Birket-Smith reported in The Eskimos that the desire to spread Christianity was taken lightly among many of the Russians. Financial gain was their main concern. However, a few mission stations were established where the “missionaries” attempted to impart at least nominal belief in the natives. Despite confusion with money and power some Eskimos were reached with Christianity and have retained some of the Orthodox faith. This can be seen especially among the Aleutian Eskimo2.
In the 1960s missionary/translator Don Webster reported revival sweeping through the village of Wainright beginning in the Pentecostal church and spreading into the Presbyterian church as well5.
Christian churches, universities, and ministries can be seen throughout Alaska, yet much more work needs to be accomplished in the spreading of the Gospel. The Eskimo need to know Christ and the relationship God wants to have with them personally. Because of the many negative influences the white outsiders have brought, some Eskimos see them as the villains who destroyed their ancestors through violence and alcohol and stole their land.
Those who wish to minister to the Eskimos and other Alaskans must live their lives as open honest witnesses of the love of Christ9. Through friendships which are genuine and day-by-day discipleship, the people of Alaska can be reached by Christ.
History of Alaska
Alaska has a colorful history which filled with sailors, gold rushes, explorers, and false and true claims. The history of Alaska includes claims to this rich land, not only by miners, but by several nations.
Peter the Great was Czar of Russia in 1724 when he sent a Danish explorer, Captain Vitus Bering, to explore east of Siberia8. Captain Bering discovered the Sea and Strait which bear his name and became the first white contact with what would later become known as Alaska. Capt. Bering visited the Alaskan mainland in 1741 and established Russia’s claim to this naturally rich land8. On the return trip Bering died but his sailors returned to Russia bearing the rich furs which prompted the exploitation of Alaska and the Eskimos8.
As mentioned in another section of this paper, this Russian influence was the beginning of many changes for the Eskimos. Many abuses of the Russian explorers hurt the Eskimos physically, sociologically, and environmentally. Eskimos were slaughtered in some places, forced to work for the explorers, and made to pay taxes in furs to others2. It wasn’t until the Russian-American Company was commissioned by Czar Paul I in 1799 that the Russian fur trade took on a semblance of order in Alaska.
United States of America
The Crimean War of the 1850s led Russia to fear that Britain might capture Alaska so a deal was made with the United States of America2. The Russians sold Alaska to the U.S.A. for $7,200,000 in 1867. Since then, the natural resources which have been recovered have paid this back more than 44 times2. After the transfer, the U.S. ruled Alaska with the Army and the Navy until civil government was established in 1884 when Alaska became a district8. Eventually Alaska became the 49th State in 1959 8.
The discovery of gold in the Klondike region of Canada in 1896 brought thousands of prospectors through southeastern Alaska on their way to what they hoped would be quick riches. This gold fever spread into Alaska when gold was found near Nome on the western coast and the Fairbanks region became filled with prospectors8. The rapid influx of residents of Alaska did little good for the social environment. The era was full of exciting busts and booms and a liberal share of violence. The drinking problems which began with vodka under Russian rule and turned to whiskey under the United States continue to be a social problem. Ty Schemanski, who was born near Anchorage, said alcoholism continues to be a social problem. Many Alaskans look down on the Eskimo for using their governmental grants for games of chance like bingo and for alcohol16.
War gives advances
World War II and the postwar years prompted military and political interest into the soon-to-be state. Attacks on the Aleutian Island chain during World War II and the closeness of the Soviet Union across the Bering Strait caused military concern about the safety of Alaska. The Alaskan Highway was completed in the fall of 1942 connecting vital military bases with the “lower forty-eight” via Canada. The Alaskan Highway is still a beautiful route used by many tourists during the mild summers to explore the rugged countryside.
The Cold War with the Soviet Union throughout the 1950s and 1960s was also a reason for rapid development of the Alaskan transportation systems and military installations. Many of those military bases are still active.
Climate, Geography, and Economy
Alaska is a state of rugged diversity. From the icy arctic to majestic mountain peaks, forested slopes and thousands of islands, Alaska has many natural wonders to offer the willing viewer.
With a land mass of 591,004 square miles, Alaska is the largest state in the Union (compare to Texas’ 266,807 square miles)8. Yet this vast state is ranked 49th in population with only 551,947 inhabitants in 19908. That is less than one person per square mile.
Alaska covers a vast area of land and contains four distinct natural regions: The Arctic Slope, The Rocky Mountain System, The Interior Plateau, and The Pacific Mountain System.
The Arctic Slope Region
Located within the arctic circle is the Arctic Slope Region. Boarded in the south by the Brooks Mountain Range, the Arctic Slope is barren treeless tundra with little precipitation10. Temperatures range from -56 to 78 F degrees averaging 40 in the summer. During the winter wind chills can cause frostbite to exposed human skin in a matter of seconds.
Barrow is a small city sitting beside the Arctic Ocean on the Arctic North Slope It is the northernmost city of North America. Barrow is located at the peak of the north Arctic Slope 725 air miles from Anchorage11.
BARROW HOMES (2)
Lacking Complete Plumbing 45%
Lacking a Telephone 21%
On Public Water System 96%
On Public Sewer System 49%
Using Septic Tank/Cesspool 4%
Other Sewage Disposal 46%
Primary Heat Source ——- Utility Gas
The city has a population of 4,276 of which 2,144 are Eskimo and particularly Inupiat11. Three schools, including one high school, one middle school, and one elementary school, teach 1,257 students and employ 99 staff members11.
Oil operations and support services as well as increasing tourism are the primary occupations. Some residents still raise reindeer herds as their relatives have since 18922. State and federal sources contribute 126 jobs11.
The median family income is $65,948 11. Unemployment is at 11.3 percent11.
Land and sea transportation provide seasonal access to Barrow, but regular jet services are the only means for year-round access.
The Rocky Mountain System8
Bordered on the north by the Brooks Mountain Range, the Rocky Mountain System is a ecological transition zone of forested slopes as the land descends to the Interior Plateau to the south.
The Interior Plateau
With a span larger than the state of Texas and reaching to the west coast, the Interior Plateau is a rolling land with forested slopes, marshes and grasslands. Average winter temperatures reach -55 F degrees, but the short summers can bring 21 hours of sunlight and temperatures of up to 100 F degrees8. During the summer the subsoil remains frozen, but the topsoil thaws creating marshes and lush plant life.
The Yukon River flows through the Interior Plateau on its nearly 2000 mile trek from Yukon Territory, Canada to the Bering Sea. Before the Alaskan Highway was completed in 1942, the Yukon River was the primary transportation route for central Alaska.
The largest city in the Interior Plateau is Fairbanks. After beginning as a trading post in 1901 and the rush of prospectors during the gold rush, Fairbanks has become the second largest city in Alaska.
Fairbanks is nearly in the center of the state. It lies 358 road miles from Anchorage and only three air hours from Seattle, Washington. Fairbanks is accessible by road vehicle, train and air. Several main highways connect the city to Canada and the Alaskan Highway provide access to the lower 48 states12.
The city has 31,633 residents who are primarily non-native. Seventeen schools teach 10,039 students ranging from kindergarten to 12th grade and employ 568 staff members12.
Fairbanks occupations are primarily provided by government services including the nearby Eielson Air Force Base and Fort Wainwright where 4,428 personnel are employed.
FAIRBANKS HOMES (12)
- Lacking Complete Plumbing 0.60%
- Lacking a Telephone 20%
- On Public Water System 98%
- On Public Sewer System 98%
- Using Septic Tank/Cesspool 0.90%
- Other Sewage Disposal 0.20%
- Primary Heat — Fuel Oil, Kerosene
The median family income is $33,968 12. Unemployment is at 12.3 percent12.
The Pacific Mountain System
Arcing across entire southern coast of Alaska, the Pacific Mountain System contains a variety of life and land forms. Known for having a warmer climate than most of the state, the southern Alaskan coast is warmed by ocean currents and wind from the Asian mainland. The region is very mountainous and includes the Alaskan panhandle which borders the Canadian mainland.
The Coastal Mountains rise nearly at the ocean’s edge and an underwater mountain range makes up the beautiful islands of the Alexander Archipelago. In the north the Alaskan Range form beautiful peaks and include the tallest mountain (20,320 feet) in North America — Mount McKinley8.
Located near the center of the Alaskan panhandle is the state’s capital city — Juneau14. Since its roots as an Indian fishing camp, Juneau has grown through gold mine booms and now tourism into the third largest city in Alaska with 30,209 residents of whom 12.9 percent are natives.
Ten schools teach 7,258 students ranging from kindergarten to 12th grade and employ 325 staff members13. The economy in Juneau is supported by government agencies and the ever increasing tourism industry. Governmental jobs account for nearly 45 percent.
- Lacking Complete Plumbing 2%
- Lacking a Telephone 11%
- On Public Water System 78%
- On Public Sewer System 80%
- Using Septic Tank/Cesspool 14%
- Other Sewage Disposal 4%
Primary Heat — Fuel Oil, Kerosene of the area employment and tourism contributes greatly to the private economy during the summer months. Tourists provide about $130 million and 2,000 seasonal jobs to the economy. The median family income is $54,088 13. Unemployment is at 5.3 percent13.
Juneau can only be reached by air or sea. No roads provide access. The city owned Juneau International Airport provides both land and seaplane facilities. The Alaska Marine Highway System and various cargo barges provide maritime service throughout the year13.
Juneau is located in the mildest climatic zone in all of Alaska. Average summer temperatures are in the mid-50s and winter at about 20. Average snowfall is 101 inches — just shy of 9 feet13.
The largest city in the entire state is Anchorage which is located in south central Alaska near the head of the Cook Inlet. Average temperatures in January are in the mid-teens; in the summer, temperatures average in the 60s.
The area was developed extensively after gold was discovered in the Alaskan Interior. Military operations from 1939 to 1957 sparked construction of roads, airports and harbors across Alaska including Anchorage. Since the Trans-Alaska Pipeline was created, oil has been the lifeblood of Anchorage.
The population of Anchorage is 254,269 with only 6.4 Lacking Complete Plumbing 0.60%
- Lacking a Telephone 15%
- On Public Water System 86%
- On Public Sewer System 87%
- Using Septic Tank/Cesspool 12%
- Other Sewage Disposal 0.04%
Primary Heat ———– Utility Gas
ANCHORAGE HOMES15 percent being natives15. The people are supplied with jobs through the oil and gas industry, finance/real estate, transportation, communications, and government agencies located in the city. More than 9,000 military personal are located at Fort Richardson and Elmendorf Air Force Base. The median family income is $50,098 15. Unemployment is at 7.3 percent15.
Anchorage has 79 schools serving 43,980 preschool through 12th grade students and employing 2,854 staff members. Airport facilities include the Anchorage International Airport, a float plane base as well as facilities at the Army and Air Force bases. The Port of Anchorage includes service for several barge and trucking companies and the Alaska Railroad cargo. Railroad connects Anchorage to Seward, Whittier and Fairbanks.
Ministry in Alaska
Statistics say: in 1994 suicide killed more 15- to 19-year-olds than car crashes. In Alaska the suicide rates for teens is more than twice the United States average17. As part of the proposed internship and through the Oral Roberts University Missions Department, I will be ministering through a variety of means in an effort to reach the Alaskan and Eskimo alike with the love of Christ.
Our contact in Alaska has begun setting up opportunities for Team Alaska to fulfill the needs of locals through manual labor. I anticipate that I will be ministering through a daily witness both on and off the job and to the youth through dramatics and friendship evangelism. These forms of evangelism help to provide in the area of activities which seem to be lacking in many regions of Alaska. Also, I will be responding to social stereotypes they have of me by showing that the friendships I build are not for the resources they may have but for their sake in terms of eternity.
v Evangelistic/Ministry Strategy
After compiling the information from Part I and speaking with ORU students who have lived in Alaska, I better understand the need for ministry in ways which take into account the cultural background and survival attitude of Alaskans. I do not want to present a relationship that lasts only as long as the time I am in Alaska but a friendship that Jesus Christ and the relationship they can have with Him which lasts more than a lifetime. By knowing the historical, religious and social background of the peoples of Alaska, I have an understanding for how Christian efforts have worked or failed in previous attempts to minister in Alaska
By using the information I have gained from Part I, I can use culturally relevant ideologies to be a witness for Christ. For example: The Eskimos have learned to rely on each other in good times and bad. This concept can be used to present the constant relationship they can have with Jesus Christ as the umialik or boss they can count on Him to stand by their side in the good and bad as long as they voluntarily submit to Him.
I anxiously await the opportunity to meet and speak with the people of Alaska. I know that I have only scratched the surface with this paper so I’m looking forward to letting Alaskans touch my life and helping God touch them.
1. DuFresne, Jim. Alaska — a travel survival kit. Lonely Planet Publications,
Singapore. July, 1994.
2. Birket-Smith, Kaj. The Eskimos. Translated by W.E. Calvert.
Methuen & Co. Ltd. London. 1959.
3. Morris, William, Editor, The American Heritage Dictionary. Houghton Mifflin
Company, Boston. 1978.
4. Grimes, Barbara F., Editor. Ethnologue 13th Edition.
1996, Summer Institute of Linguistics, Inc.
5. Steven, Hugh. Good Broth to Warm Our Bones. Crossway Books, 1982.
6. “People and the Land: Early Years.” Adapted from Norman A. Chance, The Inupiat
and Arctic Alaska (1990), Harcourt Brace.
7. The Raven’s Aviary – Fiction etc. Native Legends “In the Beginning,” and
“Northwest Creation Story.”
8. Compton’s. “Alaska,” “Juneau,” and “Yukon.” Compton’s New Century
Encyclopedia and Reference Collection II. Version 4.0. CD-ROM.
1992-1995 Compton’s Learning Company
9. Wilson, Eric. Personal interview. 13 February 1998.
10. “The Arctic.” Bell’s Alaska Travel Guide. Online. 1997
11. “Community of Barrow.” http://www.alaskan.com/
12. “Community of Fairbanks.” http.//www.alaskan.com/
13. “Community of Juneau.” http://www.alaskan.com/
14. Map of the World. American Map Corporation, 1993.
15. “Community of Anchorage.” http.//www.alaskan.com/
16. Schemanski, Ty. Personal interview. 26 Feb. 1998
17. Health Beat “Steering teens away from suicide,” April 19, 1994