Alaska Cultural Exchange – Summer 2014 – Field Journal

For the next two weeks, I’m going to blog what will amount to a daily journal of events that take place on the 2014 Mashantucket Pequot/Point Lay cultural exchange.  First, a little background on the project:

Mashantucket/Point Lay Cultural and Educational Exchange

The North Slope Borough of Alaska and the Inupiat Village of Point Lay (Kali), Mystic Aquarium, and the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe (and Museum) have developed a collaborative educational and cultural exchange program. The program is now in its 6th year, and serves to connect members of the Inupiat community of Point Lay, Alaska who subsistence hunt beluga whales and members of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe whose ancestors were an integral part of the 19th century Yankee whalefishery.

Part of the program is centered at Mystic Aquarium (MA), one of the nation’s most respected aquariums and leaders in marine science research and education. The mission of MA is to inspire people to care for and protect our ocean planet through research, education and exploration. MA has made significant strides in marine science with research on beluga whales, seals, and sea lion populations in the wild and in the collection. One of the main attractions at MA is the Arctic Coast exhibit which features beluga whales and in the future will also include ice seals.

Participants work alongside experts in biology and in history/anthropology. Aquarium research scientist, Dr. Tracy Romano, has been working in the field in collaboration with Dr. Robert Suydam from the Department of Wildlife Management, North Slope Borough (NSB), Alaska since the early 1990’s. Tracy and Robert have been studying wild belugas in order to assess their health and to compare them with the belugas at Mystic Aquarium. For the past few summers, these scientists have returned to Point Lay to collect blood samples from live capture-satellite tagged whales for health assessments as well as blood and tissues from the subsistence hunted whales. Given the changing climate, oil and gas exploration and drilling, as well as other stressors such as pollutants including sound, it is critical to gain some insight on the health of belugas now and to establish a baseline from which to draw from in the future after some of these changes occur. Last year, Dr. Jason Mancini of the Mashantucket Pequot Museum joined this collaboration bringing historical and anthropological perspectives to the project. His extensive work on indigenous seafaring – in particular, whaling – and social networks connects many of the worlds indigenous whaling cultures and brings new stories of connection and collaboration to the public through his Indian Mariners Project.

Through this program we hope to inspire young people from the North Slope and from Mashantucket (and other indigenous communities) to pursue careers in biology and science and ultimately be a resource to their home communities relating to the management of their natural and cultural resources in an ever-changing environment. In addition to the scientific exposure at the Aquarium, students will spend some time at the Pequot Museum participating in educational programming and cultural events. Students from the Point Lay and Mashantucket Pequot communities will be exposed to each other’s culture and traditions and learn about how each relies on the natural resources of our waterways and oceans.

2014 Field Journal

June 26 – Very early morning. Out of the house at 4am to pick up tribal members Noah Cudd and Dennis Charles. They are participating this year in the cultural exchange between the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe and the Alaskan Native Village of Point Lay (Kali). We headed to the Providence airport to begin our day of travel: Providence –> Chicago –> Anchorage –> Prudhoe Bay –> Barrow. We arrived in Barrow at 6pm and as I walked out of the plane and into the Alaskan air to a mix of rain and snow, I knew it was going to be colder than our visit last year (weather reports ahead of time braced me for this). In spite of this, we were warmly received by our friends Leslie Pierce and Willard Neakok. Unfortunately, during our travels, my bags, Noah’s bag, and sampling equipment from Tracy Romano at Mystic Aquarium parted ways with us somewhere along the way. No more flights into Barrow for the day, so we filed a claim with Alaska Air and hoped for the best.

Leslie and Willard gave us a brief tour of parts of Barrow and then we grabbed a bite at the brand new Top of the World Hotel. I recognized a familiar face in the next booth – Nathan Henry, Jr. (from Point Lay) who had just had a broken collarbone mended. After dinner, we walked across the street to the Cape Smythe whaling and trading station (and, later, Brower’s Store), the first in Barrow, and took pictures under a massive bowhead whale jawbone arch. We parted ways with Willard and continued with more tour before heading to the ARF (Arctic Research Facility) where we would bunk for a few nights before heading to Point Lay. There we met up with friends I met last year, Yosty Storms (a research assistant from the Inupiat Village of Unalakleet) and Raphaela Stimmelmayr (a seasoned wildlife veterinarian originally from Germany) who were in the middle of dissecting the liver of a recently hunted bearded seal (ugruk).   We toured the ARF’s equipment room that included all of the necessary arctic outer layers we would need for Point Lay and in the interim wait for our lost baggage.


Welcome to the Top of the World. Bowhead jawbone arch with an umiak on the left an a Yankee whaleboat on the right. Near the Brower whaling station, l-r: Willard Neakok, Jason Mancini, Dennis Charles, and Noah Cudd.



Cape Smythe whaling and trading station, Barrow, Alaska.


Yosty Storms and Raphaela Stimmelmayr.

June 27 – woke up to a heavy rain and a shallow river of water in the ARF kitchen from a leak in the skylight. Made coffee and met Ian Jon Brower (an intern for the Department of Wildlife Management), Bobby (the fix-it guy), and Billy Adams. Billy is from one of the Barrow whaling families and had invited us to participate in their nalukataq (blanket toss gathering and giveaway) on Saturday. He was in the kitchen making soup for the Department of Wildlife Management (DWM) staff. I asked Billy about the whaling season in Barrow this year. He said seven bowhead whales had been harvested this year so far.

Noah, Dennis, and I met the Department staff in the conference room at NARL (the former Naval Arctic Research Laboratory building that also houses Ilisagvik College) where everyone devoured Billy’s soup and other treats. We spent some time there so I could work and catch up on email. We then headed over to the Inupiat Heritage Center (IHC) with Leslie and Nicole Kanayurak (a Dartmouth graduate heading to grad school in Seattle for marine affairs). There, we went to the Traditional Room (a Native artist’s space) and met a friend from last year, Vernon Rexford, one of the most extraordinary carvers I’ve ever seen. He works with mammoth tusk, baleen, and on our visit today, was in the middle of sculpting what must have been a 15-foot long bowhead whale jaw. We chatted with Vernon and other very talents folks for a bit and then went to meet up with Arctic Region Representative Benjamin “Benny” Nageak, who was campaigning for office in this election year. We learned quite a bit about Benny, his involvement in Native affairs for 40 years, as well as his support of local students and interest in our cultural exchange. I also had the opportunity to meet and chat with Van Edwardsen, a local whaler who generously and humorously shared some of his recent experiences hunting bowheads. We toured the whaling exhibit at the IHC – a wonderful assemblage of knowledge and material culture, reminding me especially of the centrality of whaling to Inupiat life in the Arctic.


Vernon Rexford with a recent in-progress sculpture on a bowhead whale jawbone at the Inupiat Heritage Center. Also a partial mammoth skull by his knee.


Dennis Charles, Jason Mancini, Rep. Bennie Nageak, and Noah Cudd in front of a map of the North Slope Borough.


Jason Mancini and Van Edwardsen at IHC.



In the lobby of the Inupiat Heritage Center under a model bowhead whale. l-r: Dennis Charles, Leslie Pierce, Nicole Kanayurak, and Noah Cudd.

After our visit at the IHC, we went to the AC Store (like a mini Walmart) to experience true sticker shock in the north – where a gallon of milk is $10 and a case of soda $36. We stopped at the airport to check on baggage…still none. Then back to the college for a bit where we met one of Alaska’s gubernatorial candidates, Byron Mallot, and his supporters including Alaskan Native rights activist, Willie Hensley. After some exchange, we were able to track down Harry Hank (one of the Point Lay students who visited us in Connecticut back in March). He was in culture camp with other students at the old fishing village of Pigniq (at the north end of Barrow). We warmed up back at the ARF and made some mac and cheese. Yosty had other plans for our dinner and conjured up a fantastic stir-fry and some ugruk meat that we ate with onion and mustard. After our feast, we were invited to Cyd Hanns’ house for a movie (Cyd is a wildlife research assistant and her husband, Craig George is one of the senior wildlife biologists at DWM; he was away with one of their sons on an Arctic expedition). Just before heading out, Leslie arrived at the ARF with our bags! Very relieved. Spoiled with treats at Cyd’s (including Ian Jon’s monkey bread) and headed out at midnight (with midnight sun!).


On the edge of the Chukchi Sea (Arctic Ocean) near the fishing community of Pigniq. l-r: Harry Hank from Point Lay, Dennis Charles, and Noah Cudd.


Yosty explaining to Noah and Dennis how to eat ugruk meat.


June 28 – Finally got our lost luggage last night. Very cold today. Some wind, drizzle, and a touch of snow. Today, all day long, we attended a nalukataq (blanket toss) festival. This is a thanksgiving for a successful whaling season and to honor the bowhead whaling captains. The Hopson and Adams whaling crews had spent the past few weeks preparing for this giveaway. All of the ARF residents attended and we arrived in the windblocked “arena” (about the size of a hockey rink) around noon. There must have been at least four hundred people setting up chairs and coolers around the perimeter. In the center was a sealskin “blanket” made of many sealskins sewn together with ropes loop handles along the outside and ropes extending away in four directions. Large wood X’s laid about 20 feet away would be used to elevate and support the blanket toss. On one side of the arena, long tables were set up where food was laid out in preparation to be given away.


Hopson (blue jackets) and Adams (green jackets) crews and supporters getting ready for nalukataq.


Whaling crew flags (Adams on left, Hopson on right) from outside the arena.

The crews and their families first served niglik (white fronted goose) soup and tuttu (caribou) soup and Eskimo doughnuts and biscuits. Tea and coffee was served by the kids. Then we took a break and went to AC to buy groceries and back to IHC to look for gifts to buy from the Inupiat artists. We returned to nalukataq at 3pm and saw Billy Adams who put us to work moving bags of frozen meat and maktak to the tables. We rejoined the ARF folks and received in succession shares of mikiaq (fermented meat, maktak, and blood), uuruq (cooked meat), and siignaq (stewed fruit mix), bowhead quaq (frozen raw meat), and finally frozen maktak. At 6pm, we took another break, returning to the ARF with a fully packed cooler. Around 9:30, Leslie picked us up and we again returned to nalukataq. On our way, we saw hunters on the ice who had just returned with a pair of bearded seal. When we arrived people were taking turns being flung in the air. It’s easy to think this is like a trampoline, but there is a rhythm of the “toss” that needs to meet the balance and agility of the individual being tossed. People hold handles around the blanket and there is a distinct beat sound once a person is thrown and the blanket is quickly snapped from convex to concave. There is etiquette to getting on the blanket. Whaling crew members (some of whom flung bags candy) are given priority especially if two people jump on at the same time. Females and younger kids also seemed to be given priority. Dennis was particularly interested in trying this and after several attempts to get on the blanket was help on and guided by Billy Adams who was one of the blanket holders. As Dennis got his balance and a feel for the rhythm, the holders counted 1-2-3 and then tossed. Dennis instinctively did a backflip and landed and then was tossed vertically again. On his second try he did another backflip but didn’t complete it, landing face first into the grit on the blanket. He was a little cut up, but thoroughly impressed us and clearly has a fan base among the Inupiat community in Barrow. It was very cold so we went to Leslie and Robert Suydam’s house for tea until midnight and then to the school for Eskimo dancing.  Wonderful performances, but began crashing by 1:30 so back to the ARF for a late morning departure to Point Lay tomorrow (Sunday).


Billy Adams in front of the giveaway tables. Blanket in the background between yellow drums.


Tossing good candy and good tidings!


Yosty modified Eskimo ice-cream (caribou fat and bits of meat) with sugar and berries. Here, coaxing Dennis to give it a try.

June 29 – Packed up our gear and left the ARF. Headed for the airport bound for Point Lay. Flew past Wainwright (near the location of the “Lost Fleet” whaling disaster of 1871; 32 Yankee whaleships were trapped and crushed by ice) and Icy Cape. Arrived at Point Lay where we were greeted by Robert Suydam. We settled into our new accommodations at Kali School where our common area is the home economics room and sleeping quarters in one of the classrooms. Hans Thewissen, Professor of Anatomy at Northeastern Ohio Medical University (mascot is the “Walking Whale,” a contribution from Hans), was also at the school. In addition to helping Robert and Raphaela, we would also be assisting in Hans’ collection of anatomical data from any harvested belugas.

Scouts had been out all day and reported that the belugas (sisuaq) were being herded north from Omalik Lagoon. Noah and Dennis got a tour of the village and boat launch where we were sure to be spending some time, then rested a bit and waited for more reports from the hunters. We met a Turkish sailor had moored his sailboat outside of Kali inlet. The hunters were concerned that this would disrupt the hunt and Robert told him that it would be a good idea to move his vessel to the north about a mile.  Later, Robert and I went to Five Mile Inlet and by just after 8pm saw the stream of ten boats herding about one hundred belugas north towards Kali inlet which was directly across from the village. We sped back to the school and collected our gear, and Leslie, Dennis, Noah, and Hans. By 9:30 we were on the hill by the boat launch watching the crews push the belugas into the shallows of the lagoon. Off in the distance, in the Chukchi, we could see gray whale spouts.  Between 10 and 11 pm, eight belugas harvested. We then headed across the lagoon to the old village beach and helped pull the belugas on shore.


At Five Mile Inlet. The black dots on the horizon line are the boats moving from left to right while herding belugas. If you look closely towards the right side, you will see belugas blowing water.


At Kali Inlet. Just inside and to the right, the boats have surrounded the belugas.


Beautiful Alaskan sky. The science crew on the beach near the old village. On the left are the remnants of old ice cellars for storing whale meat and other foods.

Kali inlet was reopened this past year when an ice dam coupled with melting waters from the nearby river burst to form an opening to the Chukchi Sea. The waters near the inlet were deeper than expected making the harvest more difficult and many belugas escaped.   While we were on the beach a couple of belugas were making their way out of the lagoon and the boat crews were attempting to harvest them.


One last chance. On the bow, harpoon in hand, chasing the white whale. It was indeed a ghost…

The scientists then began the process of collecting samples for the Department of Wildlife Management as well as for others with particular interests relating to beluga studies. We assisted and also collected samples for Dr. Tracy Romano, our colleague at Mystic Aquarium who was unable to make the trip this year. Because it was still light we worked until about 4am. Exhausted, we headed back to the school to get some rest before another long day tomorrow (or is it later today?). One of the community members, Perry Pikok, was planning to stay up for the rest of the night keeping the gulls away and any curious bears until the community returned.

June 30 – Slept in a bit after a very exhausting day. Robert picked up Raphaela at the Point Lay airport and following some brief preparation, at about 11am, we headed back to the harvest site to complete the scientific study of the eight beluga (sisuaq). Soon after we resumed work, collecting samples and removing some meat and maktaq, Robert Lisbourne arrived with family members, as did Willard Neakok. Other families trickled in to continue processing the harvest. Piles of meat, maktaq, and fins that we started the night before, grew quickly with many hands participating. Several men and women were working with one of the community elders, Nora Itta, to collect tendons from the backstrap of the beluga. These would be used to sew bearded seal (ugruk) skins together that would then be used to cover traditional umiaq (boat) frames. Others were boiling fresh maktaq for a snack, so we tried it with some salt. It is delicious like bowhead muktaq but much more tender.


Hans and Raphaela at the boat launch ready to head across the lagoon.


Eating boiled muktaq! In the rear, Perry Pikok, Willard Neakok, and Lloyd. Kids (l-r): Lily, George, ??, Samuel, ??.

At about 5pm, when the sisuaq processing was finished, we were invited to join hands with the community around the piles of meat and maktaq to give thanks for the food that will sustain them for the coming months.  A list was created of the 55 households in Point Lay and then eleven viewers were chosen to ensure the even distribution of meat and maktaq. As I was heading up the hill to take a picture, Lupita Henry asked me to be a viewer. I agreed, and she kindly guided me through the process of the making sure that five shares I was responsible for were fair. Community members, including many kids, were asked to bring pieces of maktaq to each of the 55 locations chosen by the viewers.  This was done one or two pieces at a time until it was gone. Then the meat was distributed in the same fashion.  Tail and flippers were available to anyone who wanted them.  The shares were then chosen by people or family representatives on the site.  Others were left on site for others who were not present.

Afterward the shares were allocated, we packed up our gear and headed back to the village for a much needed rest. We were back at the school by 6:30.

July 1 – Went back to barrier island to do some final preparation for Hans. Took a look around the old ice cellars noticed the Turkish man(name?) and his sail boat was still there. He had stopped by since the harvest to inquire what we were all up to.  He had extended his stay in the area because of the ice up north, his intended route through north and east through the arctic.  He was seemingly unaware that his vessel was interfering with a second hunt by scaring the belugas.  Joseph Neakok and Bryan Anniskett came by to chat for a bit after beluga scouting. Both had been involved in the cultural exchange in years past.  They said the belugas were north but blocked by sea ice near icy cape so were coming south as well.

Nathan Henry stopped by to sell 50/50 raffle tickets for the 4th of July events. Lots of chatter on the radio about this.  Gertie Frankson came by to show us some jewelry her husband made from ivory and baleen as well as some objects/artifacts she found on the beach.  In the evening, Leslie, Robert, and I went for a walk around the village. Several girls kept us company – Teri, Trina, and Torri. Nathan Jr. came to say hi. He was doing well since breaking his collar bone last week.  New houses on the 900 block at the north end of the village were attempting to use new technologies for sewage and for suspension as some houses were settling unevenly into the permafrost.  Robert won the 50/50 and donated it back.  Played the dice game farkle to wind down the evening…

July 2 – Slow day today and some catching up on writing and discussion with Robert and Leslie about the politics of whaling and about the future of the cultural exchange.  Nathan Henry came by for round two of 50/50 raffle.  Tim Ferreira (a former participant in the exchange) came by to talk about opportunities for him as he is heading into his senior year of high school.   He and Nichole Tukrook will be assisting us in the coming days when we head to “snow goose” island. I announced over the radio that Dennis, Noah, and I would be doing a polar plunge at the boat launch at 3pm. Marie Tracy called it a “beluga dip.” Harry Hank and Nichole Tukrook joined us and we had several onlookers as we jumped in not once, but twice! Came home, warmed up, went for walk to the old Air Force hangar with a bunch of kids tagging along.  During the cold war the U.S. military created several Distant Early Warning (DEW line) sites across the arctic, and this is one of the visible remnants of that era.  Climbed raven tower and did some bird watching.  We saw many whale spouts (most likely gray whales) off in the distance and I saw one breach. We started a snowball fight with the kids, headed home, and had beluga meat stir fry.  I won the 50/50 and donated it back. Leslie won the pizza raffle. More farkle and a light night.

snow beach

Hanging out on the snow beach before the beluga dip.


Our little friends wait patiently outside the school for us to join them.


Snow ball fight!

Kalimuit girls

Kalimiut kids!

July 3 – Today we planned a research trip to Snow Goose Island, about 10 miles south of Point Lay.  We loaded up our gear and met Point Lay students Timmothy Ferreira and Nichole Tukrook at the boat launch. They had both participated in the cultural exchange in the past and were interested in helping us out.  We also saw Bryan Anniskett and Joe Neakok at the ramp, about ready to leave and check their fishing net across the lagoon.  We asked if we could tag along to see what they caught.  We followed them in our zodiacs to the net, about halfway between the village and Five Mile Inlet.


Joseph and Bryan checking their net. Robert looking on.

After checking the nets, we headed south inside the lagoon. We unloaded at Snow Goose Island and Robert oriented us to the island and how to identify nests and count hatched or predated eggs.  We spread out and made several passes across the island counting just over 300 nests.  Also startled a red-breasted merganser and a long tailed duck from their nests.  On our final pass across the island, we saw remnants of an old hunting camp with many bones (including walrus and moose?) at the water line.  On our way back we stopped at Tracey Cabin (Bill and Marie Tracey, from Point Lay built it years ago on one of the barrier islands of the lagoon) to look around and beach comb.  I’m trying to find amber, something the folks at Point Lay find often and occasionally use in their jewelry.  We walked for a while and I was hoping to spot some more gray whales. I didn’t see any but all of a sudden belugas appeared!  Their pod was long and broad and heading right towards Point Lay. Tim called his family to let them know. There are many belugas now moving up and down the coast now, so another harvest could take place soon.


Surveying Snow Goose Island.

Survey crew at Snow Goose Island

Leaving Snow Goose Island. With me, are Dennis and Timmothy. In other zodiac, Noah, Nichole, and Robert.


Eskimo dancing at the Point Lay community center.

Around 6pm, we headed back to the village after a great afternoon and relaxed a little. Enjoyed the pizza Leslie won for dinner. Then we went to the community center at 9pm to watch the community Eskimo dancing and drumming.  It was beautiful! Towards the end, Robert, Leslie, and I were invited to participate in the dance with everyone present.  We walked around the village again with many of the kids tagging along with us and playing tag at the same time.  Then back to the school for movie night and bed!

July 4 – Started the morning with many Point Lay folks on the radio proclaiming “Happy 4th of July!” Or “Happy 4th!”  We volunteered to help out with the day’s festivities at the community center. We also heard lots of chatter about the belugas nearby, but generally, folks were more focused on the holiday.  People started arriving around noon. There were games for kids and adults, an ATV parade, and lots of food prep.  We all helped where and when we could. The Point Lay kids have really taken to Noah and Dennis so they were occupied on and off for a couple of hours.  Leslie prepared some food back at the school and Robert and I helped Marie Tracey get the food and supplies we would need to cook.  We lit the grills around 2pm and started cooking about 2:45.  Robert Lisbourne wanted to help but never grilled before (not very common in the Arctic, or at least in Point Lay), so I showed him some tips from the “lower 48.” Turned out he’s really good at it and we had a great time cooking a couple hundred burgers and dogs. Being at the grill for two hours is probably the hottest I’ve been during my time in the Arctic and neither of us have any hair left on our hands 🙂  At 5pm, once all of the food was cooked, the village came together, joined hands, and Lily Anniskett said a prayer. The table was lined with burgers, hotdogs, bowhead whale muktaq and mikiaq (from the Barrow nalukataq), juice, and soda (they love their “pop” here). Elders first, then others could serve themselves.  Leslie, Mary Margaret (an itinerant health aide), and I were asked to judge the Eskimo doughnut contest (a little like fry bread in doughnut form). All were very good, but I was partial to the one with raisins in it.  After several very festive red, white, and blue cakes were devoured, about 30 new bicycles were brought outside and lined up. Each of the kids were given a ticket for a drawing. If their number was picked they could make their choice of bike.  It was wonderful to see some of the kids choose bikes for their younger siblings or relatives.  Those that won also traded with friends or relatives for other things (like access to xbox).  During the evening, we continued to hear chatter about belugas near Kali inlet. The last community event was Eskimo drumming and dancing.  The community performs beautifully together in many synchronized dances and invited us to dance as well in the freestyle dance at the end.


Kali School. Our home while at Point Lay.


Point Lay gathers at the community center for 4th of July festivities!


Bertha on her award winning traditional Inupiaq float. Baleen and mukluks. Only the sealskin seat is missing.

Robert, Robert, and Jason - grilling

Grilling! Robert Suydam, Robert Lisbourne, and Jason Mancini.

Lily and Marie

Sisters, Lily Anniskett and Marie Tracey.

Noah, Jason, and Point Lay kids

Noah, Jason, and Kalimiut kids.

We were tired and headed back to the school to rest at about 8:30, though it was a beautiful night so I went for a walk to the high point in the village, near the boat ramp.  The last few days were warmer (mid-upper 40s), so mosquitos were getting bad, though not even close to last year.  I took binoculars and saw a dozen or so gray whales off in the distance and looked closer at Kali inlet which seemed to be boiling with hundreds of belugas.  As I was watching the belugas, I noticed lots of people and ATV movement towards the boat ramp.  I went back to the school to get Robert and Leslie and we returned to the bluff, watching as the Kalimiut launched their boats and coordinated their hunt.  The goal was for half of the boats to go out on the north side of the inlet and half to go out on the south side and surround them and push them back into the lagoon.  This began at about 10:30pm. Many beluga scattered and most headed for the safety of deeper water. But by midnight, a number had been pushed back into the lagoon and six were harvested.  We headed to the barrier island at the old village along with Point Lay students Harry Hank and Timmothy Ferreira to take some samples from the harvested beluga.  One of whaling captain Julius Rexford’s grandkids, Iqsi (about 12 years old), stayed with us to learn more about what we were doing.  We finished sampling at 2:30am when we heard Julius’ boat lumbering towards us. At 2:45, Julius, Robert (Lisbourne), and Willie brought two more beluga they harvested from Eleven Mile Inlet to the north. We sampled them, then rolled the beluga together into two groups of four and covered them with tarps to keep the seagulls away. No spotters tonite; will keep an eye out for bears when we go back out. We were home at 4am.  Time for some much needed rest.


Dennis and Noah walking home from the boat launch after the harvest. 3:30am.

July 5 – Woke up about 10 and worked a bit. Others up about noon. We headed to boat ramp at 2pm with some sampling material. Overcast, cooler, and windy. No mosquitos. Our goal today was to collect what we could while working alongside the community as they harvested muktaq and meat from the beluga.  Kali folks were at the launch and heading over at the same time.  Thomas Nukapigak, one of the whaling captains, directed us to roll the belugas apart so they could be cut up more effectively.  Robert, Leslie, Noah, Dennis, and Timmothy collected samples and I helped the cutters by making piles of meat and muktaq with some other “hookers” (meat hooks used for pulling the muktaq from the meat to help the people cutting with ulus; then rinsing the muktaq in the lagoon before carrying it to the pile).  Many of the adults were teaching the younger kids about how to butcher beluga properly.  It got colder and started lightly raining soon after we arrived at the barrier island. Robert Lisbourne brought doughnuts and water and some of the women boiled muktaq for a snack.  Marjorie Long showed me how to strip some of the excess fat from the muktaq to avoid an upset stomach. It is very tender and delicious with a little salt.  We were close to finishing and it was getting very wet. Robert sliced his finger with a knife while collecting samples, but a bandaid, duct tape, and a latex glove held him together enough to finish.  All done around 5pm. We thanked the community for allowing us to work alongside them and left them to their division of shares.  We headed back to the school to warm up and make dinner.  Went to store and saw Gertie Frankson.  She said she would stop by because I wanted to buy a small carving her husband, Silas, made. She also brought mukluks to sell if anyone was interested. After dinner we played farkle and then watched The Hobbit.


Nora and Bertha getting muktaq prepared at the shelter.


Snacking on muktaq while Nora sharpens ulu blades.

July 6 – A day to rest. I was up at 7:30 reading and writing. Others slept in.  The village radio was quiet and the Kali kids were slow to stir, but by noon they were anxiously waiting at the school doors for us (especially Noah and Dennis, though they slept in til 1 and 2 pm). It was very windy and cool. Noah and I went for an afternoon walk to the boat launch and Teri Ferreira and Nathan Henry, Jr. joined us. We were hoping to go across the lagoon today to visit the old village, but the wind pushed most of the water out of the lagoon so it was to choppy and shallow to go. On the way back we stopped at the Lisbourne/Rexford house Robert came out to show us the mammoth tusk he found in and dug out of the tundra this winter about 40 miles both of Point Lay (while on his way to Wainwright).  Spent some time in the school library looking at books on the Inupiat history and culture. A re-articulated beluga skeleton was suspended from the library ceiling and Robert showed us another mammoth tusk in a back office that some kayakers found several years ago.  Later in the day Robert, Leslie, and I went for a walk to the boat launch to walk the beach and found the community completing their holiday shooting competition.  Once they were done, Noah, Teri, and Nathan Jr. joined us and we walked the beach and then up the nearby Kokolik River. We found the remnants of a plane crash from 30 or so years ago and then walked across the tundra back to the village.  It took about two hours to make the loop. On a windy and cool day (aka no mosquitos!) this made for a beautiful afternoon; more than that, the tundra wildflowers this time of year are extraordinarily beautiful.  We had a late dinner at 10pm and played some more farkle. At midnight Teri and her little sister, Lauren, stopped by to show me some amber she found locally (since I was asking her about it all week).


Robert with his mammoth find!



Shooting competition.


Checking out remnants from an old plane crash on the tundra.


l-r: Robert, Leslie, Noah, and Nathan, Jr. sitting in the mossy, padded tundra.






Lauren, Teri, and Jason. Teri holding a bag of amber.

July 7 – Up early reading the diaries of Charles Brower, a whaler and trader, who arrived in northern Alaska in 1884. Found an interesting account early in his journal, noting that:

“Captain Smith was a crack shot. He used an old Sharps rifle, and while with us, was always out hunting. There was no deer around that summer, but every day or so there would be a school of white fish come along the beach, These were fine sport for him. He could stand on the bank, and always got two or three out of a school. They would sink immediately, then our neighbors would take their Oomiak (skin boat) and go out to locate them. Being white they were easily seen on the bottom in three fathoms of water. They would take a long pole and fixing their spear head to it soon have their treasure hauled to the top and tow them ashore where they were soon cut up. The white fish are a small species of whale, sometimes reaching a length of fifteen feet. Beluga in the correct name for them.

Here is where I first run up against some of their superstitions, the one I especially refer to was connected with these Beluga.  The second one that was towed in, I happened to be near when they landed. I wanted to start cutting on it at once, but the Eskimo would not permit me to touch the animal, as Captain Smith had shot it and told me I could not have it. I wanted to find out what the reason was. Finally they made me understand that the Sheshoa, as they called it, had to have a drink of fresh water before it was cut up. I found out afterward that this applied to any animal that was taken from the salt water. Living in salt water they needed a drink of water that was not salt. If this was not supplied their spirit would tell the rest of the tribe and no more white fish would ever be taken.”

Charles Brower with baleen plates

Charles Brower with baleen in front of the Cape Smythe whaling station, Barrow, Alaska.

At about 2pm we went the launch and disassembled one zodiac. We left the other incase the winds died down so we could go across the lagoon to the old village.  This was the second day that strong winds from the north pushed and kept water very low in the lagoon.  Too low for any motor boat at the moment.  I could still see gray whale blows out in the distance amidst many whitecaps.  On our way back I took Dennis and Noah over to the Itta’s house. Ira Itta makes jewelry from baleen, walrus tusk, and amber and I wanted to buy something from him.  Went back to the school and took a short break to read an archaeological report on the “frozen family” in Barrow, discovered in the early 1980s. Also started reading Etok: A Story of Eskimo Power, about the life and experiences of Charlie Edwardsen, Jr.

At 6pm, we were invited to dinner at the Community Center, where people from Shell Oil Corporation were going to make a presentation or “status update” to the community about their leases and prospective drilling operations in the Chukchi Sea about 50-60 miles off shore from Point Lay. All of the food and “door prizes” were provided by Shell. During their presentation there were many chances for community to engage and many were very vocal about their concerns.  Notably, community members were concerned about the lack of disaster preparedness and environmental damage (the Gulf Oil Spill came up several times) and sound pollution that would affect their subsistence hunting activities. They were also concerned about the lack of employment opportunities for community members and the “big oil” opposition to a coastal management plan for the North Slope.  The Point Lay community was necessarily protective of their resources and their way of life and I know the Pequots and others tribes in southern New England would have loved an opportunity like this to voice their concerns.


At the Community Center. Shell Oil presenting information.

After Shell’s presentation, some of the village council asked the community to stay so they could learn about our visit to Point Lay and about the experiences that Point Lay kids and chaperones have had in Connecticut.  Twenty-one students and seven chaperones from Point Lay have come to Connecticut  and five students and two chaperones from Connecticut have gone to Point Lay.  Several of us spoke to the community and some of the council encouraged the Shell presenters to fund this educational and cultural exchange to give students new opportunities to enrich their futures.  I was so heartened by the community interest in this.  After the meetings ended at 10pm, we headed back to the school.  The kids followed us.

July 8 – Spent most of the morning packing and getting ready to go. Put some gifts to the community in the school library (moccasins from Mashantucket Pequot tribal member Shariff Patterson, Pequot Story Blanket, and Pequot book) and returned all of the books we had been skimming.  Headed to the boat launch and dismantled the second zodiac (winds still too strong).  On our way back, we ran into Leo Ferreira, president of the village council, and gifted him a wampum necklace on behalf of the tribe. He was incredibly grateful and wanted to know more. We talked on the way to the school and told him about the library display. He wanted to take them and make them more public since our presentation the last night was ad hoc and different from the exchange the year before.  We spoke at length about leadership and concerns about and for indigenous communities today.  After Leo left, we loaded up the truck and gave some of the Point Lay “nerd club” wampum necklaces, encouraging them to study hard so they can visit us in Connecticut in the coming years.  We gave Marie Tracey wampum earrings as a thank you for all of her help and generosity during our stay and I also gave her a knife and sharpener I found on Snow Goose Island. It was inscribed “WHN” for Warren Harding Neakok, her brother.  We said goodbyes and headed to the airstrip for a 4pm departure back to Barrow.


A comfy place to rest.


Home ec room or research space?

Arrived in Barrow safely at 5:30. Headed to the ARF, cooked dinner, and time for rest.

July 9 – Up early and off to see the top of the world. Took ATVs through the fishing village of Pigniq and to look for polar bears (or at least their tracks).  On our return to Barrow, much of the ice that had been close to shore was gone – pushed out to sea by changing winds and currents.  At we approached the point we saw carcasses of seal, caribou, and large whale bones. The whale pile from last summer was gone – bulldozed out to sea – but the area was still a disposal area to keep scavengers out of town. We did see polar bear tracks and avoided continuing in the same direction since it was a bit foggy out. As we headed back, we stopped to visit the driftwood and baleen palm trees. Then to lunch with the Department of Wildlife Management staff and others from Ilisagvik College, including the college president, Pearl Brower.  Craig George was back from his wilderness travels and shared an exciting story of a bear encounter.


At Point Barrow following some pretty large polar bear footprints…



Top of the world, looking south!


At Pigniq checking out umiaks, old (bearded seal skin) and new (fiberglass).



Craig George and Jason Mancini.

A tour of the NARL archaeology lab with Anne Jensen.

After lunch we went to NARL to meet Anne Jensen, an archaeologist who has done some very interesting work in Barrow, including her involvement in studying the “Frozen Family” that I had read about earlier in the week.  She showed us around the lab and discussed various artifacts that had been recovered locally. After our visit we headed to the IHC and AC to meet some of the local Inupiat artists and purchase gifts. I had missed Earl Aiken last week but was happy to find him selling is baleen etchings in the AC lobby.


Went back to the ARF to pack our gear and the foods we received at nalukataq.  We dropped our bags at the airport and had some downtime so went to the actual site of the “Frozen Family” and saw the bluff and incredibly well preserved artifacts washing out onto the beach. We went to the top of the hill and saw the remains of several sod houses that were on about an acre of land known as Ukpiagvik.   After tho brief jaunt, we were off to the airport.  We said our goodbyes to Robert and Leslie and I will definitely look forward to future visits. I hope Noah and Dennis will too.  Heading home to much warmer weather, trees, sunsets, and 24 hours aboard the whaleship Charles W. Morgan!


Robert pointing out structural remains from the house of the “Frozen Family.”


Among the ancient sod houses of Ukpiagvik.


Goodbye to the land of the midnight sun…


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