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I am Yup’ik: discovering my past and present

August 1, 2014

All of us who work as part of the student excavation crew seem to be drawn here for a myriad of reasons. Mine appears to be rather unique. I am seeking to uncover some of the mysteries of my Native heritage. I’m a student from the U.S., and I go to Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington state. I’m also Yup’ik, the only Yup’ik who is part of the student excavation crew.

As a typical American, I’m a mix of ethnicities. I was raised in a Mexican American household, without much connection to my Native heritage. Part of my mission here was to uncover some of my origins, and learn about the Yup’ik culture. I’ve found out a lot about that already, with help from my friend Mike Smith and a Yup’ik elder John Smith.

Within a few days, everyone in the crew knew my ethnicity, and I had native Yup’ik people who knew who I was before they’d met me. There were times when at the site Mike (who is Yup’ik) would yell across to one of his friends and tell them “He’s Yup’ik!”. Everyone seemed really surprised that our culture had spread so far into another state.


Aaron uncovering the burnt layer in Area C

When I first started talking to Mike, he agreed to help me try to track down my origins. All I knew at the time was my grandmother’s name, who was the last Native Yup’ik to be here before me. I talked to John Smith, and we narrowed the town my grandmother came from to Akulurak, which is now called St. Mary’s. This is particularly interesting, because that means I may be the direct descendant of the people from the Nunalleq site. I never expected to have such an incredible opportunity, or even to have so much success in my mission already, despite having been here for less than a week. I’ve grown to be quite proud of my origins, and I will continue to seek more knowledge.

Currently Mike is teaching me the Yup’ik language, and some of the old stories and practices. John Smith, who is a master carver, is going to show me some of his incredible skill and teach me the significance of carving to the Yup’ik.

I think this all goes to show how wonderful the people here are. The folks from the village are exceptionally friendly, open, and helpful whenever I’ve sought to learn more. The crew members have all supported me in my mission, and extended their compassion and concern whenever I had questions about the site, or how the Natives and archaeologists work together. This is truly a special place, and a special project, with some of the greatest people I’ve met.

Aaron McCanna

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Eva Malvich permalink
    August 9, 2014 03:45

    hello I work at the Yup’ik Museum in Bethel, we have access to alot of documents relating to the people in this region. I’m heading down there soon for a visit. welcome!

  2. August 19, 2014 12:00

    Akulurak was a Catholic Mission village but I do not believe it is modern St. Marys. Akururak was located on or below the mouth of the Johnson River. It was access from the Kuskokwim. The are many photos available in the state and Jesuit archives of this mission.

  3. March 25, 2017 03:12

    Yes, Akulurak was a Catholic below modern Bethel on the Johnson River a tributary of the lower Kuskokwim or a near by slough. The mission, school and orphanage would later be moved to the Yukon River to the Andreasky River tributary. My wife attended the boarding school there in 1979. Both missions found homes for many orphans. The measles outbreak of 1946, the T.B. epidemic of 1948 to 1965 and other epidemics left many orphans in the Y-K Delta. You are likely one. You are in a good place at Quinhagek, Look up books on Amazon by Ann Fienup-Riordan including +Bow and Arrow Wars.

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