Helping indigenous people face an uncertain future in the Arctic

Looking towards the Alaska Range as the sun sets in the summer, Denali National Park, Alaska

Looking towards the Alaska Range, Denali National Park, Alaska (credit: Shelley Wales/GettyImages)

As climate change threatens Alaska’s traditional cultures, an award-winning project is helping local people understand their past and prepare for the future.

The effects of climate change are particularly pronounced in the Arctic.

In Western Alaska, the Yup’ik Eskimos face an uncertain future, as rising temperatures, melting permafrost and coastal erosion threaten their traditional ways of living.

The Nunalleq project, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, is helping the community:

  • understand its past
  • look ahead
  • face this uncertainty.

Culture and environment entwine

For thousands of years, the life of the Yup’ik people has been entwined with their environment of land, sea and ice.

This relationship is central to their world view, as reflected in the Yup’ik word ‘ella’, which can be translated as:

  • ‘weather’
  • ‘world’
  • ‘awareness’
  • or ‘universe.’

Climate change threatens not just their livelihoods but their very culture.

Spectacular but fragile

At the same time, the melting permafrost is revealing a spectacular but fragile archaeological resource.

This includes a settlement near the village of Quinhagak called Nunalleq, in Yup’ik ‘the old village’, which dates back at least 700 years.

More than 100,000 artefacts have been discovered including:

  • ritual masks
  • ivory tattoo needles
  • a belt of caribou teeth.

This collection, by far the largest assembly of pre-contact Yup’ik material ever found, is now in the purpose-built Quinhagak museum.

Past and future

One of the oldest roadhouses of Alaska, located in Boundary

One of the oldest roadhouses of Alaska (credit: brytta/GettyImages)

The rich archaeological record from the Nunalleq site is being used to tell how the local people have faced life-changing situations before.

It will help their descendants struggling with global warming to understand their past and take charge of their future.

As part of the project, the team produced a free interactive multimedia resource for children that has been used widely in schools and the community.

Interactive resource

‘Nunalleq: Stories from the Village of our Ancestors’, explores the excavation of a 500-year old Yup’ik sod house in the village.

It brings to life the village’s history, and takes local people on a journey from their past to their future.

Designed in partnership with the community, the interactive resource (Serious Animation) combines archaeological evidence with traditional Yup’ik knowledge and storytelling, dance, art and shared experiences across generations.

The programme, developed in partnership with the University of Dundee, was awarded the 2021 Award for Outstanding Digital Archaeology by the Archaeological Institute of America.

New understanding, fresh insights

Project leader Dr Rick Knecht is from the University of Aberdeen.

With his team, Rick has spent 12 years excavating at Quinhagak and living among the people to develop a deep understanding of their culture.

Dr Knecht says:

The Nunalleq project has continued to exceed our fondest hopes in terms of the spectacular finds, amazing new insights into the Yup’ik past and a whole new level of engagement of Yup’ik young people with their culture and traditions.

Last updated: 30 July 2021

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