Subsistence Living – Iñupiat Traditions

Subsistence Living in Detail: Iñupiat Traditions

Subsistence is using the natural resources of the animals and plants for food, shelter, clothing, transportation, handcrafts and trade. Below are a few examples of food preparation, customs and handicrafts in the Iñupiat tradition.

Alaskan Salmon!

Cutting the Salmon for drying
Cutting the Salmon for drying

The summers bring Salmon in the rivers. this is an important time for the subsistence life.  The fish are brought in with careful seine technique. Nets are placed strategically in the river. Some river are  shallow enough to wade across to place the nets. Others may need a canoe to guide the nets.

Once the fish have been caught, they are sorted, cleaned and prepared for cutting. A special knife called an Ulu is used to cut the thick salmon meat. The traditional shape is a semicircle blade with a rounded horizontal handle on top. This allows for good control and strong downward force. Each fish is specifically cut to allow for optimal drying, hanging and smoking.

There is an art to the drying and smoking the Salmon. Depending on the flavor, some of the salmon may be marinaded before it is dried. The racks of hanging fish are moved from the outside drying racks to inside the smoke house. This drying/smoking process is alternated to achieve the right texture and flavor. And protect the precious Smoked Salmon from the wildlife and weather.

“The return of fish was synonymous with an abundance of food. … Those living along the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers depended on the summer fishing season to sustain them, putting away thousands of pounds of fish for use throughout winter.

Men rose early and worked late at night, to take advantage of morning and evening tides. Women and children were equally busy–cleaning, cutting, hanging, and smoking the fish.

Communities varied widely in what foods were available to them, but everyone used similar processing and preservation methods, including air drying and smoking, storage in cold water and oil, fermentation, and freezing. Some foods were eaten raw.

Salmon, herring, smelt, halibut, flounder, tomcod, pike, and capelin were gutted and air dried or smoked. Fish eggs were dried and stored.
Storing preserved food was like “putting money in the bank.”

-Ann Fien-Riordan, Yuungnaqpiallerput – The Way We Genuinely Live : Masterworks of Yup’ik Science and Survival, by Ann Fienup-Riordan with translations by Alice Rearden and Marie Meade. University of Washington Press, 2007

Placing the Smoked Salmon on Drying Racks

Muskox in Subsistence

When a Muskox is hunted, all parts of the animal are used. For example, Muskoxen provide a delicious hearty meat with similarities to beef.  In the tradition of the Iñupiat Natives, when person hunts his or her first muskox, the meat is given to elders and families of the village. The horns are a handsome prize. The hide makes a soft leather and the undercoat of wool is used for fine knitted neck scarves.

What is Qiviuq?

Muskoxen have heavy fur coats with two layers. The outer coarse hair repels the water and downy inner coat keeps in the heat. When the hide is prepared, the native women comb the inner wool from the hide. This wool is called Qiviuq. It is spun into a fine yarn and knitted in to intricate patterns. A common article of Native clothing made of Qiviuq is a neck muff or hood called a Nachaiq.

Muskox Hunting

Combing Qiviuq from Muskox Hide

Nachaiq made of Qiviuq

Eskimo Clothing

The animals not only provide nourishment but also clothing and shelter.

Traditional Outerwear

Mukluks - Northwest Alaskan Boots
Mukluks – Northwest Alaskan Boots

Mukluks or Kamik (Inupiat) are the traditional footwear/ boots are made of fur and leather from the Caribou, sewn with sinew and decorated with the traditional trade beads. The soles would be made of the strong and tough skins of caribou bull (the hide is the hardiest in the fall).

The Parkas are also made of caribou hide with the fur side in towards the body. The hollow caribou hairs trap the warm air inside the hairs and between the hairs. The Parka is very warm and water resistant. The hood design of the parka is invented by the Eskimos. It is common to have a wolverine ruff on the edge of the hood would protect the wearers face from cold winds and frostbite.  Wolverine was the choice fur because it does not shed as easily.

Mittens are preferred to gloves because they keep the fingers together and warmer.

The Kuspuk

Singing in Church wearing Kuspuks
Singing in Church wearing Kuspuks

The kuspuk is a tunic-like garment that both the men and women wear. “Kuspuk” is the common name for the tunic, however in Iñupiaq it is called an “atikluk.”

Historically, kuspuk were worn by themselves in the summer. Though, the kuspuk would be worn over the parka in the winter.  Barges brought flour and sugar in sacks to the Alaskan people. The cloth from the flour sacks would be recycled and made into the kuspuks.  The flour manufactures of the 1930’s realized the of the reuse of the flour sacks for clothing. So, they decided to make beautiful colors and motifs on the cloth. The kuspuk pattern construction was such that the hood and pocket would use the rectangular fabric very efficiently. Today, kuspuks are still worn by the native Alaskans. They are made of calico fabric and may be decorated with rick rack, ribbons and gathered skirts.

Child wearing a Kuspuk
Child wearing a Kuspuk
Since the Kuspuk is an important part of native Inupiat culture, who should wear a kuspuk?

“You can wear one anytime, whatever race you are,” Bobby Itta said. “We’re just proud and happy you’ll wear one. … It represents who we are and where we come from, and that you’re proud to represent our work. And so, wear away.”

Erin Gingrich said, “Kuspuks to me have this beautiful capacity to express our current indigenous existence, our evolved indigenous existence. … It represents this honored women’s work that has been going on for millennia of creating clothing for our families and our community.”

– Michael Armstrong,  Bunnell Starts ‘indigenized Fall’ with Kuspuk Group Show. of Homer, Alaska.


Cochran, Patricia Longley, and Alyson L Geller. “The Melting Ice Cellar: What native traditional knowledge is teaching us about global warming and environmental change.” American journal of public health vol. 92,9 (2002): 1404-9. Retrieved June 10, 2020

“Iñupiat Heritage Center | The North Slope Borough.” North Slope Borough,, 2015, Retrieved June 10, 2020

National Museum of the American Indian. “The Indian Arts and Crafts Board: Mukluks.”, Smithsonian Institution, 3 Sept. 2015, Retrieved June 10, 2020

Patricia Longley Cochran (Sigvonna), “ANSC: Traditional Knowledge” Alaska Native Science Commission- Bringing together research and science in partnership with the Native community,1993-2005, Retrieved June 30, 2020

U.S. National Park Service. “Subsistence: Preserving a Way of Life – Gates of The Arctic National Park & Preserve (U.S. National Park Service).” Gates of the Artic, National Park and Preserve,, 28 July 2016, Retrieved June 10, 2020

Webster, Donald H., and Wilfried Zibell. Inupiat Eskimo Dictionary. Fairbanks, AK, Summer Institute of Linguistics, Inc.- University of Alaska College, 1970.

The Native Northwest Alaskan traditions of Iñupiaq subsistence are kept alive by sharing knowledge and customs. We can share our experience with the next generation. But today we can even share these traditions with our neighbors throughout the world in the context of ecotourism. We can extend an invitation to learn  about Native Alaskan life in person at Northwest Alaskan Adventures, LLC.

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