onion portage caribou
The fall migration of the caribou is one of the most important events in the yearly subsistence calendar.

NPS Photo/Kyle Joly

“I always remember what my grandparents told me about animals. You should not waste them… get only what you need, can eat and use. If we do that, we will have a long life.” – Lulu Foxglove, Selawik, Alaska

Kuuvaŋmiut Subsistence

From time immemorial, the Iñupiaq of Northwest Alaska have made a thriving home in the arctic. The entire ecosystem: sky, sea, and land not only sustain physical needs but also spiritual and cultural needs. The mighty caribou herd and salmon runs continue to provide enough food for people to see their dogs and themelves through the long, lean months of winter. Skins provided warmth for parkas and mukluks. For generations going back at least 9,000 years, the Iñupiat (real people) have hunted moose, caribou, 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 willow and birch, and during the dark days of winter, stone lamps full of caribou tallow or seal oil provided the only light.

Today subsistence activities remain much the same. Most people now reside in permanent villages but continue to spend time at seasonal camps and use snowmachines, motorboats and other equipment to fulfill their subsistence needs. Still, the far north remains a land of plenty.

The first Americans from the lower 48 did not venture up the Kobuk River until 1850, and when they arrived they greatly impacted populations of many species of animals. These drops in population brought about regulatory seasons and bag limits. Despite many changes to both society and ecosystem in a few short generations, subsistence – defined as noncommercial, customary, and traditional use of wild resources – remains an important part of Iñupiaq culture and Kobuk Valley National Park today. As river people, land mammals and fish are staples for the Kuuvaŋmiut (People of the Kobuk River), though trade with coastal communities is common.
caribou fall time
Caribou crossing

NPS Photo

Respect for the ecosystem

Subsistence is more than hunting for recreation, or even food. The gathering and hunting of animals and plants is done with great respect as it fulfills cultural and spiritual needs as well as physical.

Animals give themselves to hunters who follow the traditions of their elders.

The Iñupiat Ilitqusiat is a value system about all things in life, including hunting protocol.This is how knowledge is passed on for the benefit of future generations.

The chart below is a list created by elders from the Native Village of Kiana, located along the Kobuk River. This was written as part of a large region-wide effort on hunter success and tradition sharing. In this list, the elders share how to have a respectful and successful tuttu (caribou) hunt at Paatitaaq (Onion Portage):

Gathering greens

NPS Photo

Seasonal Use

Kobuk River people were alerted to the impending freeze-up when they begin to catch whitefish with thick, rough scales. This is called atigirut or ‘putting on the parka,’ and it is usually discovered a few days before the ice begins to form.” -Anderson et al. 1998:183-184

Subsistence opportunities define the seasons as much as the weather does in Northwest Alaska. Salmon season gives way to caribou season, and people organize their lives accordingly. In the past, family units migrated up and down river and across Noatak Valley as the animal migrations occurred. Today, once school is out, many families leave their homes in villages, and spend summers at subsistence camps along the Kobuk River, taking advantage of the long hours of sunlight to set net for salmon and various whitefish, and to pick wild greens and berries on the blooming tundra.

Visitors to Kobuk Valley National Park are asked to be sensitive to these activities and not interfere with the subsistence harvest taking place in the park, especially during the busy seasons of summer and fall.

To learn more, watch this video, Respect the Land (Kamaksrił̣iq Nunam Irrusianik): Iñupiaq Values and Subsistence Management in Western Arctic National Parklands filmed and directed by Kristen Green, Anne Beaudreau, Savannah Fletcher made with support from: U.S. National Park Service--Western Arctic National Parklands, Ocean Alaska Science and Learning Center (Agreement # P17AC00303); Emmett Family Collaboration Grant, Stanford University; University of Alaska Fairbanks


Last updated: August 4, 2023

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