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Meeting the Inupiat (the Tale of the Whale)

We left our overnight stop in Anchorage at 4am after two and a half hours of sleep, bound for Barrow, 330 miles above the Arctic Circle, northernmost point in the USA and home to the ancient Inupiaq culture.

The Inupiaq name is Ukpiagvik, which means “place to hunt the snowy owls”. The locals themselves say this is probably one of the harshest locations in the Arctic.
All about Barrow
The plane to Barrow stops at Fairbanks and Prudhoe Bay, “the oil place”. I was sandwiched between two oil-workers, the one in dungares and baseball cap, the other in his parka and woolly hat – all the way to Prudhoe Bay. We had to get de-iced in between, there was some snow in the air – and of course plenty on the ground. Outside the air was prickling with ice crystals – inside the cabin, with steadily rising excitement in our small group of Europeans. Airfields with snow-ploughs and tiny terminal buildings. A taste of travel in Arctic Alaska. There is no road to Barrow. The air connection is the lifeline.
We were met by Alice, coordinator at BASC, the Barrow Arctic Science Consortium, which is hosting us and providing our accommodation. She’s a real character and one of the most welcoming and hospitable people I’ve ever come across. In her informal, chatty way, as she drives us from the airport, she is teaching us a lot about her Eskimo heritage – and the role it still plays in everyday life in Barrow.
The Barrow Arctic Science Consortium
This is whale-hunting country – difficult for a lot of us, concerned as we are to “save the whales”. One of the Eskimos joked “is this the Greenpeace lot”? Of course we understand the difference between subsistence whaling as part of the indigenous culture and commercial whaling. And we’ve learned a lot about the Inupiat culture today and just how central the “harvesting” of a limited quota of bowhead whales is to it. Still, I found it hard to stomach all the details of the hunt – let alone the result. And that was definitely the dish of the day. In the Heritage Centre, we learned all about it. Then, at short notice, Alice told us we were invited to a feast.

When the “whaling captain”’s family has finished preparing and cooking up the whale meat, blubber and innards, the whole village is invited to come and eat and take away bags for the family. All generations were collected in the “Captain”’s kitchen. It’s clearly a very special – and very social – occasion. We didn’t want to intrude for too long, but had some interesting conversations in the house and outside, besides some of the bloody remains of the whale. From Jenny, a tough lady, to Kayan, a modern young man complete with ear stud, the people I talked to all had tales to tell of climate change.

The sea freezing later in the year than before, thinner ice, changes in the species of wildlife in the region. Everybody is concerned. This is clearly an issue here. But when it comes to awareness of the need to reduce emissions, the price of petrol is clearly a higher incentive than worry about global warming. In this icy, harsh climate, in an area as remote as you can find, heating and fuel are not a luxury. “Alternative energy man? Sure, give me a solar-powered snow-machine and I’ll use it” – Kayan laughs and heads off for some whalemeat.


May 1, 2008 | 6:34 pm



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