The Iñupiat (in-NOO-pee-at) and the St. Lawrence Island Yupik peoples’ homeland is in Alaska's northern and northwestern Arctic region. These are the people of the ice as much as the land, and much of their life and culture revolves around the sea ice. Subsistence, or traditional hunting and gathering practices, provide a large part of their diet to this day. The Iñupiat hunt both marine and land mammals, and also birds. They fish and gather berries in season.
Saint Lawrence Island is off the coast of the Seward Peninsula in the Bering Sea. The Iñupiat are the first people to have made contact with European explorers in Alaska. The Iñupiat and the St. Lawrence Island Yupik people share similar subsistence patterns, home construction methods, and tools. St. Lawrence Island Yupik speak Siberian Yupik, which is distinct from the languages spoken by Yup’ik and Cup’ik peoples in Southwest Alaska.
Iñupiat are related to a larger group of people that span from Russia, across Alaska, through Northern Canada, and up to Greenland. There are obvious regional differences, but the culture and language share important similarities, including certain languages that can be understood across all of these countries. The Inuit Circumpolar Council is an organization that represents all of these people and is a permanent participant in the Arctic Council.
Most of the communities in the northern and northwest Arctic region can only be flown to, but some are occasionally accessed by boat. There is no road system that connects them all, which is true for much of Alaska. During the winter, some of the communities can be reached by snowmobile. Utqiaġvik (formerlly Barrow) is one of the largest Iñupiaq settlements in Alaska and is the northernmost community in the United States.
The Nalukataq whaling festival is held in Utqiaġvik in June following a successful whaling season. The purpose of the festival is to appease the spirits of deceased whales so that they will return in the form of new whales the next season. In addition to dancing, singing, and food, the whaling festival includes a tradition familiar to some visitors — the blanket toss. While it's now conducted as entertainment, it didn’t originate that way. An Iñupiaq hunter would be tossed in the air, enabling him to see across the horizon to hunt game. During today's celebrations, thirty or more Iñupiaq gather in a circle, holding the edges of a large skin made from walrus hides, and toss someone into the air as high as possible.
For more information, visit the Iñupiat Heritage Center in Utqiaġvik, which has archeological and modern collections focusing on Iñupiat whaling traditions, as well as artist workshops and culture, language, and history programs. In Kotzebue, visit the Northwest Arctic Heritage Center, which also serves as the visitor center for Kobuk Valley National Park. While in Nome, make sure to visit the Carrie M. McClain Memorial Museum and in the same building you can find the Kawerak Katirvik Cultural Center.
Cultural Regions Map
Iñupiat Traditions & History
From the Alaska CulturalHost Program
The Iñupiaq and St. Lawrence Island Yupik tended to live in small groups of related families of 20-200 people, in five main geographical uregions:
- St. Lawrence Island Yupiit
- Bering Strait Inupiat
- Kotzebue Sound Inupiat
- North Alaska Coast Inupiat, Tareumiut (da-gia-mee-ute), people of the sea
- Interior North Inupiat, Nunamiut (nu-na-mee-ute) people of the land
HOUSE TYPES & SETTLEMENTS
They used a variety of designs and materials, but three key features were common:
1) An underground tunnel entrance below the living level to trap cold air;
2) A semi-subterranean structure, using the ground as insulation.
3) A seal-oil lamp from soapstone or pottery, for light, heat, and cooking. Homes were usually made from sod blocks, sometimes laid over driftwood or whalebone and walrus bone frames, generally dome-shaped. The shape was usually rectangular, except on St. Lawrence Island, where the houses were circular of varying sizes. The rectangular houses generally were 12-15 by 8-10 feet, holding 8 to 12 people.
In the summer, many of these houses flooded when the ground thawed, but most people had already moved to their summer camps. Community houses, called qargi [plural: qargit], were used as a work area in Iñupiaq settlements.
TRADITIONAL SUBSISTENCE PATTERNS
Traditional subsistence patterns depend upon location and season of the resources, such as whales, marine mammals, fish,
caribou, and plants. For instance:
- Whales and sea mammals were hunted in the coastal and island villages.
- Pink and chum salmon; cod, inconnu, and whitefish were fished whenever ice formed; herring and crab and halibut were also caught.
- Birds and eggs formed an important part of the diet.
TOOLS & TECHNOLOGY
The traditional Iñupiaq and St. Lawrence Island Yupik tool kit had a variety of stone, wood, bone, and ivory tools made for butchering, tanning, carving, drilling, inscribing, sharpening, and flaking. The bow drill was an important tool, used for starting fires, drilling holes in wood, bone, and ivory. Hunting equipment and tool kits were kept in different containers.
A sophisticated package of toggle-headed harpoons, lances, lines, and seal bladder floats were used for the bowhead whale hunt. Seal skin floats were used for whale hunts, as were water-filled seal bladders, which attract and lead bowhead whales closer to the shore.
- Other tools include scratching boards for attracting seals to breathing holes, bows, arrows, spears, spear throwers, bolas for taking birds, and snares.
- Fishing gear includes nets, traps made from branches and roots, hooks.
- The Umiaq (um-aak)/Angyaq is a large open skin boat, 15 - 25 feet long (although from the Kotzebue area some are nearly 50 feet). It is used for hunting whale and walrus, travel, and bartering. A large umiaq/angyaq could carry up to 5 people and a ton of cargo.
- The kayak, a closed skin boat, is typically for one person.
- The basket sled is used for land travel. A flat sled is used for hauling large skin
boats across the ice.
- Snowshoes are used in interior regions (e.g., Kobuk River valley). Small sleds attached in the bottom of a skin boat transport the watercraft across ice.
Traditional clothing consisted of outer and inner pullover tops, such as parkas or atiqluk. The qiipaghaq was the outer garment. Other clothing included outer and inner pants, socks, boots called kamiit. Tops and pants were made of caribou skin, with the fur facing inward on inner garments and outwards on outer. Gloves were made from various skins, with the fur turned inside and usually connected with a leather strip around the neck. Waterproof outer garments made from sea-mammal intestines completed the wardrobe.
CEREMONIAL / BELIEFS
Both groups believe in reincarnation and the recycling of spirit forms from one life to the next, both human and animal. Names of those who died recently are given to newborns. Only if animal spirits are released can the animal be regenerated and return for future harvest. This explains the elaborate treatment of animals harvested, even today.
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