Uqpiich: Willows in Nunamiut Culture

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.