A taste of Toksook Bay, Yup’ik culture and a way of life
The community of Toksook Bay has been preparing for visitors for weeks. Today is the launch of the 2020 US Census and some fifty people are expected. That’s a huge number for the village of 661.
The first task will be to transport everyone from the runway into town.
“We don't have very much by the way of trucks and stuff like that. So we're going to be using what's available,” said Charles Moses, the Nunakauyak tribal court administrator. “We're going to be using the school truck, our [the tribe’s] truck, the city’s truck and then some private trucks as well as some snowmachines, ATVs and trailers. They're going to be bringing all the people to the school because that's where they're staying.”
Moses said that’s a common arrangement for visitors. He said: “The principal tells them, ‘If you're willing to sleep on the floor, you're welcome.’”
There are no restaurants in Toksook Bay, so for most meals, people look to the school for food.
“Everyone’s working together on this,” said Dora Nicholai, the Nelson Island school secretary. “The city, the tribe, the school, the corporation,” said Nicholai. “We try to work together when there’s an event to celebrate, even the CVRF [Coastal Village Region Fund, a regional fish operator], and the two stores.”
“We want them [the visitors] to learn about our Yup’ik culture and our way of life,” said Moses. “We're going to entertain them traditionally, with Eskimo dancing.” He caught himself. “Which actually, we're Yup’ik, we don't use “Eskimo” anymore [the preferred terms are Yup’ik, Inupiaq, Cupik, etc.].” He continued, “We’ll have traditional dancing for 45 minutes. Then we're going to be doing a potluck. We're going to be cooking our subsistence food and we're going to let the visitors try them.”
The gathering and sharing of food of traditional foods is important in Toksook Bay where the food supply is rich.
“We get different animals,” said Moses. “We get moose. We have muskox. From the sea, we get seals, walrus, whales and different types of fish, winter fish.”
Tuesday’s menu is likely to include “walrus soup, moose soup, fish baked or fried, fermented seal, seal oil, fish — any types that we subsistence fish.” said Nicholai. “Herring is the main delicacy. It’s the first thing that most of the people will try to harvest, the herring fish. Some smoke it, some freeze it.”
“Our practice is whenever we go out, whether it be for moose, for land animals or the sea animals that we catch, we all share with the community,” said Moses. “So we replenish what we use. And then we give to those who are unable to go out. We share what we catch with them. It's always been that way. It's a traditional practice.”
The sharing of food and dancing are just a few of the Yup’ik traditions that have been practiced for thousands of years. “We try to encourage our kids to keep our language. We’re a two-language school,” Nicholai said. “We teach them in Yugtun, that’s our language, and in English. We keep our culture alive through teaching, subsistence, our culture, and our hobbies.” In addition to Yugtun immersion classes, the school teaches traditional Yup’ik dancing.
Respect for elders is another Yup’ik value. Villagers picked village elder Lizzie Chimiugak to be the first person in the nation to get counted in the 2020 census. She’s 89 and has been staying close to home. “We're hoping she'll be well enough to be able to be up there [at the school],” said Moses. Otherwise, census officials will visit her home to fill out her census form.
The US Census Bureau starts the census in Alaska almost three months earlier than in the rest of the country. That’s to catch people before they head to fish camp or summer jobs, and to take advantage of the easier access the frozen ground provides. And the ground is frozen in Toksook Bay.
The weather looks to be good today, storm-free and not too cold. “Right now it’s warmer than two weeks ago,” Nicholai said. “We’re probably in the aughts [single digits]. It’s not below zero.”
Facts about Toksook Bay
The most recent count of Toksook Bay residents shows a population of 661 people, with 44 percent under the age of 18. The village is 94 percent Yup’ik, 2.2 percent White, and 3.2 percent mixed race.
Toksook Bay is the largest village on Nelson Island, which is 42 miles long and 20 to 35 miles wide. The three villages on the Bering Sea island are linked by snowmachine trails across the tundra.
Toksook Bay is 114 miles west of the regional hub community of Bethel, which has a population of 6,500. That’s a 20-minute flight in a small plane. Bethel is 400 miles west of Anchorage, or a one-hour flight by jet.
To people outside Toksook Bay, probably the best known resident is 21-year-old singer/songwriter Byron Nicholai. He has thousands of followers on his “I Sing, You Dance,” YouTube and Facebook pages. He has performed in Greenland, Canada, the lower 48 and Alaska. He sings in Yupiit to promote use of the language among young people and help preserve it for future generations.
Joaqlin Estus, Tlingit, national correspondent for Indian Country Today, is a long-time Alaska journalist.
Byron Nicholai performing the title song of his album “I am Yup’ik,” or “Wiinga Yup'iugua”