Gambell, Northwest Cape

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Gambell, Northwest Cape

by | Jan 29, 2021

Gambell is a community on Northwest Cape, at the northwest tip of Saint Lawrence Island, about 196 miles (316 km) southwest of Nome, Alaska, and 62 miles (100 km) southeast of Provideniya, Russia. This village was named for Mr. and Mrs. Vene C. Gambell, who were Presbyterian missionaries and teachers here from 1894-1898. The couple and 32 others drowned when the schooner Jane Grey sank off Cape Flattery while en route to Kotzebue Sound.

There is archaeological evidence of severe famine and that prehistorical occupations of the island were never permanent. The island was used as a hunting base with travel to and from the mainland during calm weather. There are 8 historical village sites and Gambell and Savoonga are the only remaining communities. About 95% of the population is Siberian Yup’ik and their name for the island is Sivuqaq. The Siberian Yup’ik language of St. Lawrence Island is closely related to Chaplino, a dialect spoken by the indigenous people along the coast of Chukotka in the Russian Far East. Originally this was one language, one culture, and one people. Divisions appeared when the border was closed to cultural contacts during the Cold War from 1948-1988. On the Russian side, the Yup’ik language has been used in schools since the late 1920s and on the American side, the Yup’ik language was not used in schools until the 1970s. Today, most residents of St. Lawrence Island are bilingual.

Diseases introduced by Euro-Americans followed by a tragic famine between 1878 and 1880 decimated the island population. In 1900, reindeer were introduced as food for local use, and in 1903, President Roosevelt established a reindeer reservation. In 1971, the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act was passed by the U.S. Congress to resolve long-standing issues surrounding aboriginal land claims in Alaska. The villages of Gambell and Savoonga decided not to participate and instead opted for joint ownership of the 1.136 million acres (459,723 ha) of land in the former St. Lawrence Island Reserve. The isolation of Gambell has helped to maintain their traditional Saint Lawrence Yup’ik culture, language, and subsistence lifestyle which is based on marine mammals and walrus-hide boats that are still used to hunt. Read more here and here. Explore more of Gambell here:

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