Alaska's Heritage


The first Eskimos arrive at least 6,000 years ago

No one knows just when the first Eskimos arrived in Alaska, but it was at least 6,000 years ago. The earliest Eskimos inhabited Southwest Alaska. Possibly more Eskimos came to Alaska about 4,500 years ago from coastal Siberia. Although they do not know for sure, archaeologists speculate that the inhabitants of the coast 8,000 years ago might have been Eskimo people.

Eskimos live along Alaska's northern, western, and southern coasts

Eskimos occupied Alaska's western coastline, arctic regions, and coastal areas of Southcentral Alaska. They usually grouped in villages of 50 to 150 people, although some village populations reached 500.

Bands of Eskimo people settled in a variety of places. Some lived on rocky islands, some in forest areas, some in tundra areas, and some near water that did not freeze in winter. Most people lived on the coast while others lived inland. Because of the variety of places they lived, Eskimo groups developed a number of cultural differences.

Alaskan Eskimo groups.
Alaskan Eskimos developed four distinct languages. The languages of those Eskimos who lived north of Unalakleet, a village on Norton Sound and across northern Alaska, developed into Inupiaq. Their relatives spread as far as Greenland. Eskimos who lived on the Alaska coast south of Unalakleet, on Nunivak Island, and along the lower Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers spoke Central Yupik. The residents of St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea spoke a Yupik language similar to some Eskimos in Siberia. On the south side of the Alaska Peninsula, on Kodiak Island, and in Cook Inlet and Prince William Sound, the Eskimos spoke Alutiiq.

The different environments and cultural adaptations make it difficult to discuss the Eskimo people in one section. For clarity, the Eskimos are divided below into Inupiaq, Yupik, and Alutiiq groups. The St. Lawrence Island Eskimos are included in the Yupik Eskimos section.

Inupiaq Eskimos

Inupiaq Eskimos first live on the coast

The ancestors of Inupiaq Eskimos, whose presence may be documented by archaeological evidence, arrived in Alaska before 4,000 years ago. Bands of Eskimos moved north and east across Alaska and northern Canada to Greenland around 4,000 years ago.

Groups of Inupiaq Eskimos move inland

During the thousand years before non-Native people reached Alaska, some Eskimo groups that had first lived on the ocean's shore moved inland along northern rivers such as the Kobuk. By the time non-Natives came to Alaska, some of the Inupiaq Eskimos of Alaska had moved inland.

Northern Eskimos rely on large sea and land mammals

Some of the coastal Inupiaq Eskimos who lived north of the Arctic Circle depended on whales for much of their meat. A large bowhead whale provided several tons of food. The people stored the meat in holes dug into the permanently frozen ground. Because hunting and butchering whales required the work of many men and women, coastal Eskimos lived in larger villages than did inland Eskimos. In the mid-1700s Wales, which in 1980 had a population of 130, had a permanent population of 500.

Bowhead whales, migrating to their summer feeding grounds in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas, passed Point Hope and Point Barrow in April and May. They followed leads, or breaks in the ice, that opened close to shore. Near Wainwright, however, leads might be 20 miles from shore. The whales returned south in late September and early October following the coast.

In late March the people moved from their villages and established camps at the edge of the landfast ice. From high points they watched for whales. They maintained their watch 24 hours a day. The annual spring hunt lasted as long as whales were in the vicinity. Captains of the crews agreed among themselves when to end a season's whaling.

When they sighted a whale, four to eight hunters ventured onto the water in an open, skin-covered boat called an umiak. Most crews consisted of a captain, a harpooner, and six paddlers. The harpooner sat in front and threw the harpoon when the whale surfaced close to the boat. Sealskin floats were attached to a harpoon to make it difficult for the whale to dive. When tired, the whale was killed with a lance. To bring the dead whale to shore required a number of umiak crews. Villagers worked together to butcher a whale and divided the meat and blubber among all village members.

During the summer months the northern coastal Eskimos hunted seals, polar bears, walrus, and smaller whales such as the belugas that came near shore.

The Inupiaq Eskimos who lived on the Seward Peninsula coast relied on walrus, not whales, for most of their meat. A large walrus provided several hundred pounds of meat. Walrus migrated in herds of up to 200 animals through Bering Strait twice a year. Some herds spent the summer on the shores of the Seward Peninsula. The Eskimos speared or clubbed the animals when they were on land. They harpooned swimming walrus.

The Seward Peninsula Eskimos also hunted bearded seals and beluga whales using methods that varied with the species and the season. In the fall they sought ringed seals that stayed close to shore. Hunters in covered skin boats called kayaks or hidden on ice shelves harpooned the seals. In winter, after sea ice formed, a hunter harpooned or trapped a seal when it surfaced for air. In spring, ringed and bearded seals spent a great deal of time sunning on the ice. Hunters stalked and speared the seals before they escaped into the water. Two men often hunted bearded seals together because of the animals' size. Later in spring, hunters hid behind blocks of ice at water's edge and harpooned the seals as they swam past. In summer, hunters in kayaks harpooned seals at the mouths of rivers.

Inland Inupiaq Eskimos relied on caribou and fish for most of their protein. Many coastal people also hunted caribou, sometimes traveling far inland for this purpose. Caribou round-ups involved the entire population of a village. In fall and winter, they chased caribou into corrals. The people constructed long fences of willows and brush that they covered with earth and moss. Women and children hid behind the fence until the animals neared. Then they stood and frightened the animals to move them into the corral. There the men speared the animals, shot them with bow and arrow, or snared them. In a large corral the people could take up to 200 animals at a time.

The inland Eskimos also snared caribou at openings in willow thickets. Where snow conditions made it feasible, they established deadfalls. They dug a hole in hard-packed snow and set sharpened stakes upright. Then they covered the pit with thin slabs of hard snow. Caribou broke through the cover and fell on the sharp stakes. In summer, the inland people chased the animals into rivers and lakes where they shot them using bows and arrows or speared them from kayaks. Caribou taken in late summer had skins in prime condition for clothing.

From whale, walrus, and caribou the Eskimos took food, made clothing, and obtained building materials. The people boiled or roasted their meat then dipped it into bowls of seal oil. They used the hides for clothing, boat coverings, or tents. From bones and antlers the Eskimos made tools or framework for shelters. They fashioned waterproof outerwear or coverings for smokeholes in their homes from the intestines. They used the baleen from whales to make baskets.

The Inupiaq Eskimos caught and used salmon and other available fish. In freshwater streams they set fish weirs and traps. They caught salmon in nets as the fish proceeded along the coast on their northward migration. In winter, the people chopped holes in the ice and fished for cod with hooks and lines. They fashioned hooks from ivory or bone. They used sinew from walrus, seal, and caribou for their lines.

This Inupiaq Eskimo winter house at Point Belcher is half underground. The entrance is lined with driftwood.
Collection Name: Alaska Historical Library, S.J. Call Collection.
Identifier: PCA 181-45
The northern Eskimos hunted other large animals including polar and grizzly bears and Dall sheep. They also sought small game, including fox, birds, and ducks. To catch these small animals they used snares and deadfall traps. They caught birds with long-handled nets and with bolas. A bola is five or six short pieces of thong fastened together at one end and with a weight on the end of each piece. This is whirled, then thrown at a flock of birds. The Eskimos gathered bird and duck eggs in duly. Women and children picked berries in the fall and gathered roots in the spring.

Clothing and shelter are made from available resources

The Inupiaq Eskimos made their clothing from available animal furs, parts, and skins.
Collection Name: Alaska Historical Library, Lomen Brothers Collection.
Identifier: PCA 66-54-817
Because there were no trees on the arctic coast, coastal Inupiaq Eskimos used driftwood and sod to build their winter homes. They built them partly underground for warmth. The amount of driftwood available in a particular area helped determine house design there. Where driftwood was plentiful, the people built homes with fireplaces for heating and cooking. Where driftwood was scarce, they built homes with long entry tunnels and raised sleeping benches so that whale or seal oil burned in lamps was all that was needed for heat. The inland people built domed structures of bent sticks covered with caribou skins or sod. In a small, domed house, perhaps 14 square feet in area, up to three families lived. Each Inupiaq village had at least one community house where men met and worked and where they held celebrations. Villages usually had one or more level open spaces. At one, they played games. At another individuals could practice archery. When people moved to hunting and fishing sites, they lived in skin tents or driftwood lean-tos.

The entrance to a house at Cape Prince of Wales. Whale ribs have been used to mark the entrance.
Collection Name: Alaska Historical Library, U.S. Coast Guard Collection
Coastal and inland Inupiaq Eskimos, like Athabaskans, used caribou hides for most of their clothing because the skins were light in weight, warm, and durable. Men, women, and children wore jackets and pants. In winter they wore two suits; the inner suit had the hair turned to the inside, the outer suit had the hair on the outside. The Eskimos also made overcoats from sea) intestines. On their feet they wore seal skin mukluks. To keep out the cold wind the northern Eskimos wore belts. Eskimo women also wore belts to hold their babies inside their parkas. They frequently decorated their belts with caribou teeth along the length of the strap. A set of incisors represented one caribou. Thus, belts showed a person's hunting ability.

Arctic travel is difficult year-round

An Inupiaq Eskimo summer village. This is at Point Belcher.
Collection Name: Alaska Historical Library, S.J. Call Collection.
Identifier: PCA 181-44
Inupiaq Eskimos developed two types of boats to help them in their quest for food, clothing, and shelter. They used umiaks to hunt whales and walrus and to travel long distances. About twice as large as hunting umiaks, traveling umiaks measured about 30 feet long, 6 feet wide, and 3 feet deep. Up to 40 people could travel in such an umiak. Inupiaq men used one-person kayaks when hunting seals or ducks close to shore.

To make kayak and umiak frames the people used driftwood. They lashed the frames with rawhide cords. Next they stretched cured bearded seal or walrus hides with rawhide cord. Finally, they coated the boat with seal or whale oil.

Travel over the tundra was practically impossible in summer. The top few inches of the permanently-frozen ground melted. The ground was waterlogged, making walking very difficult. Thus, most people traveled by boat in summer.

During the dark, very cold winters, Inupiaq Eskimos traveled little. When they did, they went overland hugging the coast or following frozen rivers. They usually traveled in groups. The northern people used sleds and sometimes used up to four dogs to pull them. The northern Eskimos established a network of winter trails. Some trails connected coastal and interior areas.

Despite difficulties of summer travel in arctic Alaska, the people moved to hunting and fishing sites in spring, summer, and fall and to trading sites in summer.

Inupiaq Eskimos used kayaks for hunting seals and other sea mammals close to shore. They also used them for river travel.
Collection Name: Alaska Historical Library, B.B. Dobbs Collection
Identifier: PCA 12-139
Coastal and inland Inupiaq Eskimos gathered at annual summer fairs to trade clothing, tools, and food. A rendezvous on Kotzebue spit was the largest, but there were many others. Natives from Big Diomede, Little Diomede, King, and Sledge islands often traded at Wales. At the mouth of the Colville River and on Barter Island, Inupiaq Eskimos of the Mackenzie River delta in Canada joined people who lived on the Beaufort Sea.

At the trade gatherings people traded raw materials and finished products. River dwellers brought jadite adz blades, copper knives, and caribou hides. In return they received whale blubber or seal oil, seal and walrus skins. By the 1700s people also traded tobacco, beads, metal tools, and reindeer skins obtained from Siberian people. In addition to trading, the people played games, feasted, and danced.

Extended families are the core of Inupiaq Eskimo society

Trade fairs sometimes led to marriages between members of different villages. The number of relatives an Inupiaq Eskimo had helped determine wealth and success. Kinship ties improved relationships between groups. They also extended the area that an individual could travel in safety. Groups had clearly defined territories. Foreigners crossed another's territory either by invitation or armed to fight. I n summer a general truce existed to allow people to travel between the coast and inland areas in search of food. Within the territories, neither individuals nor families owned specific hunting or fishing sites, although they often returned annually to the same locations. Families owned their houses.

Northern Eskimo society had no formal chiefs, but the opinions of influential persons in each community might be sought. These per sons were usually wealthy, but standing in the community did not always depend on wealth. People could be recognized for making wise decisions. Successful whaling captains or hunting group leaders, who caught many whales or killed many caribou and had few accidents, were village leaders. They usually were wealthy as well because they had to support their boat crew or hunting group. Relatives often comprised the crew. The leaders' role usually passed from father to son.

Members of a village decided reward and punishment when such actions were necessary. Rewards included community recognition. Punishments included banishment, gossip, exclusion from community activities, or not being spoken to. Eskimo society did not approve of individuals acquiring too much wealth. The wealthy were expected to redistribute what they owned.

Inupiaq Eskimos express themselves in celebrations and art

At the conclusion of the spring whaling season coastal lnupiaq Eskimos held large celebrations. They feasted, danced, and played games. One activity was the blanket toss. People holding a large walrus or seal skin tossed an individual into the air. The person tried to land on his or her feet when coming down. The individual continued to be thrown into the air until losing his or her balance. The celebration, that might last a week, officially brought the whaling season to a close.

In January, Inupiaq Eskimos held messenger feasts. They used the occasion to reinforce trading relationships. Messengers carried invitations to nearby villages. The people feasted, danced, and sang. The dances told stories of hunting and memorable deeds. The people wore special dance costumes. The young men competed in foot races. On the third day, the hosts distributed gifts. They danced and sang again on the fourth and final day.

Northern Eskimo men carved ivory. Usually they carved tools for hunting, fishing, or sewing, but they also made human and animal figures for religious ceremonies, toys, earrings, and belt fasteners. Men also carved ceremonial wood masks. These unpainted masks represented animal or human faces.

Inupiaq Eskimo men and women wove grass baskets. They also expressed themselves artistically in their skin sewing. To decorate clothes they used pieces of ivory and animal teeth.

Yupik Eskimos

Yupik Eskimos occupy Alaska's west coast

The ancestors of the Eskimos who lived along the Bering Sea coast and the lower reaches of the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers had crossed from Siberia at least 4,000 years ago. The Yupik people only began to move to inland areas a thousand years before Euroamericans entered the area. Their language is related to that spoken by the people who lived on St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea. The St. Lawrence inhabitants spoke Siberian Yupik.

Yupik Eskimos move inland recently

Yupik Eskimos lived south of the Seward Peninsula along the Bering Sea coast and in the deltas of the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers. According to their legends, the great raven carved these rivers with its talons. The coastal Yupik Eskimos took sea mammals but relied on salmon for the majority of their food. The inland people also depended on salmon. The tundra-covered lowland supported the large Yupik Eskimo population. Slowly, the people advanced up the rivers and encountered Athabaskans. In several villages both Athabaskans and Eskimos lived.

Salmon is the mainstay of Yupik Eskimos' diet

Great numbers of all five species of salmon found in Alaskan waters returned annually to the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers to spawn. From June to September the Yupik Eskimo people caught salmon. They caught them with gill-nets from a kayak, with pole and brush weirs, or with funnel-shaped fish traps. The people also fished for salmon from riverbanks or from their kayaks using short rods and sinew lines.

In addition to salmon, Yupik people took blackfish and whitefish, both excellent sources of oil, herring, and other kinds of fish. In winter they set fish traps under the river ice.

The Yupik people hunted birds and ducks in spring and fall. Some men, particularly those who lived in villages near to Athabaskan villages, traveled to the mountains to hunt large game animals such as moose, caribou, and sheep. They used bows and arrows.

Inland Yupik Eskimo men traveled to the Bering Sea coast to hunt sea mammals between the fishing and trapping seasons. The coastal Yupik Eskimos hunted beluga whales.

Low land limits sites for villages

The Yupik Eskimos established their permanent winter villages along high banks near the mouths of rivers. Sites needed to be above the reach of most floodwaters. A typical Yupik Eskimo village had seven houses.

The people built houses partially underground for warmth and because the delta and coast areas had few trees they could use for building materials. The Yupik Eskimos also did not have as many large animal skins to use for houses as the Interior Athabaskans. Because families returned to the same spring and fall trapping camps, they usually built partially-underground houses at these sites. In the summer they lived in tents or lean-to shelters.

Houses had entrance passages. Inside they had a central fire pit and benches along the walls. Related females and their children lived together. Men usually lived in the community house. Community activities centered around this large structure. It served as eating and sleeping quarters and workshop for the men. Ceremonies and celebrations took place in the community house. Women and children attended such functions there.

Men and women wore a long-sleeved, hoodless parka that reached the ankles. Separate hoods made of caribou or squirrel skins and trimmed with other fur were worn in winter. To further shield them from cold and wind, fish skin jackets might be worn over parkas. The people wore boots made from fish skins with soles made from dehaired seal skins. For added warmth, Yupik Eskimos wore caribou skin or woven grass socks.

When hunting or traveling, Yupik Eskimos had wood visors or sunglasses. These items protected the hunter's or traveler's eyes from the glare of the sun off the water or snow.

Rivers are travel routes summer and winter

In summer the coastal and lower river Yupik Eskimos used kayaks for hunting and umiaks for trading trips. Upriver Eskimos had small canoes covered with birchbark. One person traveled in such a canoe using a single-bladed paddle or pair of short poles. Upriver Yupik Eskimos also had a larger birchbark boat to accommodate an entire family or hunting party.

For much of the year, the people traveled over frozen rivers and lakes and trails. They had flat-bed sleds constructed from driftwood and fitted with ivory or baleen runners. They pulled these sleds by hand. Wood or ivory ice creepers and a pointed staff helped the people keep their footing. These Eskimo people also used snowshoes.

Families are important in Yupik Eskimo society

Families dominated Yupik Eskimo society. They worked together for food, clothing, and shelter. Yet in their permanent winter villages, husbands and wives lived in separate places. The men collectively taught the boys in the community house. Women taught their daughters at the family home. Parents arranged marriages.

Celebrations are a time for the Yupik Eskimos to express themselves

Yupik Eskimos, like the Inupiaq Eskimos, celebrated messenger feasts and feasts to commemorate the dead. The Yupik people wished to reinforce alliances with other groups. At these celebrations the people related stories, particularly of conflict.

In December, the coastal Yupik Eskimos celebrated the Bladder Festival. To insure that the sea mammals would be abundant, villagers entertained the inua, or spirits, of animals they had killed. Through the year hunters preserved the bladders of animals they had killed. At the festival they returned the bladders to the sea through a hole cut in the ice.

Not long before Euroamericans entered the delta region, the residents had been engaged in bitter conflict. In particular, lower Kuskokwim River, Nushagak River, and Nunivak Island residents had staged a number of raids against one another. A particularly bloody battle occurred at the mouth of Mud Creek, the Kuskokwim entrance to a route to the Yukon River. The Kuskokwim River people defeated the Nunivak Island people, allowing only a blinded man to return down river to recount events.

Yupik Eskimos carved wood masks of animals. The animals had human hands and small carved human faces to show the animal's human disguise. A circular face in low relief on the back of an animal or bird formed the principal part of a mask. Unlike the Inupiaq, the Yupik Eskimos painted their masks with red, blue-green, black, and white mineral pigments.

Dancers wore the masks at celebrations. The people wore the masks to expel evil spirits and ward off misfortune or to honor the animals killed for food, clothing, and shelter so there would be a plentiful supply in the future. Only men wore face masks. Women used finger masks, small wood disks decorated with feathers.

The women of St.' Lawrence and King islands often had intricate tattoo markings on their faces. Designs included parallel lines and concentric circles.

Bering Sea Eskimo girls had story knives. While talking, they sketched pictures in the ground. The stories related their family history or told moral tales.

Alutiiq Eskimos

Eskimos move south to inhabit shores and islands of the North Pacific Ocean

A Chugach Eskimo woman drawn by John Webber who accompanied Captain James Cook on his third voyage of exploration to the North Pacific Ocean in 1778.
Collection Name: Alaska Historical Library, Alaska Centennial Collection.
Identifier: PCA 020-0249
Eskimos of the North Pacific Ocean area trace their history back more than 6,000 years. Some archaeologists think that about a thousand years ago Eskimos who had lived along the Bering Sea coast influenced these Eskimos on the Alaska Peninsula, North Pacific Ocean shore, and Kodiak Island. The ancient people are called Ocean Bay and Kachemak people. Whatever the details of recent influences on the descendants of the earliest-known Eskimos, these Eskimos on Kodiak Island became known as Koniags. Over time they had developed a language distinct from Yupik language called Alutiiq.

Alutiiq move east

The Alutiiq were widespread in the North Pacific Ocean. Many lived on Kodiak Island and on the southeast coast of the Alaska Peninsula. Some lived on the mainland of Southcentral Alaska where they became known as Chugach Eskimos. They settled on the southern tip of the Kenai Peninsula. Over the centuries, they moved onto many islands in Prince William Sound.

Food from the sea is available year-round

The sea provided food year-round for the Alutiiq. In the spring and summer months the people fished for salmon and other fish that were available. They caught cod, halibut, and flounder all year. The Alutiiq hunted fur seals from February until April. From April to June hunters went to outlying islands to hunt sea otters. From March until August they hunted harbor seals, porpoise, and sea lions. During June and July some men hunted whales. The people also collected shellfish such as clams and mussels.

The timbered land also provided food. The people trapped and hunted birds and animals in the nearby forests.

Alutiiq located their villages on high ground near the mouths of freshwater streams and ocean shores. They built their houses partially underground, but had wood to use for roofs. Up to 20 persons lived in a house. A household probably included several sisters and their families, an older couple, younger sisters and brothers, and occasionally poor relatives or orphans. The houses had a common room with a central hearth. Private areas were along the walls. Central smokeholes provided ventilation. In summer they built small temporary structures with sticks and bark.

Because they could get food with relative ease year-round, Alutiiq did not have to store as much food for the winter months as did other Eskimos or the Athabaskans. The climate also did not permit them to store food. They did split and dry some of the salmon caught in summer. They also stored oil from seals and whales for use all year.

The Alutiiq hunted sea mammals from baidarkas. They had several other methods as well. To hunt seals, a hunter waited for a warm, sunny day. On such days, the hunter would go to sites where seals congregated. The hunter set out an inflated seal skin, hid behind a nearby rock, and imitated seal calls. When the seals came ashore, the hunter speared the animals. Up to a dozen seals could be caught in a day.

North Pacific Eskimos use baidarkas

Alutiiq used shorter and wider baidarkas than the Aleuts. Similar to kayaks, baidarkas were suited to travel in rough, open, ocean water whereas kayaks usually hugged the shore.

The Alutiiq knelt in their baidarkas. They used a single-bladed paddle.

Villages operate independently

A Koniag Eskimo man.
Collection Name: Alaska Historical Library, Alaska Centennial Collection.
Identifier: PCA 020-0034
Althouth they shared a common language, Alutiiq villages operated independently. On occasion they gathered for celebrations. At times they united against common enemies such as Tanaina Athabaskans and Aleuts.

Most Alutiiq ceremonies, dances, masked performances, rituals, and feasts took place in early winter. These included a memorial feast for the dead and ceremonies on killing a whale.

Although positions of leadership among the Alutiip were inherited, they had to be maintained on a personal basis. These positions carried high status in a community.

Alutiiq art has rich traditions

As did other Alaska Eskimos, the Alutiip made masks. Their masks had prominent wedge-shaped noses, very high foreheads, heavy hanging eyebrows, and v-shaped slits for the mouth.

Alutiiq had wood more readily available to them than the other Alaska Eskimo groups. They carved many more objects from wood than the other Eskimos.

On Kodiak Island the men wore conical hats woven from strips of spruce root. The owners decorated the hats with sea lion whiskers, painted designs, and dentalium shells. Alutiiq also had decorated wood hats similar to the ones worn by their Aleut neighbors.