There are several genetically and culturally related indigenous groups in the far arctic regions, who have historically been described in North America as Eskimo. Very broadly speaking, they are Yuiit / Siberian Yupik (also known as Chukchi in Siberia), Iñupiat and Central Yup’ik in mainland Alaska, Inuit in Canada and, in Greenland, Kalaaliit. All of their self-designations roughly translate to “the People” or, in the case of Central Yup’ik, “the Real People.” They share common language roots and can sometimes understand one another’s dialects, albeit with some difficulty, considering their having spread across more than 3,000 miles of territory. It is commonly understood that they are all the direct descendants of the Old Bering Sea cultures that thrived in the Bering Straits more than 2,000 years ago (probably much longer than this, but their significant archeological record begins around 300 BCE, at least in terms of artifacts of artistic production). Yuiit, Yup’ik and Iñupiat villages remain to this day along coastal Alaska and Saint Lawrence Island, exactly where their ancient forebears lived. Further away, Inuit and Kalaaliit represent an offshoot of late Old Bering Sea culture, namely the Thule, that migrated eastwards beginning approximately 1200 CE, coinciding with a warming climate periods and advancements in hunting technology (specifically, the use of dogsleds and archery). Thule cultures were among the first of the arctic peoples to develop the systematic hunting of whale, and their pursuit partly accounts for the great distances they eventually traveled.
Old Bering Sea cultures were practitioners of shamanism, within a belief system based on the concept of the spiritual interconnectedness of living beings, relating animals, humans, and their shared environment. Their wonderful carvings in walrus tusk ivory offer innumerable examples of transformation figures, in which birds and animals of prey are represented in varying aspects of one another. In them, we often see humans combining with caribou or seal or walrus, in some cases hybrids of three or more creatures in one manifestation. Tracing back through documented practices of the Yuiit, it is thought that Old Bering Sea shamanism conceived of their world as being populated by a fixed number of spirits who inhabited animals and humans interchangeably.
This fundamental spirit is referred to as the inua in most cases, or the yua among the Yup’ik peoples, but the linguistic derivation is similar and it is the essential root term of self-designation for the cultures themselves. It was therefore essential to treat one’s hunting tools, and especially one’s prey, with respect and ceremony in order to appease the yua or inua of the hunted animal. Survival depended upon an animal’s recognition that a hunter was deserving of its body, because its spirit would return to inhabit another animal and would remember whether or not that hunter, and his descendants, had been dutiful. Also, since spirits could travel freely between species, a hunter might in fact encounter a direct ancestor on his next hunt. This concept of spiritual continuity provided a sense of balance and order to the arctic way of life, and one acted, as one’s ancestors did, in constant harmony with the living in order to ensure the continued survival of the village.
In this context, a variety of animistic traditions had been practiced for centuries, becoming formalized, refined, and adapted from place to place. In the 19th century, when numerous outsiders began coming to the Alaskan territories as traders, explorers and—in great numbers during the gold rush—miners and Christian missionaries, some witnessed elaborate seasonal dancing, storytelling, and drumming ceremonies.