Northwest Alaskan Subsistence Living

Northwest Alaskan Subsistence Living: Hunting and Gathering Culture

Subsistence is using the natural resources of the animals and plants for food, shelter, clothing, transportation, handcrafts and trade. Native NW Alaskan hunting and gathering traditions have been handed down from generation to generation.

Teaching Fishing Cutting with an Ulu Knife

The Eskimo Heritage on the Seward Peninsula

The Eskimos have been here for over five thousand years. Many of the Northwest Alaska Eskimos are the Iñupiat. The Iñupiat Native Alaskan Community comprise the largest indigenous population of people that inhabit the Seward Peninsula including Nome and White Mountain. The Native Alaskan People keep their cultural traditions such as respect for the elders, community, family and celebrations. Likewise, the Eskimo Subsistence, such as gathering, hunting, fishing, tools, food preparation, clothing and shelter remain vital on the Seward Peninsula. Since modern industry and employment is minimal in this part of the world, subsistence is very important!

Iñupiat people of today keep these same traditions, culture and skills alive to share with generations to come.


Quote by Patricia L. Cochran:

  • It is practical common sense based on teachings and experiences passed on from generation to generation.
  • It is knowing the country. It covers knowledge of the environment—snow, ice, weather, resources—and the relationships between things.
  • It is holistic. It cannot be compartmentalized and cannot be separated from the people who hold it. It is rooted in the spiritual health, culture, and language of the people. It is a way of life.
  • Traditional knowledge is an authority system. It sets out the rules governing the use of resources—respect, an obligation to share. It is dynamic, cumulative and stable. It is truth.
  • Traditional knowledge is a way of life. . . . It is using the heart and the head together. It comes from the spirit in order to survive.
  • It gives credibility to the people.

Patricia Longley Cochran (Sigvonna), “ANSC: Traditional Knowledge” Alaska Native Science Commission- Bringing together research and science in partnership with the Native community, 2000-2005.

Fishing begins at a Young age in the Eskimo Traditions

Each season of the calendar dictates what food will be harvested.

Summer fish Drying
Beginning in the summer, the rivers are full of Salmon to be caught, boned, cut hung to dry and smoked. Much of Native Northwest Alaskan subsistence depends on fishing in the oceans and river systems of the Seward Peninsula. Some of the best Salmon of the world is caught and preserved here. Later in the summer, there are berries to be gathered upon the tundra.
Preparing the catch
Next, the early Fall begins hunting season for Moose, Grizzly bear. Winter hunts include Muskox and Caribou. The Caribou and Muskox are known for hearty meat, innards and hides.
Norton Sound King Crab Pots
Through the winter and early spring, there is ice-fishing off the Nome shoreline. For the famous Norton Sound King Crab, they will cut holes in the thick ice to drop crab pots.
During the fall and spring, Natives hunt seals and Beluga Whales on Nome's shorelines. They are used for food, oil and bones.
Gathering Eggs- Subsistence living
Fowling and egg gathering are typically springtime ventures. Likewise, plant-life gathered from the shorelines and tundra are an important part of the Native Alaskan subsistence diet. Young seedlings/greens and certain seaweeds are gathered in late April through early June.
Traditional Eskimo Food
The methods for meat preservation includes dehydration, smoking, freezing, canning with water or oil.  Fish eggs may also be canned, fermented. or dried. Similarly, berries may be dried, canned or frozen. (above is a plate of Tradtional Eskimo Fare)

Some of the common animals used for native subsistence living in the Nome area/Seward Peninsula

This is a non-exhaustive chart of the common animals are hunted and plant are gathered according to season.

SpringBeluga Whales,
King Crabs,
Saltwater Fish,
Brant Geese (Brents),
Snow Geese,
Bladderwrack (Seaweed),
Nori (Black Seaweed),
Beach Greens (Sea Purslane),
Goose Tongue,
Ribbon Kelp,
Wild Mustard,
Alaskan Dandelion
Beach Lovage (Wild Celery),
Sweet Gale,
Northern Wintercress (American Yellowrocket),
Cooked Fireweed Shoots
Summer(Freshwater Fishing) Salmon:
Chinook (King)
Coho (Silvers),
Chum (Dog Salmon),
Pink (Humpy),
Sockeye (Red Salmon),
Arctic Grayling,
Northern Pike.
Low Cranberries,
Beluga Whales,
Grizzly bears,
Low Cranberries,
King crabs,
Ice Fishing

“Our ancestors tried to use everything for clothing and tools. They were constantly hunting to fill the stomach with food. Though everything was depleted, they always made sure they had enough to survive. They’d say they were always hunting food to fill the other corner of the mouth.”  –Wassilie Evan, Akiak

Managing Land Resources for Native Alaskan Subsistence Living

Over-Hunting and Destruction of Habitat

When the 1900 gold rush brought settlers from all over, the population boom strained the local hunting and fishing resources. Consequently, the local wildlife was devastated.  Both over-hunting and destruction of habitat were putting many species into extinction.  Although Alaska was a US territory, the government was “loose” in certain aspects concerning hunting and fishing. Once Alaska became a new state in 1958, the federal government passed the responsibility of managing the fishing and wildlife onto the state government. The Native population organized councils and rallied the government to protect these unreplaceable resources and protect the subsistence way of life.

Subsistence Regional Advisory Council

The 1971 Alaskan Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCA)allowed the government-managed defined land resources for subsistence harvesting. Over 100 million acres have been set aside in this act for the Native peoples utilization. The governmental Subsistence Regional Advisory Council helps prevent the over fishing and hunting of the land and waters. Believe it or not: Commercial business in Alaska accounts for 97% of the fishing! The remaining 3% of fishing is for subsistence and sport.  The resources are evaluated to make sure all the interested parties are appropriated the correct amount of natural resources. They also evaluate environmental impact of harvesting certain animals such as marine mammals. Tom Gray of “Alaskan NW Adventures” sits on the Subsistence Regional Advisory Council.

Each Council member must be a resident of the region the Council represents

o Possess knowledge of the region’s fish and wildlife resources

o Possess knowledge of the region’s subsistence uses, customs and traditions

o Possess knowledge of the region’s commercial and sport uses of fish and wildlife resources

o Demonstrate leadership through involvement in local or regional fish and wildlife management organizations

o Be able to communicate effectively with diverse groups


Subsistence Living in Detail: Crafts and Customs

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.


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.

 Freshwater Fishing Traditions

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

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.

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

Janice J. Schofield, “Alaska’s Wild Plants, Revised Edition: A Guide to Alaska’s Edible and Healthful Harvest,” Alaska Northwest Books, March 31, 2020.

Kirkland, Erin. “Kids Corner: Alaska Is a ‘Berry’ Fun Place in the Fall!” Alaska On the Go, 23 Sept. 2015, Retrieved June 10, 2020

Mooney-Seus, Maggie. “NOAA Fisheries Announces Availability of 2019 Draft Technical Memorandum for the Eastern Bering Sea Continental Shelf Trawl Survey: Results for Commercial Crab Species.” NOAA, Alaska Fisheries Science Center, 6 Sept. 2019. Retrieved June 01, 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

The International Boreal Forest Research Association. “About Boreal Forests.”, 2016, Retrieved June 12, 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

Warhol, Tom. Tundra. Tarreytown, NY, Marshall Cavendish Benchmark, 2007.

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

In conclusion, 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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