Historical Ecology of North Slope

The historical ecology of Alaska’s North Slope is ever changing. Historical photographs and writings represent two media for examining the interaction among native and foreign people with each other and with the arctic environs of northwestern Alaska. These archival resources provide a rich record of the historical ecology of this area for the late nineteenth century through the twentieth century. They illustrate the tremendous interplay among local and foreign community members in their use of indigenous and introduced resources. The photographs and writings suggest that this interplay was multi-directional and continues to influence the ecology of the region today.


Historical photographs and writings documenting house architecture are being used to examine the interaction among Iņupiat and foreigners and the environment. The traditional Iņupiat winter house seen along the coastlines of the North Slope consisted of a semi-subterranean dwelling. Such dwellings were constructed using driftwood, whale and walrus bones, sod, and other locally-available resources. Near mid-nineteenth century, foreigner whalers began arriving in increasing numbers. Their wrecked ships provided an early source of foreign building materials for use in winter house construction. Local salvaging of wrecks yielded wooden ship members, lumber, doors, windows, metal hardware, as well as sheet metal, ladders, and other useful items. Photographs and writings document the use of salvaged shipwrecks shortly after mid-century. By the 1880s, whalers had established whaling stations in several communities along the coast. Some of their houses incorporated both Iņupiat and foreign house design elements and materials. The Iņupiat continued to construct houses reflecting this blended architecture continued well into the twentieth century.

This study examines house architectural change along the northwest coast of the North Slope beginning in the second half of the nineteenth century. It examines historical photographs and writings generated by foreign visitors, including whalers, revenue service personnel, explorers, and archaeologists. The research serves to document that the multi-cultural interplay among the various cultural populations and the environment resulted in dwelling styles that are unique to the region and that reflect multi-cultural design elements and materials. It challenges the assertion that western house designs and materials supplanted local designs and materials, and that Iņupiat sought to acquire western houses. The construction of mixed Iņupiat-Western designs and materials remained strong through much of the twentieth century and today’s houses still bear witness to this long cultural and environmental interaction.

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Lebo credits to Anne Jensen and UIC for project funding for North Slope study

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