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"Pilgrim Hot Springs History and Unaatuq, LLC Update"


The article below, summarizing the known history of Pilgrim Hot Springs was generously contributed by Ukallaysaaq of Nome, Alaska. The article was originally written for publication by Sitnasuak Native Corporation Spring 2020 Venture Newsletter.

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Uunaqtuq (English: it is warm or hot) is the Iñupiaq Qawiaraq dialect place name for Pilgrim Hot Springs which is located 60 road miles from Nome. This important place is recognized within the Qawiaraqmiut traditional territory with a long history of use that continues into today. Qawiaraqmiut did not live or establish any villages at the springs as they honored this as a very special place where animals would be available for subsistence especially during hard times [shared by Garnie, Joe Sitnasuak Native Corporation Board of Director (April 2020)]. Our Alaska Native people respectfully hunted and gathered at the site in times of need, enjoyed the healing soaks in the hot springs, appreciated the natural beauty and spirituality of the area, and rested at the site after subsistence hunting and fishing.

In the early 1900s, non-Native people were introduced to Unaaqtuq by our Native people. During the Nome Gold Rush (1899-1909), miners were attracted to the site and disregarded the traditional use and rules of the area and springs. The original American territorial tract containing Pilgrim Hot Springs did not properly recognize indigenous land title and was claimed by Henry Beckus in 1905, surveyed and approved in 1907 as U.S. Survey 565 pursuant to the Homestead Act of 1898 [Chain of Title/History of Ownership: Pilgrim Hot Springs (U.S. Survey 565). Bering Straits Native Corp.] 


The area changed western ownership from a homestead in 1907 to A.E. Boyd and later the Kruzamapa Hot Springs Company. A saloon, dance hall and roadhouse were built at the site that burned in 1908. Subsequently, the property was deeded to Judge George D. Schofield. In 1917, Judge Schofield deeded the property to the Provincial of the Jesuit Province of California as a gift for a Catholic mission [Father Louis L. Renner, S.J. (March 2009). Pilgrim Hot Springs: Building a Future on the Past. The Alaskan Shepard, Volume 47, Number 2].


Beginning in September 1915, Catholic priest Father Bellarmine LaFortune served Mary’s Igloo in his rounds of villages and began a plan to move the village mission to the springs [Pioneer Missionary to the Bering Strait Eskimos - Bellarmine LaFortune, S.J. (1979)]. During 1918, Father LaFortune was in the process of relocating the Mary’s Igloo mission to Pilgrim Hot Springs when the global Spanish Flu pandemic hit Nome and the surrounding region. Sadly, a mass grave of at least 61 people was created at the springs area as the final resting place of mostly Qawiaraqmiut that passed away at Mary’s Igloo suddenly and in large numbers. It is estimated that 68 of 127 (or 54%) of the village residents passed away at Mary’s Igloo. The deceased were transported by dog team from the village for mass burial to a sandy area at Pilgrim Hot Springs which was not frozen ground [Oquilluk, William and Bland, Laurel (1973). People of Kauwerak. Alaska Methodist University Press. 


The Catholic mission at the springs in 1918 was transformed to include an orphanage and boarding school to help care [for] the many children from Mary’s Igloo, Nome and the surrounding areas. During the next several years, the Mary’s Igloo mission was gradually moved to Pilgrim Hot Springs including lumber from the buildings and the name of the mission itself, Our Lady of Lourdes Mission. The relocated mission at the springs flourished as a church, boarding school, and orphanage. Geothermal heat was used for the buildings and a farm with gardens were developed. Combined with the natural abundance of fish, wild plants and game, the mission, in large part, was self-supporting [Father Louis L. Renner, S.J. (March 2009). Pilgrim Hot Springs: Building a Future on the Past. The Alaskan Shepard, Volume 47, Number 2].

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As a result of the Spanish flu pandemic and the following diphtheria and tuberculosis outbreaks, many Alaska Native orphans from the region were raised at Pilgrim Hot Springs. One of the children included Kavingazuk or Robert Joe Sr. – an original incorporator of Sitnasuak Native Corporation. He was born on July 13, 1927 at Little Diomede to David and Irene Joe. He was later cared for at the Pilgrim Hot Springs orphanage beginning in 1931 at the age of 2 ½ until he was 14 or until about 1943 [Obituary of Robert Joe Sr., prepared by family (2018)]. After the closure of the orphanage in 1941, caretakers of the site have included Robert Joe Sr., Utuayuuraq or Martin Okleasik, Tony Krier, and Louie Green, Sr. [shared by Bobby Bahnke, Sr., Sitnasuak Land Committee Advisory Member (April 2020)]. In 1953, the Catholic Bishop of Northern Alaska became the legal owner of the property and leased the site to various individuals over the years.


In 1973, the U.S. Geological Survey conducted a distribution and chemical analyses of the thermal springs.  Further studies of the springs were also conducted in 1975, 1979, 1980, 1982, 1983, 1994, 2007, and 2010 to 2013 [Pilgrim Hot Springs Geothermal Conceptual Model (Final Draft July 2013). University of Alaska Fairbanks]. On April 11, 1977, Pilgrim Hot Springs was added to the National Register of Historical Places.  There continues to be high interest in the historical and sustainable development of the site to support cultural and economic opportunities throughout the region.


In 2010, Bering Straits Native Corporation (“BSNC”) reached out to the region’s ANCSA village corporations and non-profits to pool resources together so the springs could return to regional ownership [Ganley, Matt, Bering Straits Native Corporation (April 2020)]. Unaatuq, LLC was then formed by seven regional entities with joint investment and ownership as follows: Sitnasuak Native Corporation (23.08%), BSNC (23.08%), Kawerak, Inc. (23.08%), Norton Sound Economic Development Corporation (23.08%), Mary’s Igloo Native Corporation (2.56%), Teller Native Corporation (2.56%), and White Mountain Native Corporation (2.56%). Unaatuq, LLC then purchased the site consisting of 320 acres from the Catholic Church and continues to maintain the ownership today. Later, Teller Native Corporation sold its share in Unaatuq, LLC to Council Native Corporation.

In 2020, Kawerak, Inc. partnered in managing the Pilgrim Hot Springs property with Bering Straits Native Corporation for Unaatuq, LLC. Since that time, Unaatuq has developed a business plan that incorporates the basic tenets of caring for the environment and honoring our legacy by focusing on ecotourism, agri-tourism, renewable energy, and culture & history.  


Unaatuq, LLC has invested in road and site improvements at Pilgrim Hot Springs. They have also partnered with regional entities for successful grant programs to support agricultural programs and development. Unaatuq, LLC also continues to study the feasibility of the geothermal resources for clean energy development.


Visitors must stay on the road when traveling to the springs as the surrounding lands along the road belong to BSNC, Mary’s Igloo Native Corporation and the Bureau of Land Management.  Visitors are also asked to respect the land and springs, remove and clean up any trash, help keep the property safe and clean, and report any issues to the Pilgrim Hot Springs General Manager at Kawerak based in Nome or the onsite caretaker.


People wishing to visit the grave sites at Pilgrim Hot Springs are not required to obtain a permit if this is the only reason for their visit. Access to grave sites within the property is restricted to foot traffic. As background, when the property was purchased in 2010, the deed included a perpetual public easement to grave sites so that relatives could visit and tend to their loved ones.

*Please visit the "Visitors Permit" page of this site to view the latest information on how to obtain a permit.

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Our Story

The business name "Unaatuq" is similar to: "Uunaqtuq" which is the Iñupiaq Qawiaraq dialect place name for Pilgrim Hot Springs. Unnaqtuq translates to English as: "it is warm or hot."
Many have referred to Unaatuq as meaning "warm waters."
Listen to a pronunciation of "Unaatuq" here:

A sub-Arctic oasis located in remote Northwestern Alaska, Pilgrim Hot Springs is nestled between Hen and Chickens Hill and the Kigluaik Mountain range. A lush tree oasis with an abundant geothermal resource, Pilgrim boasts hot bathing pools, warm fertile soil, and a unique history.


Pilgrim Hot Springs was purchased in late 2009 from the Catholic Bishop of Northern Alaska by a consortium of seven organizations in the Bering Strait region, including Bering Straits Native Corporation, Teller Native Corporation, White Mountain Native Corporation, Mary’s Igloo Native Corporation, Kawerak, Inc., Norton Sound Economic Development Corporation, and Sitnasuak Native Corporation.  Later, Teller's share was sold to Council Native Corporation. The seven owners formed Unaatuq, LLC which is governed by a board of directors with representation from each owner-organization.

In 2020, Kawerak, Inc. joined Bering Straits Native Corporation as a managing partner of Unaatuq and is committed to furthering the vision of the owners, their shareholders, and the residents of the Bering Strait Region.

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A protected arctic oasis that provides for our people.


To promote the wellbeing of our people through sharing, protecting, and responsibly developing the resources of Pilgrim Hot Springs.

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