The Arctic Sounder

Anaktuvuk Pass Elder received an honorary degree from Ilisagvik for protecting caribou hunting traditions

For Esther Suŋauraq Hugo, life has been all about learning and protecting the Iñupiaq caribou hunting traditions in Anaktuvuk Pass.

This month, Hugo received an Honorary Associate of Arts Degree in Iñupiaq Studies from Iḷisaġvik College for her contributions to the community.

“Esther knows the importance of all the Iñupiaq values, but especially Aŋuniallaniq - hunting traditions, and the importance of tuttu (caribou) to subsistence in Anaktuvuk Pass,” the college staff said in their post on social media.

“I couldn’t believe it for a while,” Hugo said about receiving the degree. “These are just things that I chose to do because I love my community, I love all the people, and there’s no other place besides home.”

We were so pleased to celebrate our honorary degree recipient at commencement last weekend. Esther Suŋauraq Hugo, from...

Posted by Iḷisaġvik College on Friday, May 3, 2024

For Hugo, it all started with subsistence.

Born in 1958, she grew up in Anaktuvuk Pass, with five siblings and parents who lived off the land. Her father was a hunter, and so were her uncles. Hugo learned to shoot and skin caribou early on as well.

Caribou was always on the table — which was important in a land-locked community that doesn’t have access to marine mammals.


So when, as an adult, Hugo started learning more about game managers trying to limit subsistence harvest for locals, she couldn’t let that go. She attended meetings and shared her testimony against the regulations.

“I guess, somebody was listening and knew from their heart where we were coming from,” she said about the recent decisions by game managers to exclude Anaktuvuk Pass from new harvest limits. “We did a little part, but we still got a long way to go.”

Besides being a strong voice for subsistence rights, Hugo has been involved in advocacy against Ambler Road, fighting for the protection of her area and for her community to have a seat at the table. She has also been on the North Slope Borough Planning Commission, the Inupiat History, Language & Culture department and serving as a city mayor of Anaktuvuk Pass.

As a mayor, Hugo led the community through the challenging time of the COVID-19 pandemic. Together with her staff, she set up a quarantining space for those who were sick and didn’t have a place to be.

“At that time, I was barely asleep,” she said. “This COVID, it sounded so scary, and it was bringing a lot of deaths in rural areas around the world. It was hard. Especially when somebody had COVID in the village, and we couldn’t get to see them, or visit with them, or just go have tea or coffee with them. It was a hard time. But we learned how to cope with that and we did the best we could.”

The strength and dedication Hugo leads her life with were inspired by the role models in her family — like her mother.

When Hugo was 18, her father died in a plane crash on his way to Fairbanks during bad weather, less than five miles south of the village. Since then, flying — a necessity for rural Alaska ― has made Hugo and her siblings uneasy. After her father’s death, Hugo said she saw how her mother practically took on the roles of both parents and kept the family going.

“My mother was strong,” she said. “We saw that. She did a tremendous job.”

Hugo was married to Henry Hugo with whom she built a home and raised three children. Her oldest daughter died from a medical condition, and in 2018, six days after her 45th anniversary, her husband died of cancer.

“He’s the first person to wish me a happy anniversary every year,” she said. “There’s a big void in me since then cause I lost him and my daughter, and I’m still working on it.”

Now, Hugo has 17 grandkids and 10 great-grandkids and she is focused on helping raise the youngest ones.

“I feel so great, you know, I feel so tall,” she said. “It’s a great-grandmother’s thing.”

The driving force for Hugo has always been her family, community and culture.

“This is where I was raised, and this is where I’ll always be, and I just want things better in the future for my grandkids and my great-grandkids,” she said.

She said she thinks a lot about the future generations and wants the youth in her village to pursue opportunities, get education and come back to Anaktuvuk Pass to continue fighting to preserve the local traditions.

“They need to start stepping up — our young people — and get involved,” she said.


Alena Naiden

Alena Naiden writes about communities in the North Slope and Northwest Arctic regions for the Arctic Sounder and ADN. Previously, she worked at the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.