Alaska’s age-old hunting and fishing traditions, hands-on in 2017

One of many lookout points where Selawik hunters may wait for caribou.

If the grocery stores and farmers’ markets all disappeared tomorrow, could you keep your family alive based on your hunter-gatherer skills? If you’re from northwest Alaska, chances are you’ve had a chance to hone those skills and might do better than average. The people of the Selawik River, in the Kotzebue Sound region of arctic Alaska, have survived for generations due to an in-depth knowledge of hunting, fishing, and their local environment. Families and friends work together to gather food, medicine, and materials from the surrounding lands.

Cutting Northern Pike in the community of Selawik with a traditional ulu knife. USFWS/Dan Prince

This indigenous knowledge (Siilviŋmiut, the people of the Selawik River, are Native Alaskan Iñupiat) continues to be essential as wild-caught foods are healthier, fresher, and considerably more affordable for people in remote Alaska than any store-bought food, and this knowledge helps most households in Selawik and surrounding communities put food on the table.

Lowbush cranberries, aka lingonberries, are one of the delicious berries Alaskans enjoy. Photo: USFWS/Katrina Liebich

Today, the traditional hunting and fishing grounds of the Siilviŋmiut Iñupiat are largely protected within the 2-million-acre Selawik National Wildlife Refuge. In Northwest Alaska and across the state, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service works closely with tribes to manage and conserve culturally important lands and resources. One long-standing partnership project, the Selawik Science-Culture Camp, takes place each fall.

Science-Culture Camp: a 15 year tradition

The Native Village of Selawik teams with the Selawik National Wildlife Refuge and the local school to organize and host the Selawik Science-Culture Camp, as it has done for over 15 years. The camp came about out of concern from Selawik’s elders that young people were losing some of their connection to the land. The elders felt that youth needed a chance to get out onto the river and the surrounding tundra to reconnect, as well as to observe and practice their hands-on hunting, fishing and gathering skills. Recognizing that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service shared many of these same priorities — supporting hunting and fishing, connecting people with nature, and (in Alaska) sustaining the traditional subsistence way of life, local residents approached the Selawik Refuge to ask for support. USFWS funds make the camp possible and USFWS staff is part of the team at every stage, planning dates and logistics as well as sharing educational activities with kids during camp.

Pulling Northern Pike and whitefish from a gillnet at Selawik Science-Culture Camp.

Kids in Nature’s Classroom

If you visit the village of Selawik on a crisp, bright September morning (you’ll have to take a boat or airplane to get there), you may see a boisterous group of kids clad in colorful life vests climbing aboard boats bound for Culture Camp. After a 15-minute boat trip, they spend the day in the outdoors with local instructors, elders, and USFWS staff cleaning and cutting fish, berry picking, water and water-bug sampling, and caribou hunting.

Camp scenes from left: Young kids picking blueberries; scraping scales from whitefish and pike (one of the first skills taught to the youngest campers); high school students butchering a caribou. Photos: USFWS

You might see kids scaling whitefish, cutting Northern Pike with traditional ulu knives, stalking and gutting caribou, or gathering wild cranberries and greens. You might hear them practicing newly acquired Iñupiaq words (“kuvraqruq” means “to check a net”), identifying the water boatmen and freshwater snails they caught in a minnow net, or racing to identify the next tundra plant on their photo scavenger hunt.

The voices of local experts will be in the mix, talking about gun safety, what to pack when going on a hunting trip, or how to cut a fish just right so it will dry for future use. The day will include a freshly cooked lunch of wild foods such as caribou soup, baked fish, cranberry sauce, or even raw eggs straight out of a just-caught humpback whitefish.

An annual event for over fifteen years, the Selawik Science-Culture Camp has now become a local tradition, but it’s also a venue for the continuation of hunting and fishing traditions that are immeasurably older.


Brittany Sweeney is the Outreach Specialist for the Selawik National Wildlife Refuge. In Alaska we are shared stewards of world renowned natural resources and our nation’s last true wild places. Our hope is that each generation has the opportunity to live with, live from, discover and enjoy the wildness of this awe-inspiring land and the people who love and depend on it.

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