I am an Iñupiaq of Alaska’s North Slope Borough. As the indigenous people of that region, we have occupied an area encompassing more than 90,000 square miles and sustained ourselves on its abundant natural resources for thousands of years. Archaeological evidence shows that the Point Hope area has been continuously inhabited since approximately 400 B.C., although humans may have used the general area several thousand years earlier. People bearing an Iñupiaq technology were using local resources in the north Alaskan interior from about A. D. 1000 until well after A.D. 1300. Iñupiat continue to occupy the same area and utilize the same resources as they did centuries ago, living in harmony with one another, revering the land, the ocean, and all of its bounties.
Long before contact with explorers and whalers in the mid-to-late 1800s, coastal Iñupiaq life was woven into a complex society based on subsistence hunting of bowhead whales (Baleana mysticetus). Ceremonies associated with the bowhead whale were practiced throughout the year to ensure a successful season. A remarkable building excavated at Utqiagvik, near Barrow, suggests that for prehistoric villagers, whales were the focus of social and spiritual life.
Traditional knowledge, passed from generation to generation, proves that the Iñupiat had detailed information about bowhead behavior, which only recently, and only to a limited extent, has been acknowledged by western science. This knowledge endures through the continuing practice of customs associated with a subsistence lifestyle.
On the North Slope, the arrival of missionaries and institutionalized “education,” beginning about 1900, has had its consequences. Churches nearly eradicated traditional religion. Shamanistic rituals are no longer practiced, although some Elders have information about these rites. Fortunately, song and dance have remained strong. The recent revival of Kivgiq (“Messenger Feast”) means that the people have retained intricate ceremonial dance forms through the ages.
Nora and Delbert Rexford's children Charles Burton, Qinugan Nayusian, and Barbara Elizabeth wear fancy fur parkas, Barrow.
Photo by Larry McNeil, National Museum of the American Indian, P26511.
Traditionally, education consisted in acquiring survival skills. One learned how to navigate on sea and land, in all weathers, using astronomy, wind, ocean currents, weather patterns, and land forms. Skill in hunting was and is necessary for cultural continuity in the Arctic.
Modernization has meant that people must be equipped both with traditional skills, which enable them to thrive culturally, and with skills needed for success in the modern world. Iñupiat had to institute forms of government and corporate enterprise that were initially foreign to them; they must now have formal schooling in order to profit from these opportunities. But their experience of survival in the Arctic has taught them how to adapt to their environment and rise to challenges.
The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 mandated the formation of regional and village corporations. In response the Iñupiat formed the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation and various village corporations. In addition, the North Slope Borough was incorporated as a home-rule government in 1972. Its primary goal was to provide residents with the same basic services enjoyed by other Americans. Since then, schools, clinics, fire stations, housing, and other service facilities have been built. The regional and village corporations have prospered. Many younger Iñupiat attend prestigious schools and colleges to learn how successful corporations are run and how governments can benefit people.
Many challenges face the Iñupiat today. In addition to having to adapt to changes caused by development, we also have to maintain those values that make us who we are. This means taking the best of what both worlds have to offer and remembering always those values taught us by our ancestors.
is an Iñupiaq educator and Coordinator of the North Slope Borough School District’s bilingual and multicultural department.
This article was adapted from Crossroads Alaska: Native Cultures of Alaska and Siberia, edited by Valérie Chaussonnet (Arctic Studies Center, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution), published in 1995.