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Aleutians & Bering Sea Isles
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Saint Lawrence Island

Saint Lawrence Island

This low, lake-riddled island in the Bering Sea has been inhabited by Eskimos intermittently for as long as 10,000 years. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the activity of the fur trade resulted in as many as 4,000 people living here in 35 villages. Famine struck in the 1880s, decimating the population; it has never returned to historic levels. In 1881, Teddy Roosevelt established Saint Lawrence Island as a reindeer reserve. To this day, limited harvesting of the partially domesticated, free-roaming reindeer is an important subsistence activity, particularly near Savoonga.

All of Saint Lawrence Island is village corporation land belonging to the island’s inhabitants. The island is unusual in that residents elected to take complete control over their lands, rather than assuming only surface rights plus a cash settlement. The latter was the more common choice during the implementation of ANCSA, inviting some cynicism.

The towns of Gambell and Savoonga, both on the northwest shore of the island, have economies based on the subsistence harvest of fish, marine mammals, and reindeer. Tourists come in very small numbers to observe bird concentrations, and to buy the excellent ivory carvings for which island artisans are famed. Access to both cities is via scheduled air service from Nome. There are no travel services or facilities in either town.