IllustrationIs it an iglu? Actually, an ivrulik is a semi-subterranean sod house used by the Iñupiat (northern Eskimos) of the North Slope of Alaska—specifically, those who lived at Piŋusugruk (labeled on maps as Point Franklin), a point that juts into the Chukchi Sea near what is today the village of Wainwright. The word “iglu,” which non-Iñupiaq speakers often use as a synonym for “snow house,” is actually the general Iñupiaq term for “house,” regardless of its size or method and material of manufacture. The iglu in Investigating a North Slope Ivrulik is termed an “ivrulik,” or sod house, and represents the most common type of traditional pre-contact winter dwelling on the North Slope. It was made of wooden support beams and wooden roof, wall and floor planks, with an entrance tunnel that was partially supported by whale bones. The houses foundation was dug partway into the sandy ground, beams were secured in the ground, a wooden roof was laid across the top, and the structure was covered with sod from the surrounding tundra.

Map courtesy of Alaska Native Language Center, University of Alaska Fairbanks

Map courtesy of Alaska Native Language Center, University of Alaska Fairbanks

From 8 to 12 people lived in this ivrulik. The typical household consisted of an extended family, which might include a married couple, their children, possibly a spouse of a child, one or more of the home owners’ parents, and perhaps a grandchild or two. The precise design and size of an Iñupiaq ivrulik varied somewhat across the Arctic region, as did flooring material and kitchen style. After contact with Westerners, many sod houses were constructed with doors above ground rather than connecting to an underground tunnel.

Two Sod ivrulgich in Barrow, before 1950 (Courtesy of the Alaska State Libraries)

Two Sod ivrulgich in Barrow, before 1950 (Courtesy of the Alaska State Libraries)

The single-family ivrulik is not the only type of winter dwelling the pre-contact Iñupiat used. In the Brooks Range, people lived in caribou skin tents called itchalgit in addition to sod and moss-covered dwellings called ivrulgich (the plural of “ivrulik.”). Throughout the Iñupiat region, from at least 1000 AD forward, people also built ceremonial buildings called the qasgi or qargi. During the day, men and boys used the qargi as a work room where they built sleds, repaired skin boats, and made tools, recounting important points of knowledge and lore as they did so. At certain times in the year, these buildings were also used for ceremonies of thanksgiving, supplication, and hospitality for travelers from other villages. Women brought food to the men as they worked, and also took part in celebrations and ceremonies inside the qargi.

A hunter on top of his sod house, searching for game. Point Hope, Alaska taken in the 1940's. (Photo courtesy of Alaska State Libraries)

A hunter on top of his sod house, searching for game. Point Hope, Alaska taken in the 1940’s. (Photo courtesy of Alaska State Libraries)

During the summer, the ivrulik became muddy and uncomfortable as temperatures warmed above freezing and the snow and frozen ground melted. The tunnel accumulated water from surface runoff, which made it impossible to stay in the house. The Iñupiat moved into skin tents, often pitched next to their sod houses. These tents were portable, allowing people to pack them up and move inland or down the coast to follow fish, caribou, and other game, or to trade with far-away relatives and acquaintances. When winter came and the ivrulik was once again comfortable, people moved back in.

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