Barrow Project (Utqiaġvik): Does anyone live in the Arctic? An Alaskan Youth Shares Her Story


This personal reflection is part of the Barrow Project (Utqiaġvik) – a project of the Aspen Institute’s Forum for Community Solutions and Fresh Tracks to shed light on the Alaskan village of Utqiaġvik. This project creates a bridge from western societies to Utqiaġvik’s sustainable-traditional culture and community through blogs, videos, and photos. The development of this project requires outside resources and outlets to help expose different communities to the knowledge and culture of Utqiaġvik that would not otherwise be exposed to.

“What you do not see, do not hear, do not experience, you will never really know.”- Anders Apassingok, St. Lawrence Island Yup’ik.

If you do a quick Google search on the “Arctic,” you see images of the Arctic’s charismatic megafauna such as polar bears, walruses, and seals; you see images of snow, igloos, and the Northern Lights, and key words like “deserted,” “extreme temperatures,” “climate change,” and “remote.” Often Google is someone’s only exposure to this region, or sometimes it is just word of mouth and news articles if you look hard enough. However, can you think of what is missing from the Arctic’s descriptors? Recommended searches on Google might include: “Does anyone live in the Arctic?” “What happened to the Inuit?” “Do the Inuit still exist?” The Arctic is Inuit Nunaat, or Inuit homeland and yes, we are still here. I will admit that the Arctic can sometimes act disconnected from the rest of North America and we might not be the most relatable, quickest to catch onto the rest of society’s trends, or travel very fast outside of our villages/towns; in fact, people sometime say that we and our wildlife are borderless, but there is no reason not to learn about Inuit and our ways of life.

My name is Kimberly Kivvaq Pikok, from Barrow/Utqiagvik, Alaska. My grandparents are Tommy Nipik Pikok Sr. and Rhoda Kivvaq, Pikok on my dad’s side. I come from a fishing and hunting family that spends most of our summers inland at Pikok Camp, about 23 miles south from town. People often associate Utqiagvik with the “Top of the World,” “whaling,” “blizzards,” “climate change,” “Arctic oil development and policies,” and oddly enough, the Thirty Days of Night movie, you know, the one with the vampires. But to me, Utqiagvik is my home, where my family lives, where my ancestors lived, and where many Arctic plants and wildlife call home (they are family too!). Just right outside of Barrow is where Pikok Camp is located, arguably the best place on Earth.

People outside of Alaska always asks me what it is like in Utqiagvik or they just assume my life is like the stories they’ve heard about Utqiagvik and my lack of words to describe home does not do it justice but either way, you never really know until you experience it. This past summer I was able to show my closest friends what Pikok Camp and Utqiagvik is like and what our Inupiaq values are (it took me about five years to convince anyone to come, by the way, oops). From what I thought would feel like my brother and I’s usual camping trip, it turned into something special. Usually, I am in the position as a learner or a follower, but the tables turned, and I felt like a teacher (or rather a substitute when my brother was not around).

Pikok Camp is an important and spiritual place for myself and my family because there are three generations of cabins: my grandparents’, my dad’s and now my brother’s. Pikok Camp is where all of my learning takes place and where my curiosity grows. It is one of the locations where the caribou feels safe, where the fish are abundant and healthy, and where MANY plant species thrive. My relationship with the land grows deeper each time I go camping and I feel more connected with the wildlife and vegetation each time I go out there. You start to realize that you cannot separate yourself from the land and its wildlife, in fact, you start to see them as relatives and the need/desire to care for the non-human life around you increases. I really wanted to show my friends the beauty of the nuna (tundra), the life that is out there, the connections we have to the land and animals, and why camping/hunting/fishing is important to our family. Honestly, taking them to Pikok Camp felt like I was showing them a part of my heart because of the connection I have to land out there. I was also nervous about their perceptions of the land and how they would treat it (I feel like this about any outsiders that visit the cabin because people have different values and norms about the use of land, wildlife, and hunting). I hope their experiences at Pikok Camp made them understand why I am the way I am and understand that the things I do is for the land, the wildlife, and our future generations. I also really hope they understand why I say, “hello friends” to the plants and animals out there! It is a connection, concept, and emotional state I cannot quite describe, but if you want to see for yourself, build a deeper relationship to the life around you! You notice things and gain appreciation for each floral and faunal species you observe and interact with!

I never really noticed my interactions with the land until they started to point out all of things I did out there, such as talking to all of the wildlife that we saw (saying hello, goodbye, and thank you), stopping every few feet to observe a plant or permafrost formation, comforting fish as we took them out from the net, stepping over certain plants and lichens (certain Arctic plants and lichens are important to caribou! I try not to step on their food) and talking nonstop about a cool plant species. They also taught my brother and I that we do not really know much about hills and land formations, oops (four years of geology camp went down the drain, lol). I guess inviting them to Pikok Camp made us express a different type of vulnerability.

I felt like we all left Pikok Camp as a family, established more trust and exchanged knowledge with one another. They experienced the Pikok family way of life, learned our values, and brought out the best in us. It was definitely an experience I will never forget, and it will always stay close to my heart! I cannot wait for them to come camping with us again!