Originally created through Presidential proclamation as Noatak National Monument in 1978 by President Jimmy Carter, the monument became Noatak National Preserve in December 1980 with the enactment of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA, Public Law 996-487). The preserve was to be managed in order to "maintain the environmental integrity of the Noatak River and adjacent uplands" (NPS 1985), to protect wildlife habitat and populations, and protect archaeological resources in order to provide opportunities for scientific research.
The preserve covers 6,574,481 acres in northwestern Alaska. It is bordered on the west by Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve (GAAR), to the south by Kobuk Valley National Park (KOVA) and to the west by Cape Krusenstern National Monument (CAKR). Bering Land Bridge National Park and Preserve (BELA) lies to the southwest, just across Kotzebue Sound. The Noatak River originates in Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve to the east, and flows westward through the Noatak River basin that makes up the central portion of the NOAT preserve. Eventually the river exits the preserve at its western border, makes a turn south, and empties into Kotzebue Sound, just north of the city of Kotzebue.
The monument is not accessible by road. Instead, primary access is limited to either air or boat traffic. During the winter months, snowmachine and dog sled travel are common. All forms of travel are dependent on weather conditions.
The preserve, along with CAKR and KOVA, is administered from headquarters in Kozebue, Alaska as part of the Northwest Alaska Areas Office (NWAK).
Of the 6,574,481 acres within the preserve, non-federal lands make up approximate 22% of the preserve, or 289,973 acres, and consist of a variety of Native allotments under application, easements areas selected by Nana Regional Corporation, and other village corporations, and State of Alaska navigable waters.
The preserve combines two climatic themes. Near the coast a maritime climate prevails, while the interior experiences a continental climate with more extreme variations in temperatures and precipitation. Temperatures in the summer range from the low 30's to the high 60's degrees Farenheit. Winter temperatures range from -20 to 0 degrees (F). Wind chill factors are common during the winter months, with temperatures as low as -70 degrees (F) being experienced.
The Brooks Range geosyncline and the accompanying Arctic Foothills and Arctic Coastal Plain were all in place by the late Paleozoic era. By the Cretaceous, after a period of mountain-building processes, the Brooks Range dominated the area and volcanic activity was a common occurrence south of the range. Shale, chert, and limestone make up the bedrock geology of the DeLong Mountains, which are part of the Brooks Range. Intrusions of igneous rocks, as a result of nearby volcanic activity, occur as well. The lowland areas of the Noatak drainage are made up of sedimentary materials, including siltstones, sandstones and limestones. Unconsolidated deposits of gravel, clay, silt and sand are concentrated in the lower areas of the Noatak drainage.
The area was glaciated in the past, but was not covered completely during the last (Wisconsin) glaciation. Instead, mostly the upland areas were glaciated. The landscape exhibits typical glacial features such as U-shaped valleys, braided streams, kames, kettles, morraines and alluvial till. Permafrost is discontinuous throughout the lowlands of the perserve, but continuous below the Baird and DeLong mountains. Wildlife is the primary natural resource of the preserve and include caribou, moose, Dall sheep, grizzly bear, wolf, fox, lynx, marten, beaver and muskrat. Small mammals such as the hoary marmot, arctic ground squirrels, lemmings and porcupine also exist within the preserve. A variety of bird life inhabits the preserve, particularly during the summer migratory season, when thousands of birds congregate in the arctic for breeding. The Canada goose, white-fronted goose, tundra swan, and all four species of loon are common in the preserve. Raptors (golden eagles, gyrfalcon and rough-legged hawks) nest along the Noatak drainage in the rocky cliffs of tributaries. The arctic peregrine falcon is the only threatened species known to occur in the preserve.
The Noatak River is considered key in the subsistence and commercial fisheries harvest for Northwest Alaska. The most common fish, Arctic grayling and Arctic char, are found in the Noatak River and its tributaries. Salmon occur throughout the Noatak drainage system, with Chum being the most abundant, and sockeye, pinks and king found in the lower reaches of the river. Sheefish inhabit the Kobuk and Selawik Rivers in the preserve and are considered a preferred subsistence item. Trout are found in the deeper lakes within the preserve, as are burbot and freshwater cod.
Vegetation within the preserve is predominately low mat tundra. The lower Noatak drainage contains a boreal forest cover. At higher elevations, an alpine tundra community can be found, with willow, heather and combinations of grasses, sedges, wildglowers andmosses. Drier areas support lichens and saxifrages. Moist tundra community occurs along the foothills of the Noatak Valley. This is the predominant vegetation of the preserve and consists of cottongrass, willow, dwarf birch, labrador tea, Lapland rosebay, mountain alder and avens. Bog rosemary and cranberry are found in wetter areas as are salmonberry and a variety of mosses. A spruce forest community, consisting of white spruce, paper birch, aspen, poplar and black spruce, occur sporadically throughout the preserve and are generally located along the south-facing foothills and valley bottoms.
Archeological investigations of the Noatak River drainage began in the early 1940's and have continued through the years. In spite of this, however, very little is actually known about the cultural prehistory of the preserve. This is in part due to the fact that few of the investigations carried out have been reported, that few full-scale excavations have occurred, and that preservation within sites is poor (see Hall 1974). Paleo-Indian occupation within the preserve is postulated on the basis of isolated finds of fluted points. The discovery of Paleo-Indian remains at the Mesa site, located in BLM-managed land in northern Alaska (north of the preserve), coupled with its recently assigned 11,700 BP year old date gives further evidence that these peoples were likely to have occupied portions of the preserve. Recent finds, as yet unreported, of similar materials have been located within the Noatak Drainage system in the preserve.
Sites representing the Paleoarctic tradition and dating between 10,000 and 7,000 BP are also thought to occur within the preserve. This, too, is based on evidence collected in the surrounding area. Early microblade and core sites possibly associated with the early Paleoarctic tradition are generally thought to date in the Kotzebue Sound area between 10,000 and 7000 BP. Deposits at Trail Creek Caves in the Bering Land Bridge National Park and Preserve to the south contain Paleoarctic tradition remains dated to 9000 BP and an even deeper and earlier human occupation was postulated on the basis of modified animal bones (the famous calcaneous) that were interpreted a reflecting human activities, dating to approximately 13,000 BP. This interpretation, while not disproved, is presently considered tentative. The Paleoarctic tradition typical assemblage, containing microblades, microcores (often wedge-shaped), flake burins and large bifaces, shows definite affinities with archeological assemblages in northeast Asia, such as the Dyuktai culture of Siberia.
Remains representing the Northern Archaic tradition were found at the Palisades site at Cape Krusenstern (CAKR) and at Onion Portage on the Kobuk River (KOVA), also outside of the NOAT preserve area. As it is generally considered a culture of the interior it seems likely this occupation would occur within the preserve. Northern Archaic remains also occur in Anuktuvuk Pass, to the east in Gates of the Arctic National Preserve, and other scattered locations in northern Alaska. It is thought to be an occurrence resulting from the expansion of the northern boreal forests, related to a climatic warming period, and a concomitant expansion of people and/or cultures from the boreal forests and Archaic cultures south and east of Alaska, in the Southwest Yukon (Giddings and Anderson 1986). The Palisades collection contained "corner-notched points, regular-edged unifaces, and the end scrapers" as well as "crude cobble and core tools...and a single shouldered point" and was ultimately assigned a 6,000 BP date.
The Arctic Small Tool Tradition (ASTt) was first recognized in the Denbigh Flint Complex of the Iyatayet site on Cape Denbigh, along the southeastern margins of the Seward Peninsula. ASTt has been defined as the early development of an economy that exploited sea mammals and resources of the hinterland. People of this tradition spread across the arctic, as far east as Hudson's Bay and as far south as the Alaska Peninsula, as a recognizable technology. The origins of this technology are somewhat obscure but certainly developed around the Bering Strait. Some artifact types appear in the eastern Siberian Belkachi culture but the manufacture and use of burin spall artifacts seems to be unique to the North American Arctic. ASTt first developed about 4200 BP and continued through a series of related cultures, ending with the Ipiutak culture around 1000 BP. Other complexes generally included Choris, Norton, near Ipiutak, and Ipiutak. Some scholars see the Norton tradition as a separate line of development instead of as part of this continuum.
The Northern Maritime tradition, which includes Birnirk, Western Thule, and Kotzebue Period cultures, dates from approximately AD 600 to the early 19th century. This tradition is considered the prehistoric expression of the modern historic Eskimo culture of the North American Arctic. Birnirk, the initial expression of the Alaskan Northern Maritime tradition occurred on the eastern side of Bering Strait at a time when Punuk culture was developing on Siberian shores and the St. Lawrence Islands. The Alaska developments are generally held to be ultimately northeast Asian in origin. However, Birnirk and Ipiutak coexisted for several hundred years on the eastern side of Bering Strait. Thus, the relationship between Northern Maritime (and modern Eskimo) and the preceding Arctic Small Tool tradition cultures remains an important and interesting research domain. Birnirk sites have been found at Cape Krusenstern, Cape Prince of Wales and Cape Nome, i.e. on all sides of the preserve. The Arctic Woodland Culture represents peoples taht moved inland full-time and developed a specialized inland lifestyle to take advantage of non-marine resources that had traditionally been a portion of the "Northern Maritime" tradition.
The succeeding Western Thule culture is dated between AD 950 and 1400. It is a continuation of a mixed sea and land mammal based economy but with a major emphasis on bowhead whale hunting. Western Thule culture followed ASTt cultures in spreading across the arctic. Western Thule settlements were large coastal villages, usually near whale migration routes. Use of thick, grit-tempered curvilinear-stamped pottery continued. Ground slate butchering implements and weapon insets replaced the flaked stone implements used in the preceding Birnirk period. By this time, the seal oil lamp, toggling harpoons, umiak, and dogs were present and in full use. The Kotzebue culture period, between AD 1400 and 1850, is seen as a direct outgrowth of the Western Thule culture and links the prehistoric and early historic Inupiat cultures. Kotzebue period sites and remains are more numerous than those of any preceding culture and have been documented around the full extent of Kotzebue Sound. Sites dating to this time period have been found at Wales and the southern Seward Peninsula, indicating an increasing population. Extensive trading networks and communications were maintained over northwest Alaska, the Seward Peninsula, and across the Bering Strait into Siberia.
Prior to actual contact with western civilizations in the 1850's, the peoples inhabiting the Noatak Valley obtained Russian goods from the eastern Siberian native peoples with whom they had established extensive trade ties across the Bering Straits. At this time two related Eskimo groups were living the region: the Naupaktomiut (Lower Noatak) and the Noatagmiut (Middle and Upper Noatak). The groups from the Kotzebue and Kobuk River areas made regular hunting and trading excursions into the Noatak area. Archaeological evidence shows that in the late 1600's people were living in large villages along lake shores, but this changed around 1800 when temporary camps became more predominant.
Contact brought a host of new activities and severe disruption of the traditional native lifestyle. Initial contact brought exposure to new diseases for which the native populations had no natural immunity, causing a drastic population decline as whole families were wiped out. The commercial whaling enterprises and the fur trade introduced cash economy into the lifestyle, the ramifications of which are still being struggled with. And the introduction of Christianity brought major changes in the interaction between the native peoples and their environment.
Initial exploration by western civilization began in the 18th century with vessels sailing along the coastline. In 1826 Beechey surveyed Kotzebue Sound. Martin, from the H.M.S. Plover visited the lower Noatak in the Winter of 1850 and Stoney and Howard made winter trips in 1885 to the upper Noatak through the Kobuk region. In that same summer, S.B. McLenegan travelled up the Noatak River by boat and eventually published a map of the river valley.
The Klondike gold rush of 1898 brought prospectors into the Kobuk and Noatak valleys and eventually lead to more formal geological exploration and mapping of the area in the early 1900's.
In 1908 the California Yearly Meeting Friends Church began a federally funded mission school in Noatak village. This mission soon became the center for schooling, trading, and religion for the native peoples, causing the virtual abandonment of the upper Noatak basin by 1915 and establishing the village of Noatak as a large permanent settlement.
Despite drastic population reductions and dislocations beginning in the latter half of the 19th century, the descendants of the early 19th century populace remain in northwestern Alaska. These descendants still derive a significant portion of their sustenance and identity from the land and its resources. More so than in other parklands in Alaska (except Anakatuvuk Pass within GAAR) and in the continental United States (except Canyon de Chelly), the human-land relationship extending into parklands is strong. The life experiences, oral traditions, traditional knowledge and current endeavors of the Inupiat of northwestern Alaska are rooted in the landscape and its resources.
Archaeological, ethnographic, historic and contemporary perspectives perforce overlap and become blurred. Many current practices are discernable transformations of traditional activities. For example, the timing and kinds of activities held at Thanksgiving ad Christmas and at the NANA Regional Corporation's annual meeting identify these gatherings as modern counterparts of the fall "kivgiq" or messenger feats and the "katirut" or annual gathering of the members of each of the early 19th century societies. The traditional "qatngut" or trade fair, drawing visitors from as far away as Uelen in Chukotka was held at Sisualik or Kotzebue in early July throughout the 19th century. Visitors from Little Diomede Island continued their trading visits through the 1950s. This traditional meeting of neighbors, partners and kin is now incorporated into the American Fourth of July celebration. Although modern equipment is used, caribou are still killed while crossing the river in the vicinity of Onion Portage, just as they have been for millennia.
The Inupiat residents and neighbors of NOAT are park resources in several real senses. ANILCA-guaranteed subsistence use of parkland resources highlights an ecosystem continuum that includes man. Using the "direct historical method" or "upstreaming", anthropological researches can link the Inupiat users of NOAT to the archeological manifestation known as the "Arctic Woodland Culture" which began about 1250 A.D. Some researchers has extended more tenuous ethnic linkages far back as "Denbigh Flint complex" times, about 4,000 years ago.
In order to identify and evaluate any ethnographic resources within the park units, the Service must work cooperatively with the Inupiat. Place-names, gravesites and old villages acquire meaning and significance through Inupiat traditional knowledge and lore. The function and social context of items of material culture no longer in use may only be understood through the memories of Inupiat Elders. ANILCA recognizes the resource value of local communities to the parks and other conservation units and contains provisions for local hire.
Ethnographic coverage of the region is spotty and only spans the last thirty years. Thirty years ago anthropologists had the opportunity to work with Elders whose grandparents', and in some cases parents', memories of customs and life prior to sustained Euroamerican contacts were clear. According to Burch, who began his research in the region in the 1960s, comprehensive and integrated views of the 19th century no longer may be obtained from single persons, but must be painstakingly reconstructed from bits and patches of information obtained from many persons.
The preceding comment should not be taken mean that opportunities for ethnographic research are absent. Rich data pertaining to the last ninety years is available. For example, several families within the region have four living generations of same-gender adults; comparative generational life histories of families can provide powerful insights into changing values, customs and into changing relations with polities and economies outside the region. Written records of reindeer herding are available from the turn of the century through the 1950s and can be supplemented by personal accounts of living persons who once herded deer. Many people can fully describe the rigors of a subsistence lifestyle before outboard motors, snowmachines, scheduled air traffic, radio and television and jet-delivered groceries, hardware and drygoods.
Two studies that are in preparation should provide excellent ethnoarcheological data as well as baseline data for archeological interpretation. In the early 1980s, NANA commissioned Ernest S. Burch, Jr. to prepare a ten volume encyclopedia for the region. Burch has conducted research on the region for more than thirty years and his unpublished notes and command of the anthropological literature is unequaled. Volume II, Geology, and Volume V, The Inupiaq Nations of Northwest Alaska, have been published. Proposed Volumes VI - X cover ethnographic topics from the early 19th century to the present.
In 1987 ARO-NPS let a three year contract to the University of Alaska Fairbanks to prepare a multiphase ethnographic study of CAKR, KOVA, and NOAT. No final products have been delivered. Apart from a 15,000+ record database documenting placenames, the kinds of products to be delivered and their contents remain negotiable. Hopefully when the project is completed, it will provide a broad framework for organizing the ethnographic data pertinent to the parks, indicate promising research avenues and identify lacunae in the available data to focus future studies.
One of the potentially most productive sources for ethnographic data pertaining to parklands in northwestern Alaska is "Inupiat Ilitqusiat", occasionally referred to as "the Spirit Movement." The purpose of Inupiat Ilitqusiat is cultural revitalization, the celebration of Inupiat Heritage. Funded coordinators for this program are employed by NANA, the Northwest Arctic Borough (NAB), the school district, the regional Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) Council, and Maniilaq. If the NPS works cooperatively with Inupiat Ilitqusiat in identifying and investigating areas of common interest, duplicative efforts will be avoided and resources (personnel and funds) will be used most efficiently.
As one of the longest undisturbed and protected river drainages in the world, NOAT will be the focus of a great deal of research in climate and environment over the next decades. Adding an archeological database to this research will greatly enhance the understanding of anthrogenic changes. This area has also seen many changes over the last 10,000 years that the archeological record would highlight. Only a minor part of the preserve has had an inventory done on it so there is a continuing need for comprehensive survey, inventory, and evaluation.
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