Ukivok, King Island

Ukivok, King Island

by | Aug 2, 2022

Ukivok is a historical Iñupiat village on Uġiuvak Island, also known as King Island which is about 1.5 miles (2.4 km) across with very steep slopes on all sides and a distinctive double-peaked summit situated in the Bering Sea, about 86 miles (138 km) west-northwest of Nome and 45 miles (73 km) south of Wales, Alaska. The island was named by Captain James Cook in 1778 for Lieutenant James King who was a member of Cook’s third voyage of discovery. The northern shelf of the Bering Sea is formed by the York terrane or terrace. The basement rocks are most likely of Precambrian and Paleozoic age. Overlying this basement are mainly Cenozoic sedimentary rocks with a thickness of about 4 miles (6.5 km) that was originally deposited in a marine environment, During the Late Cretaceous, these deep sediments were intruded by plutons. The remnants of these igneous intrusions are the islands offshore of the Seward Peninsula in the Bering Sea such as King Island, Sledge Island near Nome, Fairway Rock, and Little Diomede. King Island is a relatively small pluton made of biotitehornblende quartz monzonites that may have formed between about 112 and 85 million years ago. During the Pleistocene, the northern Bering Sea was subjected to several glacial episodes when enough of the earth’s water became frozen in the great polar ice sheets covering North America and Europe to cause a drop in sea levels. For thousands of years, the sea floors of many interglacial shallow seas were exposed, including those of the Bering Sea and the Chukchi Sea to the north. At certain times in prehistory, the drop in sea level formed a land bridge that was up to 620 miles (1,000 km) wide at its greatest extent, allowing human migrations between Asia and North America, and biogeographical evidence demonstrates several genetic connections associated with these episodes.

King Islanders have occupied the island for between 1000 and 2000 years. Oral accounts indicate two other villages existed on the island in prehistoric times. They engaged in subsistence hunting and gathering on the island and on the mainland near Cape Woolley. Subsistence activities on and around the island included hunting seals and walruses, crab fishing, and gathering bird eggs. King Island is an excellent place for hunters to pursue the herds of Pacific walrus during their spring and fall migrations through the Bering Sea. Walruses provided meat, blubber, waterproof gear, rope, and most significantly, skins for boats called umiaks. The largest portion of harvested resources came from umiaq crews. Therefore, good access to walruses generally meant a healthy economy and overall village population. The abundance of game and thus the prospect of never going hungry probably compensated for the hardship of living on the island. Prior to contact with Europeans, the island was home to about 200 people who built houses of rock, sod, and driftwood into the hillside. In the late 1800s, they switched to homes with walrus-skin walls over a square wooden frame, with moss and grass insulating the ceilings and walls. The split walrus hide was stretched around the building to protect against the elements and lashed with straps. Later still, they began to build wooden frame homes. Both styles were perched on stilts anchored to the slope with braided walrus hide. Ukivok is among the few Arctic villages with stilt houses in an environment where wood is essentially lacking. Early photographs of the village show the stilt houses and skin-drying racks with their numerous poles, giving the impression that these structures hung from the cliff. Historical documents and early accounts indicate that stilt architecture was a late development in what is now known to be at least a thousand years of occupation on King Island. Stilt houses replaced semi-subterranean barabaras located on the flatter terrain at the island summit and became widespread in response to an increase in driftwood logs appearing off the island during the 19th century. This is at about the same time that steel tools and building skills arrived with whalers and missionaries.

Before the introduction of commercial lumber, King Islanders had access only to driftwood and timber from the Alaska mainland and logs drifting by the island. The driftwood found in the Bering Sea comes mainly from the Yukon River drainage basin, which is Alaska’s largest wood-producing basin. Drift logs collected on King Island in 1939 apparently originated along the Yukon River in the area of the Yukon Flats as well as near the tree line, most probably on the lower Yukon. The last 150 years of village occupation were marked by a transition from solely driftwood construction to one where driftwood was first supplemented and then largely replaced by commercial lumber. Beginning in the 19th century, lumber and planks were probably traded by early Russian explorers and whalers who stopped at King Island on their way north. However, tools rather than wood were more often reported as prime trading items. In the first two decades of the 20th century, commercial lumber was brought to the island more systematically, and the period following 1940 marked the beginning of large imports of lumber. In 1959, the Bureau of Indian Affairs closed the village school, which had been built in 1929, resulting in the removal of all school-age students to a boarding school in Nome. This precipitated the gradual move of King Islanders to Nome and to other villages on the Alaskan mainland. The island population dropped from 120 in 1959 to 35 in 1962 to just 9 year-round residents in 1966. By 1967, the village was abandoned except for limited seasonal occupation by walrus hunters. Read more here and here. Explore more of Ukivok and King Island here:

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About the background graphic

This ‘warming stripe’ graphic is a visual representation of the change in global temperature from 1850 (top) to 2021 (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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