Course in Iñupiaq Land Use Values and Resources

The Journey

The Journey

A Trip of a Lifetime

In this Learning Center, I want to share an incredible experience I had during the summer of 2009. I was invited to attend a ten-day course in Inupiaq land use and values, put on by the Inupiaq people and the North Slope Borough.  They ran the class in a way that no one will ever forget: they took us out on the tundra in the foothills of the Brooks Range to LIVE the experience. I hope you enjoy it!

Journey Introduction

I should first start out by mentioning that I learned that I would be participating in this course approximately nine days before my scheduled departure.  Therefore, when I say "I had no idea what to expect" I truly meant it. I was asked "do you want to go to Alaska?", and I quickly replied "yes!"

I have grown up in New England, and have been working in Massachusetts for the past four years at the New Bedford Whaling Museum.

I work directly with the photographic collections at the NBWM, which include a large Arctic Collection.  So, I can say that prior to this experience, I knew a small amount about the terrain and the culture.  Minimal at best.  But still, it is my belief that when someone asks you if you would like to partake in something outside of your comfort zone (no matter how vastly outside), you say "yes" and contemplate later. 

To see all of the photos from my trip, visit my flickr site.

The Course That Took me to the Brooks Range

This is the description I read of the course before I left New England:

This course will provide an overview of the core elements and holistic worldview of our geography and ecosystem. Through a hands-on camp experience, students will examine the complex relationships between the people, the land, the river, and the natural resources of the Arctic Brooks Range.

Culturally appropriate behaviors in the treatment of the land and resources will be discussed and modeled, including understanding of North Slope geographical landmarks, traditional land use inventory, camps, hunting areas, animals of the area, place names and historic use, flora and fauna, hunting and subsistence. Demonstrations of the appropriate uses of animals and other resources will be incorporated throughout the course.

Course Objectives and Student Outcomes:

The course will offer students the opportunity to participate in traditions of cultural, and subsistence land use activities under the guidance of experienced instructors, guides, elders and hunters. During the camp, participants will participate in preparation of camp, traveling to and from camp grounds, set up camp, hunting and food gathering experiences and learn firsthand how we subsist on the land and the rivers using skills and technologies stemming back thousands of years.

The Journey begins . . .

I'm not one for long flights, but the excitment and the unknown of what I was about to encounter kept me going.  I knew a little about what was to happen.  I was going to be camping (and/or fishing, and/or hunting) in the Arctic Circle of Alaska.  I knew it was going to be cold (just because I thought I knew it, it didn't end up being all that true), I knew that they would not have french fries and milk (two of my favorite things), I knew that I was going to be completely in awe the whole time. 

I arrived in Fairbanks and was taken to my hotel.  Already was I amazed, it was 2:00 in the morning and it was bright as day.  As I entered my hotel room, I was greeted by a pamplet "Staying Alive in the Arctic", not such a great start.

Arrival to "the Pass"

The village of Anaktuvuk Pass came about when in 1938 several Nunamiut families returned to the mountains from the coast after an absence of about ten years.  They were later joined by other Nunamiuts.  It became an offical city in 1959.  Anaktuvuk is a city and mountain pass that lies slightly north of the Brooks Range in North Slope Borough in Alaska, with a population of roughly 300 people. Anaktuvuk Pass is the last remaining settlement of the Nunamiut (People of the Land) Inupiaq Eskimos in Alaska.

To get to the village I took a two-hour plane ride from Fairbanks.  Plane is the only way in an out of the village, and it is one of those "puddle-jumping, eight-seater types".

The course consisted of 21 people: 12 "students" (who were mainly teachers from  Alaska and the North Western Continental US), three village elders, and six guides.

I arrived to the village late (great start) after everyone had already met and were starting to learn some basic ground rules for our camping trip to "Praise the Lord Creek":

  • We will bring two dogs for bear/wolf lookout
  • If you go off, go in pairs and tell a guide
  • Make LOTS of noise, cough, sing, talk (to scare the bears away)
  • If a bear does come close to camp, a guide will shoot close to it to scare it off
  • Weather takes precedence; our plans will change day-to-day according to the weather (I would find out later that this is basically a rule for all Inupiaq living)
  • The bathroom? Oh, it's all around you
  • Everyone will be responsible for chores: cooks, dish washers, clean up crew (burn what we can of trash), wood gatherers, snow gatherers (for water)

From The Eskimo of North Alaska by Norman A. Chance (1966):

"The only truly inland north Alaskan Eskimo are the Nunamiut (People of the Land), a small group of related families who live in the Anaktuvuk Pass region of the Brooks Range and along the Kobuk and Noatak rivers.  They are the last remnants of more than 3,000 Nunamiut who once lived in the mountains and along the inland river system of nothern Alaska...

The present-day diet is a blend of both traditional and modern foods.  All Eskimo with sufficient capital are able to buy a wide variety of Western foods at local cooperative or trader's stores.  In addition to basic items such as tea, sugar, flower, and canned milk, most families regularly purchase canned fruits, bread and crackers, candy, tobacco, and other easily available goods.

The bulk of the food derives from traditional sources, however.  Meat from the whale, seal, and caribou is stored regularly in ice cellars to be available when needed.  Much of the meat is prepared by boiling, although large amounts of raw and dried meat is also consumed.  Caribou is the preferred food; seal meat is the least desired and usually reserved for the dogs."

From The North Alaskan Eskimo, A Study in Ecology and Society by Robert F. Spencer (1959):

"Quite apart from the importance of the house in whatever form as a shelter, there were significant attitudes which surround the dwelling and which should be evaluated in order to give proper focus to the relations between house and society.  The dwelling was the center of activity for the nuclear family, and while it has been shown that the personnel of such a group might change with carying conditions, the attachment to the house was an emotional one and very strong.  For the individuals who resided in it, it was ever a source of refuge and sanctuary."

From The North Alaskan Eskimo, A Study in Ecology and Society by Robert F. Spencer (1959):

"The small band of Eskimo which continues to reside in the foothills along the Killik River, moving into Anaktuvuk Pass and the area of Chandler Lake, still makes use of an aboriginal house type.  This is the iccellik, so named from the iccuk, a caribou hide used as a cover.  It is a portable, tentlike structure made from caribou hides stretched over a willow frame."

This photo from the Simon Paneak Memorial Museum at Anaktuvuk Pass shows the house, one of several types the Nunamiut used traditionally.

From "The Eskimo of North Alaska" by Norman A. Chance (1966):

"The typical Ipiutak house was about twelve to fifteen square feet with sod-covered walls sloping in toward a rool resting on four corner posts.  Low benches on three sides of the house were used for sleeping, which left a small floor area, and a shallow depression in the center served as a fireplace."

From "The Eskimo of North Alaska" by Norman A. Chance (1966):

"Modern Eskimo villages vear little physical resemblence to those of precontact times.  the small driftwood frame and sod houses that once symbolized man's habitation onthe north Alaskan coast now have been replaced by an assortment of Western-style homes ranging from one-room huts, with a single plastic window or skylight, to well-designed multiroom dwellings... Due to the hugh cost of paint and minimal deterioration of wood in this climate, few houses are painted."

Eight Days in the Brooks Range and What I Learned

Eight Days in the Brooks Range and What I Learned

First Day of Camp

We packed up and took the two-hour ride over bumpy terrain and muddy grass to our prospective campsite in between the mountains.  It took two trips to get all of the gear, people, and equipment over there.  But once we were there, we were there for the next eight days. Quite a bizarre feeling.  We set up our tents, four people to a tent.  People were sent to get snow at the nearby river bank, and to get willow branches to start a fire.  A fire for what?  The obvious reason of turning snow into drinkable water, but also to make coffee.  Yes, coffee.  

Before I left on this trip, one of my only concerns was, how am I going to kick my severe coffee addiction?  As soon as I found out I was going to Alaska, I decided to quit so that I wouldn't have to suffer caffeine withdrawals on the tundra.  Well, as it turns out, Inupiaq Eskimos are addicted to coffee, too!  Go figure. 

The weather was warm, maybe 60s.  When we arrived, the stream was completed iced over.  I was one of the only ones that didn't go out and walk on it.  Kind of wished I had, but oh well.  One can only handle so many firsts I suppose.  

We also set up a "bathroom", a portable tin bucket, and a tarp that hung up on sticks behind three quarters of it.  We also had to dig a large dump out the bucket.

Some of us explored, some of us sat by the fire and listened to the elders talk a unique combination of English and Inupiaq.  We were visited by people from the village who had made their way out to the river for a picnic, something the villagers often do.  Luckily, they gave us some food (caribou legs, hot dogs, and coffee) as our food was still making its way to the camp.  

What I Learned

-When an elder asks you to do something, you do it...NOW

-There is no cell phone reception up there anywhere, they use CB radios

-There is no strict time schedule, and things are ruled by the weather

-If you see a bear you can wave a trash bag to make it go away, or flash it

-Elders have the best stories, and they can usually tell when someone is B-S-ing them

-The 24-hour sunlight isn't that hard to get used to, thanks to the magic of eye masks

-I am actually quite okay without a cell phone, internet, or TV . . . camera, not so much

-Don't talk back, just do it, or say "okay"

-90% of stereotypes abouts Alaskans are incredibly wrong, as are most stereotypes.

-The means of transportation in the village are walking, dirt bikes, bicycles, or argos, eight-wheeled tank-like things

-There is lots of meat, not a lot of fruits, vegetables or milk.  Everything is shipped in by plane or comes from the land

-Appearances and presumptions are quite often misleading: this small village has a museum - a wonderfully thorough and professional one


-Maktak (whale blubber) tastes like sushi, and it's good to eat when you are cold

-Argos can get through any terrain and can float

-You can eat frozen raw caribou meat, sort of like an appetizer 

-Dogs here are used mainly for protection from bears (in the village too), not so much for pets or companionship

-Willow burns easily, but fast

-I can pee anywhere (very liberating actually)

-Argos have their steering wheel on the right side

-Don't throw trash on the fire while food is being cooked on it

-The tundra is squishy

-About 6" under the tundra surface is permafrost

Ram hunts and Eskimo Potatoes

Ram hunts and Eskimo Potatoes

As I mentioned before, I knew that I would encounter some form of hunting.  I went into this experience as open-minded as I possibly could be, so when a handful of people were allowed to go on the actual hunt, I made sure I was one of them.  I would not forgive myself if I did not have photographs of this experience: hunting in the mountains of Alaska.  We went off in hopes of finding a few straggling caribou on their way north, but unfortunately we were unsuccessful.  We saw some foxes, some bears and cubs (oh, and by baby bears, I mean MASSIVELY BIG - not the cute and cuddly kind of bears), and some dall sheep.  We spotted a couple of large dall sheep on the mountainside, parked our argos far off and about seven of us headed up the side of the mountain.  This included the hunter (in every sense of the word), B3 (Benjamin III).  Now I will admit that I am not in the best of shape, and that the mere thought of anything athletic usually makes me uneasy, but I knew that I had to do this.  I should also mention that because of my inexperience, I though that it woould be okay if I wore my giant rubber boots to hike up a vertical mountain. 

I managed to keep up (and not fall off the mountain!!), and we climbed for about two hours chasing the sheep.  We were careful to not kick rocks that would fall make noise, and to stay out of the sight of the sheep.  We rested and had some lunch: sandwiches that almost fell down the mountain, and enjoyed the view

We climbed into the mountain range, up the side of the mountain and doubled back along the top.  As we were nearing the end of our journey, we were told to duck down. We were farther behind from the guide, so we couldn't exactly see what was going on.  We heard a gunshot, which seemed to ring through the mountains forever.  We then heard another gun shot an a loud "WHOOP" in celebration.  We all ran over to see the prize.  It was a male ram with a full-curled set of horns.  We each took our turns taking our picture with it.  As I crouched down next to it, I put my hand on its still warm body, and was absolutely shocked that I started crying.  I suppose I was overwhelmed with the profoundness of it all.

I don't think I ever slept so well, or woke up in so much physical pain in my entire life.

The next day we went digging for Eskimo potatoes.  We went and gathered some caribou antlers and cut them up into small pieces to use for digging.  Clearly I pictured potatoes.  Nope, not so much.  They were the roots of a flower, and looked more like thin, brown carrots.  Some stayed for a while and digged some up, and a group of us went back to make Exkimo donuts.   The dough is mixed and placed in a bag on someone's back under a coat to let it rise.  Once it has risen, it is taken out and formed into rings and deep fry them in oil.  Oh man were they delicious.

What I Learned:

-Do NOT wear big rubber boots to climb a mountain,(especially if they are two sizes too big)

-Tuttu (caribou) tastes like steak

-You don't kill female caribou in the spring, only male: They are migrating north to their breeding ground

-How to make Eskimo Donuts (rings of bannock dough deep fried in oil) and that they taste like "doughboys"

-There are cranberries in the tundra that you can pick and eat

-I'd eat anything if I was hungry enough, and every time I did it was delicious

-Mountain stream water is probably the best, purest water I will ever drink (definitely the best I have ever had)

-Animal hides aren't very useful in the spring because they are shedding

-You can count the age of a ram by counting the rings on their horns, like a tree

-Certain animals leave different scents in their tracks sending messages like "I'm hurt" or "food this way"

-A carton of chocolate milk has 200 calories

-You can clean your hands of blood by using the insides (contents) of a ram's stomach, or by wiping them on moss

-The marrow of animal bones is like a delicacy, and tastes like egg yolk

-The soul of an animal stays until the spinal cord is separated from the head

-There is little I can't do: I have hiked up the side of a mountain in the Brooks Range

-Sheep horns can be used as ladles

-You can eat sheep brains, some people really want to

-What a gun shot sounds like in the mountains

-Caribou antlers can be useful tools: digging in the ground, and holding up pots of water in the fire

-Do not hunt the first group of migrating caribou in the fall - it is bad luck

-If hunters do not return at an expected time the women hang a mukluk: if it still moves he is okay, if it stops that means something bad has happened

From The North Alaskan Eskimo, A Study in Ecology and Society by Robert F. Spencer (1959):

"The mountain sheep were snared in the mountains by the nuunamiut [sic].  The sheep were not obtained in sufficient numbers by either group [nuunamuit and tareumuit] to be economically important, but their horns were eagerly sought, serving as caribou spearheads and dippers, and becoming important items of trade."

From The Eskimo of North Alaska by Norman A. Chance (1966):

"Caribou is the most significant land mammal regularly hunted.  Traditionally, it provided a variety of food, sinew for sewing, antlers for implements, and skins for clothing, tents, and bedding.  Meat and skin were the most important of these items, with skin serving for clothing even up to the present day."

From The North Alaskan Eskimo, A Study in Ecology and Society by Robert F. Spencer (1959):

"What the whale was to the tareumuit, the caribou was to the nunamiut.  Its presence was vital to inland life and, like the whale on the coast, it became the keystone of economic, social, and religious activities, involved with an infinite number of restrictions, attitudes, and modes of treatment... The caribou move through the passes of the Brooks Range, not once, but often several times yearly, the movements themselves being quite irregular and erratic."



From Ethnological Results of the Point Barrow Expedition by John Murdoch (1892):

"Whenever a woman wishes to cut anything, from her food to a thread in her sewing, she uses an úlu in preference to anything else.  The knife is handled precisely as described among the eastern Eskimo, making the cut by pushing instead of drawing, thus differeing from the long-handled round knife."



Dancing, Singing, and Mask-making

Dancing, Singing, and Mask-making

One of the most wonderful and relaxing experiences on this trip was listening to the elders sing. They often sang as they did chores, but there was one night in particular that stood out. There had been some visitors from the village and we had our usually hearty feast.  As we were cleaning and doing the dishes, they started singing.  They didn't stop, and eventually it turned into an all out singing and dancing performance.

What I Learned:

-Willow and grass can be used as floors (the ground thaws out, and the grass gets very wet and muddy)

-Flowers can be used as underarm deodorant

-It is easy to lose track of the days

-Ice floes make the most incredibly beautiful sounds: floating icicles by the shore sounds like wind chimes, ice breaking in the distance sounds like rolling thunder

-I can go days without needing or wanting to look in the mirror

-Spilling an egg is good luck

-Ravens are good luck

-It can get hot in Alaska

-Eskimos aren't very shy or modest about their bodies, especially the elder women

-How bitingly cold Arctic water is

-There are different dialects of Inupiaq - this one is "Slope"

-If your grandparents die, you adopt new ones

-If someone dies, children are given the name of the person who died

-Never eat snow, your insides will freeze faster than your outside

-If your eye twitches, that means you will see someone you haven't seen in a long time

From Our Arctic Province by Henry W. Elliot (1886):

"The conventional coat of these people is the 'parka', made of marmot and muskrat-skins, or of tanned reindeer-hides, with enormous winter hoods, or collars, of dog-hair or fox-fur...  In winter the heavy hood-collar, or cowl, is fitted so as to be drawn over his entire head and pulled down to the eyes.  This parka is worn with singular ease and abandon: frequently the arms are withdrawn from the big, baggy sleeves and stowed under the waist-slack of the garment, leaving these empty appendages to dangle."

From Ethnological Results of the Point Barrow Expedition by John Murdoch (1892):

"The custom of tattooing is almost universal among the women, but the marks are confined almost exclusively to the chin and form a very simple pattern."

From Ethnological Results of the Point Barrow Expedition by John Murdoch (1892):

"The music was furnished by the usual orchestra of old men, who beat drums and sang a monotonous song... The only musical instrument in use among these people is the universal drum or tambourine, consisting of a membrane stretched over a hoop with a handle on one side, and used from Greenland to Siberia.  It is always accompanied by the voice singing or chanting."

From The Eskimos: Their Environment and Folways by Edward Moffat Weyer, Jr., Ph.D. (1932):

"The skin of the caribou is adaptable as clothing, particularly for winter usem while the sinew of the back and legs is highly satisfactory as thread."


From The Eskimo of North Alaska by Norman A. Chance (1966):

"Caribou is the most significant land mammal regularly hunted.  Traditionally it provided a variety of food, sinew for sewing, antlers for implements, and skins for clothing, tents, and bedding.  Meat and skin were the most important of these items, with skin serving for clothing up to the present day."

How To Use My Experiences in Your Classroom

How To Use My Experiences in Your Classroom

My experience might help dispel the all-too common misconceptions and misunderstandings that outsiders have of the Inupiaq people.  

Not only did I participate in this experience as as a student on an educational level, but I also approached this with an outside perspective of an alternative culture.  I learned first-hand about the intimate respect that the Inupiaq people have for the land, the animals, and each other.  I witnessed how humbled and sincerely grateful they were for all that was provided for them.  Nothing was ever "taken", it was all a gift: the animal was giving itself to them; and they never forgot to thank them for that.  I came away from this slow-moving, spiritual culture with a more profound understanding.  I would have never gained this knowledge through books, or even online.  The best way to learn is by experiencing as intimitely as you can, with hands-on experience.  Maybe not the hunting, but the dancing, the cooking, the singing, and the mask-making.

While I was there, I also had the privilege of leaning some Inupiaq words, although I must say my pronunciation needs some practice:

  • tuttu = caribou
  • iglu = house or dwelling (no igloo)
  • apuyýaq = snow house
  • igluk = two houses
  • iglut = three houses
  • Iñupiaq = one person / language
  • Iñupiak = two people
  • Iñupiat = three or more people
  • apun = snow
  • urlaallutaq = good morning
  • siksrik = ground squirrel
  • alappaa = it's cold
  • siqiñiq = sun
  • aattai = cute

Upon my return to the New Bedford Whaling Museum, I realized that I had wonderful resources right at my fingertips.  I wanted to learn as much as I could about the Nunamuit people and the area that I had just visited.  In addition to spending hours in the bookshelves, I spent a lot of time in storage, looking at Inupiaq Eskimo artifacts.  I was amazed that all of this was right there in front of me this whole time.  While we had a lot of references, I found that I still had to do some digging to find out information on this specific culture.  It just speaks to the fact that we still do not know all that much about this culture and heritage.  

Recommendations for those who can't visit Anaktuvuk Pass

Although I learned unwritten lessons about the Inupiaq culture and people first-hand, I believe others can learn a lot by reading and visiting a museum that has a good Inupiaq collection. Toward that end, I suggest:

  • Look through the books listed below for a look at the cultures and histories, but keep in mind that most of them were written by outsiders like me, who were impressed by the people, but had not grown up in the culture.
  • Find out which museums in your area have good collections of Arctic materials. Ask for a special tour for you or your students that revolves around those collections.
  • Some museums have images of their collections on-line. This is a good way for you to explore objects that reside in institutions far from your home.
  • If you can, locate and bring in some objects that will make a unit on the Nunamiut more tangible: things like caribou fur, sinew, Dall Sheet horn, an ulu, even some walrus ivory -- which the Nunamiut didn't hunt, but did get in trade from their coastal relatives.
  • Check out the Internet for resources. Start with the Alaska Native Knowledge Network, the North Slope Borough Schools District's web site, or the Inupiaq History, Culture, and Language web site.
  • Use my experiences and photographs to explore the area. Help students imagine themselves in the situation I was in and ask them to write or draw about it.
  • Do a science unit on the animals of the Brooks Range. There's loads of information available. Look for nature videos about the Arctic. One good site is the Alaska Department of Fish and Game's Wildlife Notebook Series. Under the Wildlife heading, select Wildlife Notebook.
  • As a hook, you might challenge your students to do research to dispel as many misconceptions about Eskimos (the preferred term is "Inupiaq" or, for more southern people, "Yup'ik") as they can.


Eskimo Life by Fridtjof Nansen (Longmans, Green, and Co,; 1894)

Our Arctic Province by Henry W. Elliot (Charles Scribner's Sons; 1886)

The North Alaskan Eskimo, A Study in Ecology and Society by Robert F. Spencer (U.S. Government Printing Office; 1959)

Ethnological Results of the Point Barrow Expedition by John Murdoch (Smithsonian Institution Press; 1892)

Wildlife Management and Subsistence Hunting in Alaska by Henry P. Huntington (University of Washing Press; 1992)

The Eskimos: Their Environment and Folkways by Edward Moffat Weyer, Jr., Ph.D. (Yale University Press; 1932)

The Eskimo of North Alaska by Norman A. Chance (Holt, Rinehart and Winston; 1966)

Abridged Iñupiaq and English Dictionary by Edna Ahgeak MacLean (Alaska Native Language Center and Iñupiat Language Commission; 1980)