Forces of Change

Igor Krupnik

How many words for ice and snow can you think of?

Yupik-speaking Eskimos on St. Lawrence Island, Alaska, for example, have some 100 terms for sea ice and ice formations. But these terms only existed in the spoken language until local elder, Conrad Oozeva wrote them down in 1986 in his “sea ice dictionary” for use in Yupik language classes at local schools.

Recently, Igor Krupnik of the Smithsonian‘s Arctic Studies Center helped to rework Oozeva’s list into an illustrated dictionary with English translations. Krupnik explained, “Native experts . . . have a very coherent and ‘fully scientific’ vision of weather and ice regimes. There is a lot to learn from this unique knowledge of elders, by polar scientists and by younger Native generations alike.”

Vadin Yenan (right) consults with community elder Chester Noongwook (left) for illustrating the Yupik Sea Ice Dictionary (2004).
Photo Igor Krupnik © Smithsonian Institution

These illustrations are some examples of Yupik sea-ice terms with illustrations by Vadim Yenan.

The main term for ice. Also, the ice-covered Bering Sea.
Floating pressure ice ridge. Ice piled higher than neighboring ones. (Pressure ridges form where two pieces of sea ice push together.)
Stream of dense ice carried by north or south current or pushed by low tide.  Dangerous to walk on.
New ice formed within cracks in an ice flow. Good to walk on.