Niġiñiutit: Traditional Nunamiut Household Cooking Utensils

Introduction

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".

Acknowledgments

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.