Tag Archives: Barrow AK

Inupiat and Alaska Delegation Prepare for Battle at IWC Meeting

Bowhead Scrimshaw Carving. From Whaling Museum Kendall Collection

One of the benefits of having shared a U.S. Department of Education grant with the Inupiat of Alaska’s North Slope, was the exchange of cultural knowledge and practices.  Speaking only for myself, I learned a great deal about life in Barrow, both from working on projects together and by visiting the town. One thing became quite clear. It really is necessary to hunt for your protein.

If you want meat, you need to get it yourself, or hope that someone in your family will do the harvesting. This includes wide assortment of food that comes from catching what my host in Barrow called ‘the mighty bowhead’. They eat the skin, blubber, muscle, kidney, heart, intestines and tongue. The hunt provides nourishment and continues a centuries long tradition. There may be modern technology used, but the result is the same – a bounty of food celebrated by the whole town, and shared by the captain of the crew who caught the whale.

The whalers along the North Slope have often had to wage political battles within the International Whaling Commission to maintain their subsistence whaling quota, a quota that lasts for a five year span. That battle may have to take place again in July, during the IWC meeting in Panama.  As a backup plan, Alaska’s congressional delegation has introduced legislation in the House and Senate that would enable the U.S. Secretary of Commerce to set the subsistence quota, if IWC members do not.  The two previous votes on this topic, in 2002 and 2007, required some political maneuvering to get the majority vote in favor of the hunt. This is a wise use of the stipulation written into the 1946 International Convention on the Regulation of Whaling, which allows for such a move if the IWC doesn’t set the quota.

If you’re curious as to why they don’t just go to the store to buy their meat, check out this article about the cost of food in Barrow.

Learning from Whales and Whalers on Top of the World

Much like the buffalo were an integral part of the lives of Plains Indians, bowhead whales are inseparable from the lives of the Inupiat of the North Slope of Alaska.   An older resident of Barrow once told me that approximately 75% of their activity over the course of a year is related to whaling.  Whether it’s prepping seal skins for umiaks, cooking, cleaning, hunting, readying gear for camping on the ice or feeding family or neighbors, their lives are connected to the bowhead.  They believe that these animals offer themselves to the people to ensure their survival.

One of the transplants to Barrow, research biologist Craig George, has spent 30 years learning from the Inupiat and from the bowhead.  Craig and his colleague, Leslie Pierce, are contributors the NBWM’s new The Hunt for Knowledge exhibit. More importantly, they’ve helped legitimize the centuries of traditional Inupiat knowledge that was typically ignored or demeaned by academics and agency scientists.

It’s my pleasure to link you to Ned Rozell’s quick-read article about Craig and Leslie, Learning from Whales and Whalers on Top of the World .  You’ll be impressed by the amount of research he’s done, and stunned by the bowhead facts listed in the story.

Craig George, left, and Leslie Pierce look for bowhead whales north of Barrow.