August 24, 2005
The weather is still too rough to go out on the boat, so everyone is in the lab today catching up on any land-based work they can do. I had a chance to go with Ned Manning over to the Arctic Research Facility (ARF) maintained by the North Slope Borough's Department of Wildlife, another of the many buildings here at BASC. I should take a moment here to explain about BASC.
In its first incarnation, the U.S. Navy established the Naval Arctic Research Laboratory east of Barrow in 1947 for arctic and oceanographic research. The facility was closed in 1980. As the Navy prepared to bulldoze the buildings, the Ukpeagvik Inupiat Corporation (UIC, the Barrow village corporation formed by the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act) stepped in and worked with the Navy to gain title to and preserve what is now known as UIC-NARL where BASC is headquartered and now dedicated to the encouragement of research and educational activities pertaining to Alaska's North Slope and the adjacent portions of the Arctic Ocean. UIC-NARL also hosts the Dept. of Wildlife and Ilisagvik College, the local community college.
At ARF I met two local community leaders: Craig George, as the head of Wildlife, a great contributor to many research projects here on the North Slope and Charlie Brower who is a board member of the North Slope Borough School District. At the urging of Ned, Charlie said he would get me a few pieces of Bowhead whale baleen to use for demonstration in my classroom. The people here are very welcoming and gracious with their time and expertise. I have found that there is a great desire for the native subsistence hunting of whales to be understood outside their community. Many outsiders see the hunt as an antiquated, hurtful and needless pursuit of an endangered species. I see it differently. After reading everything I could get my hands on about the hunt and now visiting and talking with both native and non-native residents, I respect and envy the people of Barrow.
The Iñupiat people have maintained a hunting tradition that not only gives them pride of accomplishment, but they are also feeding the village, creating community and, surprisingly to outsiders, maintaining and keeping a careful watch on the species they hunt and respect. The Iñupiat hunters have already proven to western science that they possess great knowledge of the whales by finding much larger population numbers than government biologists were able to do. The formation of BASC is largely an effort to invite outside scientists to help learn even more as this very project is attempting to do.
The Iñupiat whalers have maintained a connection to nature that almost all of us have lost. The maintenance of this connection is now helping to study and restore the population of whales that was almost destroyed by Yankee whalers. The Iñupiat whalers have also maintained a connection to a characteristic of humanity that is risk taking and adventure seeking for the greater good. In the larger American society we spend billions to recapture these feelings, playing or watching sports, driving fast cars, watching reality TV, using illicit drugs, playing poker even, with little redeeming social value while Iñupiat youth serve an apprenticeship of chopping ice roads to the whaling camps, rowing the umiak skin boats, thrusting a harpoon, helping to butcher and finally, as a whaling captain, the joy and responsibility of making sure the village is fed. This culture has kept a way of encouraging a drive we all possess and giving it social value. The people strongly recognize the value of the whale as food, but also as an essential component of their culture and will do whatever it takes to ensure the survival of the Bowhead.