Culturally Responsive Science Curriculum


Traditional Yup’ik Learning

By Esther Ilutsik

The following is an excerpt from Sharing Our Pathways, Volume 4, Issue 4 newsletter published by the Alaska Native Knowledge Network


Let’s take a look at a traditional Yup’ik learning situation. In the past, the Yup’ik people learned a lot by participating and observing. This does not imply passive observing as defined in the Webster Dictionary (to watch attentively), but rather immersing yourself in the activity. This could be with immediate family or extended family members or at the community level. Consider the following scenarios:

Scene 1

A young girl plays near her mother as her mother is making a squirrel parka. She is playing with her dolls. Her mother gives her some scraps of fur to make a simple piece of clothing for her doll. She tries her hand at sewing with her mother showing her how to thread, to make a knot and doing the first few stitches for her as she observes (this time the Webster definition is valid.) Then she finishes what her mother started and has her help with tying the knot.

Scene 2

The young girl is outside playing with a few older girls as well as girls her own age. They are all seated in a circle each with a yaruin (a story knife) and are taking turns telling a story. She watches as the other girls draw a squirrel parka detailing all the parts of the parka, sharing the stories and meaning behind each design and pattern. She also draws as she watches and listens. When it is her turn, she is helped by the other girls.

Scene 3

The young girl is with her mother and father at a gathering and observes and listens. She notices that her mother and father greet certain people as relatives. She notices that the parkas that they wear are all similar. One part of the parka stands out as the important symbol that signifies relationships. She also notices that those with the most similar designs are invited to the home as overnight guests.

Scene 4

The young girl is a little older and again sits with her mother as she sews a parka. The girl indicates to her mother that she would like to make a small parka for her doll detailing some of the family patterns. The mother shares with her the most significant part of the parka design, then shows her how to make it and has her make one for her doll.

These scenes are played out over-and-over again until the young girl has reached marriageable age. She has all this knowledge, experience and practice which she brings to her early years of marriage and now, with her own family, continues the cycle.


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