The Inuit people inhabit a vast Arctic area stretching nearly 6000 kilometers, from the islands of far western Alaska to the east coast of Greenland. They were previously called “Eskimos,” which was a name applied to them by the Algonquin Indians meaning “eaters of raw meat.” The name “Inuit,” from the Inuit language means “people” or “real people.” Which seems much more representative of their culture.
Anaktuvuk Pass, home of the Nunamiut, Inland Inupiat (Eskimo), North America’s last nomadic people is located 100 miles north of the Arctic Circle and accessible only by bush plane. The pass is a major migration route for one of the world’s largest herd of caribou, what a sight it must be when the herd passes through.
Anaktuvuk is the English way of spelling annaqtugvik, meaning “place of caribou droppings” in the Inupiat language. This small village (only about 300) and its associated tribal lands are located completely within the boundaries of Gates of the Arctic National Park. Gates of the Arctic is one of the more remote National Parks in the country with no roads trails or facilities. A visit to this remote park means a flight on a bush mail plane landing on a gravel airstrip in a beautiful pass located on the north slope of the Brooks Range. It is an opportunity to visit a contemporary Eskimo village and meet the people who have blended their traditional subsistence hunting lifestyle with the conveniences of a modern lifestyle.
With 24 hours of daylight during the summer months and the potential of snow even during the summer residents have adapted well to their environment. The average temperature is just above freezing during June, July and August with temps of -50 degrees common during the long dark winter months. Annual precipitation is only about 10 inches and annual snowfall about 55 inches. Most of the snow coming from blowing drifts brought in by the harsh winds that howl through the pass.
“Each moment of the year has its own beauty, a picture which was never before and shall never be seen again.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
The Nunamiut were nomads for much of their history before settling into this permanent village beginning in 1949. They were the very last of North America’s nomadic people to make this difficult transition from nomadic hunters dwelling in caribou skin tents and traveling by dog sled team to settled village life in ranch houses with autos and snowmobiles, television and the internet.
Seven families who came from different parts of the Brooks Range in 1949 founded the community. Knowing that the world was rapidly changing their decision to settle Anaktuvuk Pass was to help their children become better educated and prepared for the future.
Maintaining a community within what became a National Park speaks to the tenacity of the elders who stood their ground on cultural and subsistence issues forcing concessions and changes in federal policy. In 1980, after decades of consultation with the community and the National Park Service it was agreed that the village and surrounding lands would be included within the boundaries of the newly created Gates of the Arctic National Park. Negotiations continued for another 16 years before a consensus was reached with the Federal Government that would allow the villagers access to their prime summer hunting grounds. This was critical to their continuing ability to survive as 100% of the households in the community participate in subsistence activities for their livelihood (activities like hunting, fishing & gathering plants).
Warbelows Air one of the few companies that provide passenger, mail and freight service to this remote location provided our flight to the village. After arriving we were greeted by our guide Mickey, who had lived his whole life in the community and whose family was one of the original seven. We were treated to a great introduction to the area and life in Anaktuvuk with a walking tour of the town as well as an ATV trip out to the river.
Our visit was concluded with a visit to the Simon Paneak Memorial Museum where we met their Museum Director and Curator. It is a beautiful facility telling the story of the Inland Eskimo way of life.
I had an opportunity to talk more with the curator and we discovered that we knew some of the same people through the American Association of Museums and their museum’s soon to be successful effort to acquire accreditation (a very onerous and lengthy process). I commend the community and the museum for the work they have put into making the facility a world class museum and the Elders for preserving and perpetuating the traditional knowledge, skills and values that sustained them and that continue to guide the young people of the village.
It was a wonderful trip to not only visit a National Park and cross above the Arctic Circle but to learn more about an interesting culture and living in such a remote and amazingly beautiful location. I was a traveler and glad to have had this opportunity to experience this part of Alaska.
“The traveler was active; he went strenuously in search of people, of adventure, of experience. The tourist is passive; he expects interesting things to happen to him. He goes ‘sight-seeing.’” – Daniel J. Boorstin