Unalakleet, Norton Sound

Unalakleet, Norton Sound

by | Apr 22, 2023

Unalakleet is an IñupiaqYup’ik community built on an ancient beach ridge with an elevation of 7 feet (2 m) at the mouth of the Unalakleet River on the eastern coast of Norton Sound, about 145 miles (234 km) southeast of Nome, and 36 miles (58 km) south-southeast of Shaktoolik, Alaska. The native name for Unalakleet means ‘from the southern side’ and was spelled ‘Ounalaklik’ in 1850 by Lieutenant Lavrenty A. Zagoskin who was a Russian naval officer and explorer of Alaska. Norton Sound is an inlet of the Bering Sea between the Seward Peninsula to the north and the Yukon River delta to the south. It is typically ice-free only from June to October. The inlet was named in 1778 by Captain James Cook after Sir Fletcher Norton, then Speaker of the British House of Commons. The Unalakleet River starts at an elevation of 2,500 feet (762 m) in the Nulato Hills and flows generally southwest for 90 miles (145 km) draining a watershed of 1,005,417 acres (406,878 ha) to Norton Sound. The main channel is roughly aligned with the Kaltag Fault that can be traced from Norton Sound to the Yukon River by geologic discontinuities in the bedrock along its entire length. Overlying the bedrock on both sides of the lower Unalakleet River mainstem are sedimentary rocks that developed during the Cretaceous from deltaic deposits consisting of nonmarine fluvial and delta plain deposits that grade downward into shallow-marine deposits.

Archaeologists have found house pits along the Unalakleet beach ridge dating from 200 BC to 300 AD. The village has long been a major trade center between the Koyokon Athabascan people on the Yukon and the Inupiat who lived on the coast. The village is situated at the terminus for the Kaltag Portage, an important winter travel route connecting the Yukon River to Norton Sound. The Koyokon Athabascan on the Yukon were considered ‘professional’ traders with a monopoly on the trade across the Kaltag Portage. In 1830, the Russian-American Company built a trading post at Unalakleet, and in 1833, a bigger one at Saint Michaels to the south where deeper waters close to shore allowed large ships to dock. In 1867, the Alaska Purchase transferred the territory from Russia to the United States, and in 1898, Sámi reindeer herders from Lapland were brought to Unalakleet by Sheldon Jackson to build sustainable reindeer herds and to teach animal husbandry and herding practices. In 1901, the Army Signal Corps built a telegraph line over 605 miles (974 km) of tundra from Saint Michael to Unalakleet and over the portage to Kaltag. Reindeer herding was not sustainable in this area, but most residents of Unalakleet retained the traditional subsistence foods of fish, seal, caribou, moose, and bear.

The Russian Orthodox Church opened schools at major Russian American Company trading posts, and the church continued supporting these schools even after the Alaska Purchase. The U.S. Government did not undertake responsibility for education in rural villages until 1884 when Sheldon Jackson was appointed the first General Agent of Education in Alaska. He invited Protestant churches to open missions and schools around Alaska, and the Swedish Covenant Church built and managed a school at Unalakleet from 1887 to 1895. In 1933, the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs built a new day school at Unalakleet to implement the federal educational philosophy of the time that stressed reading, speaking, and writing the English language, arithmetic, and practical skills. In 1978, the State of Alaska constructed a new school, and the federal school was discontinued. Unalakleet maintains a close connection to other villages on Norton Sound and the Yukon Delta by a network of winter trails including part of the historic Iditarod Trail. The trail originally started in Seward on the Gulf of Alaska and traversed the Chugach Mountains, then up the Susitna River valley to Rainy Pass in the Alaska Range, down the frozen Yukon River to Unalakleet, and then along the shore of Norton Sound to Nome. The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is an annual event commemorating the legacy of dog mushing, including the 1925 serum run to Nome that transported diphtheria antitoxin by dog sled relay. Read more here and here. Explore more of Unalakleet and Norton Sound here:

About the background graphic

This ‘warming stripe’ graphic is a visual representation of the change in global temperature from 1850 (top) to 2022 (bottom). Each stripe represents the average global temperature for one year. The average temperature from 1971-2000 is set as the boundary between blue and red. The color scale goes from -0.7°C to +0.7°C. The data are from the UK Met Office HadCRUT4.6 dataset. 

Credit: Professor Ed Hawkins (University of Reading). Click here for more information about the #warmingstripes.

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