Walrus Islands Archeological District National Historic Landmark

Photo overlooking vibrant blue waters in Bristol Bay from the top of a very high and steep sea cliff
Round Island (Qayassiq), Walrus Islands Archeological District National Historic Landmark

J.Schaaf/NPS 2008

Quick Facts
Bristol Bay, Alaska
Early migration and cultural development in North America
National Historic Landmark & National Natural Landmark

The Walrus Islands are made up of seven small islands – Qayassiq (“place to go in a kayak”, Round Island), Summit Island (Qilkeq, named after a person in a legend), Crooked Island (Nunalukaq, “land big enough to live on awhile”), High Island (Ingriqvak, “big island”), Black Rock Island (Ingricuar, “small island”, and The Twins islands (Nunevragak, “temporary camping place”). Archeological expeditions in the 1980s found physical evidence of people using the Walrus Islands since ancient times. The archeological sites confirmed what was already documented in oral tradition and writings of European explorers. In the early 2000s, more archeological work found that people have been visiting and occupying the islands at least as far back as 4300 BCE.

The archeological evidence also shows that people have been hunting walrus in Bristol Bay for almost as long, for at least the past 6,000 years. In that time span, Pacific walrus was commercialized in the 19th century, resulting in overhunting from the late 19th century to the early 20th century. The population crash led to a ban on walrus hunting and the establishment of the Walrus Islands State Game Sanctuary in 1960. Tribal hunting rights were restored in 1995 after 35 years of advocacy for the cause and the Qayassiq Walrus Commission was established to co-manage the sanctuaries walrus population along with state and federal wildlife agencies. Walrus hunting in Bristol Bay is a Yup’ik tradition. The tradition conveys important values to the walrus hunters: ethical behavior, sustainable practices, connection to the environment and support for community.

Harvesting walrus is a tradition for many arctic and subarctic communities in Greenland, Russia, Canada, and Alaska. Alaska Native (Yup’ik, Iňupiaq and Unangax) communities in Alaska continue to depend on walrus as an important source of food and material resources. The Marine Mammal Protections Act acknowledges the rights of Alaska Natives to continue harvesting sea mammals for the benefit of their communities. Alaska Natives are the indigenous people of Alaska and are represented by 231 federally recognized tribes. A federally recognized tribe is a Native American or Alaska Native tribal nation with a government-to-government relationship with the United States.

Early Coastal Settlement of Bristol Bay, Alaska 4300 BCE – 1400 BCE

The Walrus Islands Archeological District can be placed in the same category as the Amalik Bay Archeological District National Historic Landmark on the Gulf of Alaska coast of the Alaska Peninsula and Anangula Archeological District National Historic Landmark in the western Aleutians. Together, Anangula, Amalik Bay , and the Walrus Islands represent the earliest known occupations in southewestern Alaska. These archeological districts were established between 6000 BCE and 4300 BCE (8,000 and 6,300 years old) and may be the only remaining archaeological sites that contain evidence of early coastal migrations in Alaska.

The cultural components found at the oldest village site in the Walrus Islands are contemporaneous with the Northern Archaic tradition and the Arctic Small Tool tradition. In archaeology, a cultural component is a distinct area or stratum of a site where the artifacts and features are considered to be a particular period of occupation or cultural group. [The oldest village site in the Walrus Islands was occupied during the Northern Archaic tradition period and Arctic Small Tool tradition period.] The site contains the earliest evidence for marine adaptation in the Bristol Bay region. While Northern Archaic tradition sites and most Arctic Small Tool tradition sites are known for tools and animal remains that indicate a focus on land resources, especially caribou, people in the Walrus Islands were hunting walrus. The Walrus Islands Archeological District sites are an opportunity to better understand the regional expressions of the traditions, the relationship between them, and their origins.

Population Expansion and Technological Innovation In Southwestern Alaska 700 BCE – 1000 BCE

In the Walrus Islands, there are no archaeological sites during the period between 1400 BCE and 700 BCE (3,400 and 2,700 years ago). Archaeologists call this an “occupational hiatus,” but it may not necessarily mean that people were not visiting the Walrus Islands during this time. A hiatus in archaeological sites between the Arctic Small Tool tradition and the Norton tradition is not uncommon in the northern Alaska Peninsula region. Archaeologists are still trying to figure out the details of this shift between the tool traditions. The Norton tradition is characterized by the use of both land and sea resources, larger and more sedentary villages, and more villages on the coast and islands. The Norton tradition is also well known for being the earliest use of pottery in Alaska.

By 300 BCE (2,300 years ago), there were at least 12 semi-permanent Norton tradition villages in the Walrus Islands. Animal remains, stone tools, finely carved ivory objects, charcoal, and wood encased in stratified middens can be found at many of these sites. Some artifacts were made from land mammal bones, such as caribou antler, indicating a relationship with land resources along with sea resources. Archaeologists have many questions about the relationship that the residents of the Walrus Islands had with mainland villages during this time period. Were people moving back and forth between island villages and mainland villages? Were they territories controlled by separate groups with trade relationships? Why did the population increase during this period and what effects did it have on society? The Walrus Islands preserves clues to help answer some of these questions.

Culture Contact and Fusion 1000 CE – 1800 CE

1,000 CE is a pivotal time in Alaska history. The archaeological record shows an increase in migration and trade relationships, an increased use of storing surplus foods, and increased complexity in art and technology across Alaska. At this time in the Walrus Islands, the Norton tradition is followed by the Thule tradition. The Thule tradition originated in the Bering Strait region of the Arctic. The spread of the Thule tradition southward and eastward beginning around 1,000 years ago, is a complex story of migration and the merging of cultures.

Why Were Walrus Over-Hunted?

From the 16th century to the mid-20th century the global fur trade was one of the world’s most profitable industries. Powerful colonial enterprises-- French, Spanish, British, Dutch, and Russian-- were in a global competition for animal furs.

Initially, walrus was not as highly sought after commercially as other species. However, as the whale population was depleted in the mid-1800s, walrus oil, ivory, hides, and meat became highly profitable commodities. It is estimated that over 200,000 Pacific walruses were commercially harvested between 1869 and 1880, bringing the species to the brink of extinction.

The Walrus Islands State Game Sanctuary was established in 1960 to protect wildlife. At this time, walrus hunting was banned at Round Island (Qayassiq), the main Walrus Islands haul out and traditional hunting ground. When the Marine Mammal Protection Act was passed in 1972, Alaska Native communities could hunt walrus, but hunting was still banned at Qayassiq. Attempting to capture walrus outside of their haul outs was often a disaster for the hunters and walrus alike.

Return of Alaska Native Hunting Rights: Wildlife Management and the Qayassiq Walrus Commission

Bristol Bay’s Alaska Native tribes, various state and federal agencies, the Eskimo Walrus Commission, the Nushagak Fish and Game Advisory Committee, and the National Wildlife Federation formed a special task force to first, study the benefits and impact of Alaska Native walrus hunting in Bristol Bay and the Walrus Islands; and second, to outline a plan that would allow the Togiak Traditional Council, the State of Alaska, and the federal government to oversee the Walrus Islands Sanctuary walrus population and to regulate Alaska Native hunting together. After years of public pleas through letters and petitions to the State of Alaska, in addition to the reoccurrence of occasional unauthorized walrus hunts by Alaska Natives at the sanctuary, the state was spurred to seriously consider the joint management proposals put together by the special task force. The state restored Alaska Native hunting at Qayassiq in March of 1995 and the first jointly managed walrus hunt occurred the following October.

Seven Alaska Native tribes in the Bristol Bay region formed the Qayassiq Walrus Commission to represent their shared interests in preserving walrus and walrus hunting. The QWC and their government partners work together to identify and improve conditions for walrus at the sanctuary. They developed hunting guidelines to reduce losses and increase the retrieval rate of animals shot; elders also advised that fewer animals would be lost if younger people received instruction in traditional hunting. The Commission’s guidelines aimed to reduce disturbance to the walrus, including limiting the number of people participating in a hunt. The Commission also strove to accommodate the needs of Yupiit without walrus hunting traditions who wanted to participate in the hunt.

The Status of Pacific Walrus Today

Determining the Pacific walrus population is challenging for biologists because walrus live in remote areas and spend much of their time underwater. Aerial surveys of Pacific walrus began in 1975. The US Fish & Wildlife Service estimated in 2009 that there are about 200,000 Pacific walruses in the wild. Currently, Pacific walrus are most threatened by the disappearance of sea ice haul outs due to climate change.

More Information

"Walrus Hunting at Togiak, Bristol Bay, Southwest Alaska," by Jim Fall, Molly Chythlook, Janet Schichnes, and Rick Sinnott in 1991, Technical Paper No. 212 for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. 

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Last updated: April 1, 2021