Niġliq: Site of an Ancient Trade Fair

Learning Center Overview

Learning Center Overview

Join teachers from several parts of the country as they visited the site of the historic trade fair on the North Slope of Alaska at the mouth of the Colville River. See Niġliq (which is the Iñupiaq word for "goose") as it is today and journey back a hundred years to one of the last trade fairs, as seen through the eyes of a little boy who traveled with his family.

To learn about ancient trade in other parts of Alaska, visit the Trade in Precontact Alaska Learning Center.

Enduring Understandings and Big Ideas

  1. Trade is a universal economic activity that depends on the willingness of people with different resources to exchange with each other.
  2. Trade between and among Alaska Native groups is ancient, having roots as far back as archaeological evidence exists for humans in the Arctic.

Learning Objectives

Visitors to this Learning Center can:

  • Hear and see the site of a centuries-long trade fair on the North Slope of Alaska
  • Explore the long history of trade that pre-dated the coming of Europeans to Alaska
  • Learn about two complementary Inupiaq regions: the land-based territory of the Nunamiut and the sea-based territory of the Tagiugmiut
  • Compare the trade that occurred at Nigliq with trade and commerce we experience today

Time required:

1 to 4 class periods

Elders, Youth, and Teachers Visit Nigliq

Elders, Youth, and Teachers Visit Nigliq

For three days, from July 22 through July 24, 2009, Elders and youth from the North Slope Borough, and educators from the New England whaling town of New Bedford and the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians gathered to celebrate and learn about a culturally important place on Alaska's North Slope: Niġliq, the site of an ancient trade fair at the mouth of the Colville River. They met at the village of Nuiqsut which is upriver from Nigliq. To see a GoogleMap of this area, click here and type "Nuiqsut" in the locator window to get the location of the village and the river.

The Program

The North Slope Borough's ECHO program had planned the event. Click here to see a copy of the program.

Participants visit Niġliq

Three dozen people made the boat journey downriver from the village of Nuiqsut to the mouth the Colville River where the island of Niġliq is located. It was windy and chilly, so the hosts set up tents where visitors could observe and try Iñupiaq skills. Participants were divided into three groups, each visiting Nigliq for one of the three days of the conference.

Berry Picking

Crowberries, blueberries, and lowbush cranberries were ripe for the picking on the tundra at Nigliq. Elders -- especially women -- are tireless when they pick berries, bending over at the waist and picking for hours until they have the gallons their families need for the winter.

Younger pickers learned to identify the edible berries -- the easy part -- and also practiced the same necessary persistence and patience their elders show. They also learned to identify some medicinal plants and listened to the plants' healing properties.

Cutting Fish at Niġliq

Local people caught fish, while expert fish cutters taught visitors how to clean and prepare the fish for drying.

Meanwhile, back at Nuiqsut . . .

During each of the three days, 1/3 of the participants were at Niġliq, while 2/3 stayed in Nuiqsut to learn from the elder there. The Nuiqsut dance group Uyagagvigmiut demonstrated, taught, and danced for the guests.

Cultural Exchange in the Spirit of Nigliq

At the same time, Choctaw artists and elders, who had traveled from Mississippi, shared their cultural arts. This basket, made of swamp cane, is a specialty of tribal women.

Youth and Elders in Action

Play the video on the left to see a sample of the activities that participants engaged in during the three days of the conference.

The History of the Trade Fair

The History of the Trade Fair

To download and print information about Niġliq's history in a document prepared by the North Slope Borough of Alaska, click here.

To download and print excerpts from Robert Spencer's ethnography that describes what was traded at Niġliq and how the trading was organized, click here.

This photograph shows canvas and skin tents on a gravel beach in northern Alaska. It might have been taken at Niġliq, or an another trade fair in the Iñupiaq region. This and other historic photographs that show Inupiaq life and history can be viewed Alaska's digital archives web site.

The photographs on this page have all been downloaded from the digital archives (whose nickname is "Vilda"). Click on the title of each one to learn more about it. For a worksheet produced by the National Archives that guides your study of these primary sources, click here. Choose the Photograph Analysis Worksheet from the box on the right of the screen, or click here to download a pdf of the worksheet.

Teaching Strategies from the NSBSD Curriculum Unit

Teaching Strategies from the NSBSD Curriculum Unit

Materials and Supplies (beyond this Learning Center's resources)

  • Map that shows the North Slope of Alaska in some detail
  • Ball, about 8 inches in diameter, preferably made of skin and stuffed with furs or fabric
  • Art supplies
  • An item of clothing that was not made locally


Read about Itaalluk's Journey

The North Slope Borough School District, with funding from the US Department of Education, produced an entire 6th grade curriculum about Niġliq and the trading that occurred there.

To download and print the graphic novel that forms the backbone of that unit, click here.

Map Work

In the graphic novel Adventures in Trading, Itaalluk's family travels from their home in the Brooks Range downriver to Niġliq. Using a map that shows the North Slope in some detail, have students:

  • trace the voyage
  • compute the distance Itaalluk's family traveled
  • research how much gasoline it would take a family nowadays, either by boat or by snowmobile
  • calculate how much time it would take to make the journey nowadays by snowmobile

Map work, continued

Adventures in Trading describes the routes of three resources that made their way to the trade fair at Niġliq. Have students trace those routes on a globe or map of the world. Have them:

  • compute distances
  • research the time such a journey would take nowadays via air, sea, and land

Trace the voyage of an item of clothing

Just as Adventures in Trading traces the journey made by three of the resources that the Iñupiat wanted in 1900, so students can trace the journey an item of clothing took to get to them. To do this exercise, they will need Internet access and might have to conduct a telephone interview with the company's home office to learn about transportation routes.

  1. Choose an item of clothing that was not produced in your town, village, or city.
  2. Locate its point of origin on a globe or map of the world.
  3. Conduct research to determine where the original natural materials came from and where the factory is that produced the item of clothing. Mark that route on the map of globe.
  4. Conduct research about the clothing company to determine (if possible) where its American import office is. Mark that location on a map.
  5. Connect the point of embarkation with your home town, marking any stops the clothing might have made at intermediate distribution points.
  6. If possible, learn how long the process took, from harvesting the natural resource to its purchase in the store.

Learn about the trade at Niġliq

The inland Iñupiat, or Nunamiut, brought goods from the land -- caribou skins and other furs, essential for the warm clothing that their coastal relatives needed. The coastal Iñupiat from Barrow, or Tagiugmiut, had seal oil, whale blubber, and baleen, among other things. And they also had Tanik (White man's) goods from the trading posts.

Download the trading cards, print, and cut them out. Divide students into two groups, Nunamiut and Tagiugmiut, and distribute the cards accordingly.

Help students learn what the Iñupiat would need the resources for by reading a short history of the Iñupiat people through this link.

Then assign to each student a trading partner from the opposite group. Trading partners meet and decide what they want in trade -- regardless of the goods that their trading partners have in hand in the form of trading cards. The two groups then get back together and compare notes, attempting to pool their resources so that all their trading partners are happy. Students then engage in trade.

After the trading episode, discuss it in class: did the trading go smoothly? Were there enough resources to go around? If not, what did they run short in? What would this have meant to the Iñupiat living 100 years ago at the time this trade took place?

Extend the discussion to the goods students want nowadays. Are there some items that are in short supply? What happens to the price of those items? Link this lesson to a general lesson on the market economy.

Have students make their own graphic novels

Using Adventures in Trading as a model, have students compose, draw, and publish graphic novels of their own on the topic of trade and journeys.

  1. Brainstorm as a class what students might want to write about.
  2. Guide students to undertake the necessary research.
  3. Demonstrate how to make a storyboard that places the plot and accompanying illustrations in order.

Play Eskimo Football

Everyone at Niġliq, men, women, and children, played a game that is called "Eskimo Football" in English, aqsraurraq in Iñupiaq. Use a handy ball (about 8" in diameter), or sew one out of canvas, stuffed with fabric or fur, and play the game.

Here are the instructions, reprinted from the book Alliance and Conflict by Ernest S. Burch, Jr.:

Aqsraurraq . . . was like a combination of soccer, rugby, and keep-away played with a soft ball about 8 inches in diameter.  A player moved the ball by kicking it.  He could catch the ball or stop it with his body, but he could not throw it or pick it up and run with it.  In addition to kicking the ball away from an opponent, a player could also knock down an opponent or throw him to the ground.  A team won when it kept the ball away from the other side for so long that the latter gave up.  Women and children played the game solely to have fun, although it was still a vigorous activity.  Then it was played on a small “field” and was accompanied by lots of laughter.  When it was undertaken only by men, it was a much more serious enterprise.  Often the “fields” were several miles long, and games sometimes lasted for many hours, sometimes days.  There were no referees.  As any adult who has played aggressive physical games without referees knows, such games can get very rough indeed.

Alaska Academic Standards

Alaska Academic Standards


Standard A: Seeing the world in spatial terms (use and make maps, globes, and graphs)

Standard B: Places and regions (human and physical features)

Standard D: Human systems (migration, movement, interactions, economic activities, settlement patterns, and political units)

Standard F: Power of geography (to understand the world by interpreting the past, knowing the present, and preparing for the future)


Standard A: A student should understand that history is a record of human experiences that links the past to the present and the future, including:

1)    chronological frameworks

5)  history is a narrative told in many voices expressing divers perspectives

6) cultural elements reflect the ideas and attitudes of a specific time and influence human interaction

Standard B: A student should understand historical themes through factual knowledge of time, places, ideas, institutions, cultures, people, and events, including:

1)    comprehend the forces of change and continuity

3)  historical understanding is relevant to the student’s life

Standard C: A student should develop the skills and process of historical inquiry, including:

1)    use technology to access, retrieve, organize, and present historical information

2)    use historical data from a variety of sources

3)    apply thinking skills to understand history