Caribou swim across a river

Always moving as a group, this herd of caribou take the plunge and swim across the Noatak River, heading south for the winter.

NPS Photo


“For our children and their children, we know how important it is to feed from our land… Our foods define who we are, connect us to the land and keep our culture alive.” – Julia Jones Anausuk Stalker, Kotzebue, Alaska

An Age-Old Tradition

From time immemorial, the Inupiat people of Northwest Alaska have relied on the land to sustain them. The mighty caribou herd and salmon runs provided enough food to see their dogs and them through the long, lean months of winter. They hunted moose, bear, wolf and wolverine from wooden sleds pulled by teams of domesticated dogs and weathered the harsh Arctic winters in parkas made of caribou hide. Food was stored in baskets made from wild grass, and during the dark days of winter, stone lamps full of caribou tallow or seal oil provided the only light. To the Inupiat, the far North was a land of plenty.

five ducks flying in a v formation

Waterfowl such as these Red-breasted Merganser ducks are an important source of food for local people who collect their eggs and hunt the birds for meat.

NPS Photo

Much has changed since American explorers first ventured up the Noatak River in 1850, but the people of Northwest Alaska still rely on the land to survive. Subsistence – noncommercial, customary and traditional use of wild resources – remains an important part of Inupiaq culture today. Caribou, arctic char, salmon and waterfowl are staples for many Inupiat Eskimos living along the Noatak River, just like they have always been.

Seasonal Use

Subsistence defines the seasons as much as the weather in Northwest Alaska. Salmon season gives way to caribou season, just as sure as summer is followed by fall, and people organize their lives accordingly. Many families leave their homes in the nearby villages and spend their summers at subsistence camps in the preserve, taking advantage of the long hours of sunlight to set nets for salmon and char and pick wild greens and berries on the tundra. Visitors to Noatak National Preserve need to be sensitive to these activities and not interfere with the age-old subsistence harvest taking place in the preserve, especially during the key seasons of summer and fall.

A Living History

The Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA), the legislation that established Noatak National Preserve and many other Alaskan national parks, specifically protects subsistence harvest by local residents. Subsistence is vital to the everyday survival of many rural Alaskans. It preserves both the traditional way of life and generations of accumulated knowledge in Northwest Alaska. Noatak National Preserve does more than protect the land Inupiat people have lived on for generations; it also protects their traditional way of life for future generations.

In Northwest Alaska, subsistence is more than a tradition – it’s a way of life. Stores are often under stocked, and the food they do sell is expensive. The food provided by the river and tundra not only preserves a cultural tradition that dates back thousands of years, but allows the first people of the Noatak River to continue to thrive there.

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