Indigenous voices in Utqiagvik, Alaska | Alaska Media Information Network

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There are 229 federally recognized Native villages in Alaska. With its rich history in indigenous culture, varied landscapes ranging from a tropical boreal forest to an arctic desert resting along the icy ocean at the top of the world, Alaska boasts some of the most varied social traditions as well as the people who call it home. By comparison, the great state of Texas could fit nearly three times within the geographic boundaries of Alaska, but it remains one of the least populated places in the United States with just over 733,000 residents according to the report. 2020 census. Of those residents, more than 119,000 Alaska Natives have registered permanent residency in Alaska — and that was part of an informal tally more than 20 years ago. Today, the Alaska Native population has spread across the vast lands, but little is said of the worlds that build the engaging bridges of these groups.

One such Alaska Native group is the Iñupiat people whose homeland is located primarily in the northern regions of the Arctic. In the United States, the Iñupiat resided in Utqiagvik, formerly known as Barrow. Some people may remember Barrow, Alaska as the setting for the movie “30 Days of Night”, where the sun doesn’t rise for a solid month, making it a perfect town to be overrun by vampires. As Hollywood often does, a sensational production left an impression of the place on the minds of many. In reality, the film was shot in New Zealand, far from the resilient truths that exist in Utqiagvik.

A man repairs snowshoes in northern Alaska.Heather O’Brien

The Iñupiats have settled in traditional territories that stretch from northeast Norton Sound on the Bering Sea to northern Canada. In a climate that rivals Antarctica in terms of weather, more than 20,000 native American citizens of Iñupiaq work, fish, hunt, go to school and manage tightly knit families in a colorful tapestry where people are called by name. The elders of the community are the subject of great respect as the doors are opened to them and the inhabitants of the village withdraw to allow the most respected among them to queue.

Colonization has not had a significant impact on the Alaska Native villages that sit above the Arctic Circle. It is almost as if the land itself has kept a watchful eye on the degree of industrial and commercial development in general allowed to take place. This natural protection has offered some, but not enough, protection to villagers as the coastline along the Arctic continues to steadily decline and waters begin to encroach on what were once much larger expanses of thick ice and firm permafrost. Over time, the frozen desert earth softened, causing it to lean, collapse, or face the owners’ continual leveling efforts. The ice, once a strong place to fish, has become much thinner and poses a risk to anyone who ventures too far. Erosion spreads into the shoreline which has become dotted with long fences and warning signs. For the Iñupiat, climate change is not another topic of discussion. Accelerating developing changes continue to impact the population of the caribou herd as their numbers dwindle to a trickle from what were once hundreds now down to small groups of wandering animals that have come close together humans. Aggressive polar bears, which do not hibernate, have also had to reduce their movements and migrations, posing a risk to humans. The Iñupiaq homeland, and all that inhabits it, is shrinking. Yet there is hope.

Whaling teams, authorized to capture a certain number of whales, may still bring back a few bowhead whales that feed the communities. In Utqiagvik, food is life and part of cultural understanding. Some employers allow workers to take time off during times of the year when subsistence gathering, hunting and fishing are ideal. This food provides the essential nutrients needed to sustain human life through the long, very dark winters to come. Subsistence living has been a means of survival in indigenous villages for thousands of years. Herd populations have been managed and traditional residents have thrived in some interconnected understanding along vast land masses exist, but nothing green ever grows except the lichen eaten by some of the animals. Once a whale is brought ashore, the community of Utqiagvik helps bring the catch back and distribute it among the people. Nothing is wasted. Even polar bears are fed on leftovers. Here, all life is cherished.

During the hottest summer months of July and August, temperatures hover around what most would consider cold, as they average around the 40 degree mark. Meanwhile, the barge, which only comes to Utqiagvik once a year, delivers supplies that largely serve the village until it returns a year later. Ordering spaces on the barge for telephone poles, vehicles, and large equipment requires a keen eye to determine what might be needed. The only other way to get in or out of Utqiagvik is by plane – and there’s only one flight per day. Flights quickly reach capacity and luggage is often delayed at the only small airport that is about the size of a convenience store. Even to enter the airport, a person must first leave a plane on the tarmac and then walk or be assisted, but everyone works to help each other, which shows the special spirit of caring that resides here at the people. After all, it is the people who tear villages apart year after year. Alaskans in all parts of the state are aware of the coming winter, even when the land of the midnight sun has nearly endless daylight. Preparations, whether by boat or plane, are generally still underway.

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Utqiagvik (formerly Barrow), Alaska from the movie ‘Indigo Sky’.Heather O’Brien

The embodiment of the Iñupiat people is one of determination, independence, resilience and community. Although their numbers may run into the thousands, few media reports cover Alaska Natives who might share stories and ways of life that go back to history. There is wisdom to be sought from Indigenous elders, lessons that people everywhere could benefit from, and so their stories should be shared here. Alaska Natives have triumphed in times of hardship and times of joy throughout history. Their story has the potential of what it means to pay attention to the places we call home and those we hold dear.

Attributions: “Inupiaq (Inupiat) – Alaska Native Cultural Profile.” Archived 2014-08-21 at the Wayback Machine National network of medical libraries.Retrieved May 25, 2022.

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