The Inupiaq and the St. Lawrence Island Yupik People, or “Real People,” are still hunting and gathering societies. They continue to subsist on the land and sea of north and northwest Alaska. Their lives continue to evolve around the whale, walrus, seal, polar bear, caribou and fish.
Archaeologists are confident that the Bering Sea region was the birthplace of Eskimo culture, although it is unclear where exactly it began. Archaeologists investigating the history of cultures around Bering Strait have found clear evidence of the movement of Asian peoples into northeastern Siberia and their subsequent migration into Alaska and the Americas; dates from stratified cave sites begin as early as 35,000 years ago, and 12,000 years ago, the first well-dated stratified sites appear in Alaska, on the Nenana River. The Iñupiat people have been living in Barrow Alaska for 4,000 years.
The Pleistocene, or Glacial era, characterized by a series of northern glaciating and the appearance of human beings, took place about 2 million years ago, ending about 11,000 years ago. Many of the animals represented in the painting were living up here about 10,000 years ago. Not all the animals are extinct. One of the species that survived the Pleistocene era is the musk ox. The mastodon was living in the Arctic as late as 3,800 years ago, alongside of the Inuit. Displayed bones were found at the Ikpikpak River 60 miles up inland from Barrow. Iñupiat elders were instrumental in identifying the Iñupiaq names for these animals.
Different groups of people have crossed from Siberia into Alaska, and the Inuit are probably one of the last groups of people to have crossed. Uncovered artifacts, about 14,000 years old, are similar to those found at other sites throughout North America and South America.
Traditionally, Iñupiat lived in semi-permanent coastal communities located at good hunting places. In fact, Barrow’s traditional name, “Ukpiagik,” means “the place for hunting snowy owls.” While mostly whale and seal hunters, the Iñupiat also hunted caribou, fish and waterfowl from inland areas. The Inuit have stories about hunting the mammoth, other large game animals and small game animals such as the musk ox, caribou, wolves and other Arctic species native to the region at that time. Pink and chum salmon, cod, inconnu and whitefish were fished whenever ice formed; herring and crab and halibut were also caught. Birds and eggs formed an important part of the diet.
A large sealskin covered boat, called an “umiaq,” was used for summer travel, bartering, and hunting whale and walrus. An umiaq usually measures 20 to 30 feet and is able to carry 10 to 12 people and a ton of cargo. Dog sleds were used for winter travel. The kayak, a closed skin boat, is typically for one person. The basket sled is used for land travel. A flat sled is used for hauling large skin boats across the ice, and small sleds attached to the bottom of a skin boat transport the watercraft across ice. Snowshoes are used in interior regions.
The traditional Inupiaq and St. Lawrence Island Yupik tool kit had a variety of stone, wood, bone and ivory tools made for butchering, tanning, carving, drilling, inscribing, sharpening and flaking. The bow drill was an important tool, used for starting fires, drilling holes in wood, bone, ivory. Hunting equipment included a sophisticated package of toggle-headed harpoons, lances, lines, and seal bladder floats used for the bowhead whale hunt. Seal skin floats are used for whale hunts, as are water-filled seal bladders which attract and lead bowhead whales closer to the shore. Other tools include scratching boards for attracting seals to breathing holes, bows, arrows, spears, spear throwers, bolas for taking birds, and snares. Fishing gear includes nets, traps made from branches and roots, and hooks.
Traditional clothing consisted of outer and inner pullover tops (parkas or kuspuks / qiipaghaq – the outer garment); outer and inner pants, socks, boots (kamiks). Tops and pants were made of caribou skin, with the fur facing inward on inner garments and outwards on outer. The woman’s pullover had a larger hood for carrying small children, except on St. Lawrence Island, where they do not carry the baby in the parka. Gloves were made from various skins, with the fur turned inside and usually connected with leather strip around the neck. Waterproof outer garments made from sea-mammal intestines completed the wardrobe.
The Inupiaq used a variety of designs and materials for their living quarters, but three key features were common: an underground tunnel entrance below the living level to trap cold air, a semi-subterranean structure, using the ground as insulation, and a seal-oil lamp from soapstone or pottery, for light, heat and cooking. Homes were usually made from sod blocks, sometimes laid over driftwood or whalebone and walrus bone frames, generally dome-shaped. They insulated their partly buried bone and wood house structures with sod blocks cut from the tundra. The shape was usually rectangular, except on St. Lawrence Island where the houses were circular of varying sizes. The rectangular houses generally were 12-15 ft. x 8-10 ft., holding 8 to 12 people. In the summer many of these houses flooded when the ground thawed, but most people had already moved to their summer camps. Food was kept frozen by storing it in ice cellars dug deep into the frozen ground. They were able to stay warm by eating whale blubber and seal oil and wearing skin clothing.
One important aboriginal Inupiaq institution uniting family members was the community house called qargi, a kind of family gathering place and work area. Although an overturned boat placed downwind on the beach could serve as a simple qargi, the structure was usually a building of some permanence. Prior to the arrival of Christian missionaries in the 1890s, every Inupiaq settlement had one or more of these ceremonial houses. Children joined the house of their father, and on marriage a woman transferred to that of her spouse. During the day, it was a common meeting place for boys and men; girls and women commonly spending their working hours in family houses. In the evening, the qargi became the family social center where members and friends regularly played games, told stories, danced, and participated in various rituals. With the opening of the ceremonial season in the fall, men spent much of the day there in work and recreation. Wives brought them food and sometimes remained to join in games and dancing. Occasionally men and older boys slept in the qargi as well. Recreational activities reached their peak in mid-winter. Games of physical strength, gambling, storytelling, and string-figures were common. Friendly competition between different qargi groups was encouraged, and formalized in wrestling matches and contests in weight lifting, jumping, chinning a bar, miniature bow and arrow shoots, and kickball. Another regular wintertime activity of the qargi was dancing, which took several forms. Some dances, limited to men, portrayed a particular event such as the search for polar bear or a joke played on a friend. Women’s dances were usually more static, consisting of rhythmical movements of hands and body performed in a given location. Sometimes couples danced in unison or as part of a larger group. Mimicry in a dance was also common, the target being anyone the dancer wished to mock. Accompaniment was provided by several drummers, beating tambourine-type drums and chanting. The blend of the beat and rhythmical rise and fall of voices, punctuated with shorts of auu yah iah quickly drew qargi members to the dance floor. In the larger villages, two or more local families occasionally joined together in an arranged feast, dance, or athletic contest. In these communities, poorer Inupiat households might be allowed to observe or participate in qargi events of more well-to-do families in return for their maintaining the building, running errands, or otherwise assisting the owners.
The major social entities comprising these differing districts or localities were networks of large, bilateral extended families, each composed of three to four generations, and each containing numerous married siblings and often cousins. Since the size of the family was usually too large for a single dwelling, adjacent houses were utilized by “domestic families.” In ecologically less favorable districts, local families might include a dozen or so members whereas in highly productive areas, local family size could reach as high as 50 or more. Major population centers such as Point Hope and Point Barrow, located along sea mammal migration routes, contained several large local families clustered in distinct locations or neighborhoods, each set linked together by various kinship ties. Politically, these families were autonomous, segmental groupings, roughly equal in status, with no external chief, council, or other recognized form of government capable of exerting control over them. Internally, a well-defined hierarchy did prevail, based largely on relative age, sex, and a sufficient number of younger siblings and cousins to make the elder
statuses meaningful. In most instances, these elders served as advisors rather than day-to-day decision-makers.
The male family head was an umialik, often translated into English as boss or rich man. All umialiks and their wives were considered bosses within their own local families. But to become a umialik required a large local family composed of many active male and female hunters and skin sewers. As holders of considerable wealth and high social position, these successful umialiks were powerful leaders, a trait shared only with the religious shaman (angatquq). Indeed, many umialiks were shamans as well. Though not accorded formally defined authority, they regularly won the right to lead through their personal attributes of hunting, trading, and human relations skills, energy and wisdom. These qualities were what gained them their following and their following was what provided them their wealth. Such qualities were requisite to keeping such a group intact since membership was voluntary and could change at any time. Among members of a given family, mutual aid was the norm.
In larger families, the food obtained from hunting, fishing and gathering was turned over to the umialik and his wife (nuliaqpak). She, particularly, kept track of what was available, what was needed, and what could be redistributed to others. Hence, the larger the family, the greater the redistribution process, and the more extensive the power of the umialik and his primary wife. Highly successful umialiks could further expand their families, and therefore wealth, by obtaining one or more additional spouses. Thus, the only factor limiting the expansion of family size other than capability of its members, was the availability of local resources. Over several generations, some families were able to command far more goods and resources, while others, smaller in size, had less. Small families resulted from various factors such as accidental death, poor health, weak management, and limited hunting skills. But whatever the cause, fewer relatives meant less people to count on in time of need. In the larger settlements, such as the whaling communities of Point Hope and Barrow, this differentiation culminated in a recognizable system of stratification whereby a small number of families were able to attain more wealth and power than those less well endowed. Such power was not hereditary, however. As climatic or other natural events brought about a significant reduction in the available food supply, or as less competent umialiks assumed leadership, the mantle would pass on to more fortunate or more capable families.
Cooperative hunting also linked families together. Notably, in such endeavors, the individual recognized as being the most skilled hunter assumed leadership of the given enterprise, irrespective of family membership. Given the importance of maximizing success in hunting, choosing the most knowledgeable individual within the larger group to lead the effort was a far more effective approach than limiting the selection to a member of one’s own family. Once harvested, the game was then divided among the individual participants according to a precise set of rules overseen by the group leader (ataniq). When returned to the hunter’s family, the game would then enter the family redistribution system. Following a successful whale hunt, Inupiat families would distribute maktak (whale skin with blubber) to other community members. Nalukataq is the celebration of a successful whaling season featuring a blanket toss, public feast and dancing.
From June and early July when the ice left, some North Slope coastal Inupiat spent their time at seal and duck hunting camps, while others headed east for the trade fairs at Nigliq on the Colville River and at Kaktovik on Barter Island. Most Inlanders also moved down to the coast just after breakup in late June or later. July called for another move to the fish camps although men spent much of their time hunting caribou. Later in the season, women turned to harvesting large quantities of berries and other vegetable products. Farther south, the residents of Kotzebue Sound spent their late spring hunting the beluga, a small white whale of 12 to 14 feet in length that frequented the area in large numbers. With the end of the beluga hunting season, and after the women had finished drying the whale skin and blubber (maktak) and storing it in pokes, the people could turn to less strenuous activities including participation in the large trade fair held at Sheshalik on the north shore of Kotzebue Sound. This fair involving two thousand or more participants, regularly included boatloads of people from Siberia as well as inland and coastal Inupiat. Local trade goods such as pokes of oil, seal, whale, and walrus meat and maktak, ugruk skins and rope, were exchanged for Russian tobacco, regional specialties such as jade, pottery and Siberian reindeer skins, beads, caribou skins and furs. Social activities included dances, athletic contests, feasts, and more serious negotiations between members of different localities concerning disputes of the recent past.
It is often thought that prior to the arrival of Europeans with their guns and whale bombs, the available land and sea mammal population could easily support small aboriginal groups residing more or less permanently in the area. In a few localities this was largely so. But for most, not only was seasonal mobility the norm, but the threat of disaster was ever present – whether caused by climatic alteration tidal wave, disease, or similar calamity. Climatic changes especially, could seriously reduce the availability of fish and game such as salmon, caribou, and ptarmigan. No matter where the locality, the result was famine. Indeed, there are recognizable periods in Arctic Alaska prior to the arrival of Europeans [for example, between 1838 and 1848] when several territories were completely depopulated through famine or disease. Eventually, a few ex-residents returned, or if they had died out, other marginal members of adjacent areas moved in to fill the vacuum, and life continued.
In summary, it is obvious that for hundreds of years, the Inupiat of Arctic Alaska lived in distinct territorially-based populations. Highly competent, they had an intimate knowledge of their environment. Their economic and social life was organized around interlocking bilateral kin ties, extending to other localities through co-marriage. Although rights and responsibilities of relatives differed according to the closeness of the relationship, the collective labor of the group was nevertheless seen as being mobilized by linkages between kin. Largely self-sufficient and politically autonomous, these kinship groups maintained active trading relations with other Inupiat, Siberian and Alaskan Yup’ik, and Athabascan Indians.