Skip to main content
 Previous Next
  • Zoom In (+)
  • Zoom Out (-)
  • Rotate CW (r)
  • Rotate CCW (R)
  • Overview (h)
Nunivak Island: Encyclopedia Arctica 12: Alaska, Geography and General
Stefansson, Vilhjalmur, 1879-1962

Nunivak Island

EA-Alaska: Geography
(Margaret Lantis)

NUNIVAK ISLAND

Nunivak, on latitude 60° N. about 20 miles west of Nelson Island, between
the mouths of the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers, was discovered by Europeans in
1821. Kramchenko, Etolin, afterward Governor of the Russian-American Company,
and Mikhail N. Vasilief independently discovered and explored parts of the coast
of Nunivak Island, with Vasilief apparently the first. There was no trading
post or other white settlement, however, until late in the 19th century, so
far as known. Because of the murder of two Eskimes and other difficulties,
the first traders remained only a few years. In 1920 a Russian-Eskimo trader
settled on Nunivak Island, and in 1923 a white teacher was sent by the U.S.
Bureau of Education. An Evangelical Lutheran church was established in 1936
by an Eskimo missionary.
Although never measured exactly, Nunivak is known to be more than 50 miles
long east to west, its longest axis. The island slopes toward north and east,
where there are ponds and some marsh lands. On the south coast are lagoons, on
the west side cliffs where many sea birds nest. The shallowness of the sea,
especially around the northeast coast, makes very dangerous the approach close
to shore of any vessel of more than two fathoms draft. Because of navigational
difficulties and because the island has little commercial attraction, it seldom
is visited by outsiders. It had no regular mail service until 1946 when monthly
mail service by air was initiated, river, bay, and beach being used in lieu of
an airfield.

EA-Alaska: Geography. Lantis: Nunivak Island

The inhabitants of the island are the Nuniwagamiut, an Eskimo group re–
lated by language and occasional intermarriage to the Eskimos on the neighbor–
ing west coast of Nelson Island. Total island population in 1939 was 225, the
increase from 189 in 1920 probably due to revival after the influenza epidemic
of 1919-20. The death rate, high for many years, occasionally increases dis–
astrously, as in 1942 when 12 adults and 11 children died of measles. An un–
official census shows that there were 60 births and 58 deaths between August,1,
1940 and August 1, 1946, indicating very slow increase of population. The only
year-around Caucasian residents are two teachers of the Alaska Native Service
(q.v.). A few Reindeer Service employees and other government workers live on
Nunivak in the summer. Other than the erection and manning of a small weather
station, Nunivak Island was not involved actively in World War II.
Since at least nine villages (probably eleven) have ceased to exist in the
past two generations, there are now (1947) only five winter villages. All vil–
lages, except one occupied part of the year, now are on the north half of the
island while formerly most of the population was on the south half. Such shifts
of population undoubtedly occurred in prehistoric times also. All villages are
on the coast.
While the summer climate is foggy and chill compared with the climate of
the interior mainland, thus resembling islands at the north edge of Bering Sea,
the Nunivak climate is more equable than either. In most years, the sea is open
from June to early November, ponds and small rivers from early May to October.
Precipitation is heavier than on the Arctic Sea coast of Alaska. Temperature
ranges from a summer high of 70° F. to a winter low of ࢤ25° F. For life on an
aboriginal basis, Nunivak is well located: for driftwood, variety and abundance
of food, climate, freedom from predatory animals (except wolves in pre-European

EA-Alaska: Geography. Lantis: Nunivak Island

time), six months' annual isolation from raids and epidemics. (The winter ice
of Etolin Strait between Nunivak and Nelson Islands is too broken and slushy
for skin boat or sled travel.) Nunivak lacks only large whales among the major
food resources of Bering Sea. (See "Eskimos of Bering Sea and Arctic Coast of
Alaska.")
The flora is similar to the mainland tundra flora of north Bering Sea.
Reindeer forage is very good in summer, moderately good in winter. Besides the
four species of Salix (willow), none of which grows more than three to four feet
high, there are no trees.
Nunivak is a game reservation, except for native use. Its list of fur-
bearing animals is short. White and red foxes, mink, ermine (rare), wolves,
and caribou were its land animals until the late 19th century when caribou
and wolves died out. The original 100 domestic reindeer (with later addition
of a few American caribou) that were introduced in 1920 for private commercial
development and now are owned by the Federal Government, increased to 20,000
in 20 years. Since 1943, a slaughterhouse and storage plant have been developed
by the Alaska Native Service of the U.S. Department of the Interior for the re–
duction of the herds — feared too large for available forage in the future —
and for production of meat for Alaska boarding schools and hospitals. Almost
all adult Eskimos work on this Reindeer Project in the summer.
In 1934, 34 Greenland "musk oxen," which Stefansson prefers to call ovibos,
were placed on Nunivak by the Fish and Wildlife Service of the Department of
the Interior in an effort to bring back musk oxen to Alaska where they had be–
come extinct in the 1860′s. A slow-breeding animal, Nunivak musk oxen had in–
creased to 44 by 1947. Whenever there are enough so that some animals can be
placed on the mainland of north Alaska, it is expected that they will provide

EA-Alaska: Geography. Lantis: Nunivak Island

meat, hides, hair, and wool. On Nunivak, they have been protected and have
not entered the local economy.
The Villages - Nunivak villages, built on sand dunes or slopes above the
bays, have much better drainage than many mainland villages in this region,
which are located on mudbanks. The semi-subterranean Nunivak house is habitable
the year around, no other structures or tents having been used until recently.
The typical old-style house is well adapted to climate and available mater–
ials. Its walls and roof are built solidly of split drift-logs, covered by dry
grass, earth, and sods, thus resembling a pyramidal mound from the outside. In
its top center is a translucent skylight made of sewed strips of walrus intes–
tine.
The interior of the house has been undergoing many small changes, typical
of changes in all technology: short entrance passage and low door instrad of
the former long underground passageway and floor entrance; narrower sleeping–
benches, use of low stools and tables; homemade stove instead of open fireplace;
graniteware dishes substituted for wooden dishes, and blankets and pillows for
skins. A few families have two-room frame houses above ground. Although these
are much lighter and more easily kept clean, they are difficult to heat without
commercial fuels.
A large village formerly had two or even three kadjigis , the houses in
which the men lived and which were used for ceremonials. Today each village
had one, with schoolhouse, church, and store taking some of the kadjigi's func–
tions in Mekoryuk, community center of the island. The ceremonial house has
the same basic construction as a dwelling, but is much larger in every respect,
especially its large firepit to provide heat for sweatbaths. In the kadjigi , the
men sit on the floor when working or eating, the boys on the high benches above

EA-Alaska: Geography. Lantis: Nunivak Island

them.
While the island now has an elected council, with chairman ("chief") and
secretary, and has a community store, neither entire island nor villages had
formal political or economic organization before 1940, when Mekoryuk adopted
a constitution. (This actually serves the whole island.) Previously, wealthy
men who were outstanding hunters and traders dominated the villages and con–
tested individually for informal island leadership by daily generosity and
leadership in their kadjigis and by periodically entertaining other villages
in large festivals, called Messenger Feasts.
The Family and the Individual - Most children are given affection and good
care, although an adopted child in a poor and over-burdened family may receive
little attention. Old people also are generally well cared for. Children
formerly were honored for every new skill and assumption of responsibility,
such as the girl's first berry-picking, a boy's first killing of a bird and
first drum and dancing. The original school at Nash Harbor, now second largest
village, was supplanted in 1939 by a new school at Mekoryuk. Since 1942, a few
capable children have been sent to government boarding schools and some to hos–
pitals for special care.
The island does not have resident nurse or physician. From aboriginal
times, medical care has been a serious problem, as the local pharmacop [: ] ea and
practical medical treatment have been limited. People bear their ailments
stoically, however. Contact with the dead also is not avoided with the intensity
of fear shown by arctic Eskimos. Regarding shamanism, religious belief, and
doctoring by shamans, see "Eskimos of Bering Sea and Arctic Coast of Alaska."
Regarding recreation, 44 games and sports of native origin were recorded
on Nunivak Island in 1940. There are games for all ages, both sexes, and all

EA-Alaska: Geography. Lantis: Nunivak Island

seasons. Despite some strain in the competition for top honor as best hunter,
there have been compensating satisfactions in craft work, sports, ceremonials,
and religious experience. The women's commercial basketry, made in coiled tech–
nique unlike the twined baskets used locally, the men's realistic deep carving
of walrus tusks, stylistic outline painting of animal and other figures on wooden
dishes, and carving of masks have given Nunivak a special reputation for good
craftsmanship.
Until recently, a young man would not marry until he had killed one of
each variety of seal, especially an adult bearded seal. Although a girl might
marry very young, the early marriage usually did not last long. Because of easy
separation, initiated by man or woman, and high mortality, it was not unusual
for a person to enter five or six successive marriages. While polyandry, poly–
gyny, and borrowing a wife from a "partner" were permissible, none was common.
In a groups so small and inbred, a person could not always find a spouse of
nearly his own age; hence might marry a person of another generation. Few married
off the island.
The bridegroom hunted and worked for the bride's family; but both husband
and wife maintained toward their elder in-laws an attitude of formal avoidance
that signified respect. As there was much mobility, the length of residence in
one village and household composition varied greatly from family to family. The
only general custom was for two or three related families to share a home.
The first church weddings on Nunivak Island occurred in 1947, 53 years
after the first at Cape Prince of Wales, for example. Families today are monog–
amous, wife-borrowing apparently has ceased, and separation is infrequent. There
is usually only one family in a house, the men spending more time in the family
houses, less in the kadjigi . However, with continued mobility, high mortality,

EA-Alaska: Geography. Lantis: Nunivak Island

and necessity of adopting children from broken families, there is still shift–
ing of household composition. The island's network of kinship and of two types
of patrilineally inherited partnerships — serious mutual-aid, and joking —
is very complex and not easily ascertained by outsiders. Teknonymous designa–
tion, nicknames derived from such kinship terms as "brother" and "sister," and
descriptive nicknames were substituted for the "real" name — intimately connect–
ed with the individual — which was not even known to younger people. An infant
was not named for the most recently deceased person in the village, unlike Lower
Yukon and Norton Sound Eskimos.
Still important and sacred to the individual are his patrilineally inherit–
ed totems, of which there usually is one more important than the others, often
a bird. He must observe tabus on eating and other use of these species. Con–
nected with a totem, which formerly was thought to give powers of successful
hunting or other powers, were (1) masks, (2) designs on kayak cover, hunting
implements, and oars, (3) amulets worn on the body, (4) songs and legends. The
patrilineal "families" (lineages) are unlocalized and unnamed, but held together
by common possession of such supernatural relationships. Antiquity of this sys–
tem is unknown.
The Annual Cycle - The 90 named dwelling sites around the island indicate
the extent of annual movement. For the spring hunt for seals and walrus, fam–
ilies move from winter villages to "summer villages" that are different only
in having smaller, not so well built structures. For late summer salmon fishing,
they camp on the rivers. For the netting of seals under the shore ice in late
autumn, they move to still other village sites. There is almost no hunting of
seals in midwinter and midsummer. Nunivakers do not spear seals at breathing
holes; as the sea ice is treacherous, they do not go out on it until late winter

EA-Alaska: Geography. Lantis: Nunivak Island

when it is thick but broken and open sufficiently so that kayaks can move
among the ice-blocks freely without being crushed. In summer, seals are
scarce and difficult to obtain.
Staple foods are dried fish and seal meat, seal and walrus oil, some
greens and berries the year around (all stored for winter use); cooked fresh
fish and formerly caribou (now domestic reindeer) in summer; fish-eggs and
fowl in autumn; frozen fish, cooked seal meat in winter. Eggs, mussels, an
occasional beluga add to the healthful diet. Today a few commercial foods
have been added. There has been no drinking of "sourdough" or imported liquors
and little smoking.
In summer, trading trips to the mainland, chiefly up the Kuskokwim River,
were made in umiaks — today in cabin launches — to exchange seal oil, seal–
skins, ivory, puffin and murre skins (for parkas), and even kayaks, for wol–
verine, wolf, ground squirrel skins, and occasionally jade or mineral for paint.
Today the trade is carried on principally in Bethel stores. While Nunivakers
anciently went to the Yukon on war raids, later also to St. Michael to trade,
they claim they never had encountered Indians until after white settlement.
Money for clothing, household goods, boat gear, traps, guns and ammunition
is secured by selling craft work, fox and mink furs, and by wages from the
Reindeer Service. (Women's clothing has changed little from the styles of
1920 — plain cotton dress, fur parka and boots, and ruffled cloth parka the
basic costume — but many men and children wear only store clothing in the
summer, furs in the winter.) Very few men have gone to south Alaska for the
seasonal work in fish canneries, construction and maintenance work.
The annual cycle of ceremonialism included until 1936 a few late winter
and summer dances. For his wife's or daughter's dancing and his son's success

EA-Alaska: Geography. Lantis: Nunivak Island

in hunting, a man would give presents of sealskins or other goods to the older
people. In December was held a large communal Bladder Festival to close the
hunting season and honor all seals caught during the year. Starting the new
cycle, the spring hunt for seals was initiated by family rituals containing
much magic to secure good hunting — both ceremonias considered by Nunivakers
to be essential to life.
Since 1940, Christmas and the annual church conference in late spring have
become big events, bringing many people together.
BIBLIOGRAPHY

Curtis, Edward S. The North American Indian. Vol. 22, Cambridge University
Press, 1930.

Himmelheber, Hans Eskimokunstler . Strecker u. Schröder, Stuttgart, 1938.

Lantis, Margaret "The Social Culture of the Nunivak Eskimo." Transactions of
the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 35, Pt. 3 (New
Series), Philadelphia, 1946.

Swarth, Harry S. "Birds of Nunivak Island, Alaska." Pacific Coast Avifauna,
No. 22, 1934.

Margaret Lantis.
HomeNunivak Island : Encyclopedia Arctica 12: Alaska, Geography and General
 Text Only
 Text & Inline Image
 Text & Image Viewer
 Image Viewer Only