Kaktovik, Alaska

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Kaktovik, or Inuuniagviat Qaaqtuvigmiut, is the ancestral homeland of the native Kaktovikmiut of the Arctic Coast of Alaska. This region, home to the Kaktovikmuit for thousands of years, extends from the continental divide in the Brooks Range to approximately 100 kilometers offshore in the Arctic Ocean, from the Sagavanirktok River on the west, well into present-day Canada on the east.  It's an isolated Arctic village that has maintained its Inupiat Eskimo traditions. Nearly seven of every eight residents are wholly or partly Alaska Native Inupiat whose families have lived in the region for centuries.

The village itself of Kaktovik is located on the northern shore of Barter Island, facing Kaktovik Lagoon and the Beaufort Sea. Kaktovik, located just north of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) Coastal Plain on Barter Island, is the only village within the Refuge. It is the easternmost village in the North Slope Borough (NSB), just 90 miles from the Canadian border.  The community is located in the Barrow Recording District and is located about 300 miles east of Barrow with a population of approximately 250 people, most of whom are  The area encompasses 1 square mile of land and 0.2 square mile of water.

Archeological investigations reveal that man has occupied the region for at least 11,000 years. Though man's early presence in the area is sparse, limited to a few archeological sites near the coast, evidence of a large prehistoric village once existed on the island is clearly apparent. These sites contain artifacts that reflect a hunter-gatherer subsistence economy. The people  lived in sod houses and the harsh winters were not at all forgiving, making it hard for them to hunt and survive off the land.  Life was very difficult then and many people suffered.  The first white explorers found 30 to 40 old house sites there. Even though it was not being used as a permanent village at the time, it remained a seasonal home for some of the semi-nomadic ancestors of the present residents, who used the area in pursuit of caribou, sheep, sea mammals including the bowhead whale, fish and birds.  One legend says these prehistoric people, the Qanmaliurat, were driven east to the Canadian side by other Inupiat.  Another account states that the disappearance of the village took place after the Qanmaliurat killed one couple's only son. Pipsuk, grandson of Tiqutaaq, a former longtime resident who lived in the area around Canning River, came to Barter Island to fish.  Pipsuk was drowned in the lagoon while fishing from a qayaq. After searching in vain for his son, the boy's father discovered the arm of his son in a seining net as he pulled it from a crack in the ice to check it.  It was that event with seining net that gave Qaaktugvik (Kaktovik) its name “seining place” (qaaktuq means to seine for fish, qaaktaq is the name for round whitefish).

Barter Island, as the name suggests, has been an important trading center for centuries. Canadian Inuit people met here to trade with Barrow-area residents, sometimes while traveling to the trading center at Nigalik at the mouth of the Colville River. Inland people also came down from the mountains to trade, and even Indians from the south of the Brooks Range visited here occasionally.  Sir John Franklin* mentions stopping at what is today's Arey Island, which he named "Barter Island," on August 4, 1826.  He counted 54 adults with "a collection of tents planted on a low island with many oomiacks, kaiyacks, and dogs around them."  Contacts between Natives and non-Natives intensified after the late 1860s during which time whaling fleets wintered over at Herschel Island, introducing epidemic disease and increasing competition for local resources such as caribou. 

*Sir John Franklin (1786-1847), an English rear-admiral in the Royal Navy and an Arctic explorer who mapped almost two thirds of the northern coastline of North America.

Barter Island was an important stop for commercial whalers during the 1890's and early 1900's, and residents of the region came to rely on the ability to obtain trade goods there.  Contact with whalers and traders resulted in replacement of stone and bone implements with knives, axes, and other metal implements. Firearms replaced the bow and arrow and spear. By virtue of their numbers and the fact that many over-wintered in the arctic, the whalers had a profound influence on the local Inupiat culture. The whalers brought trade goods, including food, utensils, firearms, and alcohol, which they exchanged for caribou and sheep meat and for winter clothing manufactured from caribou hides.  Arctic explorer, Vilhjalmur Stefansson, noted in the early 1900s that although the Inupiat at first had little to do with foods brought in by whalers, they quickly learned to use flour, molasses, and other staples. These foodstuffs first were luxuries and then became necessities.

With the cessation of whaling for bowheads, in about 1910, the Inupiat experienced the first in a series of boom and bust cycles.

In 1917, whaler and trader Charles Brewer sent his associate, Tom Gordon from Barrow to Demarcation Point to establish a fur trading post there, one of a string of establishments along the Beaufort Coast.  It was not until 1923 that Tom Gordon established a fur trading post for the H.B. Liebes Company of San Francisco. He moved his wife, Mary Agiaq Gordon from Barrow to Barter Island with their family, some relatives, friends, and their families. Mary's younger brother, Andrew Akootchook, helped to choose the location for the trading post due to its good harbor and convenient and accessible location for hunting on land and sea. The parents of Akootchook's wife, Adam Alasuuraq and Eve Kignak and their son Ologak and his wife Annie Taiyugaaq moved from Barrow to Barter Island to be with their relatives and enjoy the good hunting there. The trading post provided a market for their furs and was the beginning of modern Kaktovik. Tom Gordon and the settlers built a trading post at the site and a few families settled nearby. The trading post served as an exchange point for furs and was the beginning of Kaktovik as a permanent settlement.

In the 1890s, semi-domesticated reindeer (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 1920s, under the auspices of the Alaska Reindeer Service local superintendent at Barrow, several herds of reindeer were established in the (current 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. The total number of reindeer was estimated at 2700 in 1930.  

The winter of 1935-36 was exceptionally severe. By 1936 the official number of reindeer had dropped to 1,172.  Virtually no fur bearing animals, caribou, seal or fish were available.   Families were destitute with nothing to eat but flour.  Most of the dogs starved to death. The snow that winter was deep and crusted. Several reindeer starved or were killed by the families for food.  Attempts to establish additional reindeer herd near Barter Island were not successful.  Severe winters during 1936 and 1937 resulted in loss of most of the deer to starvation. Others were killed by people for food and clothing. Mosquitoes afflicted the reindeer herds making it very difficult to manage the animals in the summer.  Wolves also threatened the herds.  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 reestablish 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.  That same year, the heavy rain fall that encrusted the snow made it impossible for reindeer to get to their food supply. Most of the reindeer starved to death. Wolves and people killed the rest.  Another attempt to establish a reindeer herd in the Barter Island region was tried by bringing reindeer from the Barrow herds. The reindeer turned back to their Barrow herd and others mixed in with the area caribou.  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 in 1938 they killed the few animals that remained, ending the era of reindeer herding in Barter Island. 

Beginning in the 1920s fur trapping was a good source of cash income, replacing caribou as a trade good. But the price of fox fur dropped in the late 1930s, 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 to MacKenzie River villages in Canada. Other families either remained in the Barter Island area or moved temporarily to Barrow until additional employment opportunities became available in the area.

Hard times continued in the region until 1945 when the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey began mapping the Beaufort Sea coastline, bringing some wage employment.

World War II had little effect on Kaktovik residents, but the post-war military build-up brought major changes. Barter Island was chosen as a radar site for the Distant Early Warning (DEW Line) system, which extended across the Alaskan and Canadian Arctic. This development provided jobs for area residents, and was the cause of three village relocations.

 In 1947, the Air Force built an airport runway and hangar facility on Barter Island's eastern sandspit, on top of a prehistoric village site, necessitating a move of the village to a new site about 1650 yards to the west.

 In 1951, a Bureau of Indian Affairs school was opened in Kaktovik.

Also in 1951, the entire area around Kaktovik, some 4,500 acres, was made a military reserve.  In 1953 another relocation, slightly to the west and father back from the beach, was necessary because of DEW-Line road construction. It required not only that the community be relocated, but also that the former community site and an important archeological site be covered over by sand and gravel. 

The third location of Kaktovik is located on the east shore of the Island across the Kaktovik Lagoon from the airport. The village was moved to this, its present site, in 1964 when the DEW-Line station again expanded. The move was desired by the residents of the village for health and other reasons. This time though, the village received title to the present site, but not to the old cemetery nearby. It is the starting point for all subsistence activities in the area and is the location of the local office for ANWR.

Kaktovik Presbyterian Church

Kaktovik Presbyterian Church at Barter Island was officially organized February 27, 1966. It had been a mission of the Utkeagvik Presbyterian Church at Barrow from October 15, 1889 to January 1951. They received pastoral care from Barrow but had never had an "ordained" minister of their own. 

Andrew Akootchook, a lay preacher trained by Dr. Henry W. Griest, itinerate along the Arctic coast from Barrow to Demarcation Point, conducting services for scattered families. Dr. Griest also trained Dr. Roy Ahmaogak. The Rev. Fred Klerekoper assisted with this ministry from Barrow between 1936 and 1945. 

Diary of Fred G. Klerekoper, Dogsled Trip from Barrow to Demarcation Point, 1936-1945. Published by the North Slope Borough Commission on History and Culture, June 1977. 

Klerekoper writes in April of 1937:

"We finally arrived at Barter Island." 

Klerekoper meets Tom Gordon; Andrew Akootchook; Mildred Keaton, a nurse; and Daugherty, the schoolteacher from Barrow and reindeer advisor. Klerekoper is there for a meeting of the church session. He observes:

"Here is a woman living with a man as common law wife, not exactly their fault. It is 400 miles plus to the nearest licensed commissioner and preacher over the tough trail we have just traversed.

"We come to Andrew Akootchook's home. There is a polar bear cub in the house. To enter this place, you go through a low snow entrance into a snow hallway. Many entrances lead from it. Here are kayaks, pieces of sheet iron, and room for dogs. Inside are ten children and a polar bear cub. Andrew has just been elected president of the reindeer company. He is the father of 13 children. Behind the house is a cemetery."

April 28, 1937:

“Arrive at Takpuk's. Their whole camp is out to meet us. Takpuk has lost his wife last fall but has the assurance that she is in heaven. It is his greatest comfort in sorrow. On the North Star, are Germans who said Eskimos receive nothing from religion and that missionaries are wasting their time. He should hear Takpuk. We have a service and to me the spiritual strength of the Eskimo is evident. He lives closer to his Creator then at least one German I know -- There is something contagious about the calm, large personality of Takpuk.” (Takpuk was the Rev. Roy Ahmaogak's maternal grandfather.)

The beginnings of the Kaktovik Presbyterian congregation dates back to 1941. In that year, Andrew Akootchook, a lay preacher trained by Dr. Henry W. Griest of Barrow, made his home at Barter Island and conducted worship services in his home. The Charlie Gordon family also participated. 

A letter written in 1950 revealed that of the 43 Eskimos then living on Barter Island per se, 29 or 31 of them were Andrew Akootchook's own family. He was recommended for special ordination to carry on this ministry. However, before the ordination could take place, he was accidentally killed.

Following Andrew's death, worship continued in the Akootchook home from 1951 through 1953, under the lay leadership of Herman Rexford. From 1953 through 1956, the congregation met in the village school, which also doubled as the home of Harold Kaveolook. From 1956 through 1965, the congregation met in a quonset hut.

Groundbreaking for the present church structure occurred in 1963, and the people begin worshipping in the unfinished building in October of 1964. In April of 1965, Presbytery began procedures to organize the chapels at Barter Island and Anaktuvuk Pass as official churches.

The Barter Island congregation organized February 27, 1966 with 45 charter members. All 45 joined by transfer of letter from Barrow’s Utkeagvik United Presbyterian Church. The new church was called Kaktovik United Presbyterian Church of Barter Island.

Elders in 1966 were Harold Kaveolook acting clerk; Herman S. Rexford, acting chairman; and Perry Akootchook, elder.

In 1968, the records show that the church was attempting to get a deed to the church property, which was made more difficult by the fact that the village was unincorporated. In 1984, the records show that a part of the church property was dedicated for a road and road right away to the new school and teacher housing.

  • Nelson Ahvakana called as certified lay pastor in October 1978.

  • Herman Rexford designated resident lay leader February 8, 1984.

  • Isaac Akootchook called as certified lay pastor November 18, 1987.

  • The Rev. John Wilson installed for Kaktovik and Anaktuvuk Pass April 1991; dissolved November 25, 1991.

  • Isaac Akootchook renewed as certified lay pastor October 6, 1995. 


The availability of jobs from government projects caused a rapid increase in population , which jumped from 46 people in 1950 to 140 by 1953. The population remained stable until new developments in Kaktovik beckoned some former residents to return from Barrow. 

In 1968, the tiny, secluded village of Kaktovik changed dramatically with the discovery of the largest oil field in the history of North America in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska.  Prudhoe Bay is 120 miles to the west of Kaktovik.  For the first time in the history of the Inupiat people, their land became valuable to outsiders. 

The discovery of the oil fields in Prudhoe Bay resulted in increased revenue, jobs, goods and services for the people of the North Slope.  By the late 1970's, the benefits of the North Slope Borough's taxation of the oil fields became apparent to all Alaskans particularly in communities where subsistence had been the primary occupation.  As a direct result of the development of oil, life in Kaktovik changed.  The North Slope Borough hired local residents to complete the projects and housing upgrades.  New housing and roads were built; street lights and a power plant were installed and a new school was built.

It is currently the DEW line headquarters and supplies all the DEW line sites. The US Air Force began constructing an airstrip on Barter Island in 1947, and later constructed a Defense Early Warning (DEW) Line Station in the area. The community was moved three times due to military construction and operations. In the above photo you can see the DEW line station dish antennas on the left side of the photo.

Passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (1971), the founding of the village corporation and the North Slope Borough brought the greatest increase in job opportunities to Kaktovik, though unemployment remains high due to Kaktovik's isolation. The great increase in Borough-funded jobs in the late 1970's brought rapid change.  Most of the available jobs are in education, work for the North Slope Borough or work providing city services. Part-time seasonal jobs, such as in construction, provide some income. The one school is attended by about 85 students and staffed with 8 teachers.

In 1971, the Kaktovik Inupiat Corporation was formed as a result of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) and in September 1971, Kaktovik was reclassified as a second-class city.


Although beautiful and rich in resources, the region can also be a very inhospitable place.  It has taken us thousands of years to adapt to life here year round.  Winters can last as long as nine months, with temperatures reaching as low as 50 degrees below zero Fahrenheit.  In the summer it is not uncommon for temperatures to remain below 45 degrees Farenheit.

In early 2005, Kaktovik suffered a winter storm that wiped out nearly all power and heat to the village.  Winds ran at rates of 70 miles per hour, while air temperature was as low as 40 below zero and snow drifts rose as high 30 feet.  The Governor declared the storm a state disaster and it took FEMA and the National Guard nearly a week to land their planes in Kaktovik due to the severe conditions.  When help finally arrived to help repair the damages and bring supplies, they found most of the population gathered together at the Community Center riding it out. 

With weather like it has, it's a good thing the Kaktovikmuit still retain their culture and traditions relating to the Inupiat Eskimos - partaking in subsistence hunting of the caribou, bowhead whales, walruses and seals to support their way of life.  The Kaktovikmiut is that they are the only indigenous people in the world to hunt both the bowhead whale as well as Dall sheep.  Their survival in a climate so severe is a testament to their knowledge and inner strength.




City of Kaktovik, P.O. Box 27, Kaktovik, Alaska 99747
Phone: 907-640-6313