Human Migration

Around 800 years ago, ancestors of the Inuvialuit migrated from Alaska to Kugmallit (official spelling) or Qangmaliq (traditional spelling) Bay [see map]. While there, the ancestors developed tools and techniques for harvesting, processing and preserving the seasonal abundance of beluga whales. Their centuries long beluga whale hunting tradition is recorded in archaeological sites that have been found along the shores bordering the bay. Inuvialuit oral histories and traditional knowledge, combined with archaeological studies, bring this record to life.

Bob Cockney, "Nuligak" (circa 1885 - 1966) was born near the mouth of the Mackenzie River when belugas were still hunted as they had been for more than five centuries. He recalled that many families would gather at whaling camps in summer, with hunters in kayaks joining forces to drive belugas into shallow waters where they were speared with harpoons and then towed back to camp. In his autobiography, I, Nuligak (1966), he wrote:

At the great whale hunts I remember there was such a large number of kayaks that when the first had long disappeared from view, more and more were just setting out.

Near the beluga hunting camps were villages where people spent the cold, dark winter months in dwellings made from driftwood and covered with sod. The flesh, fat and oil of the belugas were stored in pits dug into the permafrost beside these dwellings. Enough food was put aside to feed families throughout winter months. Felix Nuyaviak, who had lived in one of these dwellings as a youth, recalled:

Come winter, they stayed in their driftwood and sod winter dwellings, their women were kept busy with cooking and making furs into beautiful parkas and mukluks and the men were busy fashioning new harpoons, spears, bows, and arrows for the great hunts to come. They enlivened the dark long hours by story telling, or playing games of skill with each other.

Winter houses were used year after year, but inevitably were abandoned. Mimurana, an Inuvialuk who lived and travelled with the anthropologist Viljhalmur Stefansson in the early 1900s, told him that entire villages were sometimes abandoned when silt carried down the Mackenzie River and deposited in Kugmallit/Qangmaliq Bay made nearby waters too shallow for beluga whales. Today these abandoned dwellings and villages are archaeological sites.

Over the past several decades, archaeologists from the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre have worked with Inuvialuit organizations, elders and youth to document and learn about archaeological remains of beluga hunting camps and villages along the shores of Kugmallit/Qangmaliq Bay. Some of their findings have been summarized in the Kuukpak Exhibit.