Who are the Nunakauyarmiut Tribe?
According to the accepted theory of the settlement of the Americas through a Bering Land Bridge, the ancestors of the Nunakauyarmiut Tribe may have arrived in this area about 12,000 years ago or even earlier. Today, they are known as part of the Central Yup’ik Eskimo of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta Region, and are those separated linguistically as having a Nelson Island (Qaluyaat) dialect.
Like some of the other Native American groups, the Yup’ik Ancestors of the Nunakauyarmiut developed a society dominated by Gens (a family of those sharing the same nomen and a common ancestor – Wikipedia). Within this society these ancestors established a supreme government led by a council of elders. Under this system of governance, members had a right to elect or reject its elders; had mutual rights of inheritance of the property of deceased members; had reciprocal obligations of help, defense and redress of injuries. They had many other rights, including rights to bestow names on its members, and to adopt strangers into the gens, to name a few. The Nunakauyarmiut Ancestors developed a culture which was complex, and through its practice many traditions evolved, one of which was a belief in “Ellam Yua.”
Despite the lack of modern tools, they became adept at practicing their subsistence economy of hunting and gathering. During good seasons they were able to gather, prepare, store or bury large quantities of dried fish, oil, meat and edible plants. During bad years they experienced starvation, but their wisdom and values allowed them to survive. They traded with other tribes both near and far. They also practiced the conservation and preservation of their natural resources and environment, by never wasting, over harvesting or destroying their land and/or waters. The Yup’ik elders call this history “nutemllaq.”
According to our Traditional Chief, Paul John, the first white men came into our region around the early 1900s (‘10s-’20s) soon after which our people started dying off from strange illnesses. About the time when he was 16 (1945), he relates that a governing council patterned after a federal form of government was established in old Chefornak, and thinks that may have happened in nearby communities about the same time, if not sooner. He doesn’t recall when or why statehood came about.
Today Nunakauyak, Toksook Bay, is home to the federally-recognized Nunakauyarmiut Tribe and the City of Toksook Bay. Despite the adoption of the federal and state democratic form of governments, the Traditional Supreme Council of Elders has never been relinquished to this day. Contrary to the often prejudiced and condescending opinions of uninformed outsiders, both past and present, the indigenous Yup’ik, our people are wise, resourceful, resilient, patient and tolerant to a fault. They knew that what was passed down through generations as “nutemllaq” would continue to serve them in years to come. Now, here in the 21st century, we are still adapting to changes in the world around us, but find ourselves struggling to keep our culture and traditions alive. We need help.
If anyone is listening out there, on behalf of ourselves and other communities like us, we would like to make an appeal to those who had and continue to have a direct impact on our lives:
1. United States of America – We are a sovereign people and have been for thousands of years, not because of federal recognition, but because this status was passed on down to us by our ancestors. We humbly remind you that we are not the enemy, nor have we ever been at war against you. On the contrary, we have allowed our sons to be sent overseas to do their part in protecting our country. Bowing down to your great, great grandfather’s endeavors, our rural communities have tried to assimilate themselves into the melting pot of our great country, but they have failed miserably. It is not easy to assimilate to a non-Yup’ik way of life in a world where Mother Nature still rules supreme. As our ancestors did, we still have to respect and work with her to survive. This is why we could not “give up our aboriginal rights” as you asked with ANCSA. Our Yup’ik language evolved from every aspect of our way of life and best helps to define who we are. We will truly become homeless and illiterate if we lose it. Educating our children based on the “No Child Left Behind” philosophy seeks to erase who we are. You have become champions of people all over the world who want to be free from oppression, but please take a look at what you are doing closer to home.
2. State of Alaska – Our elders tell us that our ancestors have always welcomed strangers into our country as long as those strangers showed respect and tried to contribute to our well-being. They also tell us that they can’t recall ever having voted for statehood, yet here we are now, after being designated in 1964 as the City of Toksook Bay. Statehood gave us the right and opportunity through our public servants to achieve economic security for the whole state by developing our natural renewable and non-renewable resources. We did. Our state coffers have filled with thousands, millions and billions of dollars from these endeavors each year since statehood, yet much of rural Alaska is still living in third-world conditions. Here in Toksook Bay, a third of the houses don’t have running water and sewage, our streets and roads are earthen and become muddy when wet and dusty when dry, and the few wooden sidewalks we have are situated in the original site of the village and are falling apart. This year our city government will receive $177,336 for our operating budget from the State Revenue Sharing Fund, and $70,000 more from the federal government. The price of gas is $8.29 a gallon and heating fuel is $7.96 a gallon. Every week when we watch the statewide news streaming out of Anchorage, we hear and watch infrastructure projects being created, renovated, or being planned in urban Alaska. Much of the infrastructure we employ for the betterment of our community has come from the federal government. What little we have received from the State of Alaska has been a direct result of those who advocate for us having had to take you into the highest court, our village schools, the continuation of our rights to subsist, and our rights to child adoption cases are examples. We often wonder when the state is going to look to help us in earnest. We want to remind you of your obligations to the first Alaskans as visiting strangers into our indigenous country. We also want to bring to your attention the fact that the Alaska Range is a natural barrier and boundary between urban and rural Alaska.
3. Religious Organizations – When your missionaries came to convert our indigenous populace to Christianity, they saw a heathen people probably because they had shamans who they might have guessed to be witch doctors, priests or ministers. The missionaries probably didn’t recognize or chose to ignore the fact that the Yup’ik practiced a religion not regulated or controlled by shamans. The reason why the Yup’ik were so readily converted to Christianity was because the foundational values based on a spiritual belief of “Ellam Yua” are identical to those taught by Christ. According to stories passed down through generations, there indeed were shamans who acted and behaved like witch doctors, but there were also good shamans who tried to help their people. But because both types utilized the drum as part of their professional repertoire and because the practice of Kevgiq (potlatches) seemed so wasteful, the early missionaries caused a vital aspect of our culture to be stamped out in some areas. Today, everyone now understands that Eskimo drumming is not an evil ritual and that potlatches are a means of gift sharing between communities. Those communities who no longer continue the practice of Eskimo Dancing (Yuraq) have literally been castrated because of their obedient adherence to the tenets of their adopted faith. We appeal to the modern collective wisdom of the religious leaders of those denominations responsible to undo the mistakes of their early missionaries by encouraging their congregational members to bring back Eskimo dancing.
4. Last but not least, all people of different fields and occupations – Those of you who were welcomed as visitors into our communities and took the time to be with us over the years, whether to study or help us, and have come to really see us for who we are, now understand why we are experiencing so many painful problems. You know that we are not helpless and are not seeking handouts. We can help ourselves if given the means and the chance to do things our way, but our hands need to be unshackled. You understand now that we are being legislated out of our culture, traditions and our collective identity. You know that we are unique and have much to offer and therefore may have come to realize that we are no less valuable than those game species and lands put under federal protection. Get together and help us by educating those around you about who we are.