Change…On “Top Of the World”

By: Solomon H. Katz

Originally Published in 1972

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The Arctic ranks with the highest mountains and the broadest deserts as one of the most severe environments occupied by man. Extreme low temperatures of —30 to —60 degrees F. com­bined with winds up to fifty miles an hour produce chill factors well below —100 degrees F. It is both continuously dark and light for several months of each year. Yet, people have survived in the Arctic for millennia. The resources are so meager that they have been forced to live in small scattered groups. This separation was so extreme that in 1818 when John Ross first contacted the Polar Eskimos of Smith Sound in Greenland, they were shocked to find that they were not the only people in the world.”

With the close of World War II, the arctic regions around the world began rapidly accelerat­ing their process of change and acculturation to the larger national populations and cultures of which they are a part. In this article, we will see how recent national policies in this country con­cerning defense, statehood, oil and the Native Land Claim Settlement all impose pressures for some subtle and some not so subtle changes in the lives of North Alaskan Eskimo peoples.

Circumpolar Priorities

In the course of my research in health prob­lems created by the impact of modern technology and rapid social change in these regions, I have had the opportunity to visit many circumpolar places and compare notes with some highly knowledgeable individuals. What is increasingly apparent from my visits and discussions is the emergence of a pattern of rapid change which more closely mirrors national level priorities and plans for development of the various regions, than some of the needs and problems of the people.

In Finland, for example, the push for exten­sive lumbering in the Arctic has produced a rapid development of roadways now used widely by tourists to go to all parts of Lappland. In the Lappish town of lnari, tourism has grown to the point where the native Lappish people have estab­lished an outdoor ethnic museum. It earns cash by providing some fascinating views of their life style and simultaneously keeps most tourists out of their backyards.

On the Russian side of Lappland the con­tinued development of the Arctic seaport of Mur­mansk and its rail links with Leningrad passing through some Lappish regions have led to rapid changes for these people. One prominent Soviet scientist explained to me that programs of educa­tion for some of these Lapplanders were now so advanced” that occasionally they would become University professors. However, it is perhaps sig­nificant that this was a digression during a discussion of health problems that the other Russian Lapps were still having from continuing the old traditional practice of gulping down chunks of deer meat.

In the Western Hemisphere, the Danes, in attempting to stimulate economic autonomy for Greenland, have tried everything from packaging glacial ice for use in mixed drinks in Copenhagen to opening a new and plush Arctic hotel. Some Canadians have estimated that for the amount of money they spend on supplying rather meager welfare for people in scattered arctic settlements they could easily bring these people into down­town Ottawa and support them better. Although there are no serious moves in that direction, the idea of consolidating settlements in Canada is real. In this article, which is about Alaska, we will see that probably the four main factors historically underlying its recent development and change were defense, statehood, oil, and the Native Land Claim Settlement, in that order.

Evolutionary Significance of Change

In the Arctic, it is evident that change is occurring at a pace rarely attained in North Amer­ican history. In fact, the nature of these changes is influencing the very survival of these peoples. There is no question that these radical changes in their patterns of living stretch their adaptability to its limits and profoundly influence their evolution.

We have been working with the idea that a very thorough analysis of the Arctic ecosystem is the best way to investigate this problem of human adaptability and evolution. By focusing on physical and mental health issues we obtain both an analysis of the effects of these changes on the health and adaptability of the people and, simultaneously, a way of passing along some con­structive feedback on how to cope with these problems. The ecosystems framework we are using consists basically of analyzing the inter­actions of biological, socio-cultural, environ­mental and demographic variables and adding, whenever necessary, technological and economic factors into the analysis of a community.

While our main research is concerned with the prediction of health variables, it is obvious that the processes of national culture contact, in­cluding technological and economic change, have had highly significant effects upon the people. In this article I will attempt to explore informally the magnitude and implications of these changes. In this way I can discuss both the broader frame­work in which they are occurring as a result of national policies and, in the narrower sense, their impact at the local level.

As this picture of today’s Alaskan Arctic peoples unfolds, we must ask ourselves continu­ously some important questions. Perhaps most important of all we must come to ask if past rationales for public policies which gave these people little control over their destiny should con­tinue to justify future policy. In answering this question we must begin to realize that for all of our eager attempts and good intentions to help with educational, health, and economic problems and to provide other welfare services, the changes these services introduce may not meet with the real needs and will of the intended recipients. What is clearly needed in many areas of the world is to develop new ways of feeding back and inte­grating national level goals and priorities with those of the people at the local level. This is especially true in those cases where the people, because of historic reasons, have not hitherto been able to play a significant role in this process of mutual give and take.

Instead of discussing the impact of change on Alaska as a whole, I will focus intensively on a specific community which in many ways repre­sents a microcosm of the kinds of problems faced by most of the native Eskimo peoples of Alaska. I will simply describe the facts and let them speak for themselves; more formal analyses are written elsewhere. Barrow, Alaska has been called the Top of the World. Not only is the nickname appro­priate geographically because it is the northern­most community on the North American continent, but also because it has frequently been the first to undergo the kinds of changes that are occur­ring in a half dozen similar communities in Alaska, whose populations grew about ten times faster between 1950 and 1970 than the surrounding small native villages. Barrow was always a little ahead of the others. It grew large a little earlier, and has had a better economic and health record.

In 1940 Barrow had 345 people, by 1950, 951 people and by 1970, in excess of 2,250 people. This sixfold increase in population size over thirty years is associated with a number of the most difficult problems with which the community has to deal. In Alaska, this rapid growth was due largely to the need for national defense during the Cold War period in the late forties and early fifties, which was then followed by statehood and more recently by the discovery of oil in the Prudoe Bay area.

The infusion of cash in Barrow during the late forties and fifties as the result of large building projects associated with Defense Department contracts, attracted many families who came in the hope of satisfying their needs. For the men it may have been an outboard motor, or a good rifle; for the women it was frequently a sewing machine. Of course, many other attractions existed in the form of better health and education facilities, kin ties and the continuous availability of a wide range of “lower 48” goods and services. This combination of migrants, money, and ser­vices had some subtle and not altogether predict­able effects upon their lives.

Today, change in Barrow is apparent at all social levels. It is not uncommon in the evening to walk into a traditional Eskimo dance and see the older generation dancing to the ancient art of beating drums made from walrus stomachs stretched across wooden hoops, and then, across the street, see the younger generation dancing to the blast of electric guitars and hard rock music. This generational contrast is apparent in every activity. In 1964 a city planning map for Barrow shows the special space set aside for some five hundred sled dogs, which were projected if the community continued to grow at its current rate. However, by the annual Christmas games and festivities of 1970, the traditional dog-sled races had to be cancelled, not because there were too many dogs, or that the community did not grow, but because there were not enough sled dogs to get two sleds hitched up to race. In six years the “Skidoos,” which were practically unheard of in 1964, had entirely replaced the dog-sled as a means of transportation. “It was a simple matter of economics; the ‘Skidoo’ is faster, more de­pendable and cheaper to ‘feed than dogs’ “—and besides, it is obviously a status symbol. This past summer some sled dogs were brought in from nearby (ninety miles away) Wainwright to satisfy potentially disappointed tourists.


For many native people, Barrow is now cos­mopolitan by comparison with the surrounding villages. It has a movie theater, several stores, restaurants, churches, a hospital and a large school. There was even a short-lived “hippy” men’s shop. As an illustration of the difference be­tween town and village attitudes, I may tell how last year I met a wonderful elderly Eskimo woman from a remote coastal area of the North Slope. With a warm smile displaying her worn but perfect teeth that spoke without words of her tra­ditional diet, she told me how much her feet hurt her since she was in Barrow, and how she was glad to get back home so she could take off her high heels and once again put on her “Muk-luks”!

Barrow even has closed circuit television and there are over a hundred subscribers. Although occasionally the TV news is late in being shipped up to Barrow, such as the time when, I am told, Walter Cronkite was bidding a “Happy Thanks­giving” at the close of the evening news a few nights before Christmas, nevertheless, TV is having an important acculturating effect upon many adults and children. But people still talk about the fact that Alaskans saw the TV broadcast of the first astronaut landing on the moon a week after the Russians did.

For all of its modern trappings, Barrow is still a community with many old traditions. Men still make umiaks (pronounced “oomiaks”), which are wooden-framed boats covered with six “oogrok” (bearded seal) skins sewed together by village women, to hunt the various species of whales (especially the baleen whale or achgavik) migrat­ing in the late spring and summer past Point Barrow. The toggle-head harpoon which has been used for centuries is still in use, but it is now made out of brass and iron by a sporting goods store in Bucks County, Pennsylvania and shipped to Barrow by jet plane.

The owner of the boat is an umailik (pro­nounced “oomilook”) and as such is captain of ten to fifteen men all dressed in traditional hand­made clothes. Although the boat is still made the same way and from a distance may look as it did hundreds of years ago, up closer you can see a “thirty-five horse” outboard motor hitched on. To run one of these umiaks, the umailik must invest a considerable amount of money in buying and/or building a shell, having a dozen or so women sew it together, supplying an outboard motor to run it, and feeding his crew while on the ice. Since not every boat crew catches a whale each year, the umailik must have enough money to invest for more than one year. Recently, this investment issue forced a change in the old tradition of shar­ing the muktuk (the skin and underlying fat) from the whale with the rest of the community. The old traditional sharing practice shifted from one “belt” or strip of muktuk to the umailik, one for the crew and the rest to the other crews to two to the umailik, one for the crew and the rest among the other crews. This way the captain can recoup some of his costs by selling one of the “belts” for $2-$4 per pound in another community where muktuk may be in short supply. However, if you talk with anyone who owns a boat or who has thrown the first successful harpoon into the whale you immediately find out that it is worth practically any investment. The pride and prestige brought by catching a whale is probably not equaled today by any other traditional activity.

But like all the traditional activities, technology and economics are having their impact.

Not only is hunting changing but nutrition is rapidly changing, too. A large-scale survey was made recently to find out the sources of the food the native people eat. They were asked how much food they obtained by hunting, fishing and/or trapping. Upon analysis of the results, two inter­esting findings are evident. First, that most people now buy at least some of their food in the stores. This suggests that it is very important to look at the composition of diet available in the stores in order to gain insight into the shift from a tradi­tional high protein and fat diet to one containing considerable increases in refined carbohydrates. One investigator estimated that in one generation they changed from a diet very low in carbohy­drates to one with almost two hundred pounds of refined sugar/person/year (a figure similar to urban U. S. populations). This dietary change to refined carbohydrates, especially sugars in the form of candy bars, has led to such severe dental problems that most native people now believe them to be their number one health issue. Many children of two and three years of age already have serious rates of tooth decay and loss, and in the rest of the population the problem is immense. Of course, dental problems are evidence of only one of the metabolic effects of these dietary changes and many chronic diseases now begin­ning to appear, such as diabetes and cardio­vascular disease, are probably closely associated.

The second finding came out of a careful statistical analysis in which we attempted to sort out the most important factors associated with the percentage of food purchased in the stores. We found that this varied with the size of the family. Traditionally, large families were desired to pro­vide many hunters and a plentiful supply of food. Today the beliefs about a large family are still widespread, but the reality is that the children are all in public school and the head of the house­hold recognizes the need, even if he is an excel­lent hunter, to get at least a part-time job to earn sufficient cash to buy enough store food for his family.

Although the Barrow area contains some multimillion dollar federal establishments such as the Naval Arctic Research Laboratories and ad­vanced technology with jet planes landing at their airport, it is still a community without any fresh water system or any means of disposing of sew­age. This is in sharp contrast to the highly effec­tive water and sewage systems of the federally funded installations. In the village, raw sewage is piled high in leaky, abandoned oil drums beside some houses, and the run-off continuously threatens a fresh water lake which during the summer is one of the few sources of drinking water. Roads cut into the tundra permafrost be­come mud and dikes with evidence of raw sewage sometimes floating in puddles. About ten years ago the Army Corps of Engineers sliced out a section of gravel bank about a mile from town to complete the airport runway, but now the ocean storms threaten to wash away part of the town as the beach line is receding to the depth of the original site.

The building of new houses has just not kept pace with the increase in population size. The houses are small and crowded. Data from a hous­ing survey indicate that most of the people in Barrow would like significant improvements in the condition of their housing. Heating of these houses leads to a virtual zero percent humidity, and although mortality rates have been greatly lowered in both infants and adults, morbidity rates due to upper respiratory infections associated with this low humidity and the crowded conditions have increased. Chronic middle ear infections often leading to serious hearing loss are also commonly associated with upper respiratory infections.

Over the last several decades, the decrease in infant and adult mortality and increases in fertility have led to a rapid expansion of family size. Although Eskimos love children very much, there have been subtle external pressures that make having large families difficult. The con­straints of school education for children and cash-paying jobs make it diffcult for parents to teach the traditional hunting and domestic skills to their Children. For other parents the traditional laissez-faire child-rearing attitude toward the wants and heeds of the child is still apparent, but the subtle effects of sanctions applied through traditional gossip, joking, and ridicule are decreasing. Social regulation in a large community such as Barrow cannot be maintained through implicit sanctions In the same manner as in the small villages; in­stead, explicit sanctions in the form of laws and legal regulations enforced by local police are apparent everywhere.

While the people espouse the idea of raising children in the traditional ways with lots of love and attention, the constraints of large families and the kind of life they now lead often prevent them from effectively carrying out their desires. For the children born and reared during the period of rapid expansion of the community—after World War II until now—the outlook is at best mixed. On the one hand, the children and young adults have been exposed to all kinds of stimulating experi­ences either outside of the village or through TV and their schooling. On the other hand, they have not received enough training in the traditional hunting techniques to follow the ways of their father’s father. The result is that a disproportion­ate number do not feel comfortable in the big Alaskan cities where they are frequently not skilled enough to compete with white men for a job, nor do they feel entirely comfortable back in Barrow where many of the traditional things to do are gone and there is little else to occupy their time. A few men leave and go back to the larger cities where some do succeed; as for the women, a few have married white men and have also left. But most remain in town and for some. heavy alcohol consumption is a way out; for others, more recently it is drug use. There are a number of suicide attempts each year.

However, for the majority who would rather live in Barrow than practically anywhere else in the world and are not plagued by these difficulties of adjustment, there is a genuine community-wide concern over these problems. Some grass roots and public health service efforts are just starting, with the hope of dealing directly with the people and their problems. Nevertheless, it is quite pos­sible that the success of these new service pro­grams may be more dependent on the kinds of general changes taking place in the community, producing new sources of self-respect. pride and identity, than on the contents or approach of any of the particular programs being developed. Although some people hope that the expected financial boom from the recently approved Trans-Alaska oil pipeline development by the Alyeka Company will bring long-term changes in the Barrow economy that may result in new sources of jobs and self-respect, unfortunately, econo­mists privately predict that most jobs will last only as long as it takes to construct the pipeline. This means that more boom-bust sorts of economic developments would be likely in the future if this were the only source of new income.

The Future of Change in Alaska

Fortunately, the Trans-Alaska pipeline is not the only factor which is important to these people. Actually, if there is a single factor that is going to play a rapidly increasing role in this already phenomenal rate of biological, social and tech­nological change, it is the Native Land Claim Settlement of 1971. Ask anyone in Alaska about what has recently been going on and what will be going on in the next ten years to produce the major changes for the natives of Alaska, and you’ll get a resounding unanimous reply—”the Native Land Claim Settlement.” While no one denies that this is going to produce change. further questioning indicates that very few agree in their predictions of what is going to happen. There are almost as many answers as there are people being asked the question. What is clear is that the whole land claim issue brought high hopes to some, despair to others, and real unity to most people.

A brief look into the background of the issue can give some important insights into its future impact. In 1968 all of the native groups were united by the Native Land Claim Issue. Basically, they said that much of the land that the State of Alaska had appropriated under the 1958 Statehood Act, including the oil-rich Prudoe Bay. belonged to the original inhabitants by aboriginal rights. These rights went back 101 years to the time when the United States purchased Alaska from Russia.

On December 18, 1971, after many hearings and headlines. President Nixon signed the Alaska Native Land Claim Settlement Act. The law pro­vided that 40 million acres of land, a $462.5 million cash settlement, and $500 million mineral rights on lands taken from the natives (Prudoe Bay and other areas) for a total of $962.5 million be dis­tributed to “Native Corporations” over the next ten years. Twelve “Native Corporations” have been designated for the 55.000 Aleut, Eskimo and Indian natives living in Alaska, and a thirteenth for 35,000 natives living outside of Alaska. The latter will share in the money, but not the land, since they are no longer residents of Alaska.

The process of fighting legal battles, obtain­ing national recognition, and winning the largest Native Settlement in American history brought about new leadership, as well as pride, hope and a sense of real achievement. People now feel that they are “first-class citizens,” and will have some freedom to live in peace on their much reduced but, nevertheless, their own lands. They hope that the money will provide some of the important material things and services that they have wanted in the past. Leaders have emerged who are en­tirely different, at least to the Eskimos, from the traditional village leaders who silently led more by impressive example than by verbal acuity. The new leader has to know both worlds. He must deal in the culture of the “lower 48” by being verbally aggressive and mindful of economics, and in the village by meeting more traditional expectations. The net result of this ferment over the leadership, land and money is the Eskimos’ newly strengthened identity with their past, present and future.

While the people were fighting for their land and money there was an intense build-up of ex­pectations of what could be done with the new wealth. Some of these expectations were realistic and others were not. However, what is clearly on the minds of most leaders is how to manage their settlement wisely so that it will not end up man­aging them. and thereby accelerating undesirable changes. This is no small task. An example of its magnitude came on March 15 of this year when Secretary of the Interior Rogers Morton an­nounced the first step of the Native Land Claim Settlement Act. In dividing the land among federal, state and native withdrawal claims, he said: “I can only describe this as an historic moment, These are without question the most dramatic, far-reaching decisions I have had the privilege to present to the American public since I became Secretary of the Interior. In fact, few of my predecessors have had a comparable oppor­tunity. I am excited about it because land use planning of this magnitude is the key to the quality of American life. In Alaska we still have the opportunity to avoid most of the mistakes made elsewhere in our country during past centuries.”

The Department of the Interior also an­nounced that the Native Corporations would have an expanded area from which to make their land selections. Instead of the original 59 million acres from which they were to choose 40 million acres. they would now have 99 million acres from which to choose. Offices were also to be set up by the Bureau of Indian Affairs to register natives quali­fied to benefit from the Settlement Act. The criteria for registry are U. S. citizenship, at least “one-fourth degree native blood.” and birth on or before December 18, 1971. Natives must apply within two years to qualify for enrollment in the settlement. This is the start of a transition from “protection” under the Bureau of Indian Affairs to autonomy and self-direction.

The decisions involved in making this transition are critical. Land must be selected so that naximum benefit will accrue now and in the inure. Traditional hunting, trapping and fishing must be juxtaposed and balanced against mineral ights and other economic potentials of the land. Once these selections are made, future genera­tions must stick by them. This finality of the decisions also adds a burden. In many cases, the native groups do not have the technical expertise to make all of the decisions, and will have to con­sider establishing advisory panels and hiring ex­pensive consultants to assist them in making the best choices of land. Consideration must be made for the potential influx of up to 40% of the natives who have left the state. Many may want to return to find a place for themselves, and to share in the land and money with their relatives. The money involved generates another important set of issues. The natives must decide whether the money should be put aside in non-taxable trust funds which, for example, would slow down the rate of economic change. Alternatively, they may want to invest the money in specific needs of the people to develop new industries or in any num­ber of other plans to change from a basically subsistence to a cash economy. Even if the cash is dependent upon traditional hunting or fishing the change will still induce considerable alter­ations in values, traditional leadership, and com­munity organization. They must not only explore and develop new kinds of economic bases for their communities, but must also protect their investments from the many outsiders who migrate to Alaska specifically to exploit them. The people will have to insure and lobby for continued services from federal sources or else all of the settlement money will be used up in a very short time just to pay for health, education and welfare services that they now receive. They must also insure that the federal government continue to grant them the traditional privilege of sea-mammal hunting (seals, walruses and whales), at least until it can be carefully demonstrated that their efforts would endanger a given species.

Some people are already concerned with the fact that the total of $962.5 million is for about 90,000 people for the next ten years. This is only about $1000 per person per year. In Alaska, where inflation is at twice the rate in many big cities in the ‘lower 48,” that will not take them very far. Perhaps in this point lies the crux of the matter. On the one hand, the people have very high expectations of what this amount of money will enable them to do and, on the other, they must be extremely careful not to divide its spending power to the point where none of their expectations can be met. In two years’ time they will be facing new leaders, enrollment and registration, corporations, permanent land selection, spending and invest­ment priorities, taxes and, perhaps most important of all, the development of a sound economic cash base for native villages and cities. These issues. as well as a long list of other matters, will produce both internal and external pressures. One reflec­tive native leader quite candidly admitted to me a few weeks after the President’s announcement: “I do not know if the settlement is going to make us any happier or not.” If it is possible to make this transition at the accelerated rate of change that it demands, then the natives will have to use their reawakened identity “to make the best of both worlds.”

Cite This Article

Katz, Solomon H.. "Change…On “Top Of the World”." Expedition Magazine 15, no. 1 (September, 1972): -. Accessed February 29, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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