Thirty years ago, Eskimo was the commonly used term for arctic peoples around the globe. Today these peoples in Canada and Greenland are usually designated Inuit, while in Alaska the term Eskimo is still used to distinguish this group from other Native populations. This population is further subdivided into two groups: the Inupiat (Inupiaq in the singular) for Native Alaskans from the north and northwest, and Yupik and Siberian Yupik for those in the southwest and St. Lawrence Island.
As a Siberian Yupik growing up on St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea, I heard stories of the other Siberian Yupik people who lived in the forbidding Soviet Union. But nothing that I heard prepared me for my first meeting with one. For forty years the Cold War had cut off all communication and travel in the Bering Sea region. Before then, since time immemorial, the Siberian Yupik had moved freely and frequently between St. Lawrence Island and the coast of Chukotka in Russia, a distance of only 40 miles. When the "Ice Curtain" was in place, the two halves of the Yupik population were cut off from each other, but the mountainous Soviet coast constantly reminded St. Lawrence islanders that there were friends and kin on the other side.
It wasn't until 1988 that we began to rediscover those ties, when the Soviet government allowed a "Friendship Flight" from Alaska to the port town of Provideniia in Chukotka. I was among the twenty Yupik passengers on that flight. Shortly after I stepped off the plane, a Native man came up to me and said in Yupik, "I'm from the Kivak clan. Which clan are you from?" I was speechless. Here was a man from a different country, speaking my Native language, telling me he was from the same clan I was!
The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 mandated the formation of regional and village corporations. In response, the Inupiat formed the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation and various village corporations. In addition, the North Slope Borough was incorporated as a home-rule government in 1972. Its primary goal was to provide residents with the same basic services enjoyed by other Americans. Since then, schools, housing, and other service facilities have been built. The regional and village corporations have prospered. Many young Inupiat attend prestigious schools and colleges to learn how successful corporations are run and how governments can benefit people.
Many challenges face the Inupiat today. In addition to having to adapt to changes caused by development, we also need to maintain those values that make us who we are. This means taking the best of what both worlds have to offer and remembering always those values taught us by our ancestors.