Iñupiaq work to retain cultural heritage in the face of global warming
When researcher Chie Sakakibara first met the Inupiaq people of Alaska, they spoke to her in their language because they thought she was one of them. They named her "Siqiniq," which means "Sunshine," for her optimistic personality.
Bowhead whale hunting is an important Inupiat tradition. The whale lies at the center of Inupiat culture.
The blanket toss celebrates a successful whale hunt.
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Editor's note: A podcast of the presentation is available at this Web site.

4:17 p.m., March 24, 2009----When Chie Sakakibara was considering topics for her doctoral dissertation in cultural geography, her adviser challenged her to think of the “true voices of the land today” and what they are most concerned about.

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Sakakibara decided to focus on the northernmost residents of the United States -- the Iñupiaq people of Alaska, whose culture based on the bowhead whale is changing due to global warming.

Sakakibara, who conducted fieldwork from 2004-2008 in Barrow and Point Hope, Alaska, some 360 miles above the Arctic Circle, shared her research during a public lecture on Friday, March 20, at the University of Delaware.

The lecture, which marked the world's “Oceans and Marine Life Polar Day,” was the latest offering in UD's William S. Carlson International Polar Year Events. It was co-sponsored by the College of Marine and Earth Studies and the Department of Geography.

Growing up in Japan, Sakakibara enjoyed watching American westerns on TV. However, when she saw the film Dances with Wolves, she said her “young mind became confused.” The Native Americans portrayed in this movie were very different from those she had seen on TV before.

Their language sounded Asian. They had a strong spiritual connection to, and respect for, animals just as the Japanese do. Before a meal, Sakakibara noted, the Japanese thank the animal “for giving your life for us, for letting us survive another day.”

Moreover, the people looked familiar, like her grandmother. “Why do we look like Native Americans, and why do they look like us?” she asked herself.

The film was so important to the young Japanese student and raised so many questions she wanted to explore that she wrote to Michael Blake, author of the screenplay, who suggested that she come to the United States to study.

Sakakibara enrolled at Oklahoma State University, where she earned her bachelor's degree in Native American studies, master's degree in art history, and doctorate in geography. Currently, she is a postdoctoral researcher at Columbia University's Earth Institute, where in addition to her studies, she is collaborating with the Center for Ethnomusicology on the Iñupiaq music heritage repatriation project.

'Cetaceousness' a state of mind

The bowhead whale is central to Iñupiat life. Almost every social event has a connection to the marine mammal. In fact, Sakakibara coined the term “cetaceousness” to describe the Iñupiat state of mind.

Whale hunting is a time-honored tradition of the Inupiaq people, steeped in deep respect for the bowhead whale. Illustrations of whales decorate Bibles, and whale jawbones mark the graves in Point Hope cemetery.

The whale hunt is conducted by men in an umiak, a wooden boat without a motor, which is covered with seal skins for waterproofing and to move quietly in the water.

When a whale is harvested, the hunters say a prayer and call the village to alert them. Once the whale is brought to the village, towed by snowmobiles, children are put on top of the whale, to connect to them to this important animal in their lives, Sakakibara said. A feast honoring the whale also is held after the hunt.

All the meat and fat from the whale is given away. It is never sold, she noted.

“You have to serve the community. In return, you earn the respect of the community,” she noted.

At the end of the feast, a blanket toss is held, with the whaling captain and his family tossed in the air first.

With the rapidly changing climate in the Arctic, there is concern that these traditions will be lost. Unpredictable sea-ice cover coupled with disrupted wildlife migration patterns theaten the Iñupiat way of life, Sakakibara said. The bowhead whale is so well-insulated that it sustains very little heat loss in the frigid waters of the Arctic and may take a more northerly route in the future, out of the range of the Iñupiaq people, she noted.

More than 70 percent of the ancestral home of the Iñupiaq people is now underwater, according to Sakakibara. In the 1970s, the old town was moved two miles to escape the rising sea. Although their homeland is disappearing, the Iñupiaq people are working to shore up their heritage.

“They are going through a very hard time, but at same time they are working hard to strengthen their relationship with the whale,” she said.

Increasingly, she noted, the Iñupiaq are tuning into the mind of the whales with music--through traditional drumming (with a whale stomach used for the drum's membrane), singing, and other performance arts.

“The music brought by the whales is now being returned to them,” Sakakibara said.

Article by Tracey Bryant
Photos courtesy of Chie Sakakibara