KIVALINA, Alaska -- On the shore of the Chukchi Sea sits a narrow strip of sand, one among thousands of barrier islands along this remote and rugged stretch of northwest Alaska. For hundreds of years, the Iñupiat Eskimos have used this island as a hunting camp, for whaling in the spring and caribou hunting in winter. Today the island has a permanent settlement of around 375 residents, most of whom are Iñupiat. They call it Kivalina.
At first glance, students at Kivalina's McQueen School seem to do many of the same things any American child would do. Arriving at school early in the morning, some eat breakfast in the school cafeteria. Eggs, sausage, fruit, a pancake and syrup. They say the pledge of allegiance and march off to class. They study American history, social studies, English, math. After school, they play basketball. The McQueen Quavviks girls basketball team were state champions in 1992-1993.
But beyond the doors of the school, things start to look more like the hunting camp of yesteryear. An arch made of bowhead whale bones greets visitors near the airport. On porches and in yards all over town, caribou carcasses lay, stiff and frozen, partially dismembered. Fish drying racks are scattered along the beach. Subsistence is what brought people here in the first place, more than a thousand years ago, and subsistence remains a driving force why people choose to stay.
For many families here, schedules are dictated by the environment -- a time for fishing, a time for hunting. First come whales ...