The Diomede Islands (Big and Little Diomede Island) are situated in the 58-km (36 mile)-wide Bering Strait that separates the northern North American continent from the north Asian continent along the International Dateline. The islands were named by Vitus Bering on August 16, 1728, on his first exploration of Bering Strait. Little Diomede Island is east of the Russian-American border that also separates the two, at 65° 45' N 168°56' W, some 43 km west of Wales, Alaska. Little Diomede Island has belonged to the United States since 1867, when it was included in the Russian sale of the Alaska Territory to the United States. Big Diomede Island is approximately 4 km west of Little Diomede, and is the northeasternmost point of Russia.
Research on the geology, geography, origins, and history of the islands has been sporadic and incomplete, a product of their geographically extreme locations and the Cold War history of the region's two dominant political forces: the former Soviet Union (USSR) and the United States of America. Both islands lie in the narrows of the Bering Strait, with the Bering Sea to the south and the Arctic Ocean to the north. The islands probably constitute extensions or relic portions of territorial uplifts. Little Diomede has been proposed as an extension of the York Terrace uplift on the southern Seward Peninsula. The strait area between the islands has periodically been exposed as part of the Bering Land Bridge (Gualtieri and Brigham-Grette, 2001).
The islands are considered Subarctic and periglacial. The region is subjected to high winds and blizzard conditions throughout winter and spring. Winter sea ice conditions provide an ice roadway from December to May between the islands. In the brief summer, July and August, dense fog and rain prevail. Temperatures average -15°F to 18°F in winter and 40-50°F in summer. In the early 1970s, geologists suggested that the Diomedes might have been glaciated by extensions of a late Pleistocene Chukotkan ice mass. However, recent research suggests that the islands were shaped by a combination of surface frost and water action and, based on geologic evidence collected on Little Diomede by Gualtieri in 1999, weathering in concert with the significant uplifting of the York Terrace. Recent research on Big Diomede Island has been limited due to its primary use as a Russian army outpost.
Prior to the Cold War, the two Diomedes were home to at least three Inupiaq Eskimo communities: two on Big Diomede and one on Little Diomede. While three or even four settlements on Big Diomede have sometimes been proposed, only two on Big Diomede and one on Little Diomede have been documented. The settlement of Kunga, on the north end of Big Diomede, was abandoned prior to the 20th century, possibly as a result of famine. However, the settlement of Imaqthliq, toward the southerly end of the western shore, was a viable, although dwindling, community until a remnant population was removed to the mainland village of Naukan in 1948 and further dispersed to larger towns in the Chukotka region when Naukan was closed in 1958. When the Iron Curtain fell and the borders finally closed between the USSR and the United States in 1948, there were no more than 20 Inupiat still living on Big Diomede. Kunga was unoccupied within the memory of Little Diomede's oldest residents (Oscar Ahkinga, 1999; Ruth Milligrock, 1998). Contact between the two indigenous communities was common until 1948 when the army outpost with approximately 20 regular officers was established at the abandoned Kunga site. The base was still in operation in 2001.
Between 1900 and 1948, some Naukan residents married into the Imaqthliq community and, in the 1920s, when schooling began in the American village of Ingaliq, on Little Diomede, several Imaqthliq families, attracted by this new opportunity, immigrated to Little Diomede (Krupnik, 1994).
The two islands once served distinct and closely related Inupiaq Eskimo communities. According to residents of Ingaliq, interviewed in 1998-1999, the two surviving communities, their own and Imaqthliq, had familial, cultural, and economic ties. Each considered themselves to be bowhead whale hunters. Each relied on marine mammals, mainly walrus and seal, for survival. (This was still true of Ingaliq residents in 2002.) Islanders hunted these two marine mammal species intensively in spring and in fall for their meat, as a major fuel source, for skins (used in clothing, foot gear, and boat coverings), and for ivory (used both for artistic production and as a tool material). The islands are home to millions of nesting birds each summer (especially auklets and murres), and Imaqthliq and Ingaliq residents collected eggs and trapped or hunted auklets to supplement food supplies in summer. In late summer, residents collected leaf greens, berries, and roots. Some plant resources were taken mainly from Big Diomede, while others were collected only on the mainland. Almost all foodstuffs were stored in containers filled with seal oil. In Ingaliq, many of the same hunting and gathering activities continued in modified form in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
From the beginning of the 21st century, Ingaliq residents have been using a mixed market-subsistence economy that combines limited interaction with remote global markets and intense subsistence hunting and gathering. Women, on whom food processing and food storing duties fall, still preserve most foods in seal oil, but they also employ home freezers. A local generator provides electricity to the community and a regional company offers local telephone service. There is no running water, but the community does support a community cooperative store, a community combined grade school and high school, a water plant and laundry, and a clinic. Ingaliq is an Alaskan second-class city and has a mayor and City Council, a tribal office (The Native Village of Diomede Indian Reorganization Act Council) to carry out the affairs of a recognized tribe under the United States Bureau of the Interior, and a land corporation (The Diomede Native Corporation). The community of Ingaliq on Little Diomede, whose population had fluctuated in the 1960s and 1970s to a low of 70 persons, gradually increased to 146 (confirmed population, 2001).
Carol Zane Jolles
See also Bering Strait
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