The Ingalik shared the eastern parts of their traditional territory—the banks of the Anvik, Innoko, Kuskokwim, Holitna, and lower Yukon Rivers—with the Kuskowagamiut Inuits. The land consists of river valleys as well as forest and tundra. The Holikachuks, a related though distinct people, lived to their north. There were between 1,000 and 1,500 Ingaliks in the nineteenth century. Ingaliks speak a Northern Athapaskan language. However, by the later twentieth century most Kuskokwim Ingaliks spoke the language of their Kuskowagamiut Inuit relatives.
Everything, animate or inanimate, was thought to have spirits. The Ingalik universe consisted of four levels, one higher and two lower than earth. Spirits of the dead might travel to any of the levels, depending on the method of death. A creator, spirits associated with nature, and various spiritual and superhuman beings, as well as people, inhabited the four worlds.
Most ceremonies were designed to maintain equilibrium with the spirit world. They included the two- to three-week Animals ceremony, the Bladder ceremony, the Doll ceremony, and four potlatch-type events with other villages. The single-village Bladder and Doll ceremonies involved paying respects to animal spirits and learning the future. Of the potlatch ceremonies, the Midwinter Death potlatch was the most solemn. Accompanying this ceremony was the so-called Hot Dance, a night of revelry.
The feast of the animals, involving songs, dances, costumes, and masks, was most important. Major roles were inherited. It involved a ritual enactment of hunting and fishing, with a clown providing comic relief. Other, more minor, ceremonies involved sharing food and occurred at life cycle events and on occasions such as eclipses.
Songs, or spells—which could be purchased from older people—helped keep the human, animal, and spiritual worlds in harmony. Songs were also associated with amulets, which could be bought, inherited, or made. Male and female shamans were said to have more powerful souls than other people. They acquired their powers through animal dream visions. Shamans' powerful songs, or spells, could be used for good or evil.
Each of four geographical groups contained at least one village that included a defined territory, and a chief society was divided into ranked status groups or social classes known as wealthy, common people, and idlers. People in the first group were expected to be generous with their surpluses and held potlatches as a redistributive method. The idlers were considered virtually unmarriageable; however, the classes tended to be fluid and were noninherited. Wealth consisted mostly of fish but also of items such as furs, meat, and any particularly well wrought item, such as a carved bowl, a canoe, or a drum.
Ingaliks often intermarried with, and borrowed culturally from, the nearby Inuits. Marriage depended in part on the ability of the man to perform bride service. With a first wife's permission, a wealthy man might have two wives. Both parents observed food and behavioral restrictions for at least three weeks following a birth. Young women endured segregation for a year at the onset of adolescence, during which time they mastered all the traditionally female tasks. The Ingaliks were a relatively peaceful people.
Punishments for inappropriate social behavior, such as theft, included banishment or death. This was a group decision, on the part of the men and older women, whereas murder required individual blood revenge. Corpses were placed in wooden coffins and buried in the ground or in vaults. Cremation was practiced on rare occasions. The dead's personal property was disposed of. Following funerals, the people observed a twenty-day mourning period and often held memorial potlatches.
Ingaliks maintained summer and winter villages, as well as canoe or spring camps. The winter dwelling was dome shaped and covered with earth and grass. Partially underground, it housed from one to three nuclear families. Ten to twelve such houses made up a winter village. Men used a larger, rectangular, semisubterranean communal house for sleeping, eating, working, sweating, and conducting ceremonies. This kashim was adapted from their Yup'ik neighbors.
Canoe camps, containing cone-shaped spruce pole and bough shelters, were built while people went in search of fresh fish. Summer houses were built of spruce plank, spruce bark, or cottonwood logs. There were also gabled-roof smoke houses and fish-drying racks. Temporary brush houses were located away from the village.
Among most groups, fish were the most important part of the diet. The people also ate a variety of large and small animals. Caribou, hunted by communal surround, were the most important. Others included moose, bear, sheep, and numerous fur-bearing animals, especially hare. Ingaliks also ate birds, mainly waterfowl, and their eggs, as well as berries and other plant foods. "Ice cream," a mixture of cottonwood pods, oil, snow, and berries, was eaten ceremonially and with some restrictions on who could receive it from whom.
Ingaliks moved around in birchbark canoes and on sleds and snowshoes. They did not trade extensively because they possessed rich natural resources. When they exchanged goods, it was mostly with Inuit groups, exporting wooden bowls, wolverine skins, and furs for seal products and caribou hides. They might also trade furs, wolverine skins, spruce gum, and birchbark canoes for fish products and dentalia.
Most clothing was made from squirrel and other skins. Shirts and pants were common, as were parkas. Women's moccasins were attached to their pants; the men's were separate. Personal adornment included dentalium earrings and nose and neck decorations.
The people probably originated in Canada. They were driven west by the Crees to settle in present-day Alaska around 1200. They encountered Russian explorers in 1833. A trade post was constructed either around then or in 1867. There were Russian Orthodox missionaries in the region during that period. The major epidemics began in 1838–1839.
Steamboats began operating on the Yukon, expanding the fur trade, beginning in about 1867, the year the United States took possession of Alaska. Catholic and Anglican missionaries arrived in the 1880s and soon opened boarding schools. The caribou disappeared in the 1870s, leading to even more fishing and closer ties with the Kuskowagamiut Inuits. Non-Natives flooded into the region during the Yukon gold rush of the late 1890s. Most Ingaliks had accepted Christianity by the midtwentieth century.
For most people, life still revolves around the seasons. Frame or log houses have replaced traditional structures. Although many people struggle with a number of social problems related to high unemployment and cultural upheaval, and the people retain little aboriginal culture, traditional values remain palpable among the Ingaliks.