The oomiak and the ice breaker: Navigating the maritime border between the Diomede Islands

Authors: Elizabeth Alexander*, Royal Holloway, University of London
Topics: Polar Regions, Coastal and Marine, Indigenous Peoples
Keywords: Arctic, Alaska, Borders, Ocean, Island, Maritime, Ships
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/5/2019
Start / End Time: 1:10 PM / 2:50 PM
Room: President's Boardroom, Omni, East
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


The international dateline between Alaska and Siberia separates today from tomorrow and serves as a maritime border. It transects the narrow channel between the Bering Sea islands of Little Diomede and Big Diomede, dividing the United States from the Russian Federation and Yupiq families from one another. Families that crossed it via oomiak (open skin boat) were unaware they were crossing a border. As Michael Krause notes ‘If you’re a farmer, your neighbor is the person who lives next to you on the land. A river divides you from the person who lives on the other side. In a maritime hunting and gathering society, where the sea provides your livelihood, the reverse is true. The sea doesn’t divide, it joins'. Diomede islanders persisted in joining up with their relations over many years, resisting pressure to procure visas. An unfamiliar idea and process that was impractical in a location where Russian and American consulates were inaccessible. For years, this locale was governed by seasonal US Coast Guard Bering Sea patrols. Although not in their remit, Yupiq practices inspired commanders to mediate between US and Siberian officials to legitimize these exchanges. In effect, these Alaska Native families used mobility via oomiak to harness the power of the state to bridge modern nation-state ideas about border control and centuries of indigenous practice. Reference Philip Steinberg's comment that the seas are '…zones where certain activities, by certain actors, are permitted and others are prohibited. And yet…their meanings are worked out only through social practices'.

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