The first time I went out on the ice during whaling season in Barrow was in the spring of 1973. I’d barely been there for six months and, as a recently transplanted New Yorker, was blissfully ignorant of any danger that didn’t involve derelicts with squeegees. My companion was a young Inupiaq lady not yet fifteen years old.
She drove her dad’s skidoo out to one of the whaling camps. For some reason, after arriving we decided to walk to the next camp. That’s right. Walk. Here we were, out on the pack ice, miles from shore in one of the last certifiably untamed milieus left in the world, and we thought a stroll was in order.
To say all hell broke loose when we got there is to put it mildly. Apparently when the people in the first camp noticed we were missing, they radioed up and down the camps on the ice to see where we were.
As one of the whalers approached us with his face pale under his icy sun tan, the worry obvious in his expression, the ice started breaking up. If you have never been in a whaling camp as the ice starts to break up under your feet, it is hard to explain how quickly things can happen. Whalers have thousands of dollars worth of equipment, boats, harpoons, tents, and sleds on that ice. They need to get it on the landward side of the ice break or they risk losing it all, to say nothing of the possible loss of lives.
It wasn’t till much later that I was able to fully appreciate what danger we courted in that walk. But the whalers knew because this was their world and they needed to know it intimately to not only survive but also have the successful hunt needed to bring food to their village for the winter.
Many years later, when traditional whaling was being threatened by an International Whaling Commission ban, the whalers teamed up with Western scientists to develop a reliable way to assess the health of the bowhead whales they hunted. The whalers knew there were more than scientists were saying but couldn’t prove it. One of the people who worked on this with the Inupiat was Dr. Tom Albert. He said and believed something that I found so very basic and true that I was shocked at the splash it made in scientific circles.
What Tom said, in essence, was that if a community’s life depended on their knowledge of a resource, and they had survived based on that knowledge for thousands of years, then maybe Western science should take that knowledge seriously.
But getting respect in Western scientific circles isn’t easy without a degree. The Tom Alberts of the world are still few and far between, young Alaska Natives now go out to college to study science and engineering so that when they speak to their cultural truths about how an igloo holds together or why you have to be silent on the ice while waiting for the whales, they will have a receptive audience.
And somewhere in a small village in the Alaskan Arctic, an elder smiles to know that the next generation is blending the indigenous knowledge learned at home with the most advanced of Western sciences.
The elders are smiling because they know that the next generation of scientists to study and work in the Arctic, whether building ice roads for industry or studying the migratory birds of the summer, will include their grandchildren.
Finally, the look of the scientists in small Native villages will resemble the villagers themselves. For many in the bush, this was a dream they never thought would come true. But it has.