one caribou with fall colors in the background
The fall migration of the caribou is one of the most important events in the yearly subsistence calendar.

NPS Photo/Jon McDonagh

“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

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 willow and birch, 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.

Much has changed since American explorers first ventured up the Kobuk 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. Sheefish and salmon are staples of many Inupiat Eskimos living along the Kobuk River, just like they have always been, and the people of the Kobuk Valley continue to hunt caribou as they cross the river, just as their ancestors have done for at least 9,000 years.

Cluster of red fish eggs
Salmon eggs are nutritious and can be preserved by hanging the masses on old fishing nets to dry in the sun. Residents of the villages around Kobuk Valley National Park harvest many chum salmon to eat throughout the winter.

NPS Photo

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 park, taking advantage of the long hours of sunlight to set nets for salmon and sheefish and pick wild greens and berries on the tundra. Visitors to Kobuk Valley National Park need to be sensitive to these activities and not interfere with the age-old subsistence harvest taking place in the park, especially during the key seasons of summer and fall.

A Living History

The Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA), the legislation that established Kobuk Valley National Park 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. Kobuk Valley National Park does more than protect the land Inupiat people have lived on for generations; it also protects their traditional way of life for future generations.

Provisions in ANILCA established a Subsistence Resource Commission (SRC) for Kobuk Valley National Park, providing a venue for local subsistence users to participate in the management of their land. The Kobuk SRC makes recommendations on hunting and fishing regulations within the park, ensuring that future generations will continue to be able to rely on the bounty of the land for survival.

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 Kobuk Valley to continue to thrive there.


Last updated: October 21, 2022

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