North Alaskan Eskimos

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North Alaskan Eskimos

ETHNONYMS: Iñupiat, Malemiut, Nunamiut, Tariurmiut


Identification. The North Alaskan Eskimos are located along the coast of northern Alaska. The name "Eskimo" is of foreign derivation, although there is considerable disagreement about where and when it originated. The North Alaskan Eskimos refer to themselves collectively as "Iñupiat," or "authentic people." "Nunamiut" was and is used as a general designation for people who spend the winter inland, and "Tariurmiut" is the corresponding term for coast dwellers. "Malemiut" is derived from a Yup'ik Eskimo word from Norton Sound that was formerly used to denote the speakers of an Iñuit dialect from Kotzebue Sound. The term was frequently used erroneously in late-nineteenth-century and early-twentieth-century literature to refer to a tribal entity of some kind. Its use is now restricted in the technical literature to the name for a regional dialect.

Location. Aboriginally, the North Alaskan Eskimos occupied the coast of northern Alaska from the western tip of Kotzebue Sound to the mouth of the Colville River, and the entire hinterland drained by rivers reaching the sea between those two points. In the late nineteenth century they expanded eastward along the Arctic coast to beyond what is now the Canadian border, and southward to the eastern shore of Norton Sound.

Demography. The population at the beginning of the 1800s was probably about eight thousand to nine thousand people. There was a decline of some 75 percent in the last quarter of that century, but the population began to recover early in the twentieth century. By about 1975 it had reached its traditional level, and it has continued to grow since.

Linguistic Affiliation. The language of the North Alaskan Eskimos belongs to the Eskimo branch of the Eskaleut Language family. More specifically, it is an Iñuit Eskimo Language, which is spoken from Bering Strait across northern North America to Greenland. Within North Alaska, the Malemiut dialect is spoken in eleven villages of the Kotzebue Sound drainage and three on the shore of Norton Sound, and the North Slope dialect is spoken in the eight villages north of Kotzebue Sound.

History and Cultural Relations

When they were first encountered by Europeans in the Second decade of the nineteenth century, the people were organized in nineteen autonomous societies, or tribes. They welcomed the few explorers and shipborne traders who ventured into their area as long as they were interested in trade. Otherwise, they tended to be hostile, although bloodshed was rare. Relations with Europeans improved with more familiarity. A greater threat to native life was posed by American whalers after 1848; over the next two decades they decimated the bowhead whale and walrus populations, which previously had been major sources of food and other raw materials. In the 1870s the natives themselves decimated the caribou population with newly introduced firearms. Widespread famine followed. European epidemic diseases also arrived about this time, with catastrophic effect. The demographic decline and ensuing chaos resulted in the destruction of the traditional social boundaries and in extensive interregional movement of families trying to find productive hunting and fishing grounds.

In the late nineteenth century, missionaries and miners made their way to the region. Between about 1900 and 1910, schools were established at several locations. The new mission-school villages subsequently became focal points for the natives, resulting eventually in the formation of twenty-two permanent villages distributed across their expanded late-nineteenth-century territory. Domesticated reindeer were introduced to fill the void left by the nearly extinct Caribou, and reindeer herding and fur trapping became the basis of a new economic order lasting until the 1930s. The fur trade collapsed during the Great Depression, and reindeer herding declined as the caribou population began to recover. Welfare payments and seasonal wage employment for men, usually far from home, subsequently became the major sources of cash income, while hunting and fishing continued to provide the raw materials for food and some clothing. Increasing Economic and political stability, combined with improved medical care, has resulted in a steady population increase since 1910.

The period 1960-1990 has seen major economic and Social changes. The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) led to the formation of two native regional corporations, NANA Corporation, in the region focused on Kotzebue Sound, and the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation (ASRC) to the north. Oil and mineral development provided a substantial tax base leading to the formation of modern political units: the North Slope Borough (in the general territory of the ASRC) and the Northwest Arctic Borough (in the general territory of NANA) . As they approach the end of the twentieth century the people are involved in the general political and economic life of Alaska, but continue to rely to a considerable extent on hunting and fishing for food. Increasing numbers of nonnatives have moved into North Alaska since the 1960s, but Eskimos still constitute a substantial majority of the permanent resident population.


During the early contact period each society had a distinctive settlement pattern, but the several forms can be grouped into two broad categories, a whaling pattern and a nonwhaling pattern. In the former, relatively large villages were located at Point Hope, Icy Cape, Ukpiarvik, and Point Barrow, places where spring ice conditions favored hunting the bowhead whale. Smaller satellite villages were distributed along the coast and on the lower reaches of rivers elsewhere within the societal territory. In both types of settlement, the semisubterranean sod house was the sole type of dwelling. After the conclusion of whaling, in June, the inhabitants of these villages dispersed to spring seal-hunting camps scattered along the coast. After the sea ice left in late June or early July, they dispersed even more widely to hunt caribou and fish along the rivers or to trade at one of the annual trade fairs. These travels usually concluded in late August or early September, at which time people returned to their winter villages.

The nonwhaling settlement pattern was characterized by the autumn dispersal of the population in small villages, Primarily along rivers, but in a few cases along the coast or around lakes. These villages were usually located in areas likely to be visited by caribou, but at specific sites that were particularly well suited for fishing; in a few instances, they were at good fall seal-hunting locations. Houses in these settlements were constructed of wooden frames covered by one of a variety of materials: sod, moss, or a tarpaulin made of skins. As the winter progressed, people stayed in their fall settlements if food supplies lasted, but they usually had to move around eventually in search of game. In the spring, there was a fair amount of variation. In some societies, people moved to the coast to hunt seals; in others, they moved to lakes and sloughs to hunt muskrats and migratory waterfowl and/or to fish. After the river ice broke up, the members of several societies moved to the coast to trade, hunt sea mammals, and fish, but the members of several others remained inland to fish and to hunt caribou. In all areas summer was a time of movement during which people lived in tents. The two patterns persisted into the twentieth century, but the native Population gradually became more sedentary, especially after the end of the reindeer herding and trapping era.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The entire economy was based on hunting and fishing and, to a much more moderate extent, on the gathering of plant products. Whales, seals, caribou, several species of fish, and a variety of fur-bearing animals, small game, and birds provided them with all the raw materials they needed for food and clothing and, to a significant extent, for tools, weapons, and utensils as well. Wood was used in house construction and in the manufacture of some weapons and tools; leaves, berries, and some roots were collected for food. Hunting, fishing, and gathering continue to be important sources of food today, but are significantly supplemented by foodstuffs imported from regions farther south. Gardening is carried on to a very Limited extent in a few villages where soil and summer weather conditions permit. Cash income is derived from welfare payments and by employment in a variety of private commercial enterprisesparticularly in the oil, mining, and service industriesand government agencies. Traditionally, the only domesticated animals were large dogs. In winter they were used to pull sleds; in summer, to track boats along the seacoast and rivers and as pack animals. For about half a Century, beginning in the 1890s, imported reindeer were raised on a relatively large scale, but that industry has declined to only a few small herds today. Cats and dogs are now kept as pets; teams of sled dogs are kept only for racing.

Industrial Arts. The North Alaskan Eskimos were noted for the quality of their work in ivory and flint. Skin sewing was developed to a high level. Beautiful birchbark baskets were made in the southern interior. Except for work in flint, these traditional manufactures are perpetuated today, skin sewing primarily for personal or family use, ivory and bone carving and basket making as a source of cash income.

Trade. Aboriginally there was a well-developed intersocietal trade network in North Alaska. It was based upon trading partnerships and implemented through two major Summer fairs and a system of winter feasts during both of which partners from different societies came together. The whole system was connected by similar links with Athapaskan Indian societies in the Alaskan interior, with other Eskimos in the Bering Strait area and southwestern Alaska, and with Eskimos and Chuckchees in easternmost Asia.

Division of Labor. Aboriginally there was a sharp division of labor based on gender. Men hunted big game, built houses, and manufactured weapons, tools, and utensils. Women looked after most game from the time it was killed: retrieving it, storing it, and performing whatever processing chores were required prior to ultimate consumption. Women also did the sewing and child rearing. Fishing, trapping, and hunting birds and small game were either men's work or women's work, with regional and seasonal variations in the precise allocation of duties. The traditional division of labor based on gender persisted with only a few modifications until the 1960s. Since then, although the pursuit of large game is still carried out Primarily by men, the great increase in the opportunities for local employment in teaching, government, and service industries has changed the primary basis of the division of labor to one's level of education and technical training rather than gender.

Land Tenure. Aboriginally, land ownership was vested at the societal level; it was owned in common by all the members of the society. Within the territory of a society, its members were free to live, hunt, and fish where they wished, subject only to the provision that people who first occupied a place had the primary right to use it until they abandoned it. There was no other private ownership of land, nor were there Individual or family hunting or fishing territories. Today land ownership in North Alaska follows the pattern that exists generally in the United States; the region is a patchwork of properties owned by individuals and corporationsmuch of it by native corporations established under ANCSA, local governments, the state of Alaska, and various agencies of the U.S. government.


Kin Groups and Descent. Traditionally, the North Alaskan Eskimos were organized in terms of bilocal extended families. Typically they involved about a dozen people, but many were larger, and some involved as many as sixty to eighty. Unilineal descent groups were absent. Bilocal extended Families are still important today, although in recent decades the conjugal family has become the dominant kinship unit.

Kinship Terminology. In the nineteenth century kinship terminology conformed to the Yuman type. Today, as a result of acculturation, the Eskimo type is beginning to predominate.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Traditionally, incest prohibitions applied absolutely to siblings, strongly to first cousins, and rather weakly beyond that. Parents attempted to control, and certainly to influence, their children's choice of a spouse, but there was no institutionalized betrothal system. Monogamy predominated, with polygyny practiced by a few wealthy men, most of whom had two wives, but a few of whom had as many as five. Polyandry was permitted, but was extremely rare. Postmarital residence was bilocal. Divorce was common, especially during the early years of adult life. It could be effected by either party.

Domestic Unit. A household could consist of a single conjugal family, but usually comprised two or more conjugal families connected by sibling or cousin ties reckoned through either the female or male lines, or both. Adjacent houses were usually occupied by people who were closely related and often were connected to one another by tunnels or passageways, the whole being a single economic and political unit managed by the family head and his wife. Three-generation households were common. This general pattern prevailed until the late 1960s, after which the population increase and the imposition of the U.S. system of land ownership and of clearly bounded property lines in the villages made it difficult to perpetuate.

Inheritance. Individually owned movable property was buried with the deceased. Houses, boats, and other items owned by the family as a whole continued to be used by the surviving members of that family.

Socialization. Traditionally, the ratio of adults to children was high, and children received a great deal of individual attention and supervision. Discipline was permissive. Children were encouraged to learn by a combination of admonition, example, and especially practice. The traditional approach is still preferred in native households. As the ratio of children to adults increased in the twentieth century, however, it became less effective because there were too many children to look after with the same level of care. Jobs now take one or more parents out of the house for several hours each day, and much socialization takes place outside the family context, primarily in schools.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social and Political Organization. Aboriginally, there were no governments, tribal councils, chiefs, or other forms of centralized authority. The traditional societies were organized in terms of large extended families that were politically and economically self-sufficient to a high degree. The several families were linked to one another by various kinship, namesake, and partnership ties to form the society as a whole. Most settlements were occupied by the members of only a single extended family. Larger settlements, including each of the whaling villages, were occupied by the members of several families who lived in close proximity to one another, but who maintained a high level of autonomy nevertheless. Each extended family served as a redistribution network in which the family head and his wife served as foci. Men who demonstrated superior hunting, managerial, and leadership skills, and who were married to women of commensurate ability, attracted more and more relatives to join their family groups. The heads of large families were often wealthy, and they typically had at least two wives. At the opposite extreme, couples who were lazy or incompetent either had to shift for themselves or become affiliated with a large family in some kind of marginal and subservient capacity.

Social Control. Affiliation with a particular family head was voluntary; both individuals and conjugal families could strike out on their own whenever they wished. This served as a check on disruptive behavior by the family head. Life in isolation was precarious, however, and the only realistic option to belonging to one extended family was to belong to a Different one. These facts, which were well understood, served as important constraints on disruptive behavior by ordinary family members. Additional constraints took the form of admonition by family elders, ridicule, and gossip. In cases where these were ineffective, family members might shun an Individual or, in extreme cases, even kill the person. There were fewer controls on disruptive behavior between families, since there were no individuals or organizations with authority to mediate interfamily disputes. Over the decades a kind of balance of power seems to have developed among the families in a given society, with smaller units forming alliances to offset the dominance of larger ones. Interfamily relations in traditional times were often tense, especially in the whaling Villages, but only rarely erupted into violence.

Conflict. Within societies, interfamily feuds did Occasionally result in murder. When that occurred, the male relative closest to the deceased had the obligation to kill the assassin. If he was successful, the obligation for vengeance passed back to a man on the other side. At the intersocietal level, warfare was relatively common. It seems to have been undertaken solely for the purpose of avenging a wrong of some kind, and the objective was the death of as many people as possible on the enemy sidemen, women, and children. War was not conducted for the purpose of acquiring territory, booty, or slaves. Nighttime raids were the preferred form of attack, although organized warfare, with battle lines, tactical maneuvers, and clearly developed fire and shock tactics, also occurred.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The traditional religion was animistic. Everything was believed to be imbued with a spirit. There was, in addition, an array of spirits that were not associated with any specific material form. Some of these spirits looked kindly on humans, but most of them had to be placated in order for human activities to proceed without difficulty. Harmony with the spirit world was maintained through the wearing of amulets, the observance of a vast number of taboos, and participation in a number of ceremonies relating primarily to the hunt, food, birth, death, the life cycle, and the seasonal round. In the 1890s a few natives from Southwest Alaska who had been converted by Swedish missionaries began evangelical work in the Kotzebue Sound area. About the same time, Episcopal and Presbyterian missionaries from the continental United States began work in Point Hope and Barrow, followed by members of the California Annual Meeting of Friends in the Kotzebue Sound area. After some difficulties, the Friends were successful in converting a large number of people, and these converts laid the foundation for widespread conversions to Christianity throughout North Alaska. Today, practically every Christian denomination and faith is represented in the region.

Religious Practitioners. In traditional times, shamans interceded between the human and spirit worlds. They divined the concerns of the spirits and advised their fellow humans of the modes of behavior required to placate them. They also healed the sick, foretold the future results of a particular course of action, made spirit flights to the sun and the moon, and attempted to intercede with the spirits when ordinary means proved ineffective. Around 1900, the shamans were replaced by American missionaries. Most of them, in turn, have been replaced by natives ordained as ministers or priests in the Christian faiths to which they adhere.

Ceremonies. The traditional ceremonial cycle consisted of a series of rituals and festivals related primarily to ensuring success in the hunt. Such events were most numerous and most elaborate in the societies in which whaling was of major importance, but they occurred to some degree throughout the region. Intersocietal trading festivals were also important. The traditional cycle has been replaced by the contemporary American sequence of political and Christian holidays.

Arts. Traditional arts consisted primarily of the following: (1) making essentially utilitarian objects (such as tools, weapons, and clothes) in a particularly elegant fashion; (2) storytelling; and (3) song and dance. Since the advent of store-bought products and television, all the traditional art forms have declined considerably.

Medicine. There were two forms of traditional medicine. One, which involved divination and intercession with the spirits, was conducted by shamans. The second involved the massage and/or manipulation of various body parts, particularly the internal organs. The former has given way to Western clinical medicine. The latter, after several decades of being practiced in secret, has recently experienced a revival. Death and Afterlife. Life and death were believed to be a perpetual cycle through which a given individual passed. When a person died, his or her personal possessions were placed on the grave for use in the afterlife, although it was understood that, in due course, the soul of everyone who died would be reanimated in the form of a newborn infant. The traditional beliefs about death and the afterworld have been replaced by an array of Christian beliefs. Whereas funerals were not well defined or important rituals in traditional timesthe observance of special taboos was much more importantthey have in recent decades become elaborate events in which hundreds of people from several villages often participate, particularly when the death of an elder is involved.


Burch, Ernest S., Jr. (1975). Eskimo Kinsmen: Changing Family Relationships in Northwest Alaska. St. Paul, Minn.: West Publishing Co.

Burch, Ernest S., Jr. (1980). "Traditional Eskimo Societies in Northwest Alaska." In Alaska Native Culture and History, edited by Yoshinobu Kotani and William Workman, 253-304. Suita, Osaka, Japan: National Museum of Ethnology.

Gubser, Nicholas J. (1965). The Nunamiut Eskimos: Hunters of Caribou. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.

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Spencer, Robert F. (1959). The North Alaskan Eskimo: A Study in Ecology and Society. U.S. Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin no. 171. Washington, D.C.


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North Alaskan Eskimos

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North Alaskan Eskimos