The St. Lawrence Island Famine and Epidemic, 1878–80: A Yupik Narrative in Cultural and Historical Context

Aron L. Crowell and Estelle Oozevaseuk


A collaborative study of the Smithsonian Institution’s ethnology collections has inspired the narration of Alaska Native oral traditions, including Yupik Elder Estelle Oozevaseuk’s re-telling (in 2001) of the story of Kukulek village and the St. Lawrence Island famine and epidemic of 1878–80. The loss of at least 1,000 lives and all but two of the island’s villages was a devastating event that is well documented in historical sources and archaeology, as well as multiple Yupik accounts. Yupiget have transmitted memories of extreme weather, bad hunting conditions, and a wave of fatal contagion that swept the island. The Kukulek narrative, with origins traceable to the late nineteenth century, provides a spiritual perspective on the disaster’s underlying cause, found in the Kukulek people’s disrespect toward the animal beings that sustained them. This paper explores the cultural and historical contexts of this narrative, and contrasts it with Western perspectives.

  • Aron L. Crowell, Arctic Studies Center, Department of Anthropology, National Museum of Natural History, 121 W. 7th Ave., Anchorage, Alaska 99501

  • Estelle Oozevaseuk, General Delivery, Gambell, Alaska 99742