Rachel Riley

Rachel Riley as a child, black and white photograph
Rachel Riley as a child in 1949 at the second school event held at Tulugak Lake, soon after completing The Long Walk as an eight-year-old girl.

University of Alaska-Fairbanks Archives

Rachel Sisoulik Riley was born in 1941 and passed away in 2015. She was born along the Killik River, about 70 miles west of Anaktuvuk Pass. As only an eight-year-old child, Rachel joined her family and Nunamiut people to complete The Long Walk - a foot journey over the trail-less, undeveloped route from the Killik to Anaktuvuk Pass over a few weeks time. This journey marked a major and permanent move by several families from the Killik River area to Anaktuvuk Pass, the final destination of the previously nomadic Nunamiut people.

Rachel grew up with and survived on caribou, of which she said, "Caribou, caribou, caribou! We used caribou skin for our clothes, caribou meat for our food, and caribou broth for our drink. I never get tired of caribou."

Rachel's most prominent role in the only predominantly-Nunamiut village that ever existed in the United States (inland Inupiat people were semi-nomadic) and then as a Nunamiut elder was as an Inupiaq language teacher at the Anaktuvuk Pass school. She was passionate about preserving Inupiaq language and culture and she helped the North Slope Borough School District create educational literature in Inupiaq.

 
Anauktuvuk Pass Nunamuit masks on display
Anauktuvuk Pass Nunamiut masks on display

NPS Photo

Each year, Rachel would join her students on a school camping trip to learn about the traditional knowledge and practices surrounding caribou—hunting, skinning, butchering, preparing skins, sewing, etc. Rachel acted as a teacher of these traditional skills, passing on her knowledge to the students.

Rachel was also a skilled sewer and maker of the caribou skin masks that originated in Anaktuvuk Pass in the 1950's. These masks are still made today by drying caribou skins over a wooden frame to make the facial features and sold as income to support the traditional remote lifestyle.

Throughout her life, and especially as an elder, Rachel was one of the leading advocates for the continuing knowledge and practice of the traditional Nunamiut culture.

 
Rachel Riley at a Gates of the Arctic Subsistence Resource Commission meeting
Rachel Riley at a Gates of the Arctic Subsistence Resource Commission meeting

NPS Photo

For sixteen years, Rachel served on the Gates of the Arctic National Park Subsistence Resource Commission, from 1999 to 2015. She was graciously willing to share her subsistence knowledge with National Park Service staff and provided a connection between the western culture and the Nunamiut way of life.

Last updated: July 31, 2020

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