Nunivak is a 50 mile-long island in the Bering Sea characterized by tundra and low relief. The sea is typically open from June through October, with ponds and small rivers thawed during roughly the same period. The flora consists primarily of grasses, and trees rarely exceed a meter in height.
Before World War II, the only regular non-native visitors to the island, and only during summer months, were the Bureau of Indian Affairs supply ships and a U.S. Coast Guard cutter that provided medical services. Air mail service began in 1946, and the island’s first airstrip was constructed in 1957.
Lantis’s early visits to Nunivak preceded the heightened external contact that would later become routine to the islanders. At the time of her initial field work, most adult males still engaged in subsistence economy activities; while women gathered shellfish, berries, and vegetation in the summer and fished through the ice in the winter.
In 1940, the island’s population was 218. Throughout the decade, the island’s seven winter villages had fewer than 20 inhabitants.
Subsistence & Material Culture
The Nunivak islanders subsisted primarily on the island’s wild mammals, including white and red foxes, as well as seals and walrus. Seals were hunted with spears in the spring from kayaks on the open sea and among ice floes, and in the autumn by cooperative netting tactics. An annual catch of about 600 seals was average during the early 40s, and they were used for food, oil, boat covers, and clothing materials.
Only a few beluga were caught each year, either by harpoon or net. The beluga was prized as a food source and for its long sinews employed for thread and cord. Fish were caught by hook and line, spearing, or harpooning.
There were wide differences between family conditions, and food was typically only shared within the household. In times of food scarcity, Lantis observed a more general sharing of what little was available and assistance often followed the lines of kinship and formal partnerships.
The women used grasses for kayak mats, storage baskets, boot insoles, rope, and ceremonial ornamentation. The islanders worked animal skins for clothing and boots, abdominal organs for storage and ceremonial use, and teeth and tusks for tools. Men built and maintained kayaks with wood frames and sealskin covers. Particular care was devoted to kayaks and sleds during the height of the hunting season.
The woven basket and carved walrus tusks and masks trade became lucrative by the 1970s, but during Lantis’s early fieldwork these items were only employed for either daily or ceremonial use.