Northwest and Arctic


Alaska's Past - Regional Perspectives

In this section you will learn about:

  • Northwest and Arctic Alaska's first residents
  • How the first residents lived
  • Trading patterns

First Alaskans cross land bridge

The Bering Sea coast is believed to be the first region of Alaska to have been occupied continuously by people. The first residents arrived 6,000 to 7,000 years ago. An early culture relying almost entirely on whales and other sea mammals probably was established about 3, 000 years ago at Cape Krusenstern near today's Kotzebue. Villages dotted the coast by 2, 500 years ago. More than 2, 000 years later, when Europeans sailed into the Bering Sea, one-fourth of the region's inhabitants had moved inland to settle along rivers. The most important were the Noatak and Kobuk rivers.

Coastal villages were larger than inland settlements. Hunting and butchering whales required the work of many men and women. Ipiutak, near today's Point Hope, probably had a population of 1,500 in ancient times.

Hunters travel on ice

Then, as now, the arctic ice moved and ground. Paths of open water called leads came and went. Near Point Hope and Point Barrow, migrating whales enroute in April and May to their summer feeding grounds in the Beaufort Sea followed leads that opened close to shore. Near Wainwright, however, hunters had to travel as far as 20 miles from shore to reach open water.

Ocean currents caused the ice pack to move. They also made the ice dangerous for travel. Unexpected shifts in the ice pack could isolate a hunter on a floe and carry him away from land.

Eskimos use whales walrus, and caribou

Coastal arctic communities depended on whales for their meat. One whale could provide several tons of food. The meat was stored in ice caves for use throughout the year. For people who lived on the Seward Peninsula coast, walrus was the most important food. Bearded seals and the small beluga whales were also taken.

Inland Eskimos relied on caribou as their major food. Caribou round-ups involved the entire population of a village. In winter, villagers chased caribou into brush corrals where they could be killed. In summer, they chased the animals into rivers and lakes. Salmon were also vital to the inland Natives' diet.

Whether whale, walrus, or caribou, the meat was boiled or roasted over an open fire, and then dipped into bowls of seal oil. The Natives used every part of an animal. Hides were turned into clothing, boat coverings, or tents. Bones became utensils or framework for shelters. Intestines were used for waterproof outerwear or coverings for smoke-holes in Eskimo homes.

Shelters and boats are vital

Because there were no trees on the arctic coast, coastal Eskimos used driftwood and sod to build their winter homes. All houses were semi-subterranean for warmth. The amount of driftwood available helped determine the house design. If driftwood was plentiful, homes were built with fireplaces for heating and cooking. If driftwood was scarce, the houses were built with long entry tunnels and raised sleeping benches so that whale oil burned in small saucers was all that was needed for heat. Summer housing also varied. Some people had skin tents. Others had drift-wood lean-tos.

Boats were as important as houses. Kayak and umiak frames were made of wood bent into ribs and lashed into place with rawhide cords. De-haired, cured seal or walrus hides that had been soaked in salt water were stretched over the frame. This covering was lashed to the ribs with rawhide cord. The final step was to soak the craft with several coats of seal or whale oil.

Eskimos gather at annual trade fairs

Coastal and inland Eskimos gathered at annual trade fairs to obtain materials they needed for clothing, tools, or diet. A rendezvous on Kotzebue spit was the largest, but there were many others. Natives from Diomede, Little Diomede, King, and Sledge islands often traded at Wales. There were rendezvous sites at the mouth of the Colville River and on Barter Island, where Eskimos of the Mackenzie River delta in Canada joined others who lived on the Beaufort Sea.

At the trade gatherings raw materials and finished products were offered for trade. River dwellers brought jade adz blades, copper knives, and caribou hides. In return they received whale blubber or seal oil which were essential to their diet, or oogruk skins needed for the soles of their mukluks. There was also entertainment. Games, competitions, and dances were some activities.

Sometimes trade fairs led to conflict. Contests could end in fights and insults. Grudges accumulated over the weeks or months of a rendezvous. If they came to a head at a time of year when men were not needed to hunt or fish, a raiding party might be formed. Wars were usually short. They were carried out quickly, to surprise the enemy.

Some trade fairs resulted in marriages between members of different groups. The number of relatives a family had helped determine wealth and success. The Eskimo definition of a poor man was one who was without kin. Kinship ties improved relationships between regions and extended the area in which members of a village could travel in safety.

Summary questions

  1. Why were coastal villages larger than inland villages?
  2. What did the Eskimos use for food?
  3. Why were wide connections important to Eskimo families?
  4. How did the trade fairs serve the Eskimo?

Inquiry question

  1. Compare the trade fair with the rendezvous of non-Native and Indian traders and trappers of the American West.

1897-1920 GOLD
1920-1945 THE AIR AGE
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