"My major focus lay in contemporary change........."
Eight months previously I met Margaret Lantis, a highly respected Arctic anthropologist who had recently returned from a trip to Alaska for the U.S. Public Health Service. Fascinated by the account of her experience, I told her of my long-term desire to learn about the North and its people. Did she have any suggestions? Would she help?
After obtaining a small research grant, I followed her suggestion that I spend the summer at Kaktovik, a small village on Barter Island that she had visited briefly. She was especially struck by the people she had met there and how well they were responding to the rapid changes occurring in the area. Kaktovik [or Qaaktugvik, "seining place"], as I soon learned from a circumpolar map, was the most geographically isolated of all Alaska's Iñupiat villages. For most of its existence, it had not been so much a permanent settlement as a seasonal home for semi-nomadic hunting families who depended on sea mammals, caribou and fowl for their sustenance. Before commercial whaling arrived in the Beaufort Sea, the isolation of the region had kept the people from having any significant contact with the outside world. Indeed, prior to the arrival of the whalers, few Kaktovik Iñupiat had ever seen a tanik [White man] in the area.
Then, in the early 1920s, a White trader, Tom Gordon, opened a trading post on the western side of Barter Island. This event provided an opportunity for the people of Kaktovik and the surrounding area to exchange trapped furs for needed items of western manufacture. Aside from Tom Gordon and a few other traders who settled along the coast at this time, the only significant contacts these Iñupiat had with Whites came from occasional visits by explorers, scientists, or Presbyterian missionaries making their way from Barrow to Demarcation Point and Canadian settlements further to the east. Then, following the plunge in fur prices caused by the depression of the early 1930s, Gordon and the few other traders left for Barrow or Hershel Island in Canada - followed in most instances by the still semi-nomadic Iñupiat.
After World War II and the initiation of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, the American Arctic became increasingly militarized. Although the Iñupiat in the region had gained some familiarity with the U.S. military during the war as a result of Lt. Col. Marvin "Muktuk" Marston's "Tundra Army" of Alaska Territorial Guard, they were hardly prepared for the events that followed. In July of 1947, a construction company arrived at Kaktovik to build an airstrip for the military. This effort turned out to be the first step in what eventually became the North American Strategic Hemispheric Defence Plan to establish a Distant Early Warning [DEW-line] radar network throughout the north from Barrow to Baffin Island in the Canadian Archipelago.
Four years later, the U.S. Department of the Interior authorized the Air Force to assume control over the 4500 acres of Barter Island, including the site and cemetary of Kaktovik village. Shortly thereafter, a secret Defense Department plan to construct an experimental radar line from Barrow to Kaktovik was implemented. By the summer of 1953, large amounts of equipment were stored on the Island. Unfortunately for the local residents, the Air Force also decided to expand the air strip along the sand spit sheltering Kaktovik Lagoon and build their hanger on the site of the village. Informed by the military that they had to relocate immediately, the local Iñupiat were stunned. Moving equipment and skilled operators were provided by the Air Force, but the labor came mainly from the people. Soon, bulldozers had pushed the remnants of a dozen sod and driftwood houses 1650 yards up the sand spit to the relocated village site. Loss of their homes and personal possessions, along with the destruction of valuable ice-cellars used for food storage brought an angered response. But given the people's lack of English-speaking skills, confusion over what was happening, and minimum contact with the outside world, little effective protest was mounted.
Eventually houses were rebuilt and ice cellars dug, most of the materials for the former having been offered by the military or obtained from the refuse dump located at the end of the sand spit. Relations between the villagers and the newcomers improved, and by 1957, when the initial radar installation was complete, Iñupiat from Kaktovik, Barrow and other North Slope villages obtained employment as construction workers and maintenance personnel. In a little over a decade, a dramatic transformation had occurred in the lives of the people. What had been the impact of these changes? What was the village like now? These were the kinds of questions I wished to explore.