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    Nunivak Island

    Encyclopedia Arctica 12: Alaska, Geography and General

    001      |      Vol_XII-0261                                                                                                                  
    EA-Alaska: Geography

    (Margaret Lantis)


            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.

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    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

    003      |      Vol_XII-0263                                                                                                                  
    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


            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

    004      |      Vol_XII-0264                                                                                                                  
    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–


            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

    005      |      Vol_XII-0265                                                                                                                  
    EA-Alaska: Geography. Lantis: Nunivak Island


            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

    006      |      Vol_XII-0266                                                                                                                  
    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


            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,

    007      |      Vol_XII-0267                                                                                                                  
    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

    008      |      Vol_XII-0268                                                                                                                  
    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

    009      |      Vol_XII-0269                                                                                                                  
    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.


    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.

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