The Twelve Core Values of the Inupiaq People - How do they fit in your Life?: A Writing Lesson

Background Information

The Iñupiaq Land Use Values and Resource Camp

In July of 2008, I had the honor of participating in the Iñupiaq Land Use Values and Resource Camp, sponsored by ECHO and the Peabody Essex Museum. Our campsite was located approximately 10 miles southwest of Barrow, Alaska on a beach on the Arctic Ocean, surrounded by tundra. Amongst the 21 participants were Iñupiaq guides, hunters, teachers, and children, as well as educators from Anchorage, Wasilla, Point Hope, Anatuvuk Pass, Fairbanks, and Point Lay.

Although the sun shone 24 hours a day, the sky was mostly overcast, and the temperatures chilly, with a strong wind blowing for the north or northeast. This is the time of year the Iñupiaq people of the coast hunt tuttu (caribou), aiviq (walrus), and ugruk (bearded seal). During our camping trip all of those animals were successfully hunted.

Before we even arrived at our campsite, our hunters, Qaiyaan and Nagruk Harcharek, provided our first tuttu. The boat ride to our camp was enjoyable, as we admired the beauty of the Beaufort Sea, which is part of the Arctic Ocean, and marveled at Nagruk's navigating skills as he guided the boat through the ice, which was arranged in a tricky maze.

Suddenly, we found ourselves on shore and Qaiyaan was running up a snow-covered slope, rifle in hand. Through the mist, we watched as he fired one shot into the distance. Nak (Nagruk's nickname) quickly joined him and before we knew it, they returned with a tuttu. The dead animal rode on the bow of the boat until we arrived at camp. At that point, we were made aware of the expertise of our hunter guides.

We set up our camp on the tundra, right next to a beach on the Beaufort Sea. An inlet came into our campsite. It was so beautiful.

Since there are no trees on the tundra, driftwood was very important to us, and there was a lot of it! I was amazed at how much driftwood traveled that far north! We needed it to make drying racks in order to dry out the meat we butchered. We also needed the wood to keep us warm throughout the week. Even though it was July, it was cold! We had many days that were cloudy, foggy or rainy. We also needed the fire to dry off our wet clothes and boots.

Trees do not grow on the tundra, but there is a lot of plant life. Here is a small sampling.

Throughout the week our hunter guides continued to be successful. In the end, seven tuttu, one aiviq, and one ugruk were harvested.  We were kept busy butchering all of the animals, building drying racks, and doing whatever we were told to do by our Iñupiaq teachers. We were so busy with the animals, we didn't have much time for anything else. That was good news, however, because the success of the summer hunting is important to the lives of the Iñupiat for months to come!

Each animal has its season and the summer months produce the largest opportunities and varieties of animals to hunt.

Why hunt?  Why not go to the store?

In Barrow, Alaska there is one store and it sells everything from groceries to snow machines. However, groceries are very expensive. A gallon of milk can cost anywhere from $10.00 to $13.00. The same goes for bread, and produce is out of this world. Remember, Barrow is above the Arctic Circle and while there is plant life, such as tundra grass, flowers and berries, there is no warm dry growing season that can produce vegetables.

It is important for the residents to hunt for subsistence. The necessary vitamins and minerals are found in the sealife as well as the land animals and birds that are hunted. Also, hunters share what they hunt with other residents who may not be able to hunt on their own.

Here is an example of how the Iñupiat follow a cycle in order to hunt for subsistence. To download a complete list, click here. Each month has cultural activities to follow as well as events that happen. This allows people to live in the traditional way and promotes community participation. The following activities are for the months of March and December:

March

  • Some polar bear hunting
  • Seal hunting
  • Trapping continues for fox, wolf and wolverine
  • Women sew ugruk skins for skin boats
  • New skins put on boat frames
  • Hunting tools repaired
  • Female polar bears bring out their young

December

  • Trapping season for fox, wolf, wolverine
  • Seal hunting
  • Polar bear hunting
  • Traditional Christmas Feasts
  • Traditional games of skill and endurance
  • Time to clean ice cellars and houses for the new year.

The week we were at our campsite, we had the awesome experience of being in the path of a herd of tuttu. There were about 5000 of them and they came right through our camping area! Our hunters hunted as many as we could handle and bring back to the town - all we had were two small boats!

Watch as the herd of tuttu move through our camp!

The most memorable experience during my week of camping was hunting aiviq (walrus) in the middle of the night in the bright sunlight! Qaiyaan had heard that aiviq had been spotted, and he and the other hunter guides were eager to go hunting. We set off at about 1:00 am and traveled out for about an hour. The water was pristine and beautiful. The ice showed various shades of blue, green and white as it floated gracefully on the water. On the horizon a V-shaped rainbow appeared. Whales and seals swam by. I felt like I was part of another world.  

Qaiyaan stood on the bow of the boat and watched for aiviq. He spotted a dark spot in the ocean and had Nagruk head for it.

This is my favorite picture. It is Qaiyaan on the bow of the boat with a harpoon looking for aiviq.

We continued to travel towards the dark spot and and sure enough - we came upon a piece of ice that supported several aivġich (the plural of aiviq) sunning themselves.

In a culture where hunting is held so important, it is necessary for rules to be in place when there is more than one hunter. The eldest hunter is always in charge and the other hunters must follow his orders carefully. In this situation Qaiyaan, who was 27 years old, was the eldest.

His younger brother Nagruk quietly approached the aiviq-covered ice and took his place on the bow with his brother and their nephew Ash. Ash was thirteen and had been hunting since he was a young boy. However he had never harvested an aiviq.

Qaiyaan told each hunter which aiviq he should aim for and gave the signal to fire their rifles. In the end, it was young Ash who killed the aiviq.

The aiviq was too large to haul onto the boat, so the butchering had to take place at sea. Thick fog had started to roll in and Nagruk had to find a piece of ice that was large enough to support the hunters, other helpers, and the aiviq. We pulled the aiviq alongside the boat until we found such a piece of ice.

At this point it was about 3:30 am and freezing. The aiviq was butchered quickly. The carcass was left on the ice for birds to feast on.

Under different circumstances, the butchering process would have taken longer and more parts of the animal would have been harvested, as many parts of the animal are saved to be used for other purposes. Nothing goes to waste that can be used.