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Nunivak Island

Maskette – Nunivak
Nunivak Island is located in Alaska
Nunivak Island (Alaska)
Location Bering Sea
Area 1,631.97 sq mi (4,226.8 km2)
Length 77 km (47.8 mi)
Width 106 km (65.9 mi)
Highest elevation 1,675 ft (510.5 m)
Highest point Roberts Mountain
United States
State Alaska
Census Area Bethel Census Area
Largest settlement Mekoryuk (pop. Under 100)
Population 210 (as of 2000)
Density 0.05 /km2 (0.13 /sq mi)
Ethnic groups Cup'it Eskimo

Nunivak Island (Nunivaaq in Central Alaskan Yup'ik, Nuniwar in Nunivak Cup'ig), the second largest island in the Bering Sea, is a permafrost-covered volcanic island lying about 30 miles (48 km) offshore from the delta of the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers in the state of Alaska, at about 60° North latitude. Nunivak Island is 1,631.97 sq mi (4,226.78 km², or 1.044 million acres) in area, 76.2 kilometres (47.3 mi) long and 106 kilometres (66 mi) wide, making it the eighth largest island in the United States. It has a population of 210 persons as of the 2000 census. The island's entire population lived in the north coast city of Mekoryuk.[1]


  • People 1
  • Geology and natural history 2
  • Culture 3
  • See also 4
  • Notes 5
  • External links 6
  • Further reading 7


Nunivak children, photograph by Edward S. Curtis, 1930

Nunivak has only one permanent settlement, Mekoryuk, on the north shore, with about 200 residents. In the 1880 United States Census, Ivan Petrof recorded 702 residents in nine villages on the island. An epidemic in 1900 decimated the population of the island. Emigration keeps the population small. Of the noted persons who have visited Nunivak are: photographer Edward S. Curtis, Anne Makepeace, anthropologist Margaret Lantis, and the artist Muriel Hannah.

Nearly all the permanent residents of Nunivak are Cup'it Eskimo, whose traditional language is a dialect of Central Alaskan Yup'ik known as Cup'ig or Nunivak Cup'ig. Cup'ig is a first language for many older islanders, and is enjoying a dedicated revival among younger islanders as well, although nearly all Nuniwarmiut (Nunivak people) speak English. The people of Nunivak Island still depend to a large degree on subsistence hunting, and also commercial fishing and industrial work on the mainland.

Geology and natural history

Nunivak - detail from NOAA Bering Sea chart (2000)
Bering Sea cliffs, Nunivak
Sand dunes and vegetation, Nunivak Island
Reindeer roundup, June 1964
Nash Harbor, Nunivak; 1927 showing bay, houses, and the mouth of the Ellikarrmiut River.

Nunivak Island is volcanic in origin; most of the island is dominated by volcanic plateau 500 ft (160 m) or more above sea level. The island is dotted with about 60 cinder cones and four maars. Much of its surface consists of widespread, thin flows of pahoehoe lava from small shield volcanoes, which spread over sedimentary rock of the Cretaceous period. Volcanic eruptions took place during 5 periods of activity beginning 6.1 million years ago. Most of the volcanic field was formed during two eruptive periods during the Pleistocene ending about 300,000 years ago, but volcanic activity continued into the Holocene.[2][3]

Tundra is the main landscape feature; the largest trees on Nunivak are dwarf willow trees, most less than 4 ft (1.2 m) tall. More than 40 rivers drain the tundra upland. Brackish lagoons ring the eastern and southern shores, and steep volcanic cliffs dominate the northwest shores.

At least 89 migratory seabird and waterfowl species have seasonal homes on Nunivak Island, including several endangered and threatened species. Dense summer breeding rookeries are found on all shores of the island and in inland tundra lakes.

Prehistorically, Nunivak was home to a modest herd of caribou, but these were exterminated after the introduction of firearms in the late 19th or early 20th century. United States Fish and Wildlife introduced reindeer and musk ox onto the island in the 1930s and 1940s. Large herds of these animals are maintained by the local Native Corporation of Mekoryuk.

Most of the island is part of the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge, administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.


The art of Nunivak Island has its roots in the ancient past. The oldest known sculpture is thousands of years old.

In the ancient times masks were made to sell or trade for goods needed to survive. Later masks were intended for festivities, dances, and traditional healing.

This type of mask (there are many types of masks carved today) represents the life surrounding Nunivak Island. The walrus is what the loon depends on for survival. And, in turn, man depends on the loon and the walrus for survival. These are two of the traditional animals that were hunted by the men of the village in order to provide for their families.

The walrus is what the Nunivak peoples depended on to survive. It held much of the necessities of living in the Bering Sea. The skin of the walrus was used for waterproofing kayaks, the soles of mukluks (Cup'ig boots), and the intestine was used as waterproof rain gear that were of great necessity in earlier times. The bones were used as tools, the ivory for spear heads, and harpoon heads and carvings were made for trade. Also the loon pelts were transformed into beautiful winter coats that were also waterproof.

See also


  1. ^ Block 1038 thru Block 1044, Block Group 1, Census Tract 1, Bethel Census Area United States Census Bureau
  2. ^ "Nunivak Island".  
  3. ^ "Nunivak Island description and statistics". Alaska Volcano Observatory.  

External links

  • Summer Field Science Camp UAF Kuskokwim Campus
  • Photo Slide-show Science Field Camp
  • Nunivak Photos from the 50's
  • Historic Nunivak Photos
  • Nuniwarmiut Piciryarata Tamaryalkuti 'Nunivak Cultural Programs
  • Nunavik Island Project Jukebok
  • Nunivak island spirit masks and other art carvings
  • Paul Souders. Ellikarrmiut Economy. Animal Resource Use at Nash Harbor (49-NI-003), Nunivak Island, Alaska. Archaeology at Nash Harbor; bibliography.

Further reading

  • Nunivak Eskimo Margaret Lantis in Handbook of North American Indians v5 Arctic pp 209–223. Government Printing Office, Washington. Copyright 1984 Smithsonian institution.
  • Nunivak Island Eskimo (Yuit) technology and material culture (1989) VanStone, James W; Field Museum of Natural History. Fieldiana, Anthropology, new series, no.12 Chicago, Ill.: Field Museum of Natural History. In copyright, digitized with the permission of the Chicago Field Museum. This is VanStone's write-up of Margaret Lantis's material culture collection and notes.
  • The social culture of the Nunivak Eskimo. Margaret Lantis. Transactions, American Philosophical Society (vol. 35, Part 3, 1946)
  • Charles C. Hughes. Review of "Eskimo Childhood and Interpersonal Relationships: Nunivak Biographies and Genealogies" by Margaret Lantis American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 63, No. 5, Part 1 (Oct., 1961), pp. 1133–1135 (3-page review; good summary).
  • Fish and Wildlife Resources of Nunivak Island, Part 1, Fisheries - March 21, 1966 Jerry Hout, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Subsistence fishing. Maps, photos.

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