For the Inupiat natives of Alaskan Arctic villages like Barrow, nothing is more important than the bowhead whale. Approximately 20 percent of the population in Alaska is considered indigenous, or “Native,” and the Inupiat are one of Alaska’s many Native groups who were referred to as “Eskimo.” The few massive bowheads taken by a traditional Inupiat hunt each year supply thousands of pounds of meat in a place where such necessary proteins are growing scarce and grocery store food prices are inflated. Hunting, fishing and foraging for food, known as “subsistence,” is the anchor of culture and economy for Alaska’s many Native groups, some of which are so fragile that only a handful of living elders still speak their native languages.
The Inupiat people and the bowhead whaleare one. We can’t live without the other.
“The whale has always been the center of our lives. Without the whale, we wouldn’t be here,” says Steve Oomituk, a former whaling captain. Steve has been a whaler his entire life. He calls the ocean “our garden” and whale meat his people’s “soul food.”
The Inupiat eat everything out of the whale—skin, blubber, meat, kidneys, heart, stomach, the gum of the baleen and the tongue. Bones are used to make art. Whale liver membranes are stretched and turned into drums for the annual feast celebrating a successful whaling season. “It’s what God gave the people to stay warm in the long, cold winter months... When we eat it, it fills your mind, body and spirit, and it’s really good for you.”
“There’s no other food like it in this cold, cold, harsh environment,” agrees another whaling captain, Herman Ahsuak. Herman began whaling in Barrow when he was 20 years old and first became a captain in 2004. That same year he was “blessed” with a whale. “I still remember the prayer like it was yesterday. We offered thanks to God for the gift of the whale,” he recalls. “The Inupiat people and the bowhead whale are one. We can’t live without the other.”
Whaling crew captains are community leaders; they have strong family ties and are often religious. Christianity and native spirituality are inextricably linked. The whale is considered to be a gift from God, and the natural world is considered holy.
Living off the land is inherently spiritual for Native communities; it is the way to transmit traditions and values from one generation to another. These beliefs existed even before Christian missionaries arrived in the Arctic hundreds of years ago, and continue in Barrow today. Hunting the whale, processing the blubber and meat and distributing the food source to the community are the main ways Native elders teach young people about their culture.
“I’m going to continue to teach my children about the sea ice, the currents, the winds and all about whaling. Everything that I was taught I’m going to try and teach them,” says Herman Ahsuak. For Steve Oomituk, it is also important to try to talk to young people and make them understand. “We want them to go to college... We want them to continue their education, but we want them to understand that they have a rich identity as a people.”
Social problems such as alcoholism, drug addiction, sexual violence, child abuse and suicide affect all Native Americans at a much higher rate than the rest of the population. Barrow, Alaska, is no exception, and elder whaling captains like Steve Oomituk and Herman Ahsuak have legitimate cause for concern about Alaska’s native youth. The state of Alaska now has the second-highest rate of suicide in America, and its Native population is particularly plagued by suicide, with nearly half of these deaths among people between the ages of 15 and 24.
Traditions like whaling can be one ofthe strongest positive influences on young people’s lives.
The reason for this epidemic of suicide and the myriad other problems facing Native Alaskan villages is incredibly complex, ranging from immediate causes such as geographic isolation, alcohol abuse and a lack of mental heath awareness to systemic causes such as poverty and racism.
However, their dark, violent, colonial history, and abuses of the quite recent past (such as forced assimilation and sexual abuse at boarding schools in the 1960s and ’70s) have led to an undeniable and deep-rooted intergenerational trauma that affects the entire Native population. Across Alaska, there is now a big movement to heal from this painful history by reconnecting with the Native way of life.
Traditions like whaling can be one of the strongest positive influences on young people’s lives. In Barrow, hunting the bowhead whale brings pride, hope and healing.
Whaling season, and the celebratory feast that follows it, is something the entire community of Barrow looks forward to throughout the year and participates in. It helps villagers and their Native Alaskan relatives across the state feel connected to their family, nature and their own cultural identity.
“You challenge yourself,” says Herman Ahsuak, who captains a scrappy young crew of close and distant relatives, such as his 12-year-old nephew and 20-year-old-niece, who both live far away in Anchorage, Alaska’s biggest city. For Herman, whaling “keeps you physically active... it takes you away from the traffic and the town and the telephone and the TV.” Being on a whaling crew means a lot of hard work, but it also provides a much-needed sense of purpose. However, the all-important whale hunt is now at great risk.
FOR ALASKA’S NATIVE PEOPLE, ESPECIALLY THOSE LIVING IN ISOLATED, RURAL AREAS, CLIMATE CHANGE THREATENS TO BRINGAN END TO THEIR WAY OF LIFE.
Scientists call Alaska “ground zero” for climate change, and last year was the state’s warmest year on record. Alaska is warming faster than anywhere else in the world, with temperatures increasing at twice the rate of the rest of the U.S. But climate change in the Alaskan Arctic means more then just warmer weather; it means snow that arrives later in the fall, a spring thaw that happens sooner, vanishing sea ice, retreating glaciers, an explosion of wildfires and intense storms and diminishing natural habitats for hundreds of local species and the people whose subsistence depends on them.
Climate change is not only putting immense pressure on natural habitats and animal species, but also challenging communities across the region, transforming the relationship between people, animals and the land. For Alaska’s Native people, especially those living in isolated, rural areas, climate change threatens to bring an end to their way of life.
Whale, walrus, seal, caribou and salmon are dying off and migrating in new patterns, and the communities that rely on them for nutrition, income and spiritual practices are being challenged in countless ways. Hunting conditions have become dangerous and unpredictable. Shifting sea ice has made setting up camp for whaling increasingly dangerous, and lack of snow last winter made it impossible for whaling crews to travel by snowmobile for weeks. Changing ice conditions have complicated hunting so deeply that it has caused food shortages in some villages.
“We live the cycle of life that has been passed through us from generation to generation... that our father, his father and his father before him have... that has continued for thousands of years from this place,” says Steve Oomituk. The Inupiat people used to always know this cycle, but now, “We’re starting to see these changes. Warmer climates. Thinner ice. . . in the last 30 years I’ve seen such tremendous change.”
Native Alaskans are currently facing the challenge of climate change head-on, and the existence of traditions like the whale hunt in Barrow may come to an end. It is an historic moment in time, and the survival of entire communities and cultures is at stake.