Native Voices in Utqiagvik, Alaska

Alaska Media News Network

There are 229 federally recognized native villages in Alaska. With its rich history in indigenous culture, diverse landscapes ranging from a boreal rainforest to an Arctic desert resting along the icy ocean at the top of the world, Alaska lays claim to some of the most varied social traditions as well as the people who call it home. By comparison, the large state of Texas could fit nearly three times into the geographical Alaskan boundaries, yet it remains one of the least populated places in the United States with just over 733,000 residents according to the 2020 census report. Of those residents included more than 119,000 Native Alaskans recorded their permanent home within Alaska—and that was in an informal count more than 20 years ago. Today, the Native Alaskan population has expanded throughout the vast territories yet little is said of the worlds that build the engaging bridges of these groups.

One such Native Alaskan group are the Iñupiat people whose homeland is located primarily throughout the northern Artic regions. In the United States, the Iñupiat have resided in Utqiagvik, formerly known as Barrow. Some people may recall Barrow, Alaska as being the setting for the movie, ‘30 Days of Night’, where the sun does not rise for a solid month making a perfect town to be overrun by vampires. As Hollywood often does, a sensational production left an impression of the place in the minds of many. In reality, the movie was filmed in New Zeland, a long way from the resilient truths that do exist in Utqiagvik.

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A man mends snowshoes in the Alaskan north.Heather O’Brien

Iñupiats have settled on traditional territory land that ranges from northeast of Norton Sound on the Bering Sea to northern Canada.There are 34 villages across Iñupiaq lands, only 1 of which was come to be known as Barrow. In a climate that rivals Antarctica in weather conditions, more than 20,000 United States citizens who are Native Iñupiaq work, fish, hunt, go to school, and manage families who are tightly woven into a colorful tapestry where people are called by name. Elders of the community are shown a great deal of respect as doors are held open for them and village residents step aside to allow the most respected among them to go ahead in lines.

Colonization has not had a significant impact on the Native Alaskan villages that rest above the Arctic Circle. It is almost as if the land itself has kept a watchful eye on how much industrial and business development in general is permitted to take place. This natural safeguard has afforded some, but not enough, protection for the villagers as the coastline along the Arctic continues to decline steadily and the waters begin to encroach upon what were once much larger expanses of thick ice and firm permafrost. Over time, the frozen desert earth has softened causing buildings to lean, collapse, or face ongoing leveling efforts by homeowners. The ice, at one period a strong place from which to fish, has become much thinner and poses a risk to any who venture out too far. Erosion spreads into the coastline that has become dotted with long fences and warning signs. For the Iñupiat, climate change is not another talking point. The quickening of developing changes continues to impact the caribou herd population as their numbers dwindle to a trickle of what was once hundreds now down to small groups of roaming animals who have moved in closer towards humans. Aggressive polar bears, which do not hibernate, have also had to reduce their movements and migrations which poses a risk to people. The Iñupiaq homeland, and all that inhabit it, is shrinking away. Yet, there is hope.

Whaling crews, permitted to catch a certain number of whales, are still able to bring in a couple of bowhead whales that feed the communities. In Utqiagvik, food is life and part of cultural understanding. Some employers allow for workers to take time off during times of the year when subsistence gathering, hunting, and fishing are ideal. This food provides the vital nutrients required to sustain human life for long, very dark, winters ahead. Subsistence living has been a way of survival in Native villages for thousands of years. Herd populations were managed and traditional residents thrived in a certain interconnected understanding along widespread masses of land exist yet nothing green ever grows except for the lichen eaten by some of the animals. Once a whale is brought to shore, the community of Utqiagvik turn out to help bring in the catch and distribute it amongst the people. Nothing is wasted. Even the polar bears are fed by the remains. Here, all life is cherished.

During the warmest of summer months, July and August, temperatures hover around what most would consider chilly as they reach into the mid-40 degree mark on average. During this time the barge, which only comes into Utqiagvik once a year, delivers supplies that largely serve the village until it comes again a year later. Ordering spaces on the barge for telephone poles, vehicles, and large pieces of equipment requires a keen eye for determining what might be needed. The only other way in, or out of, Utqiagvik, is by airplane—and there is only one flight per day. The flights reach maximum capacity quickly and luggage is often delayed arriving into the one small airport which is approximately the size of a convenience store. To even enter the airport requires that an individual first depart an airplane while on the tarmac and then walk or be assisted, yet everyone works to help one another which shows the special spirit of caring that resides here within the people. After all, it is the people who keep the villages going tear after year. Alaskans, in every part of the state, are aware of the coming winter even when the Land of the Midnight Sun has nearly unending daylight. Preparations, whether by boat or plane, are usually always being made.

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

The embodiment of the Iñupiat people is one of determination, independence, resiliency, and community. While their numbers may stand into the thousands few media reports cover the Native Alaskans who could share stories and ways of life that date back into history. There is wisdom to be sought from the Native elders, lessons that people anywhere could benefit from, and so their stories shall be shared here. Native Alaskans have triumphed during hard times and joyful moments throughout history. Their history has the potential for what it means to look out for the places we inhabit and those we hold dear.

Attributions: "Inupiaq (Inupiat)—Alaska Native Cultural Profile." Archived 2014-08-21 at the Wayback Machine National Network of Libraries of Medicine.Retrieved 25 May 2022.

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Heather O’Brien is an internationally award-winning filmmaker and journalist who writes news and special interest pieces from in, and around, Alaska.

Anchorage, AK
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