North Alaskan Eskimos - History and Cultural Relations

When they were first encountered by Europeans in the Second decade of the nineteenth century, the people were organized in nineteen autonomous societies, or tribes. They welcomed the few explorers and shipborne traders who ventured into their area as long as they were interested in trade. Otherwise, they tended to be hostile, although bloodshed was rare. Relations with Europeans improved with more familiarity. A greater threat to native life was posed by American whalers after 1848; over the next two decades they decimated the bowhead whale and walrus populations, which previously had been major sources of food and other raw materials. In the 1870s the natives themselves decimated the caribou population with newly introduced firearms. Widespread famine followed. European epidemic diseases also arrived about this time, with catastrophic effect. The demographic decline and ensuing chaos resulted in the destruction of the traditional social boundaries and in extensive interregional movement of families trying to find productive hunting and fishing grounds.

In the late nineteenth century, missionaries and miners made their way to the region. Between about 1900 and 1910, schools were established at several locations. The new mission-school villages subsequently became focal points for the natives, resulting eventually in the formation of twenty-two permanent villages distributed across their expanded late-nineteenth-century territory. Domesticated reindeer were introduced to fill the void left by the nearly extinct Caribou, and reindeer herding and fur trapping became the basis of a new economic order lasting until the 1930s. The fur trade collapsed during the Great Depression, and reindeer herding declined as the caribou population began to recover. Welfare payments and seasonal wage employment for men, usually far from home, subsequently became the major sources of cash income, while hunting and fishing continued to provide the raw materials for food and some clothing. Increasing Economic and political stability, combined with improved medical care, has resulted in a steady population increase since 1910.

The period 1960-1990 has seen major economic and Social changes. The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) led to the formation of two native regional corporations, NANA Corporation, in the region focused on Kotzebue Sound, and the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation (ASRC) to the north. Oil and mineral development provided a substantial tax base leading to the formation of modern political units: the North Slope Borough (in the general territory of the ASRC) and the Northwest Arctic Borough (in the general territory of NANA) . As they approach the end of the twentieth century the people are involved in the general political and economic life of Alaska, but continue to rely to a considerable extent on hunting and fishing for food. Increasing numbers of nonnatives have moved into North Alaska since the 1960s, but Eskimos still constitute a substantial majority of the permanent resident population.

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