The Inupiats lived in northwest and northern Alaska, from about Norton Sound and the Seward Peninsula (with offshore islands) north and east to about the Canadian border, including the North Slope–Barrow region. This is considered to have been one of the world's most productive sea mammal regions. Many Inupiats still live in this area. There were perhaps 9,500 Inupiats in the midnineteenth century. Inupiat people speak dialects of Inupiaq (Inuktitut), an Eskaleut language. Some Bering Strait Inuit speak Yup'ik dialects.
Religious belief was based on the existence of spiritual entities found in nature. In particular, the spirits of game animals allowed themselves to be caught only if they were treated properly. Respect was expressed in behaviors such as maintaining a separation between land and sea hunting, opening the head of an animal just killed to allow its spirit to escape, speaking well of game animals, and offering sea mammals a drink of cold water and land animals knives or needles; respect was also expressed by observing many taboos, rituals, and ceremonies including certain songs and charms.
Among whale hunters, personal spirit songs that were purchased or inherited were used to make the hunt more successful. Whale and caribou hunters and their wives were required to observe many rituals and taboos. Whaling ceremonies along the north coast and caribou ceremonies inland were the most important rituals, representing a sort of world renewal. Male and older female shamans (angakok) provided religious leadership by virtue of their connection with the spirit world. They also participated in regular economic activities.
Nuclear or small extended families were loosely organized into fluid local groups (- miuts) associated with geographical areas. These local groups occasionally came together as small, fluid, autonomous bands (family groups; tribes) of between twenty and 200 bilaterally related people. The bands were also geographically identified but not political entities; their names carried the - miut suffix. People within them depended on each other for subsistence support and spoke the same subdialect. Several distinct societies of bands had formed in the interior north by the midnineteenth century.
Family heads (umialik, literally umiak captain, or whaling leader) were usually older men, with little formal authority and no power. Leaders generally embodied Inuit values, such as generosity, and were also good hunters. Within the context of a basically egalitarian society, they were relatively wealthier (owing to their following) and had more status than other men. Their main responsibilities included directing hunting, trading, and diplomatic activities. The umialik and his wife were also responsible for food redistribution.
Among the northern Inupiats, leaders might also impose their will on women as well. Potential leaders often competed with each other to hold their crews or hunters by such means as wife exchange and gift giving. Additional wives generally meant additional followers, wealth, and power. Leaders there might oversee not only the hunt but also religious ceremonies, festivals, and trade.
The northern Inupiats came together briefly for large hunting (sea and land) forays, but mainly they remained in family groups. The Bering Strait and Kotzebue Sound tribes had principal winter villages. Each had one or more chiefs for each local group residing in the village. The chief(s) and a council oversaw local and intertribal affairs.
Kinship networks were the most important social structure as well as the key to survival in terms of mutual aid and cooperative activity. This arrangement also led to ongoing blood feuds: An injury to one was perceived as an injury to the whole kin group and called for revenge.
Nonkin men teamed up for hunting or trade purposes. Such defined partnerships might include temporary wife exchanges, which were considered a kind of marriage (interestingly, at least among the Bering Strait people, relations considered adulterous were harshly dealt with). "Joking" relationships between unrelated men also furthered mutual aid and support and served to reduce tension and conflict. Nonkin relationships also included adopted people and people who had the same name.
In some Bering Strait Inuit villages, family groups lived on patrilineally inherited plots of land. In larger groups, food was generally turned over to the umialik and his wife, who redistributed it according to various priorities. Generosity was highly valued. When hunters brought in a whale or caribou, no one went hungry. Hard work and individual freedom were other key values, the latter in the context of kinship associations.
Southerners especially celebrated the fall and winter Messenger Feasts, in which a neighboring group was invited to feast and dance. Social status was related to largesse on these occasions, which were similar to potlatches. They brought some north Alaska Inuits together with some Athapaskan Indians.
Marriage was considered to be mainly a kinship-building exercise. Successful hunters might have more than one wife, but most had only one. Divorce, or the end of cohabitation, was easy to obtain, especially before many children had been born. It was also the case that men might try to dominate women, including raping them, in their or another's household. In this endeavor the "bully" was usually backed by members of his kinship group (as, in fact, older women might occasionally, by virtue of their supposed magical powers, capture a young man for a husband).
Infanticide was rare and usually practiced against females. Children were highly valued and loved, especially males. They were raised by the women with a great deal of liberty. Names, usually of dead relatives, were associated with specific food taboos. The sick or aged were sometimes abandoned, especially in times of scarcity. Death was attended by a minimum of ritual. Corpses were removed through skylights and left on the tundra. A mourning period of four or five days ensued, during which all activity ceased, and a feast was often held a year after a relative's death.
The regular winter dwelling was a semiexcavated, domed, driftwood-and-sod house, roughly twelve to fifteen feet long. Moss was placed between the interior walls and the sod for insulation. There was a separate kitchen with a smoke hole and storage niches off the entrance tunnel, which descended into a meat cellar and ended at a well that led up to the main room. The houses held from eight to twelve people (two families). Inside were raised sleeping platforms and suspended drying racks. Stretched gut or ice served as windows.
Some groups also used a dome-shaped wooden structure covered with skins or bark and also temporary snow or ice houses. Interior groups also used willow-frame dome tents covered with caribou skin, bark, or grass. Some Bering Strait people built wood-frame summer houses.
Larger men's houses (kashim) were present in communities with more than a few families. Reserved for men and boys by day, they became a family social center at night. They were also used for ceremonies and other activities and, along the coast, were associated with whaling crews.
The Tareumiuts and some Bering Strait and Kotzebue Sound people depended mainly on marine life such as seals, bowhead and beluga whales, and walrus, whereas the Nuunamiuts hunted mainly caribou. Whale meat was stored in the permafrost and generally provided a reliable food source from season to season. Northern groups hunted whales from umiaks in the spring and seal and walrus through the ice in the winter.
The Kotzebue Sound and some Bering Strait people had a mixed land and marine hunting economy. Game animals included fowl, mountain sheep, bear, wolves, wolverines, hares, squirrels, and foxes. Men and women fished year-round. The Bering Strait and Kotzebue Sound people also gathered a variety of greens, berries, and roots in the summer.
Stone-tipped, toggle-headed harpoons were attached to wooden floats and inflated sealskins to create drag on a submerging whale. Floats were also used to keep a slain whale from sinking before it could be towed to shore.
Hunting equipment included spears, bow and arrow, bolas (strings attached to stone balls to bring down birds), deadfalls, traps, and snares. The atlatl was used to throw sealing darts or harpoons. Fishing equipment included hooks, weirs, nets, traps, and spears. People used a variety of mainly stone and ivory butchering tools; some were fashioned of antler and driftwood as well. The key women's tool was a crescent-shaped knife. The Bering Strait people made some grass baskets and mats.
Boiling pots might be made of driftwood or pottery. Other important items included baleen seal nets; bone needles and sinew thread; carved wooden trays, dishes, spoons, and other objects; a bow drill to start fires and drill holes; sun goggles; and carved soapstone (in the north) or pottery (in the Bering Strait and Kotzebue Sound) cooking pots and lamps (the latter burned seal oil using moss wicks). Local stone around Kotzebue Sound included chert, slate, and jade. There was also some birchbark around Kotzebue Sound that the people made into containers.
The two groups of northern Inupiats were mutually dependent, trading whale products, such as skin, oil, and blubber, for caribou skins on a regular basis. Summer trade fairs were widely attended. The one at Sheshalik, on Kotzebue Sound, may have attracted 2,000 or more people. The other large northern Alaska trade fair was held in Nigalik (Colville River Delta) and was attended by Yup'ik people as well as Athapaskan Indians. In addition to trade, fairs included private contact between various partners, dancing, feasts, and competitions.
Kotzebue trade fairs were also attended by Siberians, who exchanged jade, pottery, reindeer skins, and beads for local products. Native Siberians (Chukchis) also provided Russian goods from the late seventeenth century on.
The basic hunting vehicle was the one- or two-person closed skin kayak. Several men could hunt whales in umiaks (skin-covered open boats with a driftwood frame between fifteen and fifty feet long). Umiaks might also hold 2,000 pounds of cargo. The people also used wooden sleds with iced runners. Dogs pulled (or helped pull) the sleds after about 1500. Some interior people used snowshoes.
Women tanned skins and made sealskin and caribou skin clothing, some with fur trim. In the winter, people wore two suits of parkas and pants: The inner suit was worn with the fur turned in, whereas the outer had the fur turned out. Other winter clothing included mittens and hoods (women's were extra large for carrying babies). Clothing in the Kotzebue Sound area was sewn from untanned skins.
Other items of clothing included skin socks, boots of caribou skin and chewed seal hide soles, and waterproof outer jackets of sewn sea mammal intestine. Men wore labrets, the lip being pierced around puberty. Many women had three lined tattoos down the chin.
Fighting was generally a matter of kin group involvement and remained limited in scope if not in time. Strangers outside the kinship or alliance system were considered potential enemies and could be killed on sight, their goods and women taken. Blood feuds were the result of the lack of overall conflict-resolution structures. Fighting also took place among rival trade groups. Also, territory was defended against neighboring groups.
The historic Nuunamiuts (interior North Alaska people) moved into their region from the south and west from about 1400 through about 1800. Russian explorers and traders arrived in the early to mideighteenth century and remained for the next 100 years or so. Whalers and traders from other countries plied the local waters from about the 1840s (1880s in the far north). Among other things, they introduced alcohol, tobacco, and non-Native diseases. Traditional patterns began to break down as well after that time.
The Nuunamiuts began a sharp decline from the midnineteenth century on, largely owing to disease and starvation (smaller caribou herds). Most families had left the interior by 1820, drawn to the coast, although a few families began moving back around 1840. There were severe epidemics throughout the region in the 1870s and 1880s. A severe famine struck the Kotzebue Sound region in 1880–1881.
Mining began in the Bering Strait area in the 1880s. Meanwhile, imported reindeer herding, fur trapping, missionaries, and schools began to attract people to local settlements from the mid- to late nineteenth century on. Reindeer herding proved ultimately to be unsuccessful in the area. The Nome gold rush of 1898 saw the migration of many Inuits to the Nome area to sell crafts and eventually to work and to attend school. Anti-Inuit sentiment remained strong in Nome for some time thereafter.
Fur traders arrived around 1900, about the time of a severe measles epidemic and the near depletion of the caribou herds. Another severe influenza epidemic struck in 1918. In the early twentieth century, the federal government assumed responsibility for Inuit education. To a greater extent than even the churches, the government increased the pressure to acculturate. For instance, government schools punished people severely for speaking their Native language. The only high schools were located away from Inupiat-speaking centers.
The people experienced a general population growth after World War II, attributable to the return of the caribou, the introduction of moose into the region, and government efforts against disease. The far north took on strategic importance during the Cold War, about the same time that vast mineral reserves became known and technologically possible to exploit. Oil was discovered on the North Slope in 1968. Most of the jobs that Inuits were able to obtain were unskilled and menial. Furthermore, with radical diet changes, the adoption of a sedentary life, and the appearance of drugs and alcohol, their health declined markedly.
In the late 1950s, the Inupiat people began organizing politically in reaction to the U.S. government's threat to use nuclear weapons in the preparation of a deep-water port as well as its bird hunting restrictions. The Seward Peninsula Native Association, Alaska Federation of Natives, Inupiat Paitot, Northwest Alaska Native Association, and North Slope Native Association formed as a result of this activism. Land issues also gave rise to the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) in 1971. The settlement gave the people legal rights to millions of acres of land and shares in corporations worth millions of dollars in exchange for their cession of aboriginal title. Major land conservation laws were enacted in 1980.
In response to severe problems with substance abuse, several communities have restricted or eliminated the sale of alcohol. Other efforts to remedy the problems are ongoing. Severe radioactive pollution exists around the Cape Thompson area, caused by the Atomic Energy Commission's (predecessor to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission) use of the area as a nuclear dump and its conduct of nuclear experiments using local plant and animal life, as well as by Soviet nuclear waste dumping. Negotiations over cleanup are ongoing.
Curricula and in fact the control of education shifted to local authorities beginning in the 1970s. The preservation and instruction of Native culture are part of this effort. Most Inupiat people have access to all modern air and electronic transportation and communication. Most speak English as a first language, although most adults are bilingual.