The Inupiat Eskimo of Kaktovik, Alaska

Cultural History

Kaktovik, located just north of the ANWR Coastal Plain on Barter Island, is the only village within the Refuge. Barter Island was an important stop for commercial whalers during the 1890s and early 1900s, but it was not until 1923 that there was a permanent settlement there. In that year, Tom Gordon established a fur trading post for the H.B. Liebes Company of San Francisco. The trading post served as an exchange point for furs and was the beginning of Kaktovik as a permanent settlement. During the years that followed, residents of the region were semi-nomadic, moving from place to place depending on the availability of fish, fur, game, and marine mammals. Today, Kaktovik has approximately 210 residents, most of whom are Inupiat Eskimos whose families have lived in the region for centuries.

Archeological investigations reveal that man has occupied the region for at least 11,000 years. Evidence of man's early presence in the area is sparse, limited to a few archeological sites near the coast. These sites contain artifacts that reflect a hunter-gatherer subsistence economy.

Contact with whalers and traders resulted in replacement of stone and bone implements with knives, axes, and other metal implements. Firearms replaced the bow and arrow and spear. By virtue of their numbers and the fact that many overwintered in the arctic, the whalers had a profound influence on the culture. The whalers brought trade goods, including food, utensils, firearms, and alcohol, which they exchanged for caribou and sheep meat and for winter clothing manufactured from caribou hides.

Stefansson, who explored the region in the early 1900s, noted that although the Inupiat at first had little to do with foods brought in by whalers, they quickly learned to use flour, molasses, and other staples. These foodstuffs first were luxuries and then became necessities.

During the 1890s and early 1900s, Barter Island was a key trading point, and residents of the region came to rely on the ability to obtain trade goods there. With the cessation of whaling for bowheads, in about 1910, the Inupiat experienced the first in a series of boom and bust cycles.

In the 1890s, semi-domesticated reindeer (same species as caribou) were brought to western Alaska from Siberia in order to establish an industry that would provide a more stable economy and would insure against food shortages. In the early 1920s, under the auspices of the Alaska Reindeer Service local superintendent at Barrow, several herds of reindeer were established in the ANWR area. Herders followed their reindeer from the foothills in the winter months to grazing lands near the Beaufort Sea coast during the summer, returning each fall to the foothills. Severe winters during 1936 and 1937 resulted in loss of most of the deer to starvation. Others were killed by people for food and clothing. A Bureau of Indian Affairs survey taken during the spring of 1936 indicated that local residents were destitute and near starvation. In an effort to reestablish the reindeer herds and insure against further food shortages a herd of 3,000 reindeer was driven from Barrow to the Barter Island area in late 1937. As the herd approached Barter Island it turned back toward its home range in Barrow, taking most of the remaining local reindeer with it. The people were so discouraged that they killed the few animals that remained, ending the era of reindeer herding in ANWR.

Beginning in the 1920s fur trapping was a good source of cash income, replacing caribou as a trade good. But the price of fox.fur dropped in the late 1930s, and trading posts along the coast closed one by one. The post at Barter Island closed following Gordon's death in 1938. By 1943 all of the trading posts in the region had been closed and people had to go to Canada to trade. Eventually, several families moved to Canada. Hard times continued in the region until 1945 when the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey began mapping the Beaufort Sea coastline, bringing some wage employment.

Although World War II had little effect on the region, the installation of the Distant Early Warning (DEW Line) system on the island during the 1940s displaced many local residents. In 1947 the U.S. Air Force constructed a runway and hangar on the historic village site, forcing residents to relocate. In 1951, the entire area around Kaktovik was made a military reserve, and some people were required to move again. The village was moved once more in 1964, but this time, residents received title to their village site. Jobs resulting from government activities in the region and the subsequent establishment of a school caused the Barter Island population to increase from less than 50 people in 1950 to approximately 150 in 1953 when several families returned from Canada.


An expanded discussion of Inupiat economic and social life at Kaktovik and other North Slope villages can be found in the History and Cutlture section of Arctic Circle under The Inupiat of Arctic Alaska.


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