Uqpiich: Willows in Nunamiut Culture



This Learning Center portrays the importance of the “uqpik,” or willow, in the culture of the Nunamiut people of the Brooks Range in Alaska’s North Slope. The traditional knowledge of the Nunamiut was passed on by the late Arctic John Etalook, whose extensive knowledge was highly valued by the North Slope Borough’s Inupiat History, Language and Culture (IHLC) Commission. In the late 1970’s and into the 1980’s, the IHLC Commission began to document Iñupiaq traditional knowledge through partnerships established with the anthropological and archaeological community. The research of Nunamiut traditional knowledge was commissioned to Grant Spearman, who dedicated many years of his life to this documentation as Curator of the Simon Paneak Memorial Museum at Anaktuvuk Pass. Many Iñupiaq translators assisted Spearman in his documentation, including Louisa Riley, Arctic John’s adopted daughter. This Learning Center is dedicated to the Nunamiut, the People of the Land, and their descendants.

The Setting

Arctic Alaska is a most remarkable landscape.  It is one of rhythmic, sometimes harsh, extremes in temperature and light yet also of stunning beauty.  Beneath the 24-hour light of the midnight summer sun, the land comes to life in a profusion of colorful wildflowers and rich green growth, yet it is neither a place of plentiful rainfall nor luxurient vegetation.  Rather it is a cold desert, where precipitation averages less than 11 inches per year, and throughout the long, dark, months of winter the land is locked in the icy grip of sub-zero temperatures and blowing snow, where winds are constant, cruel and cold.

It is a land whose cold soils sustain few trees, save for a few hardy cottonwoods and one or two varieties of willow.  In their stead, fields of sedges and tussock grasses cover much of the landscape, and even in well-drained upland areas, most plants hug the ground in compound mats because of constant exposure to the wind.  It is, overwhelmingly, a treeless landscape, an infinite sweep of wet grassland plains and rolling tundra prairies stretching southward from the Arctic coast into the foothills and up the valley floors to the very crest of the Brooks Range.

Even today, these remote mountains remain a wild, untamed region of steep-walled glacial valleys dominated by rugged, limestone peaks linked by a welter of sinuous, twisting, sharp crested ridges, that sweeps across northern Alaska in a broad lazy arc, separating the Arctic from the subarctic regions of the state’s interior.

Here, among the northern valleys and foothills of the Brooks Range and the rest of Arctic Alaska as well, there grow some 27 species or varieties of willow (Spetzman, 1959:52), called uqpiich (singular uqpik) in the Iñupiaq language.

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".

Why the Willow?

Why the Willow?

The most obvious sign of willows' importance in Nunamiut life are the many uses the people have for its wood, bark, branches, and even seed pods. Willows provide shelter and firewood, and are the homes of several species of animals that help sustain the people. And willows also play less tangible roles in Nunamiut culture.

They serve as vital navigational landmarks in times of limited visibility.  They can also warn of danger.  Hunters and trappers know that frost on creekside or lakeside willows can indicate open water caused when moisture rises and coats the branches.

Willows help people monitor oncoming changes in the weather.  For example, if people see ptarmigan flocking towards the shelter of the willows when they would normally be out foraging for food, they know that cold, stormy weather is on its way from the north.

Willows give signs of changes in the seasons. They are an encouraging signpost of spring’s approach, as people watch the formation of pussy willows even though temperatures hover well below zero.  By late May or very early June, following breakup and while most of the tundra vegetation remains a sullen, russet brown, willows are among the first of all plants to nauruq, or green up, especially those varieties which grow closest to the ground.

Willows are also the early sentinels of fall.  Well before any other tundra vegetation begins its colorful transition, the first signs of the approaching season show up as small, isolated clusters of yellow leaves at the very tips of the trees.  As the process gains momentum over the next few weeks, most of the willow’s leaves will turn bright yellow, while a few will be shot through with highlights of red and orange.

Some years, when the weather is cooler and wetter than normal, the process of tuquli, the seasonal die-off, takes an entirely different course.  Rather than the usual bright yellows of fall, there is no flaring climax of color. The first frost causes leaves to fold and curl, showing their undersides and revealing only a light shade of green.  This then slowly gives way to a pale greenish-yellow that works its way from the outside edge inward to the center of the leaf, before it subsides into a dull brown.

A Nunamiut Taxonomy

A Nunamiut Taxonomy

Willows are a group of deciduous shrubs or small trees that vary greatly in size, appearance, the quality of their wood, the shape of their leaves, and the color and texture of their bark.  They range in size from ground creeping stems and low shrubs to trees capable of 15 to 20 feet.

Because willows are moisture-loving plants the taller and more robust varieties grow along rivers and streams.  Some species flourish along sand and gravel bars while others stick close to the rocky streambeds and still others prefer slightly dryer upland soils, farther from water.  The Nunamiut themselves distinguish six kinds of willow, although in their system of plantlore the dwarf birch (Betula nana) and the mountain or American green alder (Alnus crispa) are also considered uqpiich.

This grouping, which runs counter to western taxonomy, is a natural one for the Nunamiut because apart from the odd cottonwood, certain species of willows are the dominant treelike vegetation capable of growing this far north. Alders and dwarf birch are little more than robust woody shrubs that look very much like some of the smaller species of willow that grow in the Anaktuvuk Pass area.

Excluding these two shrubby trees, the species of willows recognized by the Nunamiut are the following.

  • Uqpipiaq, (Salix alexensis) sometimes also called uqpigruaq or uqpiviich by the Nunamiut, but more widely known as the feltleaf or Alaska willow;
  • Kanuŋŋiq, (Salix planifolia Pursch ssp. pulchra) better known as the diamondleaf willow;
  • Mitquapik, (Salix glauca L.) Commonly called the grayleaf willow;
  • Akutuak, (Salix; species not yet identified). 


The uqpipiaq, literally “the real willow” in the Nunamiut dialect of the Iñupiaq language, is the tallest growing and most important of the willows.  Known to outsiders as feltleaf or Alaska willow (Salix alexensis), the uqpipiaq grows best in the wet soils bordering large creeks and streams. These willows can grow to become multitrunked trees 15 to 20 feet tall, with individual trunks ranging from 2 to 5 inches in diameter.

Uqpipiaq willows may grow in the form of a narrow ribbon flanking a streambed or in huge thickets covering tens of acres.  Within these thickets willows that stand alone are referred to as killiqsrautit while the stands of closely spaced willows are referred to by the name uqpiviich.

The bark covering the larger branches and trunks is medium to dark gray and rough to the touch, gradually growing increasingly furrowed and scaly. This is especially so on the trunks of older larger trees.

The wood of the uqpipiaq willow has a soft, dark inner core called igiñaaq.  Around this is a wider, though still very dark wood known as igiñaagruaq.  Outside of this is the yellowish colored band of sapwood known as the igiñaaqpaliq.  Finally, the outermost band of white sapwood is the igiñagilaaq and was used to make sled runner shoes.

Uqpipiaq wood was used for poles for skin tents and moss houses; drying racks, snares and traps, and fishing implements; snowshoes, sled runner shoes, parts for sleds, and framing small boats.

The key structures used to identify the uqpipiaq are its leaves, bark and catkins or seed capsules.  The leaves are larger and broader than most other willows, measuring 2 to 4 inches long and sometimes over an inch wide. Their shape ranges from elliptical to what oblanceolate (pointed at both ends). They are a dull dark green and slightly hairy on their top face but covered with a dense creamy white felt on the under side.

Also part of each year’s new growth are the pussy willows, or catkins, whose soft furry texture earned then the name qimmiurat, or literally “little dogs.”  Sometime in late May or early June as the naungaurat reach lengths of 8 to 12 inches the catkins come into their own.  As they grow larger and larger, sometimes reaching lengths of as much as 2 to 4 inches, hundreds of tiny yellow stems tipped with reddish brown flowers grow out through the silvery fuzz. In early August the catkins ripen and burst forth with their cottony seeds.


The kanuŋŋiq willow (Salix pulchra) grows in wet soils bordering most larger creeks and streams. These large, heavily branched shrubs seem to most commonly occur scattered singly or in small groups among the much more common uqpipiaq (Salix alexensis), though occasional thickets predominated by kanuŋŋiq do occur.

The locations of kanuŋŋiq stands are well known among Nunamiut elders.  One of the best known is a place called Kanuŋniqsuuq, located near the Killik River valley, some 80 miles to the east of Anaktuvuk Pass.  There, in a narrow, sheltered vale, near the foot of Mayugviich Mountain, grows an extensive stand of these prized willows.

Under ideal conditions of moisture, nutrition and local microclimate kanuŋŋiq can grow to heights of 15 feet, much like the uqpipiaq willows, but a more common size is in the range of 3 to 6 feet (Viereck and Little 1972: 118).

The kanuŋŋiq willow has distinctive leaves and stems. Its new growth consists of fine and plentiful twigs that are sheathed in a smooth, waxy, reddish brown bark.  In the spring, the stems of the kanuŋŋiq remain red.

Kanuŋŋiq willows also have distinctive flowers and catkins.  Unlike the uqpipiaq, whose pussy willows form and flower before the leaves bud, those of the kanuŋŋiq form slightly later in the season and flower at about the same time as the leaf buds unfurl.  The seed catkins are quite small with very little hair and tiny red flowers at the tips of what will eventually become the individual seed capsules.

The wood of the kanuŋŋiq is known for its resilience and strength, qualities well suited for making snowshoes.

Like uqpipiaq wood, kanuŋŋiq wood has a soft, dark inner core surrounded by lighter colored sapwood and was used in a like manner to make sled runner shoes. 

As with the uqpipiaq, the leaves and new growth shoots were eaten with oil in early summer though their flavor was said to be rather strong, and therefore were not as popular among some people as those of the uqpipiaq.  According to one woman the leaves of the kanuŋŋiq could be processed into a green dye to add a dash of color to dehaired caribou skin.

Akutuaq and Mitquapik, the Nausuŋiiliaq Willows

The Nunamiut also use another variety of willow, that they refer to as nausuŋiiliaq, meaning “those that never grow.”  Some people call them by an even less charitable name uqpigaurapałłiut, or uqpipałłuit for short, meaning “those awful little willows.” They have been tentatively identified as the grayleaf willow (Salix glauca). 

The Nunamiut distinguish two varieties of nausuŋiiliaq willow, the akutuaq and the mitquapik.  In this northern setting, both are low growing, shrubby willows that rarely rise taller than 3 feet.

The akutuaq willow grows in damp, well-drained soils bordering larger creeks and streams and can often be found in open grassy clearings amidst thickets of the larger uqpipiaq willows.  Akutuaq is a low growing bushy shrub whose wood was of no practical use for making any tools or implements.  However, it was the first choice for flooring the back sleeping area of tents and moss houses because it is so springy and soft.

The primary virtue of the relatively rare mitquapik willow is that the catkins containing the seeds are said to mature later in the season than other species of willow and thus served as a reliable midwinter source of palliqsraq (used as a fire starter).  As one man said “ If old time people run out of palliqsraq in the winter time, they look for mitquapik like this and put it inside the house."  There in the warmth of the house the seedpods open up and the fuzzy white seed hairs are easily harvested.  This willow could also be used for flooring a tent.

Willow Stands Are Favorite Living Sites

Willow Stands Are Favorite Living Sites

Willows played a crucial role in the traditional life of the Nunamiut.  These are a people who, up until the 1950s, were semi-nomadic hunters and gatherers.  Throughout much of the year they lived in small family groups whose temporary camps and settlements were widely distributed and frequently changing as they traveled widely among the mountainous valleys and rolling foothills of their rugged homeland.

Despite the freedom with which they moved, the locations of these camps were determined by two factors: the availability of game and the presence of willow, particularly the larger thickets of tall, heavy trunked, treelike varieties.

Wherever they traveled and whatever the season the Nunamiut were always drawn to the security of the willows.  As one man put it, “Anywhere is willow, Eskimo can camp.  No problem.”

In winter, willow stands provide some shelter from the ceaseless wind and blowing snow, along with a plentiful supply of firewood for heating and cooking.  Travelers customarily set up their tents in small clearings and glades within the very heart of the willows to take best advantage of their shelter. If they can’t find a clearing, they would set up camp on the lee side of the stand, away from the prevailing wind.

During summer these willow stands appear to be green and restful places, filled with the sound of the flowing waters of the creeks and streams that sustain them.  But the ground is mossy and damp, making the stands havens for mosquitoes rather than people. Preferred summer campsites were on nearby high ground that was exposed to winds to keep bugs at bay while offering hunters an unobstructed view of the surrounding countryside.

Many of the area’s larger willow stands have served the Nunamiut as camping areas for many generations, as they still do today, linking people to ancient traditions and earlier days.  Some are places of rich cultural significance and haunting memories, where in times past diverse peoples from distant areas gathered to participate in the mid winter messenger feast, or Kivġiq, to trade, dance and celebrate life.

When people were nomadic, willows were critically important as camping areas.  The location of the contemporary village of Anaktuvuk Pass was chosen in 1949, in part, because it was the site of a huge thicket of 15 to 20-foot tall willows, covering hundreds of acres.

Despite this temporary bounty of firewood, people say it only took only five or six years to exhaust the supply of local willows, and people had to travel as far as 15 or 20 miles round trip every few days to gather additional willows.

By the mid-1960s the fuel crisis was so critical that the community considered relocating many miles northward to the Umiat area of the Colville River, where a seemingly inexhaustible supply of robust willow thrived for many, many miles up and down the river.  The issue was settled in 1967 when the Bureau of Indian Affairs arranged for every family to receive an oil-burning heater and the community to receive some 50,000 gallons of heating oil (Hall, et al, 1985:79).

Since then the willows bordering the town site had more than 30 years to replenish themselves and, apart from those displaced by gravel quarrying by 1999 were 12 to 15 feet high, regularly supplying stout timbers for the construction of willow-pole racks for drying meat, fish and skin.  Unfortunately, the realignment of the community airstrip in 2000 resulted in the wholesale cutting of these lovely trees and to the dismay of much of the community, only small isolated clumps of tall willow remain, the rest having been hydro-axed into stubble.

Today modern conveniences and technologies fill many of the needs that willows once served. However, willows are still key camping areas, and the lore concerning these places remains current through a strong oral tradition.  It is ultimately unlikely that the intimate and ongoing relationship between the Nunamiut people and the willows will change much from what it is today.

Uses of the Willow in Nunamiut Life

Uses of the Willow in Nunamiut Life

Important as they were in their role as camping areas, willows provided much more than simply protection from the elements and ready sources of fuel for heating and cooking.  Their wood and other products were used in making tools and implements for housing, hunting and traveling.  The larger willows, primarily the uqpipiaq and to a lesser extent the kanuŋŋiq with their tall straight trunks yielded poles for framing caribou skin tents and moss houses; drying racks for meat, fish and skins; stretching frames for pelts; snares and traps for catching small game; and fishing implements ranging from dip nets, poles, spears and gaffs to framing for weirs and fish traps.

Travelers also used the wood for walking staffs, snowshoes, sled runner shoes, replacement parts for sleds, and temporary or improvised sleds.  Willow wood was also used in making the frames for small skin boats like the imiaqhauraq and the qayaq.

Willow wood was important, but other parts of the plant were also used.  Their amaat, or long supple roots, were gathered and stripped and used as cordage to tie house and storage racks together or make fishing nets.  Naunġat, the young thin branches of new growth, were cut and gathered to floor the interiors of skin tents and moss houses and to line and protect meat caches.  Even the smaller branches were cut and use as patkutaq (fans or mosquito swatters).

In June, new willow shoots were a prized delicacy called misuq. People peeled away the outer bark to chew and suck upon the sweet juices from the soft inner tissues.  Additionally, as the akutukpallik, or new leaves, unfolded in a profusion of rich green growth they were collected and eaten with seal oil.  Kanungngiq leaves were used to produce dye to color skins.

Bark and leaves contained a chemical similar to aspirin and were used to treat headaches, sore muscles and bee stings.  Even the palliksraq, the cottonlike appendages to the seeds, were gathered from the willow catkins and saved for starting fires.

Willows and Animals

Willows and Animals

Willow stands are the perfect habitat for small birds and animals like the ptarmigan and the snowshoe hare. Hares are retiring animals and rarely stray far from their willowy refuge and depend upon willows for forage, shelter and protection. As they eat, rest and raise their young, they follow a network of pathways among the willows.  People set snare lines along these trails to catch the hares as they move about during the early morning hours to feed.  At some of the larger willow stands, where hares were especially plentiful, many snares were set in the middle, into which people drove the animals. They called these very effective drives uŋurut.

Ptarmigan too are dwellers of the willow patch.  Twice each year, as these small, plump grouses pass through the mountain valleys during their annual spring and fall migrations, they nest and shelter among the willows to feed upon their buds and twigs. The Nunamiut enthusiastically hunted ptarmigan, which provided a welcome change to their diet. By late winter when other food stocks ran low ptarmigan could become an important survival food. People know the locations of willow stands where flocks of ptarmigan spend the winter rather than follow the main migration into the forested areas to the south.  These locations were regarded as important midwinter emergency resource areas where ptarmigan could be taken when other food was scarce.  Here, snares were set around the periphery of the willows along ptarmigan trails.

People also caught ptarmigan with large nets set alongside a willow stand where the birds were regularly observed to land and flock.  At dusk as the birds returned and landed near the willows, people worked as a team to slowly herd them close to the net before scaring them into taking off right into the net. Quickly the net was pulled down on top of the birds and they were captured.

To view an educational web site dedicated to ptarmigan (qargiich) in Nunamiut culture, link to this site produced by the North Slope Borough School District.

Some large willow stands were also important caribou hunting locations, where in traditional times, bands of Nunamiut intercepted migrating caribou herds as they passed north through the valleys each spring and returned south through them in fall. Caribou generally travel close along the mountainsides, for their natural reaction to danger is to climb and seek higher ground.  Cutting directly across the path of these trails are the watercourses of numerous creeks and streams that drain the smaller side canyons and tributaries of the main valley.

This map of the Tulugak Lake area was modified from the original to  illustrate the role played by willows in hunting caribou.  Note the “Big Surround” in the upper right hand corner and its position behind a willow thicket.

Some of these larger streams support tall, robust stands of willow that obscured what lay beyond them from view, yet posed no physical barrier to the caribous' movement through them.  It was here that the Nunamiut often intercepted the animals and drove them into the impound corrals or kaŋiġak which lay hidden on the far side of the creek.  These large, semi circular, pounds were sometimes enclosed by a low, outer wall or footing, built of large river cobbles into which willow trunks and branches were added to form a higher walled barrier.  The interior was then filled with several rows of snares.  At either side of the corral mouth a pair of stone or snowblock hunting blinds provided cover for waiting hunters.

Extending outward from the entrance two lines of stone and willow cairns called inuksut (singular inuksuk) spread out, sometimes for several miles, like the sides of a funnel. As the caribou were driven into the open end of the funnel by runners, these inuksut served as scarecrows or fences.  Fooled into thinking these stone figures were humans, the animals avoided them and were pushed forward along the trail, hemmed in by an ever-narrowing line of cairns.

When the caribou were finally stampeded into the waiting snares, the drivers blockaded the mouth of the corral while the hunters broke from cover to attack the ensnared animals with spears and arrows.  If such a drive was successful the participants might be supplied with enough meat, fat, marrow and skins to take them through the coming winter in comfort.  Later in the year too, long after the migrating herds had passed and the corrals had been abandoned, a few snares might still be set along the trails among willow stands in hopes of taking a straggler or two.



Gubser, Nicholas J.  The Nunamiut Eskimo: Hunters of Caribou. Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1965.

Hall, Edwin S. Jr, S.Craig Gerlach and Margaret B. Blackman.  In the National Interest: A Geographically Based Study of Anaktuvuk Pass Iñupiat Subsistence Through Time. North Slope Borough, Barrow Alaska. 1985.

Jones, Anore.  Nauriat Nigiñaqtuat: Plants That We Eat. Maniilaq Association, 1983.

Spetzman, Lloyd A.  Vegetation of the Arctic Slope of Alaska. Geological Survey Professional Paper 302-B. U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington D.C., 1959.

Viereck, Leslie A., and Elbert L. Little Jr..  Alaska Trees and Shrubs. Agriculture Handbook No. 410, U.S. Forest Service, Department of Agriculture, Washington D.C., 1972.

Iñupiaq Glossary

Iñupiaq Glossary

Akutuaq: A low-growing shrubby willow which was the preferred willow for flooring the sleeping areas of tents.

Amigaq: A general term for the bark of the willow.

Amaat: A general term for the roots of the willow.

Kanuŋŋiq: The diamond leafed willow (Salix pulchra); a variety of tall growing willow whose light strong wood was highly valued in making snowshoes.

Killiqsrautaq: A descriptive term for lone standing willow trees or bushes growing separate from one another rather than a closely packed stand or grove of willows.

Mitquapik: A low-growing shrubby willow valued for its seed hairs which were used for fire starting tinder.

Naunġaq: A large stem or trunk of a tall, treelike willow.

Nausiłłaq or nausungiłłiaq: A general term for low growing, shrubby willows, including the akutuaq and the mitquapik.

Nauraq: The general term for when plants green up for the summer.

Qimmiuraq: Pussy willow.

Tuquli: The term for when plants enter dormancy in the fall.

Uqpik (plural uqpiich): A general term for willows.

Ukpipiaq: Literally, “real willows," a name referring to the feltleaf or Alaska willow (Salix alexensis ).

Uqpigruaq: Literally, “big willows ," a general, descriptive term for tall, tree -like willows.

Uqpiviich: A general descriptive term for a large stand of ukpipiaq willows.

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.