Siberian Yupik arrive in Olympia en route to the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition on September 27, 1908.

  • By Jennifer Ott
  • Posted 2/04/2009
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 8913

On September 27, 1908, six Siberian Yupik families disembark at Olympia on their way to the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific (A-Y-P) Exposition. The exposition, Washington's first world's fair, is to be held on the University of Washington campus in Seattle from June to October 1909. Exhibits at the fair will highlight West Coast resources, agriculture, and manufacturing along with that of other countries around the Pacific Rim. Much of the entertainment will purport to educate visitors about the cultures of the Pacific, such as that of the people they called Eskimos.

From Eastern Siberia

Captain A. M. Baber of the North Star Trading Company brought the Yupik families from the Cape Dezhnev area of eastern Siberia to be part of the Eskimo Village attraction on the Pay Streak, or midway, at the fair. They joined two other groups in the village, each of the three representing a different degree of assimilation into the European-American economy through formal education. Those from Cape Dezhnev were least-assimilated, having had no formal education of the non-Yupik sort.

Since the late nineteenth century, world's fairs in the United States had featured exhibitions of people labeled Eskimos. They included members of several different tribal groups. The Siberian Yupik at the A-Y-P were the first people from a non-North American group to be included. Members of the Deermen, from the interior, and the Sealmen, from the coast, made up the group of 34. Their villages, near the easternmost point of Siberia, Cape Dehznev, do not appear on maps today.  Captain Baber made contact with the groups through his trading for the North Star Trading Company. Although they were the least-assimilated of the groups that made up the Eskimo Village, they had had contact with American and European traders; one of them had worked for Baber in his Siberian warehouse.

Who Were the Yupik?

Although Baber lumped them with other Eskimos, a name that none of the groups identify with today, a newspaper article heralding their arrival demonstrates that at least some people understood that cultural differences separated the Siberian Yupik from the Alaskan groups. The article states that the Siberians are, "called Eskimos from the similarities in costume and habits with the natives of the Northern part of North American, yet they are racially widely different" (“Siberians Come from Arctic for A.Y.P. Fair”). 

This is not to say that the Seattle newspapers understood the complexity or history of the Yupik. In attempting to portray them as "unspoiled" and "natural," that same article notes that although European and American cultures have evolved, "through all the thousands of years of development the Siberian natives have been the same." Yupik culture had evolved along its own lines, of course, but the idea of Yupiks as primitive and unchanging fit neatly into imperialist attitudes prevalent in American society at the time, particularly following the acquisition of Hawaii and the Philippines as American territories.

Exhibits of native people had been part of expositions since the late nineteenth century. Partly this desire to learn about, and gawk at, foreign people stemmed from European colonization of African and Asian lands. People wanted to see who inhabited their newly expanded empires. The development of anthropology also spurred interest in such exhibits. Although it seems artificial to display people and hope to understand anything meaningful about them, the thinking of the time defined the inhabitants of the colonial areas as less evolved and simpler. So uncomplicated, in fact, that they could be understood through an exhibit on a midway.

Putting on Shows

Baber intended to install the Yupik at an abandoned fishing camp on Hood Canal in tents made of animal skins, so they could spent the winter fishing and hunting. They had to travel to the Pacific Northwest a half-year early because Arctic ice closed navigation to their home until July and the exposition opened in June. It appears, however, that they traveled around the West and Midwest putting on shows of their athletic skills and other abilities. The Eskimo Village at the A-Y-P had examples of igloos (made of plaster) and canoes.

Once the fair opened, the Yupik took their place in the Eskimo Village concession.  There they lived under the gaze of exposition visitors for the course of the fair, demonstrating their traditional handwork and games.

Life After the A-Y-P

The Siberian Yupik returned to Siberia shortly after the exposition. Captain Ellsworth Luce West, in his memoir about his years at the helm of the steamship Corwin, described the leg of their trip from Nome, Alaska, to North Head on St. Lawrence Bay, Siberia. The Corwin's crew transferred the 150 Yupik and their 50 tons of baggage to his ship from the Puritan, which had brought them to Nome.  In return for their work at the A-Y-P, they had been paid in goods, including bolts of calico and ticking, sugar, flour, canned goods, hand sewing machines, guns, and ammunition. According to West, "The bulk of the stuff, however, consisted of tin cans and kerosene drums such as they used for cook and had apparently been picked up at the city dumps" (West and Mayhew, 144-145).

On the voyage across to St. Lawrence Bay, West talked with Joe, one of the Yupik. West remembered Joe talking about his wonder at how there was enough meat to feed all the people he had seen in Seattle. Joe also predicted that after he had told his brother, who was still in Siberia, of all that he had seen his brother would say "You one dam' liar." Upon their arrival at North Head, the returning Yupik were welcomed home by what West described as "the happiest crowd I ever saw in my life" (West and Mayhew, 145).

After the fair, it appears that Captain Baber gave up trading in the Arctic. A 1916 New York Times article places him in the Bronx, starting construction on an amusement park.


Sources: Paul Greenhalgh, Ephemeral Vistas: The Expositions Universelles, Great Exhibitions and World's Fairs, 1851-1939 (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1988). 82, 87, 101; Robert W. Rydell, All the World's A Fair: Visions of Empire at American International Exposition, 1876-1916 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), 139, 199; Edward J. Vajda, "Siberian Yupik (Eskimo)," East Asian Studies 210 website accessed July 20, 2008 (http://pandora.cii.wwu.edu/vajda/ea210/aleut.htm); "Bronx Amusement Park,: The New York Times, April 30, 1916, (nytimes.com); "People of the Ice Basking Under Southern Suns," The Seattle Times, October 4, 1908, Magazine Section, p. 5; “Siberians Come from Arctic for A.Y.P. Fair,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 1, 1908, magazine section, p. 8; "Captain Ellsworth Luce West as told to Eleanor Ransom Mayhew," Captain's Papers: A Log of Whaling and Other Sea Experiences (Barre, Massachusetts: Barre Publishers, 1965), 144-145.
Note: This essay was expanded and corrected on August 20, 2009.

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