Spread over an area of 3.6km², the geography of the Ukivok island is particular for an inhabited island. The island is 1.6km long and is mainly made up of steep rocky coasts and cliffs, without a beach, which makes landing difficult. The island has few natural resources, the animals are mainly birds, and the high vegetation, trees, are almost absent. Its remoteness from the coast (64km) makes regular supply nearly impossible. Therefore it seems almost unimaginable to live there year-round, but for several decades Inupiat people lived on the island in unique houses on stilts.
Ukivok Island (also known as Ugiuvak), is a tiny rocky island located off the Seward Peninsula, west of Alaska, in the Bering Strait. The island was first surveyed by the famous Captain James Cook in 1778. He named it King Island in honour of his officer, James King.
The situation of the island and its lack of natural resources make it an inhospitable place. However, until 1940 more or less 200 people lived there. The inhabitants, who were called Aseuluk (people of the sea) or Ukivokmiut (people of Ukivok), settled their village in the south of the island. These populations are of Iñupiat origin, Alaska natives composed of Northwest Arctic and Bering Strait natives. The island’s sloping topography made construction almost impossible. In addition, the lack of natural building materials and the remoteness of the mainland make it impossible to build homes. Nevertheless, the Ukivokmiut built several houses, a school and a church on a slope of almost 45°. Moreover, these houses are made of wood, whose origin is difficult to determine because it is almost non-existent on the island.
The wooden architecture of the Ukivok stilt houses
Ukivok houses are built on stilts because of an obvious lack of flat land on the island. Initially, the village was made up of shelters covered with walrus skins. Ivan Kobele, who visited the island in 1791, made no mention of houses on stilts. Later, according to Father Louis Renner, these houses on stilts appeared in the middle of the 19th century. Although the dwellings may have been built of driftwood or wood found on the mainland, Edward W. Nelson in his 1899 survey already mentions an architecture mainly made of wood. The importance of wood is such for the Aseuluk that their vocabulary includes more than a dozen references or expressions related to wood (see the list here). The etymology of these words sometimes provides information on the origin of wood. For example the word tusrkhaq (plank, board) is originally a Russian word. But until today it is complicated to determine with certainty the origin, the place and the time of the wood used in the constructions.
The main subsistence activity was walrus or seals hunting and fishing, some crops were also maintained during the summer. However, in the middle of the 20th century, the Bureau of Indian Affairs closed the school on the island. As the children now had to reside on the mainland, the adults followed them to Alaska, leaving the island uninhabited except for the remaining houses on stilts.