by J. Sydney Jones
Once known as Eskimos, the Inuit inhabit the Arctic region, one of the most forbidding territories on earth. Occupying lands that stretch 12,000 miles from parts of Siberia, along the Alaskan coast, across Canada, and on to Greenland, the Inuit are one of the most widely dispersed people in the world, but number only about 60,000 in population. Between 25,000 and 35,000 reside in Alaska, with other smaller groups in Canada, Greenland, and Siberia. The name Eskimo was given to these people by neighboring Abnaki Indians and means "eaters of raw flesh." The name they call themselves is Inuit, or "the people." Culturally and linguistically distinct from Native Americans of the lower 48 states, as well as from the Athabaskan people of Alaska, the Inuit are closely related to the Mongoloid peoples of eastern Asia. It is estimated that the Inuit arrived some 4,000 years ago on the North American continent, thus coming much later than other indigenous peoples. The major language family for Arctic peoples is Eskaleut. While Aleut is considered a separate language, Eskimo branches into Inuit and Yup'ik. Yup'ik includes several languages, while Inuit is a separate tongue with several local dialects, including Inupiaq (Alaska), Inuktitut (Eastern Canada), and Kalaallisut (Greenland). Throughout their long history and vast migrations, the Inuit have not been greatly influenced by other Indian cultures. Their use and array of tools, their spoken language, and their physical type have changed little over large periods of time and space.
Alaskan Inuit inhabit the west, southwest, and the far north and northwest of Alaska, comprising the Alutiiq, Yup'ik (or Yupiat), and Inupiat tribes. As the first two tribes are dealt with separately, this essay will focus on that group regionally known as Inupiat, and formerly known as Bering Strait or Kotzebue Sound Eskimos, and even sometimes West Alaskan and North Alaskan Eskimos. Residing in some three dozen villages and towns— including Kotzebue, Point Hope, Wainwright, Barrow, and Prudhoe Bay—between the Bering Strait and the McKenzie Delta to the east, and occupying some 40,000 square miles above the Arctic Circle, this group has been divided differently by various anthropologists. Some classify the Inuit into two main groups, the inland people or Nuunamiut, and the coastal people, the Tagiugmiut. Ernest S. Burch, Jr., however, in his book The Inupiaq Eskimo Nations of Northwestern Alaska, divides the heartland, or original southerly Inupiat, who settled around Kotzebue Sound and the Chukchi Sea, into 12 distinct tribes or nations. This early "homeland" of the Inupiat, around Kotzebue Sound, was extended as the tribes eventually moved farther north. Over 40 percent of Alaskan Inuit now reside in urban areas, with Anchorage having the highest population, and Nome on the south of the Seward Peninsula also having a large group of Inupiat as well as Yup'ik. Within Inupiat territory, the main population centers are Barrow and Kotzebue.
Among the last Native groups to come into North America, the Inuit crossed the Bering land bridge sometime between 6000 B.C. and 2000 B.C. , according to various sources. Anthropologists have discerned several different cultural epochs that began around the Bering Sea. The Denbigh, also known as the Small Tool culture, began some 5000 years ago, and over the course of the next millennia it spread westward though Arctic Alaska and Canada. Oriented to the sea and to living with snow, the Denbigh most likely originated the snow house. Characterized by the use of flint blades, skin-covered boats, and bows and arrows, the Denbigh was transformed further east into the Dorset Tradition by about 1000 B.C.
Signs of both the Denbigh and Dorset cultures have been unearthed at the well-known Ipiutak site, located near the Inuit settlement of Point Hope, approximately 125 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Point Hope, still a small Inuit village at the mouth of the Kukpuk River, appears to have been continuously inhabited for 2,000 years, making it the oldest known Inuit settlement. The population of the historical Ipiutak was probably larger than that of the modern village of Point Hope, with a population of about 2,000 people. Houses at Ipiutak were small, about 12 by 15 feet square, with sod-covered walls and roof. Benches against the walls were used for sleeping, while the fire was kept in a small central depression of the main room. Artifacts from the site indicate that the Ipiutak hunted sea and land mammals, as do modern Inuit. Seals, walruses, and caribou provided the basis of their diet. Though the tools of whale hunting, including harpoons, floats, and sleds, were missing from this site, bone and ivory carvings of a rare delicacy—reminiscent of some ancient Siberian art—were found.
Other Inuit settled in part-time villages during the same epoch. The continuous development of these peoples is demonstrated by the similarities in both ancient and modern Inuit cultures. Called by some the Old Bering Sea Cultures, these early inhabitants traveled by kayak and umiak skin boats in the warmer months, and by sled in the winter. Living near the coast, they hunted sea and land mammals, lived in tiny semi-subterranean dwellings, and developed a degree of artistic skill.
The Dorset culture was later superseded by the Norton culture, which was in turn followed by the Thule. The Thule already had characteristics of culture common to Inuit culture: the use of dogs, sleds, kayaks, and whale hunting with harpoons. They spread westward through Canada and ultimately on to Greenland. However, it appears that some of the Thule backtracked, returning to set up permanent villages in both Alaska and Siberia.
Anthropologically classified as central-based wanderers, the Inuit spent part of the year on the move, searching for food, and then part of the year at a central, more permanent camp. Anywhere from a dozen to fifty people traveled in a hunting group. The year was divided into three hunting seasons, revolving around one animal. The hunting seasons were seal, caribou, and whale. The yearly cycle began with the spring seal hunting, continued with caribou hunting in the summer, and fishing in the autumn. A caribou hunt was also mounted in the fall. In the far north, whales were hunted in the early spring. It was a relentless cycle, broken up with occasional feasts after the seal and caribou hunts, and with summer trade fairs to which groups from miles around attended.
Though most Arctic peoples were not organized into tribes, those of present-day Alaska are to
For thousands of years the Inuit lived lives unrecorded by history. This changed with their first contact with Europeans. The Vikings under Eric the Red encountered Inuit in Greenland in 984. Almost six hundred years later, the British explorer Martin Frobisher made contact with the Central Inuit of northern Canada. In 1741, the Russian explorer, Vitus Bering, met the Inuit of Alaska. It is estimated that there were about 40,000 Inuit living in Alaska at the time, with half of them living in the north, both in the interior and in the far northwest. The Inuit, Aleut, and Native Americans living below the Arctic Circle were the most heavily affected by this early contact, occasioned by Russian fur traders. However, northern Inuit were not greatly affected until the second round of European incursions in the area, brought on by an expanded whale trade.
Russian expeditions in the south led to the near destruction of Aleutian culture. This was the result of both the spread of disease by whites as well as outright murder. The first white explorers to reach Arctic Alaska were the Englishmen Sir John Franklin and Captain F. W. Beechey. Both noted the extensive trade carried on between Inuit and Indian groups. Other early explorers, including Alexander Kasherov, noted this intricate trading system as well, in which goods were moved from Siberia to Barrow and back again through a network of regularly held trade fairs. All of this changed, however, with the arrival of European whalers by the mid-nineteenth century. Formerly hunters of Pacific sperm whale, these whaling fleets came to Arctic regions following the bowhead whale migration to the Beaufort Sea for summer feeding. Unlike the Inuit, who used all parts of the whale for their subsistence, the whaling fleets from New England and California were interested primarily in baleen, the long and flexible strips of keratin that served as a filtering system for the bowhead whale. This material was used for the manufacture of both buttons and corset hooks, and fetched high prices. One bowhead could yield many pounds and was valued at $8000, a substantial amount of money for that time.
In 1867, the United States purchased Alaska, and whaling operations increased. The advent of steam-powered vessels further increased the number of ships in the region. Soon, whaling ships from the south were a regular feature in Arctic waters. Their immediate effect was the destruction of the intricate trading network built up over centuries. With the whalers to pick up and deliver goods, Inuit traders were no longer needed. A second effect, due to contact between the whalers and the Inuit, was the introduction of new diseases and alcohol. This, in conjunction with an obvious consequence of the whaling industry, the reduction of the whale population, made life difficult for the Inuit. Dependence on wage drew the Inuit out of their millennia-long hunting and trading existence as they signed on as deckhands or guides. Village life became demoralized because of the trade in whiskey. Small settlements disappeared entirely; others were greatly impacted by diseases brought by the whalers. Point Hope lost 12 percent of its population in one year. In 1900, 200 Inuit died in Point Barrow from a flu epidemic brought by a whaler, and in 1902, 100 more were lost to measles.
Although relatively unaffected by the whaling operations, the Inuit of the inland areas, known as Nuunamiut, also saw a sharp decline in their population from the mid-nineteenth century. Their independence had not protected them from the declining caribou herds nor from increasing epidemics. As a result, these people almost totally disappeared from their inland settlements, moving instead to coastal areas.
A number of actions were undertaken in attempts to improve the conditions of the Inuit at the end of the nineteen century and the early years of the twentieth century. The U.S. government intervened, obstensibly, to ameliorate the situation with improved education. However, the motivations behind this strategy by the U.S. government are the subject of much debate by many Natives and scholars of Inuit culture and history. Schools were established at Barrow and Point Hope in the 1890s, and new communities were only recognized once they established schools. The government also tried to make up for depleted resources, as the whaling trade had died out in the early years of the twentieth century, due to depleted resources as well as the discovery of substitutes for baleen. The U.S. Bureau of Education, the office given responsibility for the Inuit at the time, imported reindeer from Siberia. They planned to turn the Inuit, traditionally semi-sedentary hunters, into nomadic herders. However, after an early peak in the reindeer population in 1932, their numbers dwindled, and the reindeer experiment ultimately proved a failure. Game was no longer plentiful, and the Inuit themselves changed, seeking more than a subsistence way of life. For a time, beginning in the 1920s, fox fur trading served as a supplement to subsistence. Yet, trapping led to an increased breakdown of traditional cooperative ways of life. Fox fur trading lasted only a decade, and by the 1930s, the U.S. government was pouring more money into the area, setting up post offices, and aid relief agencies. Christian missions were also establishing school in the region. Concurrent with these problems was an increase in mortality rates from tuberculosis.
The search for petroleum also greatly affected the region. Since the end of World War II, with the discovery of North Slope oil in 1968, the culture as well as the ecology of the region changed in ways never imagined by nineteenth-century Inuit. Other wage-economies developed in the region. The Cold War brought jobs to the far north, and native art work became an increasing form of income, especially for carvers. In the 1950s, the construction of a chain of radar sites such as the Distant Early Warning system (DEW) employed Inuit laborers, and many more were later employed to maintain the facilities. In 1959, Alaska became the forty-ninth state, thus extending U.S. citizenship rights and privileges to all of state's population. At the end of the twentieth century, a number of issues face the Inuit: the use of technology, urban flight by the young, and thus, the viability of their traditional culture. Caught between two worlds, the Inuit now use snowmobiles and the Internet in place of the umiak and the sled. Nonetheless, they have designed legislative and traditional ways to maintain and protect their subsistence lifestyle. Since 1978, this lifestyle has been given priority, and it is legally protected.
Acculturation and Assimilation
As with the rest of Native Americans, the Inuit acculturation and assimilation patterns were more the result of coercion than choice. A main tool of assimilation was education. Schools, set up by the state or by missions, discouraged the learning of native languages; English became the primary language for students who were often transported hundreds of miles from their homes. Students who spoke their native Inupiaq language were punished and made to stand with their faces to the corner or by having their mouths washed out with soap. Returning to their home villages after being sent away for four years to the Bureau of Indian Affairs high schools, these Inuit no longer had a connection to their language or culture. They were ill-equipped to pass traditions on to their own children.
By the 1970s, however, this trend was reversed, as the Inuit began organizing, demanding, and winning more local autonomy. More local schools opened that honored the ancient ways of the Inuit. For many this was too little, too late. Though old dances and festivals have returned, and the language is studied by the young, it is yet to be seen if the old cultural heritage can be re-instituted after a century and more of assimilation.
TRADITIONS, CUSTOMS, AND BELIEFS
Inuit social organization was largely based on bilateral kinship relations. There was little formal tribal control, which led to blood feuds between clans. However, hunting or trading provided opportunities for cooperative endeavors, in which different kinship groups teamed up for mutual benefit.
Wintertime was a period for the village to come together; men gathered in the common houses called kashims or karigi, also used for dancing. Games, song contests, wrestling, and storytelling brought the people of small villages together after hunts and during the long, dark winter months. Much of Inuit life was adapted to the extremes of summer and winter night lengths. Inupiats formerly lived in semi-excavated winter dwellings, made of driftwood and sod built into a dome. Moss functioned as insulation in these crude shelters. A separate kitchen had a smoke hole, and there were storage areas and a meat cellar. These dwellings could house 8 to 12 people. Temporary snow houses were also used, though the legendary igloo was a structure used more by Canadian Inuit.
Subsistence food for the Inuit of Alaska included whale meat, caribou, moose, walrus, seal, fish, fowl, mountain sheep, bear, hares, squirrels, and foxes. Plant food included wild herbs and roots, as well as berries. Meat is dried or kept frozen in ice cellars dug into the tundra.
Traditionally, Inuit women tanned seal and caribou skins to make clothing, much of it with fur trim. Two suits of such fur clothing were worn in the colder months, the inner one with the fur turned inward. Waterproof jackets were also made from the intestines of various sea mammals, while shoes were constructed from seal and caribou hide that had been toughened by chewing. Such clothing, however, has been replaced by manufactured clothing. Down parkas have replaced the caribou-skins, and rubber, insulated boots have replaced chewed seal skin. However, such clothing has become a major source of income for some individuals and groups. Traditional clothing, from mukluks to fur parkas, has become valued as art and artifact outside the Inuit.
DANCES AND SONGS
An oral culture, Inuit danced at traditional feast times in ritual dance houses called karigi. These dances were accompanied by drums and the recitation of verse stories. Some of these dances represented the caribou hunt; others might portray a flight of birds or a battle with the weather. Both poetry and dance were important to the Inuit; storytelling was vital for peoples who spent the long winter months indoors and in darkness. The word for poetry in Inupiaq is the same as the word to breathe, and both derive from anerca, the soul. Such poems were sung and often accompanied by dancers who moved in imitation of the forces of nature. Many of the traditional singers were also shamans and had the power to cast spells with their words. Thus, dance took on both a secular and religious significance to the Inuit. The Inuit created songs for dancing, for hunting, for entertaining children, for weather, for healing, for sarcasm, and for derision. Some dance and song festivals would last for days with the entire community participating, their voices accompanied by huge hoop drums. These dance traditions have been resurrected among Inuit communities. For example, the Northern Lights Dancers have pioneered this venture.
Major feasts for the Inupiat took place in the winter and in spring. In December came the Messenger Feast held inside the community building. This potlatch feast demonstrated social status and wealth. A messenger would be sent to a neighboring community to invite it to be guests at a feast. Invitations were usually the result of a wish for continued or improved trading relations with the community in question. Gifts were exchanged at such feasts. Some southern groups also held Messenger Feasts in the fall.
The spring whaling festival, or nalukataq, was held after the whale hunt as a thanksgiving for success and to ask for continued good fortune with next year's hunt. It was held also to appease the spirit of the killed whales. Similar to other Bladder Dances or Festivals of non-Alaskan Inuit groups, these ceremonies intended to set free the spirits of sea mammals killed during the year. At the nalukataq, a blanket toss would take place, in which members of the community were bounced high from a walrus-skin "trampoline." Another spring festival marked the coming of the sun. Dressed in costumes that were a mixture of male and female symbols to denote creation, the Inuit danced to welcome the sun's return.
Trading fairs took place throughout the year. The summer Kotzebue fair was one of the largest. In 1991, it was revived, held just after the Fourth of July. For the first time in a century, Russian Inuit came to celebrate the fair with their Alaskan relatives. The Messenger Feast has also been re-instituted, held in January in Barrow.
In traditional Inuit society the healing of the sick was the responsibility of the shaman or a ngakok, who contacted spirits by singing, dancing, and drum beating. He would take on the evil spirit of the sick. Shamans, however, proved helpless against the diseases brought by the Europeans and Americans. Tuberculosis was an early scourge of the Inuit, wiping out entire villages. Alcohol proved equally as lethal, and though it was outlawed, traders were able to bring it in as contraband to trade for furs. Alcohol dependency continues to be a major problem among Inuit villages and has resulted in a high occurrence of fetal alcohol syndrome. Thus, ten villages in the Northwest Arctic Borough have banned the importation and sale of alcohol, while Kotzebue has made the sale of liquor illegal but allows the importation of it for individual consumption. Nonetheless, alcohol continues to be a source of major problems despite the implementation of "dry" towns and burroughs. Rates of accident, homicide and suicide among the Inuit are far higher than among the general Alaskan population. Moreover, there is a high rate of infant mortality and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) and infant spinal disorders.
Another health issue, particularly for the Inuit of the Cape Thompson region, is cancer, brought on by the dumping of 15,000 pounds of nuclear waste by the Atomic Energy Commission. Also, radiation experiments on flora and fauna of the region as well as Russian nuclear waste dumping offshore have contaminated many areas of northwestern Alaska, putting the native population at risk.
The Inuit communities of northern Alaska speak Inupiaq, part of the Eskaleut family of languages. All Inuit bands speak very closely related dialects of this language family. Its roots are in the Ural-Altaic languages of Finland, Hungary, and Turkey. Alaskan Eskaleut languages include Aleut, Yup'ik and Inupiaq.
Many Inuit words have become common in English and other languages of the world. Words such as kayak, husky, igloo, and parka all have come from the Inuit. The worldview of the Inuit is summed up in a popular and fatalistic expression, Ajurnamat, "it cannot be helped."
The future of Inuit-speaking Alaska is optimistic. Language instruction in school, as noted, was for many years solely in English, with native languages discouraged. Literacy projects have been started at Barrow schools to encourage the preservation of the language. However, English is the primary language of the region.
Family and Community Dynamics
Local groups were formed by nuclear and small extended families led by an umialik, or family head, usually an older man. The umialik might lead hunting expeditions, and he and his wife would be responsible for the distribution of food. Beyond that, however, there was little control exerted on proper behavior in traditional Inuit society. Villages throughout northern Alaska have replaced hunting bands, thus preserving to some extent the fluid network of their traditional society.
Education for the Inuit is still problematic. Each village has its own school, funded by the state with extra funds from the federal government. Yet the dropout rate is still high among their youth. There was a 30 percent dropout rate in grade school in 1965, a rate that climbed to 50 to 80 percent in high school. And for those few who reached college at that same time, some 97 percent dropped out. Ten years later, in 1975, the rates had gone down considerably, in part due to a revival of teaching in Inupiaq, as opposed to English-only instruction. Most Inuit under 15 are minimally literate in English. However, in older generations the same is not true.
BIRTH AND BIRTHDAYS
Birth and pregnancy were traditionally surrounded by many taboos. For example, it was thought that if a pregnant woman walked out of a house backwards, she would have a breech delivery, or if a pregnant mother slept at irregular times during the day this would result in a lazy baby. Also, there were special birthing houses or aanigutyaks, where the woman went through labor in a kneeling (or squatting) position. These postures have been recognized by Western culture as often preferable to the hospital bed.
Most children are baptized within a month of birth and given an English name along with an Inuit one. Chosen by their parents, these names are normally of a recently departed relative or of some respected person. Siblings help care for children after the first few months, and the baby soon becomes accustomed to being carried about in packs or under parkas. There is no preference shown for either male or female babies; both are seen as a gift from nature. While moss and soft caribou skin have been replaced with cotton and disposable diapers, the Inuit's attitude toward their young has not changed. They are loved and given much latitude by both parents, and fathers participate actively in raising their children.
THE ROLE OF WOMEN
There is still a recognized division of labor by gender, but it is a fluid one. In traditional societies, the men hunted, while the women tanned skins and made clothing and generally took care of domestic activities, and this occurred under the aegis of the extended family. In the modern era much of this has changed, but in general, outside employment is still the obligation of the male as well as any ancillary hunting activities necessary to help make ends meet. Women are, for the most part, confined to household tasks.
COURTSHIP AND MARRIAGE
In the past, marriages were often arranged by parents; however, today dating openly occurs between teens. Group activities take precedence over individual dating. In traditional times, the most successful hunter could take more than one wife, though this was uncommon. Also in the past, temporary marriages served to bond non-kin allegiances formed for hunting and or warfare. Married couples traditionally set up their home with the man's parents for a time. Plumpness in a wife was a virtue, a sign of health and wealth. While divorce was, and is practiced in both traditional and modern Inuit societies, its incidence is not as high as in mainstream American society.
A central tenet of Inupiat religion was that the forces of nature were essentially malevolent. Inhabiting a ruthless climatological zone, the Inupiat believed that the spirits of the weather and of the animals must be placated to avoid harm. As a result, there was strict observance of various taboos as well as dances and ceremonies in honor of such spirits. These spirit entities found in nature included game animals in particular. Inupiat hunters would, for example, always open the skull of a freshly killed animal to release its spirit. Personal spirit songs were essential among whale hunters. Much of this religious tradition was directed and passed on by shamans, both male and female. These shamans could call upon a tuunsaq, or helping spirit, in times of trouble or crisis. This spirit often took the shape of a land animal, into whose shape the shaman would change him or herself. Traditional Native religious practices, as well as the power of the shamans, decreased with the Inuit's increased contact with Europeans.
Employment and Economic Traditions
Traditionally, the Inuit economy revolved around the changing seasons and the animals that could be successfully hunted during these periods. The Inuit world was so closely linked to its subsistence economy that many of the calendar months were named after game prey. For example, March was the moon for hanging up seal and caribou skins to bleach them; April was the moon for the onset of whaling; and October was the moon of rutting caribou. Whaling season began in the spring with the first break up of the ice. At this time bowhead whales, some weighing as much as 60 tons, passed by northern Alaska to feeding grounds offshore, which were rich in plankton. Harpooners would strike deep into the huge mammal, and heavy sealskin floats would help keep the animal immobilized as lances were sunk into it. Hauling the whale ashore, a section of blubber would be immediately cut off and boiled as a thanksgiving. Meat, blubber, bone, and baleen were all taken from the animal by parties of hunters under the head of an umialik, or boss. Such meat would help support families for months.
Caribou, another highly prized food source, was hunted in the summer and fall. In addition to the meat, the Inuit used the caribou's skin and antlers. Even the sinew was saved and used for thread. Baleen nets were also used for fishing at the mouths of rivers and streams. Walrus and seal were other staples of the traditional Inuit subsistence economy.
These practices changed with the arrival of the Europeans. As noted earlier, many attempts were made to replace diminished natural resources, including the importation of reindeer and the trapping of foxes for fur. These were unsuccessful, and modern Inuit blend a wage economy with hunting and fishing. A major employer is the state and federal government. The Red Dog Mine, as well as the oil industry on the North Slope, also provide employment opportunities. Smaller urban centers such as Barrow and Kotzebue offer a wider variety of employment opportunities, as does the Chukchi Sea Trading Company, a Point Hope arts and crafts cooperative that sells native arts online. Others must rely on assistance programs, and for most there continues to be a dependence on both wage and subsistence economies. In order to facilitate subsistence economy, fishing and hunting rights were restored to the Inuit in 1980.
In general, living costs are greater in the rural areas of the north than in the rest of Alaska. For example, as David Maas pointed out in Native North American Almanac, a family living in Kotzebue could pay 62 percent more per week for food than a family in Anchorage, and 165 percent more for electricity. The incidence of poverty is also higher among Alaskan Natives than for others in the state, with some 3,000 families receiving food stamps and 18,000 families relying on low-income energy subsidies. Over 25 percent of the Native population of the state live below the poverty line, while in some areas of Alaska, Native unemployment rates top 50 percent.
Politics and Government
Traditional Inuit maintained a large degree of individual freedom, surprising in a society that depended greatly on cooperative behavior for survival. Partnerships and non-kin alliances became crucial during hunting seasons and during wars and feuds, but it was mostly based on the nuclear or extended family unit. When bands came together, they were more geographical than political in nature, and while leaders or umialik were important in hunting, their power was not absolute. The social fabric of Inuit society changed forever in the twentieth century, though the people have avoided the reservation system. Natives themselves, such as the Inupiat of Barrow and Shungnak voted against establishing the reservations that formed all over America in the 1930s.
During the mid-twentieth century, there was a great deal of competition for once-native lands, both from the private and public sector. In 1932 a petroleum reserve in the north was set aside, and then developed by the Navy and later by private
After their success against Project Chariot, Natives began to organize in a concerted way to protect their lands. In 1961, various village leaders formed the Inupiat Paitot (The People's Heritage Movement) to protect Inupiat lands. In 1963 the Northwest Alaska Native Association was formed under the leadership of Willie Hensley, later a state senator. The Arctic Slope Association was formed in 1966. Both associations mirrored the activities of the statewide Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN) which lobbied for Native rights and claims. Local villages and organizations throughout the state were filing claims for land not yet ceded to the government. In 1968, with Congress beginning to review the situation, oil was discovered on the North Slope. Oil companies wanted to pipe the oil out via the port of Valdez, and negotiations were soon underway to settle Inuit and other Native claims.
The result was the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA), which created 12 regional for-profit corporations throughout the state. These corporations had title to surface and mineral rights of some 44 million acres. Additionally, Natives would receive $962.5 million in compensation for the 335 million acres of the state which they no longer claimed. Thus, the way was paved for the construction of the Alaska pipeline.
As a result of ANCSA, all Alaskans with at least one-quarter Native blood would receive settlement money that would be managed by regional and village corporations. Alaskan Inuit villages then organized into several corporations in hopes of taking advantage of the opportunities of this legislation. Amendments in 1980 to the Alaska National Interests Lands Conservation Act restoring Native rights to subsistence hunting and fishing, and in 1988, ensuring Native control of corporations, helped equalize ANCSA legislation. As of the 1990s, however, few of these corporations have managed to reach financial stability, and at least four have reported losses since 1971.
Inuit groups organized in the 1970s to see that high schools were built in their villages. In the Barrow region, local schools broke away from the Bureau of Indian Affairs administration and formed local boards of education more amenable to the teaching of Inupiaq language, history, and customs. The North Slope Borough, formed in 1972, took over school administration in 1975, and the Northwest Arctic Borough, formed in 1986, did the same. These regional political structures are further sub-divided into villages with elected mayors and city councils. Slowly the Inuit of northern Alaska are trying to reclaim their heritage in the modern world.
Individual and Group Contributions
Academia and Education
Martha Aiken (1926-) is an educator born in Barrow, Alaska, of Inupiat descent. Aiken has authored 17 bilingual books for the North Slope Borough School District, has translated 80 hymns for the Presbyterian Church, and has been a major contributor to an Inupiaq dictionary. She has also served on the board of the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation. Sadie Brower Neakok (1916-) is an educator, community activist and magistrate, from Barrow. A full-time teacher for the BIA, Neakok was appointed by the State of Alaska to be a magistrate, and was instrumental in introducing the American legal system to the Inupiat.
Melvin Olanna (1941-) is an Inupiat sculptor and jewelry designer. Educated in Oregon and at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, Olanna has had numerous individual and group exhibitions of his work, and has also won a number of Alaskan awards for the arts. A practitioner of the ancient carving traditions of the Inuit, Olanna brings this older design form together with modern forms. He learned carving techniques from masters such as George Ahgupuk and Wilber Walluk, and by age 14 he was already supporting himself with his carving. Olanna's work typically shows broad planes, simple surfaces, and flowing curves similar to the work of Henry Moore. He works in wood, ivory, whalebone, and bronze, and after a year in Europe he brought several tons of Cararra marble home with him to Suquamish. He and his wife helped found the Melvin Olanna Carving Center, dedicated to training young Inuit in their ancient traditions. Joseph Senungetuk (1940-) is a printmaker and carver of Inupiat descent. An activist as artist, writer, and teacher, Senungetuk has devoted his life to Native issues and the revitalization of Alaskan arts. He grew up in Nome where an uncle first taught him to carve, then attended the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. Senungetuk also wrote an autobiographical and historical book, Give or Take a Century: An Eskimo Chronicle, the first book published by his publishing house. He spent many years in San Francisco where he concentrated on printmaking. Returning to Alaska he wrote a regular column for an Anchorage newspaper and also worked on sculpting. Susie Bevins (1941-) is an Inupiat carver and mask maker. Born in remote Prudhoe Bay to an English trader and his Norwegian-Eskimo wife, Bevins moved to Barrow as an infant after her father died. At age 11 her family once again moved, this time to Anchorage. She studied art in Atlanta, Georgia, and Italy, and she is one of the best known Inuit artists of the day. Her masks often speak of the split personality of Natives growing up in two cultures. Larry Ahvakana (1946-) is an Inupiat sculptor and mixed media artist who trained at the Institute of American Indian Art in Santa Fe and at the Cooper Union School of Arts in New York. Ahvakana uses modern sculptural techniques blended with his Native heritage to create lasting pieces in stone and wood. His interpretations of Alaskan myth often appear in his art.
Howard Rock (1911-1976) was born in Point Hope, where in the 1960s he joined Inupiat Paitot to stop the government from using the locale as a nuclear test site. Rock became the editor of a newsletter formed to educate other Inuit about the dangers. In 1962 this newsletter became the Tundra Times, with Rock serving as its editor until his death in 1976. In 1965, he helped organize the first Alaska Federated Natives meeting in Anchorage. Rock, who began life as a jewelry maker, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize the year before he died.
William L. Hensley (1941-), also known as Iggiagruk or "Big Hill," is an Inuit leader, co-founder of the Alaskan Federation of Natives, and state senator. Born in Kotzebue to a family of hunters and fishermen, Hensley left home for his education, attending a boarding school in Tennessee. He earned a bachelor's degree from George Washington University in Washington, D.C., where he first became politicized about the conditions of his people in Alaska. Returning to Alaska, he studied constitutional law at the University of Alaska. In 1966, Hensley became one of the founders of the AFN, which was instrumental in lobbying Washington for Native claims. Since that time he has played an active role in Alaskan politics and has been an untiring spokesperson for the rights of the Inuit. He founded the Northwest Alaska Native Association and was instrumental in the development of the Red Dog Lead and Zinc Mine in northwest Alaska, the second largest zinc mine in the world. Both a state senator and a representative, Hensley was honored with the National Public Service Award from the Rockefeller Foundation in 1980, the Governor's Award for Alaskan of the Year, 1981, and an Honorary Doctorate of Laws from the University of Alaska in Anchorage, 1981.
The Arctic Sounder.
Community newspaper serving Kotzebue, Barrow, and Nome.
Contact: John Woodbury, Editor,.
Address: 336 East Fifh Avenue, Anchorage, Alaska 99501.
Telephone: (800) 770-9830.
Bi-weekly newspaper, founded in 1962, devoted to the issues of Native Alaskans.
Contact: Jeff Richardson, Editor.
Address : P.O. Box 92247, Anchorage, Alaska 99509-2247.
Telephone: (800) 764-2512.
KBRW-AM (680) and KBRW-FM (91.9).
Contact: Steve Hamlin, Program Director.
Address: 1695 Okpik Street, P.O. Box 109, Barrow, Alaska 99723.
Telephone: (907) 852-6811.
Contact: Pierre Lonewolf, Program Director.
Address: P.O. Box 78, Kotzebue, Alaska, 99752.
Telephone: (907) 442-3434.
Organizations and Associations
Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN).
Serves as an advocate for Alaskan Inuit, Native Americans, and Aleut at the state and federal level. Founded in 1966. Publishes the AFN Newsletter.
Address: 411 West Fourth Avenue, Suite 301, Anchorage, Alaska 99501.
Telephone: (907) 274-3611.
Contact: Marie Green, President.
Address: P.O. Box 256, Kotzebue, Alaska 99752.
Telephone: (907) 442-3311.
Museums and Research Centers
Alaska State Museum.
Address: 395 Whittier Street, Juneau, Alaska 99801-1718.
Telephone: (907) 465-2976.
Fax: (907) 465-2976.
Anchorage Museum of History and Art.
Address: 121 West Seventh Avenue, Anchorage, Alaska 99501.
Telephone: (907) 343-4326.
Institute of Alaska Native Art, Inc.
Address: P.O. Box 70769, Fairbanks, Alaska 99707.
Telephone: (907) 456-7406.
Fax: (907) 451-7268.
Kotzebue Museum, Inc.
Collection contains Inuit artifacts, arts and crafts.
Address: P.O. Box 46, Kotzebue, Alaska 99752.
Telephone: (907) 442-3401.
Fax: (907) 442-3742.
Simon Paneak Memorial Museum.
Contains a collection of Nuunamiut Inuit history and traditions.
Address: P.O. Box 21085, Anaktuvuk Pass, Alaska 99721.
Telephone: (907) 661-3413.
Fax: (907) 661-3429.
Sources for Additional Study
Burch, Ernest S., Jr. The Inupiaq Eskimo Nations of Northwest Alaska. Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press, 1998.
Chance, Norman A. The Eskimo of North Alaska. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966.
——. The Inupiat and Arctic Alaska. Forth Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace, 1990.
Craig, Rachel. "Inupiat." Native American in the Twentieth Century: An Encyclopedia, edited Mary B. Davis. New York: Garland Publishing, 1994.
Handbook of North American Indians, Vol. 5, edited by David Damas. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1984.
Langdon, Steve. The Native People of Alaska. 3rd ed., revised. Anchorage: Greenland Graphics, 1993.
Maas, David. "Alaska Natives," in Native North American Almanac, edited by Duane Champagne. Detroit: Gale Research, 1994. pp. 293-301.
Vanstone, James W. Point Hope: An Eskimo Village in Transition. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1962.