Yup’ik dolls help teach cultural and traditional lessons

A group photo of the sewers in the Doll Making Class sponsored by KuC. Photo taken on June 29, 2018. Photos courtesy of Nita Rearden

by Nita Yurrliq Rearden

Dolls in the Yup’ik culture have been very important for mothers when teaching daughters traditional cultural values. Yup’ik mothers used to direct or ask their daughters to put their traditional dolls away in a safe place on the first snowfall.
People believed that dolls should be put away during the winter weather months to prevent strong blizzards or storms. If the weather changed suddenly during winter, high winds and blizzards occurred that lasted for several days. Elders in communities knew or sensed that someone in the village had taken their dolls outside. Interestingly, there are stories of those who did not follow the beliefs and teachings of traditional mothers, and that’s when the winter weather turned bad.
Traditionally, it was safe to take dolls outside to play when the first goose arrived in the spring. Children were then allowed to play outdoors with their favorite, often homemade dolls, throughout the spring and summer. When dolls were placed outside during warmer months, the weather was not affected.
Mothers used these traditions to teach their daughters how to care for their dolls, how to be responsible for their own possessions and how to care for their children when they got older. Young girls learned to sew in the winter months when dolls were put away. Mothers instructed their daughters in the skills necessary for sewing clothing for their dolls, a skill that they would need as young adults. Mothers also took time to sew adult fur clothing in the winter months, creating an environment for further instruction.

Three generations of doll sewers. From right are Nita Rearden, her daughter Sara, and Nita’s granddaughter with their dolls.

Traditional dolls were also used to teach family kinship roles. Families who had many different fur scraps, sewed dolls for their children, and were considered wealthy, good providers and instructors.
Family dolls included grandparent(s), parents, siblings, and a baby. The extended family dolls helped children learn how to address their mother’s and father’s sisters, brothers and cousins.
Lessons taught from playing with family dolls reinforced traditional family relationships and modeled ways for families to work together. While playing with dolls, daughters learned how families helped one another by sharing their food with elders and relatives. They began to understand that hard work increased self-esteem as well as feelings of being a successful person.
Also humor, an important value, played a strong role when dolls were used. Daughters learned about humor and how humor can be an integral part of working and playing together. For example, doll play demonstrated family relationships, and families teased one another in close kinship relationship. Humor could demonstrate familial love and nurturing. Humor also became an important component when family members worked to solve small misunderstandings among each other.
Doll play can incorporate lessons for teaching Yup’ik values. Such lessons could include: 1) respect for the land, water, and animals; 2) cooperation with family members and extended family members; 3) spirituality; 4) social skills; and 5) proper behavior when visiting and traveling to different communities.
Many elders even today can share stories or events from their own experience with dolls, the values that can be conveyed through this activity. Inviting Elders to share these stories can help students understand the important role of dolls in Yup’ik culture.
This is written in Pilinguat: Fabric Doll Making by Nita Rearden with the Lower Kuskokwim School District.