Yupik Hunters Make Long Overdue ‘Native-To-Native’ Trip From Russia To Alaska By Boat

After 14 years, Siberian Yupik from the Chukotka Peninsula in Russia, who prefer to be called Chukotkan, finally made their trip that covered at least 70 miles of open sea to visit their relatives in Gambell, Alaska. The Yupik hunters’ trip began at 5 am in the hunting village of New Chaplino, Alaska Dispatch explained.

According to Edward J. Vajda, in a paper written for Western Washington University, Yupiks from Chuckotkan are no longer referred to as Siberian Eskimos:

“Eskimo groups in Siberia call themselves ‘Yupigyt,’ a term which means ‘authentic people’ (from yuk, person). In the past they have also been known as Asiatic Eskimos. The Eskimos of Alaska’s St. Lawrence Island belong to the same cultural group as Siberian Yupik “

The Bering Sea trips between Russia and Alaskan were restricted for the Yupik relatives because of rules from the two nations that took over their native lands. The relatives from both sides of the sea maintained their trips to visit their relatives through the 1930s. In the 40s though, the director of the FBI ended the family trips because of assumptions that some of the Chukotkan Yupik travelers might be Russian spies. This month’s visit between relatives marks a revival of an ancient tradition for the native villagers.

John Waghiyi, a 59-year-old Gambell resident, invited the hunters to Alaska. He told Alaska Dispatch, “This is a monumental time for the island.” He was able to watch reunions between cousins and siblings that were long overdue. The Yupiks from Russia brought gifts of Russian bread and dish sets. A welcome dance was held on the Alaskan side for the Russian relatives.

Linguist Michael Krauss, formerly of the Alaska Native Language Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, said, “People on both sides (of the border) spoke exactly the same language, the dialect even. The language is the same even today.”

Though some visits still occurred, sanctioned visits across the borders were not made until the Friendship Flight of 1988. Clayton McDowall, who worked on St. Lawrence Island in the seventies, admitted, “‘Sanctioned’ visits didn’t happen, but visits? Oh yes! Marriages across datelines were not unknown either. It was great that politicians cold wars didn’t destroy — or even know about — the positive and continuing relations in that part of the Arctic.” After some dangerous trips on the sea between Russia and Alaska, Russian officials again restricted travel. Two years ago, the rules loosened again, and the Yupik relatives immediately began planning their trip.

The trip, which involved border issues, was made possible through an arrangement called “Native to Native, Visa-free travel.” Some paperwork was still involved, unlike their trips from the natives’ history. Visitor’s passports still had to be submitted to the Department of Homeland Security, for example. The Yupiks traveled from Russia to Alaska on Russian skiffs that are about 16-20 feet in length. The boats are powered by 100-plus horsepower motors, according to the Alaska Dispatch. Meanwhile, some Alaskan Yupik people on St. Lawrence Island can still recall their relatives from Russia arriving from their trip across the Bering Sea in skin boats.

[Photo via Alaska Dispatch on Facebook]