Located on a small bay on the northeast coast of Nelson Island, Tununak is home to 327 people, according to 2010 census records. There are three villages on Nelson Island: Tununak, Tooksok Bay and Nightmute.
Nelson Island was named after Edward Nelson, a Smithsonian naturalist who studied the land and its people. When Nelson first visited Tununak in 1878, he noted that there were six people living there: five Yup’ik and one non-Yup’ik trader. In 1889, Jesuits opened a small chapel and school, however most villagers did not convert because they were deeply rooted in traditional culture. Thus, the mission closed in 1892. A government school and a grocery store were opened in the 1920’s. A missionary named Father Deshout stayed in the village from 1934-1962. He had a good relationship with the villagers and was very influential in the community. Many changes were brought to Tununak in the 1950’s, who before then remained very traditional in Yup’ik culture.
Today, residents of Tununak still embrace ancestral values, such as subsistence living and native dance. Subsistence activities like seal, whale and bird hunting, and fishing are very popular in the village. Musk oxen also inhabit the island. The Native Village of Tununak is a federally recognized tribe.
Tununak is on a narrow strip of beach land, less than 15 feet above sea level. The village frequently experiences high and low tides. At low tide, the bay becomes a sandbar that stretches from the shoreline to about two to four miles. The seaside and the river can become extremely shallow, making it difficult for boats to get near the village. The village experiences cold temperatures in the winter, averaging from 10°F to 15°F and mild temperatures in the summer, averaging from 40°F to 55°F.
Erosion is an issue along the coast of Tununak. It is caused by storm surges, wind-driven waves, high tides and melting permafrost. Coastline erosion is estimated at one to five feet a year. Riverbank erosion also occurs on the other side of the village, which is caused by seasonal fluctuations in river flows and water levels, flooding, ice jams and melting permafrost. It is estimated that the Tununak River is eroding at a rate of one to two feet a year. The erosion has caused the community to reroute the road and build a partial seawall.