ILATKA: The Inuit Word For My Relatives - Western Arctic

Brian Adams photographs the landscapes and the people of Alaska and documents change, adaptation and resilience

Anchorage Museum

Anchorage Museum

GERALD ASHENFELTER (2016) by Brian AdamsAnchorage Museum

ILATKA - The Inuit Word for My Relatives

Arctic communities are faced with powerful forces bringing pressures on Indigenous land and people. Climate change affects lifeways in Alaska and has a profound impact on the international Arctic, its sensitive ecosystems, and the communities that rely upon the region’s natural resources. The issues related to the future of Alaska are many and diverse.  The Inuit and other Indigenous people of Alaska are at the forefront of these issues. In his series ILATKA - The Inuit Word for My Relatives, Brian Adams photographs the landscapes and the people of Alaska and documents change, adaptation and resilience. The stories embedded in the images and the voices that accompany them help portray a compelling and relevant story of place.

ILATKA Alaska MapAnchorage Museum

This story focuses on the villages in the Western Arctic region of Alaska

RAYMOND LEE JR. (2016) by Brian AdamsAnchorage Museum

Raymond Lee Jr.

“I was born in Kotzebue and raised in Buckland. All my life, I lived here and I don’t think I will ever move away, only if I have too. I am a subsistence hunter and food gatherer. I eat anything and everything. Whatever you put in front of me, I will eat it, unless it’s really fermented. My dad and mom had eight kids, six boys and two girls and I myself, have five girls and three boys, so I had eight like my mom and dad. I also have 10 grandchildren. That’s a lot of mouths to feed. I love doing what I do, hunt, prepare food and share. I do a lot of bartering. Even for socks. I work on a lot projects for the Northwest Housing Authority, for Kotzebue, they finally moved me up to carpentry worker. I also just worked on a project for the Northwest Arctic Borough on the Subsistence Mapping Project as a coordinator for Buckland and Deering . I also helped them on Noorvik and Selawik when their coordinators quit. It was really good to visit the elders in the NANA [Regional Corporation] region. We were gathering important ecological information, marking where multiple people do subsistence gathering. So in the future, we protect the subsistence areas where people gather food. It’s really important, you know. I learned a lot from it and I think my life changed when I got the Hunter Fisher Award at AFN (Alaska Federation of Natives) in 2010.” — Raymond Lee Jr. is Inupiaq and lives in Buckland, Alaska.

MONA WASHINGTON (2016) by Brian AdamsAnchorage Museum

Mona Washington

“I grew up in Candle, Alaska. It used to be a big mining town and now it’s a ghost town. There are a few families that go there to pick berries in the summer. There are a lot of berries there and it’s a nice place to go, but it’s just lonesome. I have lived here since 1972. I am the Administrator for the Buckland IRA (Indian Reorganization Act, often used to refer to tribal governments that were organized under the federal act) Council . I have been here since 2011. I oversee the 638 grants (federal tribal government grants) for Tribal Operations. We get BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) money for Tribal operations and we also have a EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) grant. We also work with the fuel plant and store.   My favorite part about living in Buckland is the slower pace and I love picking berries. When we go away for workshops for work, it’s always so good to get back home. And ever since we got water and sewer in 2011, it’s always so exciting to go home. Even today, it’s so exciting inside, it’s so awesome. We are still tickled about the water, even after five years.” — Mona Washington is Inupiaq and lives in Buckland, Alaska.

WILLIAM AHKPUK (2016) by Brian AdamsAnchorage Museum

William Ahkpuk

“I help elders out. I hunt for them, fish. I help my buddy out with his traps. My favorite is caribou, it’s caribou and wolf season. The elders eat wolf. I am born and raised here, 41 years! You should go see Raymond Lee, he has got wolves, wolverines, porcupines, lynx. He has got everything. He lives up town. “—William Ahkpuk is Inupiaq and lives in Buckland, Alaska.

TIANA BROWN (2016) by Brian AdamsAnchorage Museum

Tiana Brown

“We are fishing for humpies [pink salmon] on the Snake River. I wrap them up and give them to my friend, and sometimes, if my mom and dad want them we keep them. I try to catch at least five whenever we come out here. They are best when you bake them or dry them.” — Tiana Brown is Inupiaq and lives in Nome, Alaska.

LEEANN SOAKIAYAK (2016) by Brian AdamsAnchorage Museum

Leeann Soakiayak

“I have been volunteering for the Iditarod [dog sled race] for eight years now. I started volunteering after a friend of mine made it here, and I got hired by her. I look forward to it every year. I dig out the dog food, bring it to the mushers, and help them inside too! I used to have lots of dogs. I am a dog lover. My favorite musher is Allie Zirkle.” — Leeann Soakiayak is Inupiaq and lives in Shaktoolik, Alaska.

LARS SOOKIAYAK (2016) by Brian AdamsAnchorage Museum

Lars Sookiayak

"The last storm we had was about three years ago. We don’t go to sleep until the tide goes down." —Lars Sookiayak is Inupiaq and lives in Shaktoolik, Alaska.

THOMAS AHGUPUK (2016) by Brian AdamsAnchorage Museum

Thomas Ahgupuk

“I have been carving since junior high. Started off with earrings and pendants. I worked into high school and started doing small figurines like whales, polar bears, and walrus out of ivory. While I was in high school I wanted to learn how to make different things and see what I could make. So I asked my brother and my cousin; they taught me how to carve with walrus rib, walrus vertebra, and jaw bones. I then got into carving with whale and caribou antler. Anytime I ever got stuck or needed help, I would just go to one of the local carvers and they would be nice enough to show a different way to do it, or how to fix something if I messed it up. My favorite thing to carve with is the ivory, I like making roses. I use walrus ivory for the flower, whale baleen for the stem, and walrus ivory for the thorns.” — Thomas Ahgupuk is an Inupiaq artist and lives in Shishmaref, Alaska.

JOHN KOKEOK (2016) by Brian AdamsAnchorage Museum

John Kokeok

“I had all these recordings of dance groups from the '90’s on old VHS tapes. I don’t know who recorded them on those old VHS tapes. I started watching them and getting into it. When Carter (his son) was two years old, I would go home on my lunch break, and he would be watching his cartoons. I got tired of them and started putting in those tapes and he would watch them. Then soon, everyday when I got home from work, I would ask him, ‘what do you want to watch?’ and he would want to watch those tapes. He is 10 now. Our dance group in town kind of faded away, [when the] elders passed away. Mary, Kate’s sister (and John’s sister in law), came back to town. She is a teacher too [like my wife Kate]. She got [the Shishmaref Dance Group] back together and that’s when I joined. I am a part of the Shishmaref Drummers. We have all these young kids now, I think they will take over eventually. There are about 10-12 kids in our group now.”— John Kokeok is Inupiaq and lives in Shishmaref, Alaska.

AMOS OLANNA AND WILFRED OLANNA (2016) by Brian AdamsAnchorage Museum

Amos Olanna and Wilfred Olanna

“I have been making art since I was born. [Laughs] My favorite thing to make is beaded bracelets. Here I have earrings made of mastodon and walrus tusk. I learned from the school. My dad taught me how to make necklaces too. If you see [U.S. Senator of Alaska] Lisa Murkowski on TV, see if she is wearing a bird pin. My dad made that. His name is Wilfred Olanna, Sr.” — Amos Olanna and Wilfred Olanna, Sr. are both Inupiaq and live in Shishmaref, Alaska. They were photographed in Nome, Alaska on their way home to Shishmaref.

SHISHMAREF (2016) by Brian AdamsAnchorage Museum


“The ugruk (bearded seal) is the main subsistence food source in Shishmaref. For me, the ugruk season is one of the busiest times of the year. The men and women go out hunting and bring the ugruk back for preparation. When the family decides that they have enough ugruk to last them the winter, the hunters no longer go out hunting. When my mom, aunt, and I prepare the ugruk, we may start the process in the middle of May, and the final product would be complete at the end of June or first part of July. It depends on the weather. Nearly all of the ugruk is used except for the head.  About 20 years ago, the men hunted ugruks at the end of May, well into June/July. Now, they hunt as early as mid-May, and the ice is usually rotten or gone by the beginning of June or mid-June. There are times that if it’s too warm, the ugruks can dry too quickly, and it is more difficult to process. We actually prefer to have some snow while we are working on ugruks, because it preserves it longer.  The families want to teach the children young so that they can continue to practice the subsistence lifestyle. If they are not taught, they might not know what kind of ice is good and when to go out. If you go out in a certain kind of wind, the ice can block you in, and you can be out there for days. So, they pay attention to the weather.” Katherine Kokeok is Inupiaq from Shishmaref, Alaska.

NICK TOPKOK (2015) by Brian AdamsAnchorage Museum

Nick Topkok

“Hardly anyone does this anymore. In the fall time they run thick, right now they are really healthy. We eat them half dried and frozen. I grew up eating this food.” — Nick Topkok is Inupiaq from Teller, Alaska.

TELLER (2015) by Brian AdamsAnchorage Museum


All terrain vehicle (ATV) tracks on the tundra. Teller, Alaska. 2015

ANITA GRANT (2016) by Brian AdamsAnchorage Museum

Anita Grant

"I am from a big family; there were nine of us. We never went to jail or were picked up. We had good parents. After I clean up my house, I always come sit out here and watch the people passing by. My grandson is upriver checking on our cabin. Hopefully they will see a moose. It’s about five miles up where river bends. In the winter, two people fell through the ice. We never walk on that ice. It doesn’t freeze much, but they didn’t know that. They were sure glad that our cabin didn’t have a regular lock on it, and they said it saved their lives. So we turned it into a shelter cabin." — Anita Grant is Inupiaq and lives in Unalakleet, Alaska.

Credits: Story

Brian Adams (b.1985) is an editorial and commercial photographer based in Anchorage, Alaska. His work is dedicated to documenting Inuit life in Alaska and the Circumpolar North. His work has been featured in both national and international publications, and his work documenting Alaskan Native villages has been showcased in galleries across the United States and Europe. His first book of photography, I AM ALASKAN, was published in October 2013 by University Of Alaska Press. His most recent book, I AM INUIT was published in December 2017 with the Anchorage Museum and Benteli Press.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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