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Indigenous Alaskans drive research in a melting arctic

  • In Utqiagvik, Alaska, the Iñupiat rely on whaling and subsistence hunting for the bulk of their diet, a practice dating back thousands of years.
  • Powered by mineral wealth, the Iñupiat-run North Slope Borough Department of Wildlife Management employs a collaborative team of scientists and hunters.
  • Though the arctic is warming nearly four times faster than the global average, the Iñupiat are confident in their ability to adapt their practices to changing conditions.
  • The Department of Wildlife Management provides a potential model for collaborations between Indigenous peoples and western researchers — with Indigenous leaders in charge of funding and resource allocation.

For a few days each June, the saltwater wind that blows over the fairgrounds in Utqiagvik, Alaska mixes with the smell of coffee, salmonberry pie and fresh whale meat.

The festivities start early and end under the midnight sun during Nalukataq, the annual whaling festival. By noon, the tables at the center of the fairgrounds are filled with slabs of whale blubber, cauldrons of stew and baked goods — enough to feed the town for a month. After a prayer, crew members circle the fairgrounds and fill coolers with food. Meanwhile, captains trade turns making speeches, pumping up the crowd and singing songs into a megaphone.

On the first day of last summer’s festival, one cut of whale meat was conspicuously absent from the spread. The kidneys of a bowhead whale (Balaena mysticetus), which are usually slow cooked through the morning, were sitting in wildlife veterinarian Raphaela Stimmelmayr’s laboratory eight kilometers (five miles) away at the North Slope Borough Department of Wildlife Management.

A family accepts muktuk, whale blubber, at Nalukataq in Utqiagvik, Alaska.
A family accepts muktuk, whale blubber, at Nalukataq in Utqiagvik, Alaska. Image by Gabe Allen for Mongabay.

Stimmelmayr received the organs back in March, just hours after the Little Kupaaq whaling crew successfully harpooned a 25-ton animal. Little Kupaaq member Martin Edwardsen was in the boat that day. With the community’s help, the Little Kupaaq crew hauled the animal onto the ice and butchered the meat. But, as Edwardsen cut out the kidneys, he noticed something off. Tiny translucent worms wriggled along the surface of the organs. He set the kidneys aside and called Stimmelmayr.

“Nobody knows anything about them,” Edwardsen said of the worms. “So we don’t take them because we don’t know if they’re a parasite that could affect us.”

Stimmelmayr is now working on a study of the worms for publication this summer. She aims to find out where the parasites came from — perhaps they are spreading from other whale species that are moving into the Arctic as the climate warms. She also hopes to discern if the worms are a threat to the health of the whales or the humans that eat them. It’s a process that she’s been through before. During her time with the department, Stimmelmayr has evaluated numerous environmental threats to marine mammals, such as exposure to petroleum and algae toxins in seals.

In Utqiagvik, threats to marine animals are existential. Because the region is so isolated, most of the food that residents eat still comes from subsistence hunting. The only ways into the North Slope, aside from a small airport, are seasonal: a winter ice road and a summer shipping corridor. Food brought in from outside is prohibitively expensive, but the region is full of wild game.

The North Slope Borough Department of Wildlife Management is the community’s first line of defense. The team includes ecologists, biologists and hydrologists who work under the leadership of an Iñupiat director, Taqulik Hepa. The researchers are just half of the equation. The department also employs a robust team of Iñupiat subsistence hunters who are revered in the community for their ecological knowledge.

“It’s a real unique situation that’s different from anyplace else,” Hepa explained. “We have local hunters and local people working together with very well-respected scientists.”

The department’s approach makes it a potential model for the “true collaborations with local and Indigenous peoples” that the National Science Foundation called for in a 2021 letter, according to Eduard Zdor, a Chuktotkan PhD candidate in Anthropology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. In 2022, a White House memorandum also urged federal agencies to consider Indigenous knowledge in “federal research, policies and decision making.” These recent calls to action have spurred new collaborations between researchers and Indigenous peoples.

Yet, collaborative efforts between Western researchers and Indigenous groups often run into unforeseen barriers or fall short of their goals, due to issues like mismatched interests and research fatigue.

The North Slope Borough Department of Wildlife Management has found a way to avoid these pitfalls and foster mutually beneficial cooperation. Perhaps, because the relationship between Indigenous knowledge and Western research is not so new in the North Slope. The people of Utqiagvik have worked at this intersection, for better and for worse, for nearly half a century.

In a town where a case of Dr. Pepper costs $14.99, subsistence hunting is essential.
In a town where a case of Dr. Pepper costs $14.99, subsistence hunting is essential. Image by Gabe Allen for Mongabay.
A crowd gathers around a seal skin stretched between posts for “blanket toss” at Nalukataq.
A crowd gathers around a seal skin stretched between posts for “blanket toss” at Nalukataq. Image by Gabe Allen for Mongabay.

A unique approach

The Prudhoe Bay oil strike of 1968 turned Alaska into a petroleum state, with the North Slope Borough at its epicenter. In order to offer contracts to oil companies, the federal government first had to settle outstanding land claims with Native groups across the state. In 1973, the Iñupiat emerged from the negotiations with immense mineral wealth, and the newly-founded Ukpeaġvik Iñupiat Corporation became a powerful player in the oil industry.

Around the same time, Alaska began the slow process of reforming its education system. A whole generation of Iñupiat had been stripped of their language and traditions. Now, a new generation had a chance to reclaim the practices that had almost disappeared. Chief among them was whaling.

So, shock waves rippled through the Northern Slope in 1977 when the newly-formed International Whaling Commission (IWC) removed an exemption that had previously allowed the Indigenous bowhead whale hunt. Overnight, the people of the North Slope lost an essential food source and a cultural practice dating back thousands of years. In Barrow, the town that changed its name to Utqiagvik in 2016, the news was felt by everyone.

“I was a teenager,” Colleen Akpik-Lemen, director of the Iñupiat Heritage Center, told Mongabay. “It was the saddest year.”

The document that led to the ban, the commission’s 1977 scientific committee report, estimated that the current population of bowheads in the region was only 6 to 10% of pre-commercial whaling levels. A National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration report from the same year urged that Iñupiat whaling was “of great concern.” However, the data used to back these statements amounted to a handful of infrequent reports with widely varying estimates.

Iñupiat leaders saw a different reality. Whaling crews were encountering more healthy bowheads than ever.

A line of drummers pound qilaut at Nalukataq.
A line of drummers pound qilaut at Nalukataq. Image by Gabe Allen for Mongabay.

“There are a lot of bowheads out there that the scientists aren’t counting. Many are out in the ice and therefore are not seen when they pass by Barrow. As a result of poor counting the scientific community helps put these unfair quotas upon us,” whaling captain Harry Brower Sr. told wildlife veterinarian Thomas Albert at the time.

The year before the ban, Iñupiat crews caught a record number of bowheads. From an Iñupiat perspective, that number suggested a healthy population of whales and a growing need for whale meat in the community. From the IWC’s perspective, the numbers represented an Indigenous community overhunting a vulnerable species to extinction.

In the end, the IWC’s perspective won out, in large part because Iñupiat leaders had no Western science or data to support their claims. So, the Iñupiat went looking for some.

Just months after the ban, North Slope Borough Mayor Eben Hopson formed the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission. In the early years, the commission worked under the watchful eye of the federal government to monitor bowheads and establish strict subsistence hunting quotas. Slowly, the community regained its right to harvest whales.

By 1981, the monitoring and management program was handed over to the North Slope Borough’s newly formed Department of Wildlife Management. Following in the footsteps of the Whaling Commission, the department hired a mix of community leaders, subsistence hunters and scientists.

“It was always a combination of very well-respected scientists and very well-respected hunters learning to interact with each other,” Hepa said.

Though it arose in the face of a crisis, the department’s approach proved enduring. And, fifty years later, it’s still unique. The major difference lies in who is working for who. The scientists at the department are employees of the Iñupiat municipal government of the North Slope Borough, not outside researchers seeking input from Indigenous knowledge holders. The work that they do starts and ends with the community.

Today, that dynamic is still paying off. The bowhead whale hunt is now protected, but the Iñupiat face another existential threat: climate change.

A ladder rests on the hatch an ice cellar in Utqiavik. As temperatures rise, most cellars have been lost to thaw and flooding.
A ladder rests on the hatch an ice cellar in Utqiavik. As temperatures rise, most cellars have been lost to thaw and flooding. Image by Gabe Allen for Mongabay.
A traditional ice cellar, used to store meat, erodes along the arctic coast.
A traditional ice cellar, used to store meat, erodes along the Arctic coast. Image by Gabe Allen for Mongabay.

Ice Trails

During the past few decades global warming in the Arctic, which is occurring almost four times faster than the global average, has presented a new set of research questions. Utqiagvik loses more than 15 meters (50 feet) of coastline every year to erosion, melting permafrost wreaks havoc on local infrastructure and environmental changes present new challenges for subsistence hunters.

One of the biggest challenges for whalers is the changing nature of sea ice. Each spring, junior whalers chip away a trail across the ice from the coast to where the ice meets open water. Back in the 1970s, the trail traveled over 16 or 24 km (10 or 15 miles) of smooth, multi-year ice to reach this edge. Now, the trail traverses a shorter distance over younger, thinner ice to an edge that often lies within a kilometer from town. The young ice is less stable and more unpredictable.

“I remember, 35 to 40 years ago, going out to the edge when I was 10 or 11 and seeing the ice breaking off,” said Lucy Leavitt, captain of the Pamiilaq whaling crew and subsistence research coordinator at the Department of Wildlife Management. “The ice was as high as the ceiling at the edge. Today it can be from inches to a couple of feet.”

Though the journey to the edge has become shorter, it is also more difficult. The young ice is rough and forms large ridges that must be razed to make way for whaling equipment.

“It’s gotten a lot rougher,” Billy Adams, a seasoned whaling captain and assistant director at the department, told Mongabay. “It’s made it really difficult for us to find smooth ice to pull up whales on.”

The changing ice inspired a new collaboration. Since 2007, researchers from the University of Alaska Fairbanks have worked with local scientists and Iñupiat whalers to create annual maps of the trails made through the sea ice. Year by year, the collaborators are building up a record of the passages used each season under varying conditions.

“There’s a long-term record of, not only where the trails are, but also the sea ice thickness along those trails,” said Donna Hauser, a research professor in marine biology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and director of the Alaska Arctic Observatory and Knowledge Hub. “The maps get distributed back to the whaling captains each year. It’s a resource that has come to be expected.”

Visiting biologists photograph a bird at the northernmost point in the United States in Nuvuk, Alaska.
Visiting biologists photograph a bird at the northernmost point in the United States in Nuvuk, Alaska. Image by Gabe Allen for Mongabay.

How much is too much?

As climate change emerged as one of the most urgent scientific problems of our era, research in the Arctic has intensified. Now, scientists flock in droves to the North Slope every summer, and sometimes their interests clash with locals.

“There’s so much research up here, it’s almost too much,” North Slope Borough search and rescue coordinator Brower Frantz explained. “The way I see it, everybody that comes in is going to be disturbing wildlife in one way or another… We’ll get those calls and complaints in — ‘Hey, we were on a caribou and a helicopter flew between us and now we have no caribou.’”

In some ways, the prolific scientific inquiry in and around Utqiagvik has benefited the town. For instance, research on permafrost has helped the community plan and build local infrastructure that will withstand the test of time. Visiting scientists also bring money into the community.

“With that much influx of personnel it’s definitely good for the economy up here,” said Frantz said. “There has to be a balance.”

That balance, one that takes into account both local needs and important research questions, is frequently discussed in both scientific and Iñupiat circles. Yet, it’s hard to know exactly how to get there.

One solution may lie in a critical assessment of the underlying motivations for science. In a place as studied as Utqiagvik, it’s not enough to appeal to global importance if there is no local tie-in.

“This is their homeland and it’s their resource,” Stimmelmayr said. “It cannot be research for research’s sake. It has to benefit the resource.”

The projects that do this well tend to involve Iñupiat community members from start to finish, like the publications that come out of the Department of Wildlife Management. The work is not pure Western science, nor is it an expansion of Indigenous knowledge divorced from the scientific method: It’s a combination of both.

“Traditional ecological knowledge is an inherent knowledge system that has theory behind it and goes through the same motions as Western inquiry,” said Stimmelmayr. “Research will always benefit if you bring the two together.”

Geese at the edge of the Isatkoak Lagoon in Utqiagvik, Alaska.
Geese at the edge of the Isatkoak Lagoon in Utqiagvik, Alaska. Image by Gabe Allen for Mongabay.
Attendees of Nalukataq, an annual whaling festival, join hands for a prayer in Utqiagvik, Alaska.
Attendees of Nalukataq, an annual whaling festival, join hands for a prayer in Utqiagvik, Alaska. Image by Gabe Allen for Mongabay.

Adapting to climate change, no matter what

In the coming years, the Arctic will continue to warm. As it does, the Iñupiat will hunt, forage, travel and live in one of the northernmost ecosystems of the world, as they have for more than a thousand years. All that has changed is the tools of the trade — snowmobiles, rifles and aluminum watercraft have replaced sleds, clubs and seal skin boats.

Veteran hunters like Billy Adams feel a sense of responsibility toward the animals they hunt year after year. He can tell if a seal is looking for a mate, and will let it go on its way regardless of whether it’s technically hunting season or not. He makes sure to leave an egg or two when collecting from a goose nest.

“It’s nature’s way of stewardship — helping each other,” he said at a roundtable discussion at the Department of Wildlife Management. “Iñupiat people, and Indigenous people all over the world, are a part of the ecosystem,” said Billy Adams

Northern Slope locals are adamant that they can continue to adapt to an increasingly complex natural environment. In fact, you won’t find almost anyone in Utqiagvik bellyaching about global warming. They’re not worried, because they have a plan. They will care for the animals that sustain them, and develop new practices that function in a new climate reality.

In the 20th and 21st centuries, the Iñupiat have realized that it pays to have good scientists on their team, and their payroll. Now, the tools of the subsistence hunting trade include ecologists, hydrologists and veterinarians. And, in turn, the Iñupiat have provided these scientists with access to a wealth of Indigenous ecological knowledge — something invaluable.

“We’ve come so far and we’ve adapted so well,” Edwardsen said. “We’re going to continue to adapt to whatever is thrown at us, whether it’s the ice conditions or whatever else. We’ll try to figure out a solution and keep our traditions alive.”


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