History and Regional Background
The Bering Straits Native Corporation region is one of the most culturally diverse regions established through the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA).
Three distinct languages—Inupiaq, Siberian Yupik and Central Yup’ik—are spoken in the Bering Strait region. For centuries, the areas north and west of Solomon were occupied by Inupiaq speakers, while the area to the east and south was the homeland of Yup’ik peoples. The people of the Diomede and King Islands are Inupiaq. Saint Lawrence Island is the home of the only Siberian Yupik people on the American side of Bering Strait.
The lifestyles and subsistence pursuits of people of the Bering Strait region were even more diverse than their languages:
• Inland caribou hunters and fishermen, exemplified by the Qawiaramiut people (now Mary’s Igloo and Teller Native Corporation) occupied most of the interior of the Seward Peninsula.
• Along the coast of Norton Sound, Unaliq people pursued sea mammals, fish and caribou.
• Approximately 40 miles off the mainland, King Island, only a little more than two square miles in area, was home to hunters of walrus, polar bear, and seal.
• Like the King Islanders, the people from Diomede Island and Saint Lawrence Island lived off of the ocean’s resources.
Around 160 years ago, small groups of people from the Selawik and Kobuk Rivers areas, north of the BSNC region, migrated south to Norton Sound. This migration may have been the result of a famine, devastation brought on by smallpox and the disappearance of the local caribou herds. These Malemiut speakers (a dialect of Inupiaq) married into the remaining families of Yup’ik speakers, and eventually settled in the communities of Koyuk, Shaktoolik and Unalakleet. The communities of St. Michael and Stebbins are the home of central Yup’ik people.
While the introduction of cash into the local economy and the establishment of permanent communities, schools, churches and health services have brought significant change over the past 100 years, subsisting off the land continues to be the central component of each community’s identity. The region’s people use cash to supplement and enhance subsistence pursuits. Respect for the ancient history of land use and natural resource stewardship is a testament to the strength and viability of the region’s people.