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Point Hope

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Claiming to be the oldest continually occupied site in North America, Point Hope, westernmost point of Lisburne Peninsula, in the Chukchi Sea, has a rich archaeological heritage. Four distinct sites within the radius of a couple of miles have been identified by archaeologists or are represented by standing buildings. The site called Ipiutak, recognized as a National Historic Landmark, was occupied at least two thousand years ago. By 400 C.E., there was a settlement of eight hundred dwellings there, on the south shore of Marryat Inlet near the present cemetery. Excavated in 1939–1941, the Ipiutak houses were semisubterranean, with a driftwood or whalebone superstructure supported by four posts inside the walls, and tunnel entrances.

A later settlement, called Old Tigara, was located west of Ipiutak, on the ocean's edge. Some artifacts found in the settlement that has since washed away dated to 500 C.E. to 700 C.E.; in ridges still remaining, evidence indicates a settlement from 1400 C.E. to 1750 C.E., a settlement that survived until after contact with whites. It has been estimated that as many as 800 people lived here in 1850. That number is probably high, but it was a substantial settlement.

Around the turn of the century, because of the beach erosion, the village moved less than a mile to the east, to the village of Tigara. Tigara had suffered a population decline during the measles epidemic of 1902 and probably experienced continuing decline from other diseases contracted through contact with whites. By 1908 it had a population of 179 in twenty-three households. A whaling station established in 1887 at a site called Jabbertown, 6 miles east, operated until 1910. A government school was set up at Jabbertown in 1904, moving to the village in 1924. An Episcopal mission was established 1 mile northeast of Tigara in 1890 and moved into the village in 1955. The cemetery northeast of Tigara, established due to the missionaries' influence, is fenced with whalebones and is thus extraordinarily evocative of its place. The houses at Tigara evolved from semisubterranean, sod-covered dwellings with tunnel entrances to American-style wood-framed houses. Because of the draftiness of wood-framed houses, however, sod was piled around them. By 1955, the village of Tigara had fifty houses, mostly frame.

In 1976, the village of Tigara was abandoned, again due to shore erosion. The entire community moved, for the last time, 2 miles to the east, establishing a new village called Point Hope. The informal linearity of the old village was abandoned in favor of a grid plan. In contrast to the grass-covered mounds of Tigara, the new houses at Point Hope are elevated, on an unvegetated gravel pad. While some of the wood-framed buildings were moved from Tigara, most of the buildings are new, manufactured houses.

At the site of Tigara, most of the original sod houses survive as mounds. Whalebone-framed entries lead to sod craters, as the lumber lining the dwellings was removed for reuse. Others have had their tunnel entrances removed and the skylight converted to a trap door; these are being used as cold-storage facilities by the villagers. A handful of wood-framed houses remains, some of them with sod piled around the exterior walls.

Writing Credits

Alison K. Hoagland

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