Between 2002 and 2011, the Whaling Museum shared a U.S. Department of Education grant, known by its acronym of ECHO, with several partners, including the North Slope Borough in Barrow, AK. Our National Park Service office had also forged a relationship with the Inupiat Heritage Center in Barrow. In that time, several of us on the Museum staff, past and present, interacted with NSB and IHC staff at ECHO partner meetings as we planned our collaborative activities. Perhaps the two biggest benefits, personally, were learning the importance of truly listening to partners who have a completely different method of dealing with conflict resolution and experiencing first-hand a culture vastly different than the one we live in here in the lower 48. Early in my NBWM career, I spent four days in Barrow, meeting, interviewing, visiting and listening to the residents. I also gained a sense of the climate that Yankee whalers encountered between 1849 and 1915. It was a very eye-opening trip. I’m sure that my fellow WM employee, Michael Dyer, who spent a week at an Inupiat Immersion Course, would concur.
Unfortunately for these 5,000 people on the North Slope of Alaska, they are the first to feel the effects of a warming climate. The ice comes in later and leaves earlier. The late arrival of the ice makes it easier for the wind to create more wave action which speeds up coastal erosion. Permafrost may actually melt, which will shift the footings on which the houses are built, putting these structures in danger. Less ice also makes it easier for ships and oil exploration rigs to set up in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas.
This video from KTUU in Alaska gives a 5 minute glimpse into life in Barrow and a look into the Inupiat Heritage Center, featuring friend and colleague, Patuk Glenn.
Ms. Glenn is one of the many Inupiat we met during our ECHO meetings. I know that she has fond memories of her visit to New Bedford. I have fond memories of my visit to Barrow in 2004. Our cities were first connected by whaling. Now we’re connected by the sharing of educational resources and cultural information. May this connection continue for another 160 years.
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.
Edward Itta, the current mayor of Barrow, AK, and captain of a whaling crew, has responded in the Alaska Dispatch to the story posted a week ago in the New York Times. A blog on that story was posted here on October 19.
Residents of Barrow are sensitive to how their culture is portrayed, especially if that portrayal is going to be the only information those readers will ever receive. The depiction also has the potential to have an impact when subsistence hunting quotas are brought up for review with the IWC.
Point Barrow, Alaska, watercolor painting by Sophie E. Porter, 1895-1896, from the NBWM's Kendall Collection
New Bedford’s renewed relationship with Barrow, AK, fostered both through the National Park Service and through the ECHO (Education through Cultural and Historical Organizations) program, brought their traditional whale hunts back into our local consciousness. An article in the New York Times from Monday, features a video and a reference to New Bedford whaling tools still being used in Barrow.
The story is also a reminder that effects of climate change are more quickly and easily seen in the planet’s polar regions. Shrinking polar ice caps are changing the way the hunt is conducted. What is not mentioned is that a shorter ice season leads to longer periods of open water that can be pushed by the wind to increase coastal erosion, another issue facing Barrow residents.
BALAENA COMUNE lithograph, by Rispoli / Petraroja, from NBWM Kendall Collection
Last Tuesday’s blog began with a reference to the commonly asked question (at least here at the NBWM) “Who’s hunting whales now?”. That blog talked a bit about one country involved in commercial hunting. Today’s answer to that question focuses on subsistence hunting and an article from the Alaska Dispatch.
It’s time for the NOAA/NMFS review of the bowhead whale population in the Bering, Chuckchi and Beaufort Seas (western Arctic). This will determine the maximum number of whales that can be harvested by the Inupiat.
Based on commentary coming out of Iceland, it is likely they will dispute or perhaps vote against the subsistence hunt at the next International Whaling Commission meeting. Japan did this in 2002.
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.