known locally as Inalik
This may be confusing for those who don't
live in the region, so I'll
inject a note right here... Little Diomede ISLAND is known locally as Ignaluk
Diomede the VILLAGE is actually named Inalik. A reminder of this type will
also appear on the page for Diomede Island.
Diomede is located on the west coast of Little Diomede Island in the Bering
Strait, 135 miles northwest of Nome. It is only 2.5 miles from Big Diomede
Island in Russia, and the international date line lies between the two islands. Diomede
is in the Cape Nome Recording District. The area encompasses 2.8 sq. miles of
land and 0.0 sq. miles of water supporting a population of 146.
Diomede (Inalik) is the only settlement on
Little Diomede and within it are evident all the contradictions and
complications of Eskimo life. The weather is fierce and pitiless.
During summer months, cloudy skies and fog prevail. Winds blow consistently from
the north with gusts to 60 or 80 mph. The Bering Strait is generally frozen from
mid-December to mid-June. The weather can be extremely cold and windy for many
months of the year. Blizzards are common. Though the mercury can top 60° in the
summer, temperatures of -40° are not uncommon in the winter. It usually is late
spring before the snow and ice melt.
The only regular transportation to the island is the weekly helicopter flight
that brings the mail. But fog, wind and storms can cause travel delays of days,
weeks and even up to a month.
The village itself is on a small patch of the island by the ocean, the only area
that is not almost-vertical cliffs.
Little Diomede Island has about 160 residents, all of whom live on the southwest
corner. There is a small rocky beach immediately West of the village and from
there the land rises steeply on all sides
to 1,250 feet. The top is broken tableland with no trees or shrubs and scant
vegetation. The remainder of the island is cliffs. Due to the rocky terrain, the only way to get
around town is by foot and this can involve some steep, difficult climbing.
There are some snow machines that can be used when the Bering Strait freezes.
The only way to get to Diomede from spring to winter is by
helicopter. The helicopter generally makes one weekly trip, weather
permitting. Once the Bering Strait freezes and a runway can be plowed, several
flights may arrive during the week; again, weather permitting.
The Little Diomede village of Inalik,
seen from space.
village of Inalik. Notice how all the
buildings are clustered at the base of the mountain.
When John Muir visited the island in 1881 he wrote the
No margin is left for a village along the shore, so, like the seabirds that
breed here and fly about in countless multitudes darkening the water, the rocks
and the air, the Natives had to perch their huts on the cliffs, dragging boats
and everything up and down steep trails, The huts are mostly of stone with skin
roofs. They look like mere stone heaps, black dots on the snow at a distance,
with whalebone posts set up and framed at the top to lay their canoes beyond the
dogs that would otherwise eat them. The dreariest towns I ever beheld -
the tops of the islands in gloomy storm clouds, snow to the water's edge, and
blocks of rugged ice for a fringe; then the black water dashing against the ice;
the gray sleety sky, the screaming water birds, the howling wind, and the blue
The Inupiaq name for the village is Inalik,
meaning “the other one” or “the one over there.” The population is largely
Inupiat Eskimo who have lived in the area for many generations. The
present village site, which is believed by some archaeologists to be 3,000 years
old or older, was originally a spring hunting site and gradually became
inhabited as a permanent settlement. Western explorers found the Diomede Eskimos
had an advanced culture, practicing elaborate whale hunting ceremonies.
Headline: Little Diomede Island, August 1994: The village residents are accumulating
cash and grocery supplies and local dancers are practicing almost every night.
The islanders are preparing for a visit of more than one hundred friends and
relatives from "Siberia," and they are eager to be hospitable and generous
Headline: Little Diomede Island, January - July 1944:
According to records kept by the local schoolteachers 178 people from Big Diomede and the Siberian mainland had been visiting the island within these six
These two headlines might create the impression
that little has changed over the last fifty years of intercontinental contacts.
However, we all know that official contacts were forcefully disrupted in 1948
and it was not until after 1988 that they were permitted again.
Historically, Diomede residents hunted on both sea and
ice and traded with natives in both Asia and Alaska. They were closely
related to families living on Big Diomede Island. As well, Big Diomede was once home to families living on Little Diomede
and the larger island played an important role in its smaller sister's subsistence.
During WWII, Big Diomede served as a Russian military base. All residents were
removed to the mainland, and any Little Diomede inhabitants who strayed across
the waters too close to Big Diomede were taken captive by the Russians.
The long years of the Cold War turned the Bering
Strait (a kind of watery Berlin Wall, then) into a No Man’s Land - a chilling
ideological curtain rising between Big Diomede and Little Diomede, as invisible as the International Date Line that passes
between the two islands.
When the Soviet Union sealed its borders in 1945 and
established the Iron Curtain, Big Diomede remained a military base.
While some members of a family (Eskimos) immigrated inward into
Russia, others moved eastward to American shores. Those living on
Russian soil eventually fully integrated into
Soviet society. They had to abide by the same travel restrictions as all other
Soviet citizens landlocked within the boundaries of the USSR.
that point, the two island communities, connected
by Eskimo family kinships but separated by American/Russian politics, led
parallel lives - pictures of Karl Marx hung in the Russian schools, pictures
of Abraham Lincoln in the American. Little Diomede villagers watched Warner
Brothers films, Big Diomede watched movies made by Lenfilm. Although officially
forbidden to do so, Eskimos from the two sides did occasionally meet on the
International Date Line under the cover of fog, visiting briefly, and exchanging small gifts.
In the age of Gorbachev, perestroika, and
glasnost, the Cold War thawed, and interest in reuniting with families across
the Bering Strait revived. However, many of the residents of Little Diomede never saw their relatives again.
In His Own Words...
My home is located in the Bering Sea, one hundred and eighty
miles northwest of Nome.
The name of the island is Diomede. The
village is located on the
west side of the island.
The climate of Diomede is much warmer than the mainland in the
winter time. The
temperature ranges from twenty to thirty-five below
zero in the winter. In
order to protect ourselves from cold, we use
mukluks and parkas. The
parkas are made from reindeer and squirrel
skins. The mukluks are made
from either reindeer legs or seal skins.
In the summer we wear
lighter clothing. In the first part of July, we
have warm days until the
last part of August. We have very little rain,
but in the winter the snow
fall is rather heavy.
The approximate number of people on the island is one hundred and
The people at hone make their living by hunting and carving
ivory. Fishing is not so
common. The fish they catch are bullheads,
tomcods, bluecods, etc.
There is also some crabbing in the winter time.
The people over on big
Diomede Island do more trapping than we do for
the reason that the island
is much larger than our little Diomede and it
belongs to the Russian
government. The Russians do not allow any American to trap foxes in their
territory or get any kind of fur. About
eight or ten years ago we
used to get most of our furs from Siberia,
such as reindeer,
wolverine, wolf, and white fox. In April we start to
hunt for whales, seals and
Recreations at home are skating, snowshoeing, hand ball, foot
ball and Eskimo dancing.
Since there are no movies, the people spend the
rest of the evenings by
telling jokes and old-time stories.
There is no traveling in winter time at Diomede, except going
to big Diomede. The
distance is about five miles, and in the winter the
ice doesn't freeze up
between the island usually. In the summer we
travel in skin boats
equipped with outboard motors. They either go to
Siberia or Wales. In July
half of the population goes to Nome to spend
the summer for trading.
Most of our carving and skin sewing is sold at
Nome. They we return home
on the MS North Star in October.
The village is run or governed by the village council. These
councilmen serve three year
terms. A long time ago the village was run
by a chief whose name was
Kosinga. The old Russian name of the two is
lands was "Krusenstern."
That was when the village was run by a chief.
I don't know why the name
was changed to "Diomedes."
There is no wireless
communication on the island, except the
radio receiving sets. No
airplane comes to Diomede except for some
very special reason, during
the winter. The MS North Star brings
groceries for the people on
the island from Nome. At the same time
she unloads freight for the
school teachers. The Coast Guard cutter
Northland comes in twice
during the summer to look after the natives.
In order to improve the village there should be a doctor and
a nurse, and a hospital for
the village. They should have a wireless
station and more radios, so
the people on the island could have better
contacts with other places
and from Outside. In order to have more
recreation there should be
a gymnasium and a moving-picture show. There
are lots of other things
needed on the island in order to improve the
Arthur Ahkinga (1942- )
Note: Arthur married Kate Brower, of Barrow, [who taught] arts and crafts
at Point Lay for the Office
of Indian Affairs; two children.
Bellarmine Lafortune, S.J.,2 was
the first Catholic missionary to arrive at Diomede, in June of 1913, though his
stay was brief. Fr. Hubert Post, S.J., arrived three years later, in 1916.
By this time a fair number of Little Diomeders were already Catholic, having
been brought into the Church by Lafortune during their annual summer stays in
Nome. It was Fr. Lafortune who, in 1935, laid the plans for the first
church building on the island. Up to that time the parish had used a small
building as place of worship and living quarters.
Fr. Thomas Cunningham, S.J., was sent to Little
Diomede in 1936. He was the first priest to take up residence there. He spent a
total of eight years living on the Island, from 1936 to 1947. He built the new
church building with donated lumber from Nome and dedicated it to Saint Jude.
After 1947, Fr. Cunningham visited the Island, weather permitting. Fr. Harold
Grief, S.J., served the parish intermittently and Fr. Gerald Ornowski, M.I.C.,3
spent the summer of 1977 there.
While tenured on Little Diomede, Fr. Thomas
Carlin built a new church and living quarters with the help of Brother Ignatius
Jakes, S.J. It was blessed by Bishop Robert Whelan, S.J., on March 3, 1979. Fr.
Carlin remained as resident priest from 1979 until 1983. The Little Sisters of Jesus were also residents
at Little Diomede beginning in 1954 up until 1996. Saint Jude parish has been
regularly visited by priests out of Nome.
In 1953 Gerald F. and Donna Carlson were assigned to Little Diomede
Island where they were the only teachers for all grades K–12. At that time there were 130 Inupiat on Little Diomede – 35 were students from K-8 in a one-room schoolhouse. The schoolhouse
served as the Carlson’s home – it being the only square building on the island
except for a small Catholic church, St. Jude's, built by Father Tom Cunningham.
Gerald and Donna needed to adapt their
teaching methods to local
needs. Their primary challenge was getting in 180 days of classtime before
walrus migration began in the spring when everyone was needed to help with the
annual hunt. As a result, it was necessary to teach through holidays and
some weekends. Fortunately, they experienced no discipline problems
because the children were excited to learn. Beginning students had to be
taught English since their primary language was Inupiat.
had other duties he had to learn on the job – a prime one being radio operator, the
school's ham radio being the only means of communication with the outside world.
Another necessity was his learning basic medicine, as the island had no medical
care. Donna became pregnant
and at the end of the school year the couple elected to return to Washington
state in the fall of
Forty years later, in 1993, the Carlsons returned to Little
Diomede and noted the changes:
- Residents are living in houses.
- There is a grammar
school with six elementary teachers as well as a high school with four teachers.
culture is emphasized in school and in the local council.
Electricity had come to the island in the 1970's - bringing television,
telephone service, and computers with it.
- Residents still do not have
refrigerator-freezers, food is buried in the permafrost instead.
- The community has
The town has a store which offers a limited selection of groceries when
compared to large lower-48 super markets. All freight
has to be shipped by plane and if the planes are unable to fly due to bad
weather, then stocks cannot be replenished.
Diomede has a post office and a health clinic to take care of
basic medical needs. Major medical concerns can be taken care of in Nome or
Diomede was incorporated as a second class
city in 1970.
|Diomede home, a kugeri, in the
||Diomede homes today
A federally recognized tribe is located in the Native
Village of Diomede (Inalik). 93.8% of the population are Alaska Native or part
Native. Living is still largely
subsistence, and hunting methods ancient and traditional. Puffin-like sea birds
called auklets are caught in nets at the end of 12-foot long poles. The Inuits hunt
walrus, seals, and beluga whales, though
nowadays they shoot rather than harpoon them. When the first ice of winter, the
'slush ice' as they call it, comes down from the north, they lie in wait for the
polar bears that come down with it. Mainland Natives come to Diomede specifically
for these bear hunts.
Almost every part of the animal is used for food, for
clothing, mukluks, even boats. Seal and walrus hides are used to make
individual clothing items, parkas, hats, mukluks, and furs and skins for trade. The Inuit people of Little Diomede are
allowed to pay their taxes to the Internal Revenue Service in ivory collected
from walrus hunts. They are the only people in the United States that are allowed
to pay taxes with something besides U.S. currency.
There are a limited
number of small businesses in Little Diomede. The most prominent of these is the
Little Diomede Native Store which stocks a variety of food and beverage items,
some clothing, fuel, ammunition and some firearms. A few residents work
for the local government or school. There has been some commercial fishing and
mining on the island, but both industries are in decline. Diomede boasts some extremely impressive ivory carvers who sell
their works in Fairbanks and Anchorage.
Additionally, the village serves as a wholesale agent for ivory.
With an influx of whalers in the latter half of the 1800s,
the Inuits became acquainted with seaman's whittlings. They quickly found a
market for their own carvings, selling them to the whites. Happy Jack, also
known as Angohwazhuk (c. 1870-1918) of Little Diomede Island, is thought to have
been the first Inuit/Eskimo to carve cribbage boards. He was influenced by
American seamen's scrimshaw after he made several voyages to San Francisco on
board a whaling ship. Many of the finely incised designs accurately depicted the
animals and daily activities of the Inuit. Other images represented foreign ways
of life and were probably copied from magazines, package wrappings, and
The limited terrain does not allow for a runway, so
weekly mail delivery is made by helicopter. Float planes rarely risk landing on
the rough seas in summer, but ski planes do occasionally land on an ice runway
during the winter months. Most supplies come from an annual barge delivery. The
sale and importation of alcohol is banned.
Water drawn from a mountain spring is treated and stored in a 434,000 steel
tank, and families haul water from this source. The tank is filled for winter
use, but the water supply typically runs out around March. The washeteria is
then closed and residents are required to melt snow and ice for drinking water.
All households use privies and honeybuckets. The washeteria/clinic is served by
a septic system and seepage pit. Due to the soil condition, lack of ground cover
and steep terrain, there are limited waste disposal methods. Refuse disposal
is an individual responsibility; combustibles are burned.
The oldest Catholic
radio station in the United States, KNOM, operates out of Nome. Following
are a few human-interest highlights of its history applicable to Diomede:
||October 1972: According to KNOM reports,
Diomede Islanders spot an umiaq (oo-mee-ack, a walrus skin boat) from the
Russian side floating at the International Date Line. They scramble to gather
chewing gum, candy and cigarettes and rush to visit their relatives.
||August 7, 1987: KNOM receives a telephone call
from Alaska’s Little Diomede Island. On the Russian beach, Richardson has
transmitted a report via Citizens Band radio, which a Diomeder has tape
recorded. It is illegal to gather news via CB (and extremely illegal to use a
CB transmitter in the Soviet Union!), but the tape already exists, and KNOM
decides to air it, so as not to upset the people of Diomede.
October 29, 2002: Transported via National
Guard Blackhawk helicopter, U.S. Senator
Ted Stevens arrives on an overnight visit to incredibly isolated Little Diomede. It was the first time that the tiny village in the Bering Strait had
hosted a statewide elected official. "I didn't realize you were this remote,"
Fr. - Father
S.J. - Society of Jesus (Jesuits)
3 M.I.C. - Marian Clerics of the Immaculate
Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary
City - City of Diomede, P.O. Box 7039, Little Diomede, AK 99762, Phone
Village Corporation - Diomede Native Corporation, P.O. Box 7040, Little
Diomede, AK 99762, Phone 907-686-3221
Village Council - Native Village of Diomede, P.O. Box 7079, Little
Diomede, AK 99762, Phone 907-686-2175