Itchalik: Caribou Skin Tent

Overview and Background

Overview and Background

Produced by the North Slope Borough, Iñupiat History, Language, and Culture.

This Learning Center demonstrates the ingenious adaptations to the Arctic environment that the itchalik embodies. Like all successful shelters, it provided protection from the elements using materials that were readily available. It could be easily repaired and was especially suited to the nomadic Nunamiut of Alaska.

The information contained here is based on an educational unit researched and written by Grant Spearman when he was curator of the Simon Paneak Memorial Museum in Anaktuvuk Pass, Alaska, in the Brooks Range. It was prepared with the assistance of Anaktuvuk Pass Elders.

The Itchalik

The itchalik tent, with its characteristic dome-shaped willow framework and caribou skin covering, was one of several types of shelters traditionally used by the Nunamiut, or inland Eskimos, of Alaska's Brooks Range. Until as recently as the 1950s, the Nunamiut were nomadic hunters and gatherers, frequently on the move throughout the year in their pursuit of hunting, fishing, and trapping resources. The itchalik was an important part of that freedom of movement. All the materials they needed to fashion and maintain the tent were locally available and easily obtained.

Short Language Lesson

The name itchalik is derived from the Iñupiaq word itchaqsraq, meaning "six," and refers to the six skins traditionally used to cover such a tent.

The tents were also sometimes called qaluugvik, which refers to the wooden tent framework.

Other Iñupiaq terms that relate to the itchalik include:

  • qaliqsraq: the modern canvas cover, often used instead of caribou skins as early as 1900. It comes from the English word "calico," a common trade item in the Arctic for more than a hundred years.
  • paalisat: the two tent poles that frame the doorway of the tent. They take their name from "paa," the Inupiaq word for mouth or opening.
  • igaleq: the gut window panel of the tent
  • pigut: stones used in the summer to weigh down the edges of the tent
  • saggun: a low wall of snow packed up along the side of the tent to prevent the tent's outer covering from being blown off in the winter
  • talu: the door skin of the tent, usually made from the hide of a grizzly bear
  • alliat: willow branches used to floor the tent
  • naniq: the traditional lamp fueled with seal oil for light and heat
  • uyaqiqun: the practice of using fire-heated rocks inside the tent for warmth
  • iġnivik: a metal stove used to heat the tent, particularly after 1900

Used in Both Winter and Summer

The itchalik was the main type of shelter the Nunamiut used when they traveled throughout northern Alaska. It was used in all seasons and all kinds of weather. Its sturdy dome shape and round floor plan made it capable of withstanding the strongest Arctic gales, while its caribou skin covering kept it warm in the bitter cold of winter and cool in the heat of summer.

For winter, the tent was outfitted with two sets of skins: a fully furred inner set with the hair side facing outward, covered by a second outer set of skins with hair removed. Under extreme conditions, the tent could be covered with several inches of snow that provided additional insulation. When the tent was disassembled, this was done from the inside, leaving the hardened snow dome intact and available for use by any other travelers who might happen along later.

In summer, the heavy inner set of skins was safely cached and only the light, waterproof outer set of dehaired skins was used to cover the frame.

If people were traveling very light, they might carry only the tent skins, and improvise a set of poles from willows along the way.

The itchalik's versatility and portability made it the shelter of choice throughout the Nunamiut territory.

Finding a Good Campsite

Finding a Good Campsite

A good campsite depended on several factors:

  • firewood
  • shelter from extreme winds
  • a source of drinking water
  • access to game

These factors translated most often into large stands of tall willow, which grow along streams and rivers.

In the winter, camps were often set up in a clearing in the midst of the willows or on their lee side as protection against winds. Another advantage of setting up camp among the willows was that deep snowdrifts accumulated there, providing campers with plenty of snow to insulate their tents.

During the summer months the same willow stand might attract hunters to camp nearby, but they would pitch their tents in different places. Rather than camp among willows, where the ground is often damp and mossy and mosquitoes swarm, people would search out nearby areas where the ground is open, flat, and well drained. They liked elevated areas of ground such as glacially deposited terraces so they could have a wide field of view of the surrounding countryside. The winds helped keep insect pests at bay.

The Tent Framework

The Tent Framework

The size of an itchalik could vary considerably, depending on the number of people living in it. A tent used by a single person or a couple might stand less than five feet high and measure no more than eight or nine feet around.

On the other hand, the tent of a family with several children would typically measure 12 to 15 feet in diameter and stand 6 feet high. Each pole was 12 to 15 feet long and would have been pre-bent to shape.

As the framework was erected, the sharpened ends of the poles were forced into the ground facing each other, and their tops were lashed together where they overlapped. This formed the basic dome shape with an oval or round ground plan. Since the poles overlapped, the tent frame could be made larger or smaller depending on need.

The framework was known as a qaluugvik. Each pole had its own name with an assigned position and the order in which it was added to the frame.

The poles were carefully selected before construction began. Tall, straight willow was cut to the proper length and stripped of its branches and bark while it was still green. A sharp knife smoothed the poles and was used to sharpen the bottom ends to points that could be pushed into the ground.

While it was still wet and pliable, the pole was bent to its intended shape and allowed to dry for several days. In the summer, a frame was built on the ground and the poles were shaped within the frame, where they dried in two or three days. In the winter, the poles had to be brought into the tent and temporarily lashed to an existing pole of the right shape to bend and dry.

The Arctic is home to several species of willows, each with distinct characteristics. Some tent-makers preferred poles made from kanuŋŋiq or diamond-leaf willows (Salix pulchra), while others only used uqpipiaq or felt-leaf willows (Salix alexensis). Everyone preferred young, relatively straight willows with few branches.

Sometimes tent poles were made from young spruce saplings (napaaqtuayaat) gathered at the edge of the forest -- but the Nunamiut preferred willows because they weighed less and were easier to transport.

Tent Skins

Tent Skins

The itchalik was made of two separate sets of caribou skin coverings: an outer set of dehaired skins that was used in both summer and winter, and an inner set of fully haired skins that was used only in the winter.

The process of dehairing the skins for the outer covering (tilliannaich) left them stiff and rain repellant. They were sewed together while still wet with the same type of waterproof stitch that was used to sew summer boots. Spring or summer caribou bull skins were preferred because they were large and relatively light weight.

In the summer, people put pigut or stones around the bottom edges of the outer skins. This held them in place in high winds.

In winter, people simply banked snow up around the side of the tent to keep the tillianaich in place. This embankment, called "saggun," also insulated the tent and kept cold drafts out.

Around the turn of the 20th Century, people abandoned the outer skin coverings and began using canvas tarps instead. These were both lightweight and could double for other tasks as well. In addition, they required no preparation time.

The skins on the inside, called itchat, were made from unscraped hides of spring cow caribou. They were also stitched together while still wet, and were then sewn into several separate panels that were tied to the tent frame with rawhide lashings.

A large tent might require 20 hides. The skins were always oriented with the bottom or tail ends touching the ground or toward the back of the tent.

The Window and Doorway

The Window and Doorway

The tent window, called the igaliq, was usually made from the small intestines of the grizzly bear. Women prepared the intestines by turning them inside out and rinsing them clean with fresh water. They were carefully scraped of membranes and blood, washed again, and then blown up like a balloon and hung to dry. After they had dried, the women flattened them and rolled them for storage.

The two-foot square window itself was made by sewing together strips of the intestine. The seamstress would then sew a rim of very short-haired caribou skin to reinforce the hem.

The itchalik's doorway was framed by two poles. A 10-inch high threshold of wood, sometimes covered with caribou skins, kept drafts out.

The talu or door flap was usually made from the hide of a grizzly bear, with the fur side facing the inside of the dwelling. If the family had no bear skin, they could use two thick-haired winter bull caribou skins, the hairless sides against each other, instead. If the tent got too warm inside, people would prop open a corner of the door.

The Floor

The Floor

The floor of the itchalik needed to insulate the inhabitants from the frozen ground. Women packed a rim of moss around the inside edge of the tent to block out drafts. Then they gathered willows to weave into a floor mat several inches thick. Some families who camped within the treeline used spruce boughs in the backs of their itchaliks, where their beds were laid.

In the summer, people changed the tent flooring often to keep the tent clean and fresh smelling. In the winter, the flooring was changed less often.

The End of the Itchalik

The End of the Itchalik

As long as the Nunamiut continued their nomadic lifestyle, the itchalik suited their housing needs perfectly. People adapted new technology and materials, adding canvas, wood-burning stoves, even radios to their homes. But when the people settled into village life at Anaktuvuk Pass in 1949, they shifted to other kinds of more permanent shelters such as sod houses and log cabins in the winter and canvas tents in the summer. By 1954 the itchalik was no longer in common use. The last of the young hunters stopped using the itchalik in the 1960s.

National and Alaska Standards

National and Alaska Standards

National Geography Standards

NSS-G.K-12.4: As a result of activities in Grades K-12, all students should:

  • Understand the characteristics, distribution, and complexity of Earth's cultural mosaics.
  • Understand the patterns and networks of economic interdendence on Earth's surface.

NSS-G.K-12.5: As a result of activities in Grades K-12, all students should:

  • Understand how physical systems affect human systems.
  • Understand the changes that occur in the meaning, use, distribution, and importance of resources.

Alaska Geography Standards

D: A student should understand the dynamic and be able to interpret spatial (geographic) characteristcs of human systems, including migration, movement, interactions of cultures, economic activities, settlement patterns, and political units in the state, nation, and world. A student who meets the content standard should:

  • Analyze how changes in technology, transportation, and communication impact social, cultural, economic, and political activity.

E. A student should understand and be able to evaluate how humans and phyusical environments interact. A student who meets the content standard should:

  • Understand how resources have been developed and used;
  • Determine the influence of human perceptions on resource utilization and the environment.

Alaska Cultural Standards

B. Culturally-knowledgeable students are able to build on the knowledge and skills of the local cultural community as a foundation from which to achieve personal and academic success throughout life. Students who meet this cultural standard are able to:

  • Acquire insights from other cultures without diminishing the integrity of their own.

C. Culturally-knowledgeable students are able to actively paerticipate in various cultural environments.  Students who meet this cultural standard are able to:

  • Perform subsistence activities in ways that are appropriate to local cultural traditions.
  • Enter into and function effectively in a variety of cultural settings.

D. Culturally-knowledgeable students are able to engage effectively in learning activities that are based on traditional ways of knowing and learning. Students who meet this cultural standard are able to:

  • Acquire in-depth cultural knowledge through active participation and meaningful interaction with Elders.
  • Identify and utilize appropriate sources of cultural knowledge to find solutions to everyday problems.

E. Culturally-knowledgeable students demonstrate an awareness and appreciation of the relationships and processes of interaction of all elements in the world around them. Students who meet his cultural standard are able to:

  • Understand the ecology and geography of the bioregion they inhabit.
  • Recognize how and why cultures change over time.