Yup’ik Museum Preserves Culture

By Tony Homsy and Erin Kurvers

In many modern day United States cities, it is not uncommon to encounter people stating they are 10% Polish, 15% German, 25% English, 20% Dutch, 10% Italian, and 20% Irish or some other combination of countless cultures and heritages. The recipe of heritages go on and on to the point where some people give up in trying to define a single cultural heritage.

Yet in Bethel, AK, the probability of finding a similar situation is much more unlikely. A small town in southwest Alaska, Bethel is one of the few places in the United States in which the native culture of the Yup’ik people is still visible in the everyday lives of the people living there.

Brian McCaffrey, one of the few non-natives of the town recognizes the incredibility of this, “There’s almost no where else in the world where you have an entire cultural group living in an area that is virtually in tact ecologically and in many respects still practicing practices that have gone on for centuries or millennia.”

One of the ways in which the Yup’ik people have worked to preserve their culture in a rapidly changing world, is through the Yupiit Piciryarait Museum.

The Yupiit Piciryarait Museum is the only museum of its kind in the Yukon delta region of Alaska. Founded in 1965 and containing around 2,500 cultural artifacts, the museum serves to remind the Yup’ik people of where they came from.

Eva Malvich, the museum director said, “The Yupiit Piciryarait Museum was put here because elders wanted people to know that even though we look a little bit different, maybe our diet has changed and we’re now working in a western society, we’re still Yup’ik people, we’re still relevant, we still value our subsistence lifestyle.”

Through the various exhibits that Malvich coordinates for the museum, she hopes to educate the younger Yup’ik generations as well as non-native people on the richness of Yup’ik culture.

The Yup’ik native said, “Our lifestyle is relevant and very important to us and we’d like to educate people on who we are and why were here.”

Melavich displaying the moravian children's home exhibit
Malvich displaying the Moravian children’s home exhibit

The museum has housed numerous exhibits in order to stimulate cultural education and honor the lives of generations past. For example, the museum’s most recent exhibit, featuring the work of Bethel local, Katie Baldwin Basil, is focused around honoring the many Yup’ik childhoods spent in the Moravian Children’s home.

While the event has been successful, Malvich explains that with every collection the museum faces difficulties. The extreme isolation of Bethel as well as technological setbacks are examples of problems that she cites.

The museum director said, “We have basic word on our computers, we have little printers just like in an office, we have a limited collection in the back as well, so we rely on people to donate objects or give objects on loan to us to show.”

Despite the setbacks, the museum hopes to build up a repository and hopefully gain more recognition throughout the community.

The museum is a nice beacon of hope for the preservation of culture in a country where distinctive heritage is slowly disappearing.

View the feature film here: The Yupiit Piciryarait Museum–Bethel

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