Uqpiich: Willows in Nunamiut Culture

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.