Memories of Warfare: Archaeology and Oral History in Assessing the Conflict and Alliance Model of Ernest S. Burch

Igor Krupnik, Kenneth L. Pratt and Owen K. Mason


Ernest S. Burch reconstructed the political economy and demography of the Iñupiat of Northwest Alaska ca. A.D. 1800 based on extensive interviews in the 1960s–1980s with Native historians, archival records, and historical accounts. Although Burch emphasized the number of small dispersed homesteads across the Noatak and Kobuk drainages, three coastal communities dominated the politics of Northwest Alaska (Barrow, Point Hope, and Wales). The region, expanded to include Chukotka, was reportedly divided into nearly 60 independent “nations” that were engaged in war on a frequent basis and routinely killed intruders. Burch hypothesized that war was so frequent as to inhibit population growth; however, the chronology of 19th-century occupation is poorly known and population estimates are problematic. The conduct of Inupiat warfare involved long-distance overland forays, often greater than 200 km, during the fall and included a wide range of tactics, ranging from formal open battles conducted with the bow and arrow to close-quarters combat with clubs and daggers. Archaeological evidence (e.g., arrow points and slat armor) should reflect the intensity of warfare and can be employed to assess the reliability of oral historical accounts. Material evidence for warfare is most unambiguous from A.D. 1400 to 1700 suggesting that Native historical accounts, which lack chronological referents, are palimpsests of diverse time periods and likely refer to the period earlier than the 19th century.

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