Kotzebue is Alaska's largest Eskimo community, home to more than 3,000 people. Most of the residents of this coastal village are Inupiaq, whose ancestors have had ties to the region for thousands of years. For most of that time the Inupiaq lived in seasonal camps, following caribou, moose, and other wildlife across the landscape. They also depended on whales, seals, fish, and the wide variety of berries and other plants the rich tundra landscape offers. Besides being talented hunters, the Inupiaq were—and still are—skilled craftsmen and artists, known for their rugged gear, ceremonial parkas, dolls, caribou-skin masks, birch-bark baskets, and whalebone and walrus-ivory carvings.
Built on a 3-mile-long spit of land that juts into Kotzebue Sound, this village lies 33 miles above the Arctic Circle, on Alaska's northwest coast. Before Europeans arrived in the region, the Inupiaq name for this locale was Kikiktagruk; that was changed to Kotzebue after German explorer Otto von Kotzebue passed through in 1818 while sailing for Russia. Kotzebue is the region's economic and political hub and headquarters for both the Northwest Arctic Borough and the NANA Regional Corporation, one of the 13 regional Native corporations formed when Congress settled the Alaska Natives' aboriginal land claims in 1971. The region's other Eskimo villages have populations of anywhere from 90 to 700 residents.
Just as their ancestors did, modern Inupiaq depend heavily on subsistence hunting and fishing. Some residents also fish commercially. This region of the state has few employment opportunities outside of the government and the Native corporation, but in Kotzebue, the biggest private employer is the Red Dog Mine. Located on NANA land, Red Dog has the world's largest deposit of zinc, and is expected to produce ore for at least 50 years. Local government here, as in many Bush villages, is a blend of tribal government and a more modern borough system. Other facilities and programs include the Maniilaq Health Center and the Northwest Arctic District Correspondence Program.
Kotzebue has long, cold winters and short, cool summers. The average low temperature in January is –12°F, and midsummer highs rarely reach the 70s. "We have four seasons—June, July, August, and winter," a tour guide jests. But don't worry about the sometimes chilly weather—the local sightseeing company has snug, bright-colored loaner parkas for visitors on package tours. And there's plenty of light in which to take in the village and surrounding landscape: the sun doesn't set for 36 days from June into July. One of summer's highlights is the annual Northwest Native Trade Fair; held each year after the July 4 celebration, it features traditional Native games, seal-hook-throwing contests, and an Eskimo buggy race.