Siberian Yupik Culture on Private Alaskan Island (we found reindeer!)

Oct 09, 2022 199.9K Views 674 Comments

Far from the Alaskan mainland is a Native-owned island where the locals live in a world of their own, mainland Russia is their closest neighbor. Join me as we venture up into the mountains in search of reindeer and learn how the Siberian Yupik people live in their extreme and stunningly beautiful environment.

► Video edited by: Natalia Santenello
► Researched by: Kymberly Redmond

[door opens]
[door closes]
Here we are.
Savoonga, Saint Lawrence Island.
Far from the Alaskan mainland.
30-something miles to Russia,
that direction.
Today we’re gonna
meet up with some locals
who are gonna take us way up
into those mountains in search of reindeer.
When’s the last time
you saw a reindeer, Jason?
-Uh, a few months ago.
When I was heading down to whaling camp.
-Whaling camp? How far is whaling camp?
-It’s about 30 miles, or 35 miles, or so.
-And that’s where you
hunt the whale every year?
-Yeah.
-Every spring you get one whale, right?
-One or more, yeah.
-One or more.
And that…
-We get six or seven strikes per year.
-And that feeds the village for the year?
-Yeah.
[four-wheeler]
♪ mellow acoustic guitar ♪
PETER: So Jason, I just realized
you’ve never lived around trees, huh?
-No.
-There’s not one tree.
-Nope, there’s bushes though.
Some bushes on the
east side of the island.
-You said yesterday
you were out on this point?
-Point down there, yeah.
-What were you doing out there?
-I was digging, excavating.
-You find anything cool?
-Yeah, I found small chunks,
scraps, and teeth, couple artifacts.
-‘Cause that’s an old village
out there, right?
-Yeah, used to be an old village.
-Try this, it’s pretty good.
I was messing with you.
-Take it off and suck on that.
-Oh, just eat the buds?
-Yeah.
Do you taste it?
-Mm-hmm.
Mild taste, you know.
PETER: Yeah, is this where the story ends?
I get poisoned on Savoonga,
you guys take off?
[all laughing]
-That’s kinda f*cked up.
-I know.
The reindeers eat me.
[all chuckling]
ADORA: No, I used to do that growing up.
-Were you born on the island?
-I’m born here and raised on the island.
When I was growing up our first language
was our language, Siberian Yupik
but now it’s English first
but it’s kinda…
-How do you feel about that?
-Right now I am saying
I am very sorry the language,
a beautiful language
is going to be lost if we don’t teach it.
-It is beautiful.
-But there’s still…
It’s still preservable
if we do something about it.
-So when you and Adora speak,
if you were together,
you’d speak Yupik, right?
-Fluent, and that boy, and her kids too
but me, Jason, and Baibai.
We’re fluent.
-[Adoris speaking Yupik]
-And we’d speak Pig Latin too.
-Can we hear some Yupik?
-Yeah.
[ladies speaking Yupik]
Is that too much?
-It’s beautiful.
It’s like poetry, it’s like a song.
-Yeah.
When I hear the men talk,
they’re, like, singing.
-[intrigued] Oh.
-And because they’re out in the ice
and they’re talking about how exciting…
About their hunting, whatever.
They’re more like singing than women.
-You have one of the most beautiful places
I’ve seen in the world.
I’ve been to 85 countries.
-It’s ancient.
-Your what?
-It’s just back there.
-How ancient?
-Very ancient.
Our great-grandmother,
when all the villages
around the island still lived,
she was a little girl.
They were going camping.
They stopped by
when our camp still had people there
and their traditional playground,
model of an igloo still.
The girls brought her there to play
and then years later she got married
to our step-grandfather
and he built a house there.
There’s weight lifts,
traditional jumping stones,
traditional weight lifts.
Traditional Aztec-like exercising ground
that nobody can play anymore.
-I was telling you about that.
-Yeah.
When did the first Yupik people come here?
-There were people here,
probably before that and most, later.
After that, our clan came from Siberia.
-How many years ago was that?
-That was like thousands?
-I think the latest people that came
probably would have came
about 1800s or late 1800s.
Close to 1900s.
-Yeah.
Do you feel very fortunate to live here?
-Yeah.
We’re so happy we’re Americans,
not from up there.
We would probably have
different kind of life.
-If you were Russian?
-Yeah.
-‘Cause Russia’s
not even 40 miles from here.
-Mm-hmm.
-Do you feel connected to the United States
or you feel like
you’re in your own country?
-Both ways.
-Okay, yeah.
-Because we’re isolated.
When pandemic came…
-Yeah.
-We followed their rules
and then we tell them, the older people…
We…
Even some older people from me,
when they said something to,
“Oh, the way I feel.”
We tell them and they follow our ways of…
Because long time ago
when the Russians used to come down
they would build a big fire…
…and make torches.
And they heated every person
before they set foot on the island in Gambell.
-They burned every person?
-No, heat.
-Oh.
-With a hot torch
and they heat women, children…
Uh…
Then finally to their stuff.
Then finally their oars
and everything before they…
And they said nobody used to get sick.
Islanders rule the island.
[Peter chuckles softly]
We don’t let Washington, D.C. rule.
-Good for you.
-That’s…
And I’m so glad she’s working.
I’m proud of what
they’re doing with the IRA.
She used to be my student
when she was in junior high.
-Okay, no it’s…
-You guys will become leaders
one of these days.
With brains…
I used to, when I’d teach my culture,
I go from the past, to modern
♪ somber acoustic guitar ♪
[splashing through puddle]
[music continues]
[footsteps in snow]
-All right, guys,
just want to get out of the wind here
and make some observations.
Only been here two days on the island.
As you can see, stunningly beautiful.
But as far as the culture goes
it’s been a real eye-opening experience
just to see how
these people are so connected.
That’s what happens
when you’re on an island
in a village of under a thousand people.
Everybody knows everybody.
I’m sure the harsh conditions
make people really tribe together
especially in the winter.
I’m sure there’s problems.
Sure some people don’t get along.
That’s the way humans are
but overall it’s just been
very warming to be taken in here.
Everyone’s been
very cool to me, very friendly.
You know, they don’t have to be.
I’m the odd man out
coming onto the island.
The one guy that doesn’t
look like everyone else
and nothing but friendliness.
Very humbling.
So we’re gonna continue looking.
Guys are saying they still think
we can find reindeer.
Even if we don’t, we found this.
-No man, I’m good.
-You got yetis?
-Yeah, that’s what they say.
‘Cause back then, my cousins,
they were riding…
You know the windmills?
-Uh-huh.
-They were riding that way and they
thought they seen a fox and they shot at it
’cause the eyes were real close
when it stood up, the eyes…
Said it was 12 feet long.
Next day later, they seen big footprints.
-So you’re saying that’s a yeti?
-Something like that.
Abominable snowman, they call it.
[four-wheeler]
PETER: That’s reindeer, yeah?
How old do you think this one is?
-It’s still pretty white so…
-And the fur is down here.
-Probably spring time or winter.
-What do you think happened?
-Looks like someone killed it
must be from the predators.
JASON: Wolf or wolverine.
PETER: So you guys are always living
with life and death here, huh?
-Yeah.
I’ll wear it and they’ll come.
[laughter]
[four-wheelers]
PETER: So you think
a herd just got attacked up here?
-Probably did, yeah.
By wolves.
Oh yeah, you can see.
-There’s worms in there?
Oh, that right there?
-Yeah.
-[yells]
PETER: Ahh.
[all laughing]
Got me.
You finally got me, you finally got me.
-Did you catch that on recording?
-Yeah.
[all laughing]
You finally got me,
that was like the tenth try.
So when you kill a reindeer,
is there a ceremony?
Is there anything that you do?
Is there a prayer?
ADORIS: You know, back then, when
they used to kill seals and walruses,
they used to pop their eyes.
So they don’t…
-So they don’t see it?
-You put water in their mouth… seal.
A drink of water
so the seal won’t get thirsty.
-You give the seal water
so it doesn’t get thirsty?
-Mm-hmm.
-When? Before you kill it?
-After.
-After you kill it.
You see Quyngiq?
-Yeah.
-Straight.
How many of ’em?
-There’s lots, look.
-Where am I looking?
-Across.
-Beneath the snow?
-In here and then look
straight across from where I’m at.
-Those are tascos.
-There they are.
-Now they’re moving.
How many do you think that is?
-Yeah.
-…The other group’s going this way.
-Yeah.
-That is massive.
-Hey, bro, check on your gun,
I’ll try shoot from here [chuckles].
ADORA: They’re smart, they’re all over.
PETER: When’s the last time
you guys saw a herd like that?
I mean, not me uh…
TANON: I’ve seen like a herd of 100 over.
TANON: …a couple of weeks ago.
JASON: Spring time.
JASON: …when I was coming back
from whaling camp.
That’s when we’ve seen a couple of herds.
I hopped on, turned it on
[four wheeler sound]
And my husband scolded me
[laughs]
Yeah, they’re following the wind.
So you were pretty close last year to the…
Very.
If I wasn’t scared I would have…
You know, take my phone and…
But instead I had to go on a
Honda and gun it [laughs].
[pop music plays]
TANON: Go down to that mountain
to get a better view of the bigger herd?
ADORA: This way it’s no good.
This trail
ADORA: You see the Honda trail?
[four wheeler]
[footsteps in water]
PETER: Oh, that’s pretty cool.
It’s like walking into a freezer.
[exhales]
So beautiful.
BOY: Ahubak?
Where’s Ahubak?
[adults chuckling]
Okay, you guys are teaching me Yupik?
-Mm-hmm.
-Suka.
-[Yupik]
-Suka, not the Russian meaning,
means, “Hurry up.”
[all laughing]
-Yeah.
Yeah, it means hurry, up, shuka.
-Okay.
ADORA: Try to say our longest…
[Brenna speaks Yupik]
[Yupik]
-Try to say that.
-What does that mean?
-Say it… [Yupik]
[Peter laughs]
-What does that mean?
[all laughing]
-It’s like, we are
supposed to say thank you but…
[Yupik]…is thank you.
[Yupik] …is short.
-You have very long words.
-Mm-hmm.
And my full big name is…[Yupik]
-How many letters is your name?
-Ten hundred.
[all laughing]
[water dripping]
ADORIS: I’ve heard stories
back then from the elders…
Those little men…
-What are they?
-We don’t know what they are.
They always see ’em.
Not just here in Savoonga,
in other villages too.
The one they’ve seen here
and the one and [village name],
they both had seal skin…
and a…
Like a tall hat made out of seal skin too.
Growing up, my grandparents
taught me about them.
If you see them, don’t ever try to catch
or throw anything at them or something.
‘Cause they’re very strong.
PETER: What is their purpose?
What are they doing?
They just show up?
PETER: Okay.
You seen ’em?
-My niece seen them
when she used to work at school.
Daybreak, daylight…
-Broad daylight.
Like 8:00, 9:00 in the morning,
she went to work, to school.
-Mm-hmm.
-Going up the stairs, she’s seen
these small, little man just standing there.
All black.
You know…[Yupik]
Like, torn up…
-Clothing.
-Clothings.
Teared up or something.
-Okay.
-But she didn’t see the face,
it was all black.
My brother, my oldest daughter,
they’ve seen…
…some tall, some small with long tail.
Gray, and some are black.
Green, red eyes.
Every time, every year,
we used to go camping to our camp.
One time my youngest brothers
were playing out… Playing hide and seek.
And then when it was getting dark
they went back to the cabin
and one of my brothers were not there.
They keep yelling out his name.
No respond.
But they only told my dad about it
and my dad told them
not to tell his brothers.
‘Cause they were older than him.
So they went to go yelling out his name.
And after that my brother
told his brothers…
…that my brother, Miller, Lake Miller
was not responding
to their yell or whatever.
Maybe after that they came…
He came and they asked him,
“Where? Where have you been?”
And he told them that…
Them little people were… You know…
When he was trying to go back.
-They wouldn’t let him go back?
-Yeah, trying to…
…take him somewhere like that
but I guess when they heard
the adult voice they went away.
[rocks splashing]
PETER: They say don’t be scared of ghosts?
-Cause once you are scared of them,
they’ll bother you more.
And one thing, they could tell us is
to say “In Jesus’ name, go away.”
-Just tell ’em to go away?
-In Jesus’ name.
-In Jesus’ name? Okay.
After they’ve passed away,
you’ll feel your loved ones
come back into your life?
Like, they’ll touch you gently or…
…hug.
I was playing phone and laying down
and then I felt somebody
really hug me from my back.
-Okay.
-I didn’t even bother
to look back or anything.
‘Cause knowing maybe
she’s saying goodbye to me. [laughs]
-Okay.
[gentle rain]
-They made a movie about him
and a story about him.
-Mailman by dog sled?
-Yeah.
He used to bring mail
from here to Gambell by dog sled.
-I’m sorry, your husband’s
grandfather, right?
-Dad.
-Dad?
Not even that long ago.
-Hm-mm.
Back in the ’70s I think.
-’70s, it was dogsled mail
all the way to Gambell.
Which is far?
-Mm-hmm.
-Wow.
-And one time he stopped at…
Somewhere over there…
And he heard something behind him like…
[breathes heavily]
Getting louder and louder.
Even his dogs were barking at…
So he just got up, went out,
started his dogs, and didn’t look back.
PETER: It was an animal or it was a spirit?
-He didn’t bother to look
but he said that it was a
big heavy breathing behind him.
-[Peter whispers] Wow.
-And one time he was going and…
He noticed he was up in the air,
going around with his dogs.
-Uh-huh.
Up in the air?
-Yeah.
-Wow, so he would, like,
hallucinate or something?
-That area somewhere,
I think it could tease you or something.
-Oh, okay.
-Like in fog you would try to go…
…but same, same way back and forth but…
For what we heard,
if a man or a female pees, it will go away.
-Pees?
[four-wheeler]
PETER: Most perfect rainbow
I’ve ever seen in my life.
One of the most beautiful places.
Almost midnight, still light out.
Some sprinkles, some snow.
Some beautiful grass and greenery.
Lava…
Those are volcano cones over there, huh?
JASON: Yep.
-Everything’s volcanic here?
-Yep.
-So vibrant, these colors.
Private island.
It’s all for you guys.
[Peter chuckles]
Thanks for bringing me into it though,
I really appreciate it.
Couldn’t have gotten here without you.
[dirt bike speeds past]
All right, guys, we’ve come to the close.
The search for reindeer,
and I feel like we sort of accomplished it.
You know, I thought
it was gonna end at the skulls
but we saw them through the telephoto lens.
Okay, it would’ve been better
to pet them but let’s be realistic.
What an adventure, what a place.
Got a little education
about Siberian Yupik culture also
and some of the most beautiful scenery.
Definitely the most beautiful rainbow
I’ve ever seen.
So thanks for coming along on that journey.
Have a couple other videos
from this very fascinating…
[dirt bike speeds past]
Very fascinating island.
Everyone seems to be out and about.
It’s 1:00 in the morning.
I think they just get in
as much summer as possible.
So other videos about this very special,
beautiful, spiritual, powerful place.
With that said,
I’m going to the old medical clinic.
Where I’m gonna catch some Z’s.
All right, guys, until the next one.
♪ somber acoustic guitar ♪

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