Uqpiich: Willows in Nunamiut Culture

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.