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Harriman Expedition Retraced

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Community Profile: Little Diomede


Gazette

Little Diomede Island, Alaska, sits just over two miles to the east of Big Diomede Island, Russia. The Islands are separated not only by national affiliation, but also by the International Dateline, which runs through the small stretch of Bering Sea between the island group. Little Diomede is flat-topped, steep-sided and very isolated by its location, by rough seas, and by the persistent fog that shrouds the island during the warmer months.

Little Diomede

Little Diomede. (Photo by Megan Litwin).
Click image for a larger view.

Location: Lat. 655 47'N, Long. 169E 00' W

Area: 2 square miles

Population: 146

Industry: Subsistence

Access: Sea, air (helicopter)

Alaska Native Affiliation: Ingalikmiut Eskimo

Alaska Native Regional Corporation: Bering Straits Native Corporation

Weather: Summer temperatures average 40 to 50 degrees, winter from -10 to 6 Fahrenheit. Annual precipitation is 10 inches of rainfall, with 30 inches of snowfall.

Historical Overview

  • Little Diomede has been home to a small numbers of Eskimos for centuries. The island was named by Russian explorer Vitus Bering on St. Diomede's Day, August 16, 1728.
  • The 1880 census shows 40 people living on the island in a village called "Inalet."
  • When John Muir visited the island in 1881 he wrote this:

    No margin is left for a village along the shore, so, like the seabirds that breed here and fly about in countless multitudes darkening the water, the rocks and the air, the Natives had to perch their huts on the cliffs, dragging boats and everything up and down steep trails, The huts are mostly of stone with skin roofs. They look like mere stone heaps, black dots on the snow at a distance, with whalebone posts set up and framed at the top to lay their canoes beyond the dogs that would otherwise eat them. The dreariest towns I ever beheld &endash; the tops of the islands in gloomy storm clouds, snow to the water's edge, and blocks of rugged ice for a fringe; then the black water dashing against the ice; the gray sleety sky, the screaming water birds, the howling wind, and the blue gathering sludge!

  • During WWII, Big Diomede served as a Russian military base. All residents were removed to the mainland, and any Little Diomede inhabitants who strayed across the waters too close to Big Diomede where taken captive by the Russians.
  • After WWII the two island communities, connected by Eskimo family kinships but separated by American/Russian politics, led parallel lives &endash; pictures of Karl Marx hung in the Russian schools, pictures of Abraham Lincoln in the American. Little Diomede villagers watched Warner Bros. films, Big Diomede watched movies made by Lenfilm.
  • Historian Merle Colby wrote this about Diomede Island relations in the 1950s:

    True to Soviet tradition, Big Diomede Eskimo attempt to proselytize their Little Diomede relatives. "Come across the water," they are reported as urging, "here the Eskimos are allowed to lubricate machines, cure the sick, write letters, live with Russian women, spit on merchants, go to Moscow, become captains!

Economy

  • Little Diomede Eskimos live a subsistence lifestyle, harvesting fish and crab, hunting beluga whales, walrus, seals and polar bears. Almost every part of the animal is used for food, for clothing, mukluks, even boats. Locals are known for their ivory carving.
  • A few residents work for the local government or school. There has been some commercial fishing and mining on the island, but both industries are in decline.
  • The limited terrain does not allow for a runway, so weekly mail delivery is made by helicopter. Float planes rarely risk landing on the rough seas in summer, but ski planes do occasionally land on an ice runway during the winter months. Most supplies come from an annual barge delivery. The sale and importation of alcohol is banned.

Community Issues

  • Water and sanitation are problems on Little Diomede. Fresh water comes from a treated spring, but this source is unreliable; by late winter the islanders must melt snow for drinking. All homes use "honey buckets," chemical toilets that require treatment.
  • Garbage disposal is also a problem for the community. Most solid waste is burned, and the island is currently in the process of buying and building an incinerator.

(View the Little Diomede daily log entry)

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