Uqpiich: Willows in Nunamiut Culture

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). 

Uqpipiaq

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.

Kanuŋŋiq

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.