Part of a series of articles titled Alaska Park Science - Volume 20, Issue 2. Beringia: A Shared Heritage.
Alisa Chen, Student Conservation Association
Caelie Butler, Portland State University
Justin Junge, National Park Service
In Kotzebue, Alaska, community members come together every other summer to host Qatŋut, a cultural celebration rooted in one of the oldest and largest gatherings in Iñupiaq country: the Sisualik Trade Fair. Qatŋut today is the result of a cultural revitalization effort in 1996, led by Iñupiaq leaders, which set out to improve current life and wellbeing through a relearning of Native traditions in response to social ills brought by ongoing colonization (McNabb 1991, NPS 2019). Trade fair organizers searched for an Iñupiaq term to describe the event, initially calling it Kattivik, and settling on Qatŋut, which translates to a gathering of people from different nations (Burch 2006). In 2019, the National Park Service (NPS) joined the Tribal leaders of the northwest Arctic in planning and carrying out the event, while at the same time researching the history of the Sisualik Trade Fair and adding to the oral history record.
The past and present prominence of the Sisualik Trade Fair in international networks of economic, social, and cultural exchange is evident in archaeological research (Giddings and Anderson 1986), ethnohistoric accounts (Lucier and Vanstone 1992, Burch 2005) and oral histories (Green and Abbott 1959, Seveck et al. 1973, Sykes 1996, Hamilton 2005). The trade fair took place annually until the late 1800s at Sisualik (also spelled Sheshalik, Sesolik, and Sesualik by different sources), a fishing camp and traditional settlement located on the northern coastline of Kotzebue Sound at the confluence of the Noatak, Kobuk, and Selawik Rivers, and since the passing of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA 1980), within the boundary of Cape Krusenstern National Monument (NM). The biennial celebration of Qatŋut is an opportunity for the NPS to preserve and interpret historic Native culture alongside the Iñupiat as is mandated in the enabling legislation for Cape Krusenstern National Monument (ANILCA, Title II). The fair is a cultural exchange and heritage preservation project supported by the NPS Shared Beringia Heritage Program (SBHP).
This study focuses on interviews with seven participants and organizers of 2019 Qatŋut. The interviewees shared stories about Qatŋut that had been passed on to them, as well as their experiences with the fair. The combined record substantiates the continuity of Qatŋut: every generation of Iñupiat has celebrated Qatŋut. The history of the event is entwined with colonization; despite this, Qatŋut is continually revitalizing trade, dance, and connections between Inuit nations.
History of the Trade Fair
The archaeological record shows that trade networks have connected the ancestral Iñupiat of Northwest Alaska to distant parts of Alaska, Siberia, Europe, and Asia for well over two thousand years (Cooper et al. 2015, Rasic 2016). Sisualik was the site of one of several major trade fairs that occurred throughout the year (Figure 1). While the majority of written accounts describing the Sisualik Trade Fair are from the 19th and 20th centuries, local oral tradition and archaeological findings both suggest the event predates the colonial period; an archaeological field survey at Sisualik identified evidence of the trade fair dating to the late Thule period (1400-1750 CE; Giddings and Anderson 1986).
In the 18th century, the 15 Iñupiaq nations that inhabited Northwest Alaska and the Seward Peninsula incorporated the trade fair into their seasonal patterns of hunting and gathering. The fair drew in people from outside Northwest Alaska, including Chukchi and Siberian Yupik from across the Bering Strait, the Iñupiat of the North Slope, the Koyukon Athabascans, and Yup’ik traders from south of the Seward Peninsula. As many as 22 nations participated in some years, bringing up to 2,000 people through Sisualik for trade and celebration (Burch 2005). The trade fair usually took place from late June to August but was subject to the break-up of river and ocean ice, which often determined the seasonal harvest patterns of each group in attendance (Figure 2).
In the 19th century, Russia and the U.S. expanded fur trade across the Bering Strait. At the same time, scarcity and famine in Northwest Alaska impacted the existing trade routes (Burch 2005, Grover 2016). Trade relations shifted away from inland-coastal exchanges to focus on trade with outside merchants (Foote 1961). In 1884, the Trade Fair was held on the shore of Baldwin Peninsula, what would become the village of Kotzebue, so that the large foreign trade ships could participate (Burch 2005). This era was characterized by massive economic and social changes; the Sisualik Trade Fair was transformed in-kind.
In the late 19th century, Christian missionaries also used the trade fair to preach to a large audience of Iñupiat (Burch 1994a). Uyaraq, one of the first Iñupiaq people to be converted, reached many others by preaching at the trade fair in 1896. Quaker missionaries, who would build the church in Kotzebue, arrived in July of 1897. Upon their arrival, they
... found natives gathered from all parts of this northern country—from as far south as what is now Nome, from Point Hope on the north, from Siberia on the west, and from Koyukuk on the east (Burch 1994a).
While the missionaries were welcomed, they responded harshly to Iñupiaq cultural practices like dancing, connecting it to devil worship and banning it from the church community (NPS 2019).
Because the suppression of cultural practices impacted many families, the oral history record of the trade fair in the 20th century is unclear. The record suggests the trade fair continued in Kotzebue in some form because respondents as old as 80 years old remember continued celebration of the event. The Kotzebue Sound Iñupiat continued to gather and celebrate in July when the ice cleared and perhaps a connection to a uniquely Iñupiaq Fourth of July celebration was beneficial, Martha Siikauraq Whiting shared:
Our people got together to celebrate in the summertime with a big celebration. And then we got together in the wintertime to celebrate as well. And it just so happens that it coincides with Independence Day and the Christmas holidays. But our people have been celebrating those times. (NPS 2019).
In 1996, local organizations joined together to bring dance groups from tribes throughout the region traditionally associated with Qatŋut to Kotzebue. Maija Katak Lukin, former superintendent for Western Arctic National Parklands, was a part of the 1996 effort and links several major events in the late 20th century as the catalysts for revitalization:
It was sort of just momentum from the Alaska Native Claim Settlement Act, then the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, and then the Spirit Movement, and then taking Qatŋut and just trying to get back what we lost when this area was colonized (NPS 2019).
In the last 25 years, rekindling relationships with relatives in Chukotka is one of the highlights of the modern Qatŋut. The Cold War cut off most interactions between Russian and Alaskan Natives, severing cultural and familial ties. Contact between Natives of the two countries did not resume until after the fall of the Soviet Union. The ties are strengthening now, a dance group from Uelen participates in Qatŋut whenever travel is possible, either crossing the Bering Strait by boat or chartered plane.
Local organizations such as the Tribal Government, Borough government, NANA (Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act corporation) and Maniilaq (Tribal health care provider) work together to support the logistics of the event, with assistance from the NPS. The 2019 Qatŋut, held in Kotzebue, Alaska, had the theme Celebrating Through Changes. Dancers from Noatak, Nome, Wainwright, Utqiagvik, and Kotzebue performed traditional Iñupiaq dances. There were tables for artists to sell their crafts. People competed for best hand sewn parka, fastest to fillet a fish, as well as competing in World Eskimo Indian Olympic (WEIO) events. The final event was a potluck with foods brought and shared from all the communities. Although the event has taken on different forms over time due to the significant social and economic changes brought about by colonization, the central themes of trade, dance, and connection persist.
Trade is an integral part of past and present celebrations of Qatŋut. As Iñupiaq culture has changed, the goods traded have changed in response to colonization. For pre-contact communities around Kotzebue Sound, trade was predominately based on the exchange of non-local goods, such as raw materials, finished items, furs, and subsistence foods (Table 1). Through these long-established trade networks, the Iñupiat also gained access to Asian and European trade goods prior to widespread European contact in Alaska (Grover 2016). The rise of the international fur trade further integrated non-local technologies and materials into Iñupiaq trade networks, with the goods exchanged at Siberian trade fairs flowing across the Bering Strait into Northwest Alaska, where they were exchanged at Sisualik for local and European items (Bockstoce 2009).
|Koyukuk River, Lake Krasnoye
|Griffen et al. 1969, Slobodina et al. 2008
|15th - 18th centuries
|Norton Sound, North Slope, Kobuk Valley
|17th - 19th centuries
|Non-local clays identified, changes in decorative types
|Anderson et al. 2011, Lucier and Van Stone 1992
|Asia, possibly China
|Cooper et al. 2016
|Cooper et al. 2016
Some of the European goods traded at Sisualik and Kotzebue in the 19th century included glass beads, metal pots and kettles (Lucier and Van Stone 1992), tobacco, coffee, alcohol, flour, sugar, guns, and knives (Bockstoce 2009). In an interview, Maija Katak Lukin discussed Russian items traded with her ancestors: cotton flour sacks were used to make atikluks for summertime. These items were either received directly from Europeans, who sailed to the trade fair and anchored just off the coast, or from traders arriving from the Russian side of the strait. In return for these goods, Europeans wanted whalebone, ivory, and furs, including marten, fox, and beaver (Bockstoce 2009).
Exchanges between inland Iñupiat, Yup’ik, and Athapaskan people played an important role in the Sisualik Trade Fair, especially in the period before significant European contact. The 2019 interviewees gave detailed insight into items traded by coastal communities and agreed with the older record that marine mammal products were essential. Sara Evak, interviewed in 1996, explained:
Those from the coast had seal oil, ugruk (bearded seal) skins for mukluk bottoms and skin ropes, natchiq (seal) skins for waterproof mukluks, these are items for trading and from upriver, skins like beavers and other kinds of items like birch bark and lots of other variety of things (Sykes 1996).
Caribou hides were perhaps the most common trade item provided by inland hunters, along with dried fish, birch bark baskets, Dall sheep horns, chert for stone tools, and other furs (Burch 1994b).
Today, much of the same resources are celebrated and exchanged at the contemporary Qatŋut. Craftsmanship from traditional materials and designs is promoted within craft competitions and niqipiaq (traditional foods) competitions. In addition to showcasing these historic skills, Qatŋut invites vendors from across the region to sell handmade items such as art, jewelry, and food. One 2019 interviewee also saw an opportunity for trade:
My daughter was selling a bunch of stuff. And I told her if you could trade for earrings and anything, trade for whatever you want (NPS 2019).
The potluck is the culminating event of Qatŋut and provides an opportunity for attendees to exchange traditional food products that are not usually accessible to everyone, such as maktak (bowhead whale) from Utqiaġvik, or akutuq made from blackberries and muskox fat sourced from a family hunting camp located within Cape Krusenstern NM. Plastic buckets of seal oil made in Kotzebue are placed out for attendees to add the nutritious and tasty staple to all their soups and meats.
When asked about the origins of Qatŋut, the leader of the Kotzebue Northern Lights Dancers, Martin Woods, shared a story about the first Iñupiaq celebration. In the story, the Eagle Mother teaches an Iñupiaq hunter how to hold a feast, make a drum, and dance, then instructs him to share this knowledge with his community to avoid future harm (NPS 2019).
Dance forms an integral part of Iñupiaq cultural life. The dances are specific to each community. Many tell stories, while others are performed to welcome guests. In the earlier days of the Sisualik Trade Fair, people went out to greet the arrival of every new boat with dancing. Dances and athletic competitions went on throughout the duration of the gathering (Burch 2005). The significance of dancing to the Iñupiaq celebration suggests that the Christian ban on dancing during the 20th century would have impacted the Trade Fair greatly. The revitalization of Iñupiaq dance parallels the revitalization of Qatŋut because the exchange of Iñupiaq dance has kept the tradition alive.
The oral history does not describe the Trade Fair in detail during the 20th century. In 2019, four of seven interviewees spoke of how dancing was suppressed by the Quaker church and revitalized in recent years. One individual explained that she did not participate in Qatŋut because of growing up in the church. Another of the eldest interviewees, Willie Arġaġiaq Goodwin, shared
My generation is the one that suffered the most because we didn’t learn how to dance (NPS 2019).
Traditional dancing was never fully eradicated in Kotzebue due to continued cultural exchange with other communities, established under different Christian missions, which did not experience the same cultural losses. Individuals from Point Hope and Kivalina relocated to Kotzebue or worked in Kotzebue seasonally and taught and performed Native dance (Seveck et al. 1973, Green and Abbot 1959). One such individual is Paul Aġnik Green who moved to Kotzebue from Kivalina in 1938 when there was very little Iñupiaq dance. He started teaching his relatives and community members at the school house:
Every year at Kotzebue we make new Eskimo song and put new motion dance on them (Green and Abbot 1959).
As a result, Kotzebue residents began practicing Iñupiaq dance again, forming a dance group called the Qikiqtaġruk Northern Lights Dancers in the 1990s. This group held regular performances at the NANA Museum of the North and continue to attend Qatŋut today, still performing the dances developed by Paul Aġnik Green, and the dances of Kivalina and Point Hope (Hamilton 2005).
The intergenerational effects of the suppression of dance by the Quaker Church are still felt. One of the organizers, Martha Siikauraq Whiting, told the story of her mother refusing to allow her to dance throughout her childhood and her feelings participating in Qatŋut now:
I’m almost free… to dance like my forefathers are watching. I’m not there yet. I still feel stiff. You know, I still don’t feel like I’m wide open to dance (NPS 2019).
Today, there is dancing on all three days of Qatŋut, providing visiting dance groups opportunities to perform multiple times. This cultural exchange helps to share and rebuild knowledge lost during the upheavals of colonization. In the case of the Chukchi dance groups attending Qatŋut since the 1990s, they bring dances and other cultural practices that have been forgotten by the Kotzebue Sound Iñupiat (Hamilton 2005). Reclaiming traditional dance has become one of the central parts of the broader Iñupiaq cultural revival movement, aided by the dance exchange that takes place at Qatŋut every other summer.
They welcomed relatives and everyone here with their open hospitality. Bonds were strong among our Iñupiaq forefathers, said Lena Suuyuk Sours of Kotzebue, who lived from 1883-1993 (NPS 2019). Connections between Indigenous peoples attending Qatŋut have adapted and endured. Interviewees in the 2019 study shared stories about seeing family members at Qatŋut and hosting attendees in their homes (NPS 2019). During Qatŋut, connections are still created through international travel and relationships are still maintained through trade of goods as well as dance and competitions.
Prior to the 1800s, trade routes were part of a yearly subsistence cycle. In one example of a route traveled to the trade fair, members of the Napaaqtaġmiut and Qikiqtaġruŋmiut journeyed down the coast from their sealing camps at Rabbit Creek (Figure 2). They would stop at the numerous settlements that dotted the shores of present day Cape Krusenstern NM to collect people from different nations headed to the trade fair, forming a large flotilla with the umiat (skin boats) by the time they reached Sisualik (Burch 1994b).
Vika Owens described travelling to Alaska in 1994. They started out in Uelen, Russia, travelling first to Little Diomede, then Shishmaref, and then to Kotzebue. In each community they stopped to dance and visit. Owens explains:
It took us three days, and all the three days we slept in the boat, and it was calm, [like] glass. All those three days. It was nice weather. When we came to Kotzebue, it was real nice. People, lots of people were on the beach where there were dancers meeting us. We started dancing with them, it was a real nice warm welcome (Hamilton 2005).
The structure of trade relationships also reflected this emphasis on connection. The exchange of goods took place between individuals instead of nations, making partnerships—known long ago as niiviq— central to the Sisualik Trade Fair (Burch 2006) and expanding relationships across regions. Partnerships were often developed between people living in different ecological zones, such as coastal and inland. These expanded relationships allowed participants to procure scarce or regionally unavailable materials (Burch 2006). Willie Arġaġiaq Goodwin provided a story about the trade partnerships forming and special requests. In the story, a person from Diomede, an island with no trees, met with an upriver inland trader and requested that he bring tree gum to the trade fair the following year so that the Diomeder’s granddaughter could have a taste. Willie described the gratitude for the trade made that following year:
The Diomeder took him to his boat and he had all these pokes of seal oil and walrus and ugruk and seal, and he was so happy for the tree gum that he told the guy from the upper Kobuk: “take whatever you want!” (NPS 2019).
The exchange of goods and ideas is very much alive in the modern celebration of Qatŋut. Lena Suuyuk Hanna commented on the bonds formed during Qatŋut that maintain Iñupiaq cultural practices such as sewing.
We have family that comes from Canada, which has happened before. It’s good to meet new people and get ideas on how they make their parkies and I get a lot of ideas from ladies that come in with their regalia. And I love to skin sew (NPS 2019).
Analysis of interviews completed in 2019, along with past oral history, ethnographic, and archaeological research, suggest that Qatŋut has been taking place continually for at least 2,000 years. The focus of the most recent research was to understand the experience of participants and organizers, their knowledge of the history of Qatŋut, and how the event has changed. The results showed that trade, dance, and connection between Inuit communities has changed significantly and remains the motivation for this event. Interviewees shared visions of future Qatŋut celebrations and there is much still to document about the heritage of the Sisualik Trade Fair.
Our research was limited to the organizers and participants from the host community of Kotzebue. The oral history could be extended by interviewing dancers and crafters from participating communities, as the event has significance for up to 22 traditionally associated groups (Burch 2005). To better understand relationships across the Bering Strait in particular, we recommend partnering with Russian researchers.
The 20th century celebration of Qatŋut is still a gap in the record. Several 2019 interviewees said they did not participate in Qatŋut until later in their life due to discouragement from the Quaker Church. The literature review gives some clues as to how dance and the trade fair continued through the period of cultural suppression. More specific questions about that time-period as well as interviewees from a variety of communities could fill in the timeline.
Some have called for Qatŋut to physically return to Sisualik and an attempt was made in the 2000s. Martha Siikauraq Whiting spoke of the potential significance:
We almost did go back to the homeland of the original trade fair to really make it more like a trade fair where we’re dancing, celebrating, trading (NPS 2019).
The future of Qatŋut will be determined by the contributing organizations led by the Iñupiat. There will continue to be opportunities for NPS to support a living cultural event that perpetuates many ethnographic resources. NPS support can range from funding travel through grants, planning logistics, offering housing, and further cultural research.
This research was supported by the Shared Beringian Heritage Program, the Ocean Alaska Science and Learning Center, Maija Lukin as the Western Arctic National Parklands Superintendent, and, most importantly, by the Qatŋut planning committee. Thank you to Maija Lukin, Siikauraq Whiting, Linda Joule, and Nikki Braem for reviewing an earlier draft of this article.
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Last updated: January 31, 2022