The changes in living patterns in Kaktovik have been primarily the result of changes in the economy. Traditionally, Inupiat have had a subsistence economy, in which small bands of people harvested plants and animals for food and for raw materials. Typically, all members of the band shared in the system, and in this respect the Inupiat culture was communal. Contact with Western Civilization, however, changed the nature of the Inupiat economic system.
Four distinct waves of economic activity have passed through the region between 1890 and 1975-whaling, trapping, reindeer herding, postwar construction. More recently, oil and gas development and the North Slope Borough capital improvement program have increased economic activity. Throughout these changes, the Inupiat have retained strong ties to the land. The people have continuing links to their natural surroundings, not only to provide food and the raw materials for clothing, tools, and other items, but also to set the defining patterns of their culture-seasonally, socially, and ceremonially.
Despite an ability to adopt and incorporate many elements of Western culture, technology, and economy into their lifestyle, the great majority of Inupiat still participate in subsistence activities as hunters and as sponsors and sharers of the hunt. North Slope residents have made it very clear that this is both necessary and preferred for economic, social, and cultural reasons.
For most Inupiat, life without Native foods is unthinkable. Native people believe that without traditional ties to nature, the Inupiat social and economic patterns would have no basis. The use of wildlife for subsistence makes it necessary for the Natives to live in small villages. The area around larger villages may become overhunted, forcing residents to range farther and farther in search of wildlife and other subsistence resources.
Preservation of subsistence resources and access to them has been identified as a high priority of North Slope residents. A 1977 survey indicated that about 80 percent of Eskimo households on the North Slope obtained at least some of their food through personal hunting and fishing; 40 percent indicated that they got half or more of their total household food through hunting and fishing. Sharing of subsistence resources is especially important; 75 percent reported they had obtained some wild game and fish from other households. Well over 90 percent of the Inupiat residents regularly consume wild foods, regardless of their source.
Kaktovik residents use Dall sheep, caribou, fish, seals, whales, birds and eggs, moose, and fur bearers. The relative importance of each resource and the intensity of hunting or gathering at particular sites varies significantly from year to year. Whaling is particularly important. Kaktovik residents hunt bowhead whales near the village each fall mainly during September and October.
The village of Kaktovik in 1995
Further discussion of Kaktovik's changing subsistence patterns can be found in Arctic Circle's ethnographic portrait of The Inupiat of Arctic Alaska,
Alaska Town Split Over Drilling in Wildlife Refuge Washington Post [April 23, 2005]