Niġiñiutit: Traditional Nunamiut Household Cooking Utensils



This Learning Center delves into the household cooking kit that every 19th century Nunamiut family used as they traveled throughout the Brooks Range of Alaska in pursuit of food and a livelihood.

Long before metal and ceramic household wares became available to the people of northern Alaska, the Nunamiut people were adept at equipping themselves with a household food preparation implements fashioned entirely from nature.  From the surrounding Brooks Range environment they laboriously felled the spruce, birch, willow and cottonwood trees for their wood, collected the horn and antler from the sheep, moose and caribou they hunted for food and skins, and quarried stone, flint and slate from the earth.  Then, using tools as basic as the adze, bow drill and crooked knife, they fashioned these materials into an array of durable implements that were modest in size, light in weight and elegant in form –all qualities perfectly suited to the rough and ready demands of their nomadic way of life.

Who are the Nunamiut?

The Nunamiut, or "People of the Land," are the Inupiaq-speaking Eskimo people whose home territory is the Brooks Range of Alaska. Once nomadic, they now live in the village of Anaktuvuk Pass, part of the North Slope Borough.

A Note About Iñupiaq Orthography

The Iñupiaq language has several sounds and six letters that are not found in English. Because of limitations in the fonts available on this web site, some of the words are misspelled, while others will seem strange to English speakers. Iñupiaq letters include:

  • ġ, a "g" with a dot over it, which is a soft G.
  • ļ, the "L" with a dot under it, which sounds something like "Lya".
  • ł, the "L" with a slash through it, which is a voiceless L.
  • A dotted slashed L, which is a voiceless L followed by a "ya" sound. This symbol is not available on this web site, so it appears in this Learning Center as a slashed L.
  • ŋ, the "ng" letter.
  • ñ, which sounds something like "nya".


This Learning Center was researched and written by Grant Spearman when he was Curator at the Simon Paneak Memorial Museum in Anaktuvuk Pass, part of the North Slope Borough. The elders of Anaktuvuk Pass provided most of the information. The drawings were copied with permission from John Murdoch's 1892 Smithsonian Institution publication Ethnological Results of the Point Barrow Expedition.

Spearman writes,

The information presented in this unit was recorded, compiled, reviewed and checked for accuracy through the combined resources of a number of organizations and individuals including the North Slope Borough Iñupiat History, Language and Culture Commission (IHLC) and the North Slope Borough School District.  Much of the information was recorded in the course of an I.H.L.C. funded research project: the Nunamiut Survival Skills Study.  Subsequent write up and refinement was done through the Simon Paneak Memorial Museum located in Anaktuvuk Pass.

The bulk of the traditional information presented here was recorded with one key Nunamiut elder, Arctic John Etalook (Itaalluk) Interpretive services were provided by his daughter Louisa Kakianaaq Riley. Inupiaq language transcriptions and English transcripts were done by Muriel Kutuuq Hopson. Additional information was provided by Dora Tugli Hugo, with interpretive help from Doris Nauyuq Hugo and Justus Usisana Mekiana.

Special thanks are due to Aron Crowell of the Smithsonian Institutions Arctic Science Center in Anchorage Alaska, who kindly arranged permission to use the lovely old line engravings taken from John Murdoch’s 1892 work Ethnological Results of the Point Barrow Expedition to help illustrate this unit, and Daniel Odess of the curatorial staff in Washington D.C. who took the time to provide us with measurements of a number of the Murdoch artifacts as well as a number of digital photos to refer to.

Proofing and checking on the correct spelling, orthography and definitions of the Iñupiaq vocabulary words was graciously done through the joint efforts of Justus Usisana Mekiana and James Mumigan Nageak. Mumigan was also instrumental in putting the units into more polished form, through computer editing and lay-out.

Tubs, buckets, pails, and jars

Tubs, buckets, pails, and jars

The foundation of most Nunamiut families’ household cooking outfits or nigiñiutit began with buckets.  These ranged widely in size according to their intended purpose and use.  Most were made by joining thinly shaved sidewalls slabs of sprucewood bent around a round or oval bottom panel.  The sidewall panel, or piqtalik, was painstakingly worked down to its basic size and thickness using an adze or ulimaun and a crooked knife, or millik. The panel was then was soaked in water until it could bend completely around the bottom panel without cracking or splintering.  The bottom, nataaŋa, panel was carefully fitted into a shallow pukkuġniq groove carved slightly above the base of the sidewall slab.  The last three or four inches at either end of the sidewall slab were carefully tapered and thinned toward the tips: one end from the inside face and the other from the outside so that as they wrapped around the bottom panel and met, inner face to outer face, a smooth, overlapping kasugninak joint of uniform thickness was formed between them.  Once fitted together this overlap of a few inches was drilled using a niuqtuun (bow drill) and joined together by a combination of small wooden pegs and baleen stitches.  The pegs or kikkiaq were shaved flush with both the inner and outer faces of the wall slab. If baleen stitches were used instead, (suqqam kiluguugaat), they were countersunk in shallow grooves to help protect them from excess wear.

All bentwood buckets made in this way were called piqtalik, a name derived from the sidewall slab.  Within this general category, the Nunamiut distinguished between several individual kinds of containers – each with its own name relating to its use, size and form.  Among them are the iļulik/iļulikpak, the qattaq, and the imgusiq.

The iļulik and iļulikpak, which were larger than the other tubs, were oval.  The example pictured here was collected in Barrow between 1881 and 1883. It measures 20 by 18 ¼ inches and stands 11 1/8 inches tall.

Before brass and copper kettles and cauldrons become available, the iļulikpak served as the main cook pot.  Heated rocks were added to water and meat in the pot until it boiled.

This type of piqtalik was also used in a similar manner to produce puiñiq (click here to go to the puiñiq Learning Center), the highly valued grease rendered from the crushed marrow of caribou and sheep bones.

The smaller round-bottomed qattaq served as the household water bucket. This example, also collected in Barrow by Murdoch, is 11 inches in diameter and stands 7 7/8 inches tall.

The qattaq was usually rigged with a rawhide handle or tigumiutaŋa secured to either side of the pail with bone swivels or tigumiutchiġvik.  In this instance the swivels are shaped like whales and the handle is of bent wire.  The qattaq was also outfitted with its own dipper, called a qayuuttauraq, with which people would ladle themselves a drink.  It was the custom and, elders say, the expected courtesy for that person to wipe clean the portion of the ladle that had touched his lips before returning it to the water pail.  According to one elder, these water ladles, which his people also called an imigun, could be made of sprucewood or sheep horn.

Before people had wood-burning stoves, the qattaq was kept at the front of the itchalik tent (click here to go to the itchalik Learning Center) close to the window and seal oil lamp where chunks of ice and snow could melt.  After people added metal stoves to their tents, they situated them at the opposite side of the tent to prevent heat damage to the gut window. They placed the qattaq near the stove.

The imgusik or iŋniq was used at every meal as a condiment dish for uqsruq, or seal oil. People would aluksraaqtuq (dip dried meat in the oil).  The late Nunamiut elder Arctic John Etalook owned a small, lidded sprucewood imgusik or piqtaligauraq that his family had used for many years as a container for their sourdough starter. Click here to go to the Learning Center that contains a graphic novel reprint about Arctic John Etalook.

Traditionally the Nunamiut also made and used large clay cooking pots that served as imgusik or iŋniq. Called patigaq, they were made from clay mixed with animal blood and seal oil for binders with ptarmigan feathers for temper. They were shaped by hand and then baked hard by placing them close to a fire. But because these pots were both heavy and easy to break they were not well suited to the Nunamiut life of frequent moves, and as a result they were probably never a very important or common part of the family outfit.  Still, when available they could hang over an open fire, like an iron pot, an impossibility with a wooden pot.

Bowls, platters, and trays

Bowls, platters, and trays















A vital part of the family outfit were puggutaq: round or oval serving dishes for cooked, raw or frozen meat.  The largest bowls, best suited to contain meat and broth, were usually carved from mumiġnaq, the large basal roots of the spruce tree.

The deep bowl or puggutaq pictured here was collected by Murdoch.  It is 13 7/8 inches long, 12 ½ inches wide and 3 7/8 inches high.

Smaller bowls were sometimes made from piŋalu, the thick, densely grained, rounded burls that sometimes grow like warts on the trunks of spruce. These burls were chopped free with an ulimaun, then stripped of their bark. Their interior was hollowed out with a millik or crooked knife, and finally the bottoms were flattened to give them a steady base.


This example, again collected by Murdoch, is 17 ½ inches across and stands 2 5/8 inches high.  A close look at the convoluted wood grain in the bottom of the bowl is a clear indication of its origin as a piŋalu burl.

There was also a flatter puggutaq known as an alluiyaq or puggutaq-alluiyaq which was also used to serve meat and fish, though not well suited to hold broth. This example from the Murdoch collection is 35 3/8 inches long and 9 1/8 inches wide.

Ladles and spoons

Ladles and spoons

Four basic types of ladles and spoons were traditionally used by the Nunamiut:  the qayuuttaq, the qayuuttauraq, the aluutaaq and the aluutaaqpak.

Old people preferred spoons made of the horn of the Dall sheep, imniam nagrua, a material which when patiently and skillfully worked yielded a graceful, translucent amber colored dipper with a deep, broadly rounded bowl and a long, upward curving handle.  Making a sheep horn spoon was a long process of cutting, thinning and trimming away part of the hollow base, then boiling it in water for hours to soften the horn so the bowl could be worked down over a wooden mold. In the process the horn was turned inside out and the curve of the remaining part of the horn was reversed. After several more hours of carving, thinning and smoothing the ladle was finished.

The qayuuttaq was used to serve soups and broths, and to skim the grease when making puiñiq; but because it absorbed food flavors, families usually owned several, each for use with a particular food.  One elder in particular was emphatic in stating that the meat and broth of the ground squirrel would never be served with the same implements used with caribou.  Perhaps some people did not like the potential clash of flavors, though there may be some other, underlying spiritual reasons.  In some instances it might be due to a conflicted or adversarial relationship between the spiritual powers of the two animals.  In other instances it may be traced to a dietary restriction, or agliġnaq.

In contrast to the graceful lines of the horn ladle the sprucewood version is heavier. Except for the interior of the bowl and the handle butt, the ladle is colored with a decorative and protective coat of ivisaaq, or red ochre.

The qayuuttauraq, literally "the little qayuuttaq" was sometimes also known by the more specific and descriptive name of imigun, meaning an "implement for water."  It was made to ladle drinking or cooking water out of the qattaq, the household water pail.

The example here, from the Murdoch collection, is 11 ¾ inches long. Near the tip of the handle is a 1¼ inch peg used to hang the ladle on the bucket rim.  These ladles could be made of sheep horn or sprucewood.

The aluutaaq was a small, personal spoon. Each person had his or her own and carried it at all times suspended from a belt by a leather thong.  These spoons were intended strictly for eating soups and broths, - and it was stressed – never for dipping into the water pail.  Traditionally the preferred material for this spoon was the horn of the two-year old Dall mountain sheep known as a tamutaiļaq, which had horns distinguished by black tips.

The aluutaqpak was another useful household implement, shown here. This was made from mastodon ivory.



Traditionally, knives came in a variety of forms, from the carefully crafted and highly valued men's and women’s knives to disposable ones which were sometimes improvised from a sharp edge caribou rib or shoulder blade. These temporary knives were usually reserved for small children who were too young to safely handle a true knife.

In earlier times the cutting blades of men’s and women’s knives were painstakingly fashioned from either ground slate or chipped flint, then carefully hafted to a wood, bone or antler handle, as in this picture.

The woman's knife, or ulu, came in two sizes: the large ulupiaq and the much small uluŋuuraq.

The ulupiaq (literally the real ulu), was a heavy-duty knife used for many purposes, including skinning and butchering freshly killed animals, flaying and cutting up meat for drying and cooking, chopping up frozen chunks of meat, cutting willow branches for flooring tents, stripping bark from alder bushes to make dye, and a host of other uses besides.

The smaller uluŋuuruq was made especially for skin sewing, its smaller size giving the woman the more delicate and precise control over the knife that she needed for the exacting job of patterning, cutting and fitting skins for clothing and other items. A typical example might measure 3 ½ inches across and 2 inches deep, crowned with a small horn handle.



In later years when metal handsaws were introduced, they were eagerly acquired by the Nunamiut and reprocessed into metal blades for the woman’s knife, the ulu.

Typically a saw blade ulupiaq, such as this one, measured 8 inches across and 5 inches high.  The handle is fashioned from a Dall sheep horn.

The millik, or men's crooked knife, was an essential tool used in fashioning all the household implements shown in this Learning Center. Each man made his own knife to fit his hand perfectly.

Other household implements

Other household implements

The qulliq or large stone oil-burning lamp was both a source of heat and light and part of the household cooking outfit.  Elders report that before they had wood burning stoves, when stormy winter weather made it impossible to cook out of doors, people would sometimes roast small pieces of meat over their lamps, in a practice known as pasiksisak argiq.

These lamps were made of soapstone and usually traded into Nunamiut territory from Canada. (To go to the Learning Center to read the story of trade between the Nunamiut and Canadian Inuit, click here.) The lamp was filled with oil and burned with the aid of a moss wick (ipigalik) arranged along the outer edge.

The lamp in this illustration was collected by Murdoch.  It measures 16 7/8 inches long by 7 inches wide.

According to elders the much smaller naniq, a traveling lamp, was not as well suited for roasting meat. The larger lamp gave off a larger and hotter flame.

Another indispensable household item was the qiuġvik, the woman’s cutting and scraping board.  The flat hard surface of the board was used to cut up food as well as trimming and working animal skins for clothing.

People preferred cutting boards made of ikkiq, a densely grained, reddish wood that normally forms on the outward curving side of trees with bowed trunks.  These trees, called piginaruq, grow on steep hillsides and river embankments.

Another alternative material for the qiuġvik was tuttuvaum nagrua, moose antler.  Once an antler palm was cut to the desired size and shape, the soft, roughly textured, outer layer was cut away to reveal a much harder inner core that held up well.

In addition to these basic utensils a household also possessed a handful of other special purpose tools, all used in the production of puiñiq or cooking by boiling with fire-heated rocks.  Among them were the kautaq, sometimes also called a qaqsuuqtaaq, the arvik, also known as a kaugvik, the akigaun and the uyaqqiqun.

The kautaq
or bone crushing hammer consisted of a heavy, oblong, flat faced stone mounted on a short, slightly curved handle.

Some families prided themselves on having a jadestone hammerhead, though any rock plucked from a streambed that was of the appropriate size, shape and weight could serve just as well.  Elders stress that the striking face should have a flat, rough-textured surface. This prevented the hammer from slipping off the bone as the crushing blows were struck.  The handle could be made from Dall sheep horn, a piece of caribou antler, spruce, or alderwood.  The handle was less than 6 inches long, and slightly curved to fit comfortably in a person’s hand.  The head and handle were joined by a caribou or sealskin thong that was passed through a hole drilled near the top end of the handle.  A tight fit was obtained by lashing the pieces together with a moistened thong which shrank and tightened as it dried.  Later, as needed, small wooden wedges could be added to shim up the fit.

The bone crushing hammer and anvil (arvik or kaugvik) pictured here are in the Simon Paneak Memorial Museum in Anaktuvuk Pass.

A good stone had a flat, coarse surface that helped keep the bones from slipping about as they were struck by the kautaq.  As a woman prepared to crush a bone, she began by first giving it a few soft taps before striking any crushing blows.  This flattened and seated the bottom of the bone and minimized the chance of it jumping or slipping about.

Some families carried small portable anvils while others searched out rocks of the appropriate nature as needed, using and leaving them behind when finished with them.

Another item in the household outfit was the akigaun, or shovel, used to move heated rocks from the fire to the piqtalik. Shovels meant to be used only once were improvised from a caribou scapula or shoulder blade.  Occasionally a pair of temporary wooden tongs called uyaqqiqun were used.   But a more durable tool, a shovel intended to last through months or years of repeated use, was commonly made from caribou antler.  The sapkutaq or broad front palm of the antlers was perfectly suited for this tool.  Generally the broad, palm portion of the antlers was hollowed out slightly so that the rocks would nest securely.  Then it was joined to a short wooden handle.

Women Owned the Household Implements

Women Owned the Household Implements

Although these implements were all made by men, whether by a husband for his wife, a father for his daughter, or by any other made relative, all of these utensils, except for small personal items like the aluuttaq, were the property of the woman.  If she left her husband the implements went with her.  When she died at least some of them might be left with her body as grave goods and the remainder distributed among her close family and relatives as heirlooms.

When traveling and moving camp, their packing, care, and use were her responsibility.  One elder recalled that his mother carried the household implements on her own small household sled.  When floating down river on their way to the Nigliq trade fair (click here to go to the Nigliq Learning Center), the implements were stowed in the bow, which was set aside for women.  When moving camp in summer by dog pack and on foot it was the woman who supervised the packing and storage of the implements.

Women had a spiritual connection to their household items, reflected in a practice that was a part of agliginaaq, called "Eskimo laws" or "taboos."  According to custom whenever a hunter caught certain spiritually powerful furbearing animals such as the wolf and wolverine, he was forbidden to use or eat from his wife’s food or cooking gear for a period of days, four if the animal were a male and five if female. In this way the hunter showed his respect for the spirit of the animal.  It was firmly believed that if a man’s behavior was in any way offensive to the animal's spirit, that  spirit would withhold any more of its kind from being taken by that hunter.

Human nature being what it is, the faithful and dutiful observation of these restrictions could sometimes lead to rather comical circumstances.  One senior elder recalled, with considerable amusement, an incident that occurred around 1900.  A hunter out checking his trapline found that he had caught a rather large wolf.  Though pleased with his success, his thoughts quickly turned to the dietary restrictions binding him once he returned home, skinned the animal, hung its pelt to dry and set the animal’s spirit free by slitting its throat.  It didn’t take long for this man to decide to return directly home and leave the animal in the trap until the next day so he could enjoy one last, big, full meal of this wife’s good cooking, before having to begin the obligatory food restrictions.



These and many other practices were closely and conscientiously observed for many generations, until, in the early years of 20th century, they began giving away before the dual tides of Christianity and the rise of the commercial fur trapping industry.  Both of these institutions encouraged the abandonment of traditional beliefs, each for its own reasons.  Missionaries saw the Nunamiut traditional spiritual view of the world as the work of the devil and something to be discredited and eliminated before the people could accept Christianity.  Fur traders, motivated by the desire to increase their profits by increasing the fur harvest, actively encouraged trappers to cast aside their longstanding, spiritually imposed, limits on their take of furbearing animals.  These traditional limits had decreed that no man could take more than five animals of any one species of furbearer – wolf, wolverine, lynx, and each of the four varieties of foxes: white, red, cross and silver.

As these examples show, virtually every aspect of traditional Nunamiut life, even things as everyday and outwardly utilitarian as household cooking gear and utensils, carried with it a far deeper significance than one might suspect when viewed from the perspective of the beginning of the 21st century.

This basic household outfit of cooking and kitchen utensils served the Nunamiut well in ancient and into modern times.  All the people required were the raw materials, the tools and the time to make them.  Yet once metal kitchen utensils began to appear, introduced around the turn of the 20th century by New England whalers and shore-based fur trading posts, they were quickly and enthusiastically adopted by the Nunamiut.  The primary qualities that made them so desirable were that they were durable, lightweight, cheap and easy to replace – no more hours or days of work required to make a single item.  Nevertheless, even as recently as the 1950s people used a mixture of modern and traditional items, with horn and wooden ladles retaining an important place in a family kit.

Iñupiaq Glossary

Iñupiaq Glossary

A set of Eskimo laws pertaining to actions which are taboo or forbidden or restrictive.

The caribou antler shovel used to transport fire heated rocks.

A long wooden plate with a hollow area in the middle.

A personal spoon made of either horn or wood.

A large serving spoon.

To dip foods into seal or whale oil before eating.

A flat rock used as an anvil when crushing bone or other materials.

A reddish resin-rich and durable variety of sprucewood which is ideally suited for use as a cutting board.

A slab-sided wooden tub used for covering or other purposes.

A large slab-sided wooden tub used for cooking or other purposes.

Imniam Nagrua                          
Horn of Dall mountain sheep often used for the making of ladles and spoons.

A term for a small condiment dish - either a pingalu or piqtaligauraq- used to hold seal or whale oil.

Moss used for a wick in the old seal oil lamps.

The traditional caribou skin tent.

The traditional moss house.

A reddish brown mineral dye, used on wooden items. A form of hematite (iron oxide).

Another name for an arvik – a flat stone anvil used in crushing bones.

The handle of the bone-crushing hammer.

The bone-crushing hammer.

The thinned overlap joint used to join two wooden slabs such as the walls of the piqtalik.

A wooden nail or peg used to join two pieces of wood together such as the overlap joint in a bentwood bucket.

The "crooked knife," a knife with a curved blade.

The large root bole of the spruce tree used for making wooden kitchen implements.

The bottom panel of the bentwood piqtalik.

A general term for household kitchen utensils.

The traditional bow drill.

Pasiksiak argiq                           
The practice of roasting small chunks of meat over the flame of the household lamp.

The old-style clay cooking pot.

A general term for any slab-sided, bentwood container used for cooking or serving.

A small slab-sided, bentwood container.

A general term for a bulge or protruberance growing on the trunk of a tree – usually a spruce tree.

A large serving bowl.

Grease rendered from the crushed and boiled bones of large animals.

A spruce tree with a curved trunk which yielded ikkiq wood for use as a cutting board.

A bag such as the stomach of a caribou filled with rendered bone grease (puiñiq)

The household water barrel, usually in the form of piqtalik.

A large spoon or dipper often made of wood and sometimes of Dall sheep horn.

A small dipper used exclusively with the water barrel, made of either wood or Dall sheep horn.

Another name for the stone bone crushing hammer.

The large stomach of the caribou sometimes used as a puuq to contain rendered bone grease (puiñiq)

A wooden or antler cutting board used for processing meat or other material.

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.