Alaskan Natives Support Development

Alaskan Natives Support Development

Archeology has revealed that man has been an occupant of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for at least 11,000 years, but the history of modern man’s existence there, dates to the early 1890’s and 1900’s. What is now the village of Kaktovik, the only village within ANWR, located on Barter island on the northern edge of the Coastal Plain, used to serve as an important stop for commercial whalers. The island was a key trading point and residents of the region came to rely on the ability to obtain trade goods there. In 1923, Tom Gordon established a fur trading post for the H.B. Liebes Company of San Francisco, which became the permanent settlement, the village of Kaktovik. Its people, the Inupiats, were a semi-nomadic people, moving from place to place depending on the availability of fish, fur, game and marine mammals. With the cessation of whaling for bowheads, in about 1910, the Inupiat experienced the first in a series of boom and bust cycles.

In the 1890’s, semi-domesticated reindeer, the same species as caribou, were brought to western Alaska from Siberia in order to establish an industry that would provide a more stable economy and would insure against food shortages. In the early 1920’s, under the auspices of the Alaska Reindeer Service Local superintendent at Barrow, several herds of reindeer were established in the ANWR area. Herders followed their reindeer from the foothills in the winter months to grazing lands near the Beaufort Sea coast during the summer, returning each fall to the foothills. Severe winters during 1936 and 1937 resulted in the loss of most of the deer to starvation. Others were killed by people for food and clothing. A Bureau of Indian Affairs survey taken during the spring of 1936 indicated that local residents were destitute and near starvation. In an effort to re-establish the reindeer herds and insure against further food shortages a herd of 3,000 reindeer was driven from Barrow to the Barter Island area in late 1937. As the herd approached Barter island, it turned back toward its home range in Barrow, taking most of the remaining local reindeer with it. The people were so discouraged that they killed the few animals that remained, ending the era of reindeer herding in ANWR.

Beginning in the 1920’s, fur trapping was a good source of cash income, replacing caribou as a trade good. Unfortunately the price of fox fur dropped in the late 1930’s, and trading posts along the coast closed one by one. The post at Barter Island closed following Gordon’s death in 1938. By 1943 all of the trading posts in the region had been closed and people had to go to Canada to trade. Eventually, several families moved to Canada. Hard times continued in the region until 1945 when the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey began mapping the Beaufort Sea Coastline, bringing some employment to the region.

Although World War II had little effect on the region, the installation of the Distant Early Warning (DEW line) system on the island during the 1940’s displaced many local residents. In 1947 the U.S. Air Force constructed a runway and hangar on the historic village site, forcing residents to relocate. In 1951, the entire area around Kaktovik was made a military reserve and some people were required to move again. The village was moved once more in 1964, but this time residents received title to their village site. Jobs resulting from government activities in the region and the subsequent establishment of a school caused the Barter island population to increase from less than 50 people in 1950 to approximately 150 in 1953 when several families returned from Canada.

Today, Kaktovik is home to 210 residents, most of whom are Inupiat Eskimos whose families have lived in the region for centuries. They live a partly subsistence lifestyle combined with the changes to their culture brought on by Western civilization in order to sustain a stable economy in the region.