Been Traveling – Anaktuvuk Pass

anaktuvuk pass summer

This is quintessential Alaska postcard scenery. Anaktuvuk Pass is a large valley smack in the middle of the Brooks Range, surrounding by properly majestic mountains. Note: this is a summer photo. It was not green when I was there. Note also the absence of trees. You are above the Arctic Circle and well north of the boreal forest.

Anaktuvuk Pass winter

This is what is looked like in May when I was there. Still beautiful, but not so green. Somewhere in the white foreground is the road. Anaktuvuk Pass is situated at approximately 2,200 feet in elevation in the Endicott Mountains of the Brooks Range, within the Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve. The community is located some 250 miles southeast of Barrow. The only access is by air (via Fairbanks) or on foot/snow machine (for the really hardy).

The residents of Anaktuvuk Pass are descendants of the Nunamiut, the inland northern Inupiat. There were originally three groups of Nunamiut, but now this is the only remaining settlement.

anaktuvuk pass conex“Anaktuvuk” means “place where caribou crap”, which explains why the city is there. There is a major caribou migration path through the valley. The Nunamiut people have lived in this region for at least 4,000 years and in the immediate vicinity of Anaktuvuk Pass for over 500 years, but much of the community left the Brooks Range in the 1920s due to a sharp decline in caribou populations and the influx of cultural changes from western settlers. The residents scattered along the Beaufort Sea coast. In the 1930s, some Nunamiuts returned to the mountains, establishing temporary base camps. By 1949, Anaktuvuk Pass had become a permanent camp, and had sporadic service from air taxis. The first post office was established in the community in 1951. By 1959, the village was incorporated as a city. The Nunamiut Inupiat Corporation is the local village corporation. The Village of Anaktuvuk Pass is a federally recognized tribe, and is governed by the Nagsragmiut Tribal Council.

Anaktuvuk Pass’ population has increased from a 1950 census estimate of 66 residents to 346 residents in 2003, but with the typical high unemployment of Alaska bush villages. Subsistence hunting and gathering is a major activity.

There is a hotel of sorts in the place, and a very nice museum, the Simon Paneak Memorial Museum, which features information on the natural and cultural history of the area. Anaktuvuk Pass is famous for their caribou masks, which are unique to the place as far as I know. The story is that some of the folks made them as Christmas ornaments one year when there weren’t any tree ornaments available (or any trees…). Lael Morgan did a good write-up of the place as it was in 1972, which can be found here.

Inupiat/english singAgain, I was there looking at utilities. Most of the North Slope villages have signs in public buildings in both English and Inupiat. Here’s a sample.

More information on Anaktuvuk Pass can be found on the state website or here.

Update [19 January 2009]:  For more information on the masks, see:


This project addresses cultural and economic aspects of the making of distinctive caribou skin masks by the Nunamiut Eskimo of Anaktuvik Pass, Alaska. Devised in the 1950’s for the tourist trade and remaining little changed to the present, these masks and the motives underlying their making present a unique research opportunity. The masks have cultural significance well beyond their souvenir status. Mask-making has been, and continues to be, essential to the local economy. The masks have become a prominent feature of the Alaskan tourist art market and constitute a village “signature” recognized throughout and beyond Alaska. Production of these masks draws upon traditional knowledge of the land and animals of the central Brooks Range in Alaska, a knowledge that is slowly being lost. Finally, the history and development of mask making in Anaktuvuk Pass is synonymous with recent cultural change among the Nunamiut. The project will address these issues through a comprehensive study of masks and mask-making in Anaktuvuk Pass. This study will: 1) document the origin and development of mask-making; 2) document, for comparative purposes, selected museum collections of masks; 3) obtain, in narrative form, perspectives of current mask-makers on their individual work and on mask-making in general; 4) document photographically the processes and products associated with mask-making; 5) detail the economic aspects, locally and within the larger Alaskan tourist market, of mask-making; and, 6) investigate relationships among mask-making, cultural identity and traditional knowledge of Arctic fauna, with emphases on the fur-bearers that provide raw materials for the masks. This project presents an unusual opportunity to investigate the development of a significant tradition while the individuals tied to its origins are still alive. It will advance our understanding of, and provide a case study in, economic anthropology, ethnography of art, economic development, and cultural change. Results will be presented in a publisheable book-length manuscript to be submitted to the University of Washington Press.

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