“And if it’s not dead little halibut, watch….” Helen motioned for filmmaker, Beth Edwards to point the camera at her face to make sure Edwards captured her biting into the head of the fish with a resounding crunch. This experience was Edwards’ first interview in Hooper Bay, Alaska.
Hooper Bay or Naparyarmiut is the largest native Yup’ik village in southwestern Alaska. Of the 1023 village inhabitants, 62% are under 18 years of age. With the majority of the village being so young, traditional ways of life are diminishing by the lure of western culture, technology, and language. Children wishing for McDonald’s and movie theaters, while at the same time loving their close knit community, are faced with the decision of staying in the village or moving to a larger town or city. With over 80% of the village on state or government assistance the prospects for the future of the village are pretty grim. If a young person decides he or she would like a higher education, it more than likely means not being able to return to the village and pursue his or her chosen field, due to lack of opportunity.
The Yup’ik Way follows members of the community as they struggle with the cultural issues of living on the Alaskan tundra, growing environmental concerns, and the evolving definition of what it means to be Yup’ik.
In Hooper Bay, it is very common for inhabitants to have their first child while still in high school. The Yup’ik Way introduces us to Joy, a young single mother, trying to raise two children under 2, while also struggling to complete high school and living with her family of 13, including her siblings, grandparents, children, and mother. Her boyfriend, seeking a better job market, has left the village, moved to Anchorage, and left Joy alone to raise their children.
The Yup’ik Way also follows Shaun, 21, as he earns a living for his family making a local illegal alcohol called home brew. Trying to combat alcoholism in Hooper Bay, village officials stopped the sell or import of alcohol into the village, over five years ago. However, Shaun needs to continue selling home brew to support his family. Having not completed high school and with only a few seasonal jobs available, Shaun sees this as an opportunity and isn’t apologetic about his choice of occupation.
“It’s not a very rich village money wise, but our elders always have told us we are very rich people because of the way we are and the way we live our lives,” said tribal administrator Elmer Simon. Holding on to their culture is becoming increasingly difficult; through the help of the Yup’ik immersion language program at the local school and youth/elder activities, Hopper Bay is trying to find solutions and encourage the growth of their culture. The Yup’ik Way takes the viewer into the classroom, traditional Yup’ik dance practices, and subsistence activities.
Neva and Helen, sisters and elders of the village, watch as the young people of the community try to navigate their way through two worlds, questioning if modern life is actually best for their people. Helen Smith observes that “lots of things are missing. Right now young people, they don’t want to believe in Yup’ik way. One of them answered me, ‘we can’t believe it, and we’re living in a modern style.’ That’s not right, modern style. Did their parents ever tell them about the Yup’ik way?”