Local Culture

Looking for Caribou

The lands within the Selawik Refuge have been the hunting and fishing grounds of the indigenous Iñupiaq people for thousands of years. Today most residents of the villages that surround the Selawik Refuge are Alaska Natives of Iñupiaq descent, and cultural traditions continue to be of great importance.

The villages of Selawik (pop. 846) and Noorvik (pop. 642) are within refuge boundaries, while the larger town of Kotzebue (pop. 3,126) and the villages of Ambler, Buckland, Shungnak, Kiana, and Kobuk are all within 30 miles of refuge boundaries. Residents of these communities continue to utilize refuge lands as their ancestors have for generations.

Historically, the Iñupiat were distributed in small, widely dispersed settlements often located on high river banks that provided good access to fishing sites. They lived in semi-subterranean, sod-covered houses during the fall and winter. In the spring and summer, individual families moved to fishing spots where temporary dwellings were often made with willow and covered with caribou hides. Historically, sheefish, whitefish, salmon, northern pike, caribou, hares, migratory birds, and marine mammals were major subsistence resources used by residents of the Selawik and lower Kobuk rivers. These subsistence traditions continue today, although methods of harvest and travel have changed over time.Drying fish on a wooden rack

Inland areas of northwest Alaska remained largely unknown to the western world until the late 19th century. The first Euroamerican explorers in the Selawik and Kobuk rivers - George Stoney and JC Cantwell - arrived in 1884-1886.  Limited contact with Euroamerican culture allowed the people of the region to retain their Iñupiaq culture and traditions in the face of a rapidly developing North American continent. Gradually, permanent villages were established throughout northwest Alaska as missionaries opened churches and schools. The village of Selawik was founded in its current location in 1908. In 1897-98, a brief gold rush known as the Kobuk River Stampede brought nearly 2,000 gold seekers to the area. Most left quickly upon learning the reports of gold discovery were false.

Sustained contact with Euroamerican culture did not begin until the early 20th century. A century of western influence since then has brought many changes. Seasonal movements of families from fishing and hunting areas have been influenced by modern technology and an expanded cash economy. The dog team has been replaced by the snowmachine; motorboats move faster and carry more than the traditional kayak. The rifle has replaced the bow and spear. What remains, however, is the cultural knowledge of the land and the resources that has sustained the Iñupiaq way of life in this area for thousands of years.

Boys ice fishing in SelawikWith its far north location, the Selawik Refuge and the activities of local residents change dramatically throughout the seasons. During the arctic winter, blizzards create deep snow drifts, while sub-zero temperatures lock the waterways in thick ice. During the winter, local residents travel between villages by snowmachine and dog team on a system of well-used winter trails. Many residents hunt fur animals and fish through the ice during the long winter. With the return of spring and then summer, the land absorbs the returning sun, and productive, thawing wetlands greet the arriving migratory birds. Subsistence bird hunting and fishing occur throughout the spring and summer. Later in the year, brilliant fall colors signal a time for berry picking, caribou and moose hunting, and the first frost. Life here is closely linked to the seasons and the land, and each time of year has its own special beauty and character.