Ivvavik National Park of Canada

History and Culture

Pre-contact

Artifact from Ivvavik National Park
Artifact from Ivvavik National Park.
© Parks Canada / Brian Johnston, July, 1997

People have been living in Alaska and the northern Yukon for at least 12,000 year some evidence that human habitation could extend back 30,000 years due to the existence of an unglaciated refugium called Beringia. This refugium extended east into at least half of Ivvavik where sites along the Firth River have produced 8,000 year-old projectile points, as well as bison hunting sites.

Between 5,000 and 3,000 years ago, people in Alaska began to migrate east as the Arctic opened and the glaciers retreated. In the eastern Arctic, they developed a series of cultural groups that were distinct from their Alaskan contemporaries. The Yukon coast up to the Mackenzie River became an area where these various cultural groups interacted, diverged and separated. Archaeologists have discovered the remains of many distinct cultures that have travelled through the northern Yukon. Many sites in Ivvavik mark the passage of these original people and their use of the land. The remains are found entirely along the major rivers, emphasising their reliance on caribou and other inland animals.

The most recent migration began in Alaska about 1,100 years ago and has been called “Thule”. Within a very short time their pioneers spread across the Arctic, either supplanting or assimilating the earlier inhabitants. Although important to the area, the coastal erosion along the Yukon coast has removed most evidence of their passing. Sometime around the thirteenth century A.D., the Thule people along the Beaufort Sea took up fishing with nets and communal kayak-based hunting of beluga whales. These adaptations were key to defining the regional development of the lifestyle of their descendants, the Mackenzie Inuit or Inuvialuit.

The coastline gave the Inuvialuit an unending supply of driftwood that allowed them to develop a unique style of house. Traditionally it consisted of logs with raised living and sleeping floors, lowered entrance passages and a covering of sod. Most of these houses have disappeared with coastal erosion. Inland, their cultural remains like those of all their ancestors show a reliance on the caribou. A campsite may be defined by only a small circle of stones that once weighted down the edges of a hide tent. A pile of rocks may have marked an old hunting location. The rock cache would have protected carcasses from scavengers until the meat was needed for later consumption. A line of boulders, perched upright, may have acted as a "fence" funnelling caribou toward waiting hunters.

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European Contact

When Europeans began entering the western Arctic two centuries ago, two main aboriginal groups lived in the region - the Inuvialuit (or Mackenzie Inuit) and the Gwich'in. The first records of the Inuvialuit were taken by Alexander Mackenzie in 1789. By the time the coast was mapped, there were about 2,500 Mackenzie Inuit living between what is now Alaska and Cape Bathurst, NWT. The Gwich'in were a Dene people who lived in the boreal forests well south of the Beaufort Sea. They too were first met by Alexander Mackenzie and became an integral part of the fur trade, acting as middlemen for the Mackenzie Inuit. They did occasionally travel to the coast to trade goods with the Inuvialuit and periodically used the upper Firth to hunt caribou and fish for char and grayling.

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The Twentieth Century

The global economy arrived on the Beaufort coast in the mid-1880s with the American whalers operating from Herschel Island until the early 1900s. Though the local Inuvialuit played a roll in this trade, the caribou hunting skills of their Alaskan cousins, the Nunatamiut, inland hunters of the Inupiat, were in demand by the whalers, resulting in their immigration to the area. A succession of diseases at the turn of the century decimated the Mackenzie Inuit, but intermarriage with the Nunatamiut strengthened their numbers.

Remains of a sod house
Remains of a sod house.
© Parks Canada / Karsten Heuer, 2002

At the turn of the century fur traders set up trading posts at Clarence Lagoon and Herschel Island. The valuable fox trade led to a series of small villages along the coast. This also gave rise to the unique log cabin styles that are found there today. The crash of the fox trade, followed by the 1950s Cold War, forever altered the lifestyle of the Inuvialuit. The first northern Distant Early Warning Line ( DEW Line) Site was built by the American army at Komakuk Beach. In subsequent years, another two DEW Line sites were built in the north Yukon, at Stokes and Shingle points.

By the early 1960s modern communities and wage labour had supplanted the year-long life on the land. Hunting, trapping, fishing and whaling are still practised on the coast. Inuvialuit continue to travel by boat or snowmobile to Alaska to visit friends and relatives. Herschel Island, a Yukon Territorial Park, is an important resting place for these travellers. The eroded remains of camps, grave sites, sod houses, and log houses, found at Qaininqvik (Clarence Lagoon), Nunaluk Spit, Qirqialuq (Ptarmigan Bay), Iqpiqyuuq (Stokes Point) and Niaqulik (Head Point) all attest to the importance of the Ivvavik coast to Inuvialuit life.

The Firth River was the site of a mini gold rush in the late 1940s. About 200 claims were staked but only one placer mine was developed at Sheep Creek. It operated from 1979 until 1986 when it was purchased by Parks Canada. Claim posts, caches, campsites, exploration pits and abandoned equipment are some of the signs of that era that can still be found throughout the Firth River valley.

The most recent industrial effort on the North Slope was the extensive oil and gas exploration during the 1970s and 1980s. Seismic lines crisscrossing the coastal plain are still evident. There are oil reserves under the Beaufort Sea and also in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Future development of these reserves would have a detrimental effect on the environmental integrity of this outstanding area. We must not forget the vision: "The land will support the people who protect the land." This Inuvialuit wisdom will be respected by Parks Canada as we work together to protect this unique heritage for future generations.