Volcano Myths and Legends of the Alaskan Eskimo

Alaska has always been a very active area for volcanoes. Located right on the ring of fire there are many historically active volcanoes. There are also 40 active volcanoes that occur in the state, mostly in the Kodiak and Aleutian Islands. Alaskan volcano legends are primarily Eskimo in origin. Eskimo is a term for the people that are the native inhabitants of the Arctic regions of Alaska, Greenland, Siberia, Nunavut, Quebec, and the Northwest Territories. These people are divided into two groups: the Inuit and the Yupik. The Inuit live in the northern part of Alaska and speak Inuktitut; the Yupik people live in the western part of Alaska and speak Yup'ik. While these two groups share some similarities in language and region they have different ways of life and culture.

An Eskimo Family
Image taken from Wikipedia http://wikipedia.org

The Legends of Old Willie

For many generations legends were passed down through oral history, or storytelling. This legend was finally put on record by William A. Oquilluk or "Old Willie." This legend recounted the actual eruption of Skaptar Jokull in Iceland in June of 1783. The summer that never came was when the cloud of ash and sulfur from the volcano was brought by prevailing winds to the northern tip of Alaska.

The legend tells of the cloud coming across the sky just as the hunting season was about to begin. This brought cold weather that kept summer and the hunting season from ever coming. Only ten of the villagers of the region survived and my next two legends are of four of the survivors.

Two of the survivors were a grandmother and granddaughter named Nasaruhk and Paniruhk. They were alone in a small house with no one to hunt for them. The other villagers were kind though and took pity on them giving them meat and fish. The grandmother saved as much food as she could for the winter by drying the meat and preserving it in skin bags filled with seal oil. The grandmother and daughter also picked as many plants and fruits as they could in the summer too and saved them for the long winters. However as summer was coming the warm weather was swept away by a cloud from the north. With the cold cloud no one came to visit them anymore and the grandmother and daughter survived on what they had saved. They went out into the village to find that everyone else had starved to death and the two survived by eating the skin off a sealskin boat.

Legends also tell of two other villagers who survived the summer that did not come. The two, a mother and small son traveled two hundred and fifteen miles through the cold with no food to reach another village that had food to offer.

Both of these legends were written down by Old Willie but were nearly lost in a fire that destroyed his home. His stories that he had spent nearly twenty years recollecting and writing were all lost. All of these legends would have been lost if it hadn't been for author Laurel L. Brand who convinced Willie to write his stories again which are now published as the book People of Kauwerak: Legends of the Northern Eskimo.

The Legend of the Eagle

Another Eskimo legend is that of the giant eagles. The giant eagles were said to once live in the volcanoes of Alaska until the last of the giant eagles captured a woman as food for her children. However the woman was the wife of a celebrated hunter who came to rescue his wife and destroyed the last of the giant eagles. That is why there are no more giant eagles living in the volcanoes of Alaska.


With so many Alaskan volcanoes, it is not surprising that Volcanoes are an integral part of the Eskimo way of life. Most Eskimo history is passed down from generation to generation in stories and songs and it is difficult to find written records. However, because of people like Old Willie, these stories are occasionally written down and can be shared with the rest of the world.


Article "A summer that wasn't" by Lee Dye
Canku Ota- A newsletter Celebrating Native America
May 6, 2000 Issue 9

The White Archer: An Inuit-Eskimo Legend
By: James Houston

The Arctic and the Inuit
Calgary Board of Education website
Author: M. Speight

Alaska Volcano Observatory

Volcano World Assignment: Volcano Myths, Legends and Folklore
Hilary Strater
May 2, 2006
Spst 438 Volcanism: A Planetary Process I