Shishmaref is located on Sarichef Island, in the Chukchi Sea, just north of the Bering Strait. Shishmaref is 5 miles from the mainland, 126 miles north of Nome, and 100 miles southwest of Kotzebue. The village is surrounded by the 2.6 million-acre Bering Land Bridge National Reserve. It is part of the Beringian National Heritage Park, endorsed by Presidents Bush and Gorbachev in 1990.

The original Inuit name for the island was "Kigiktaq." In 1816, Lt. Otto Von Kotzebue named the inlet "Shishmarev," after a member of his crew. Excavations at "Keekiktuk" by archaeologists around 1821 provided evidence of Inuit habitation from several centuries ago. Shishmaref has an excellent harbor, and around 1900 it became a supply center for gold mining activities to the south. The village was named after the inlet, and a post office was established in 1901. The city government was incorporated in 1969. During October 1997, a severe storm eroded over 30 feet of the north shore, requiring 14 homes and the National Guard Armory to be relocated. Five additional homes were relocated in 2002. Other storms have continued to erode the shoreline an average of three to five feet per year on the north shore. In July 2002 residents voted to relocate the community.

It is a traditional Inupiat village with a fishing and subsistence lifestyle. The sale and importation of alcohol is banned.

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