Uqpiich: Willows in Nunamiut Culture

Introduction

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".