The Western Arctic contains a dazzling array of features that make it a unique part of the United States. One of those is the practice of subsistence hunting and fishing. Outside of Alaska, most Americans know little about living off the land. Before the arrival of Euro-Americans in 1741, all indigenous Alaskans engaged in subsistence lifestyles, with few permanent settlements. These early tribal peoples moved through the landscape, following game and the seasons, living through times of plenty and times of hardship. The movement into settled communities happened very recently, the product of colonization. Yet even though most indigenous Alaskans now live in villages, roughly 95% of Iñupiat—indigenous Alaskans who live in the more remote and typically less developed northern areas of the state from the Bering Sea to western Canada—still practice subsistence hunting and fishing.
Subsistence activities have a legal definition: traditional usage of wild, renewable animal resources for personal, family, or community consumption for transportation, food, tools, fuel, and/or shelter. The federal government took over subsistence hunting and fishing from the state of Alaska in 1990, which complicates some rules on who can and cannot hunt and fish for subsistence purposes. In the State of Alaska’s 1978 Subsistence Bill the rights of most indigenous Alaskans to hunt and fish for purposes of survival were protected. Yet beyond the legal definitions and rights, subsistence hunting and fishing are an integral part of Iñupiat identity. Iñupiat live by a system of twelve core values, essential especially to those who live off the land and its bounty. Two of the twelve highlight following hunting traditions so each hunt will be successful, as well as a greater respect for nature, because this is home for animals and humans, and without a healthy respect for one another and the land, none will prosper.
The North Slope village of Nuiqsut is an excellent example of subsistence hunting and fishing tradition. Located about 30 miles from the Beaufort Sea on Nechelik channel of the Colville River Delta, the village was founded on a spot known traditionally as an Iñupiat gathering and trading ground. It is home to about 415 people. Like all North Slope villages, Nuiqsut’s economy is based on hunting, fishing, and whaling. The village has an arctic climate; temperatures can be extreme, from lows of -56 to highs of 78 degrees. A diverse array of waterways fill the area: swamps, ponds, streams, crossing alluvial and frozen clays, gravel, and permafrost that can get as deep as 100 feet. 81% of Nuiqsut households participate in the local subsistence economy. Hunting and fishing are critical activities for indigenous Alaskans’ survival, especially on the North Slope. A single statistic can stand as a perfect example of how vital the subsistence economy remains even today: in a recent survey, of 259 harvest instances in Nuiqsut, 226 were shared with others. Such sharing stands as a vital matter of culture for indigenous Alaskans and is another of the twelve core values. In December 2015, for example, the people of Nuiqsut sent a plane full of caribou and fish to the village of Anaktuvuk Pass who had had a poor hunting season. Stories like this are not uncommon—they are the norm in a place where people must emphasize community–human and nonhuman–to survive.
Subsistence activities occur from January to December. The most consistent occupation is fishing, practiced throughout the year. Primary seafood staples here are whitefish, burbot, Arctic cisco, Arctic char (a relative of the salmon and seen increasingly on menus in the lower 48 and other places), and graylings. Caribou can be found all through the year as well, though there are occasional seasonal fluctuations. Moose are a primary staple, though their season generally occurs in late summer and early fall, with August a particularly good month as the lower water levels make traveling easier for hunters. Other animals hunted during the year are various species of landed birds and waterfowl, polar bears, and seals.
Perhaps the most seasonal and most challenging animal for Nuiqsut hunters would be the bowhead whale, important because it is rich in vitamins A and C. Harvest generally occurs in September during the bowheads’ annual migration, the closest time the mammals swim near land, making pursuit moderately easier. Hunting bowhead whales takes strength and skill. Most hunters use umiaks, boats constructed from driftwood or whale bones, over which walrus or seal skin sleeves are stretched. These boats can be up to 30’ long. Some hunters use modern aluminum boats, but tradition holds that bowheads are sensitive to the noise of the metal so most like to use traditional umiaks. The primary modern modification most whale hunters have made to umiaks is exchanging metal bolts and screws for the various oils they used to bind skins to the base structure, but in general the umiak itself remains similar to the boat it has always been.
Challenges do exist to this borderline society and others like it. Though Nuiqsut sits far enough inland not to be immediately affected, rising water levels due to climate change have had impacts on some indigenous subsistence communities. The primary danger to Nuiqsut remains the expanded petroleum development from North Slope producers. Hunters have already had to shift harvest activities west as fossil fuel growth encroaches on Nuiqsut’s eastern side. Fear exists that caribou may one day no longer migrate into the area, removing an essential feature of Iñupiat life. Another large concern of the village is the expanded business of sport hunters moving into the area. Nuiqsut hopes buffer zones will be established to protect subsistence areas and users from the impacts of sport hunters.
Many Iñupiat villages have been occupied for as long as 10,000 years. Caribou have been dated in Alaska as far back as 28,000 years ago. People who can live in and preserve a landscape over such time deserve to continue and pass on that legacy to the next generation. They could shine as an example to the lower 48 of how all Americans might better treat our shared environment.