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.
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
net as he pulled it from a crack in the ice to check it.
It was that event with seining net that gave
(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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
Herman Rexford designated resident lay leader February
Isaac Akootchook called as certified lay pastor November
The Rev. John Wilson installed for Kaktovik and
Anaktuvuk Pass April 1991; dissolved November 25, 1991.
Isaac Akootchook renewed as certified lay pastor October
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
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
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
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