Frontiers Springs issue 113

Breaking the Ice. North Slop Science Initiative. Chuchi Sea ice.

A mile out from Barrow on the Chukchi Sea.

When the North Slope Science Initiative (NSSI) hosted a March 29-31 workshop at the beautiful Iñupiat Heritage Center in Barrow, the organizers planned meetings to talk about bringing science, natural resources, and subsistence together. What they didn’t plan on was experiencing a powerful glimpse of life in America’s Arctic.

Round table discussion of North Slope residents, scientists, and government representatives.

 Round table discussion of North Slope residents, scientists, and government representatives. Photo by John Payne.

While the workshop involved scientific poster presentations, panels, roundtable discussions, and webcasting portions to a broader audience – similar components of meetings held in other venues – the Barrow experience broke the ice. It was a merging, a celebration of lifeways and survival, a poignant reminder to the government and organizational representatives from the people who live there about the importance of what NSSI is doing and what it means. NSSI also offered excursions to environmental observatories, and sea ice or snow tours.

Satrina Lord, a supervisor for BLM-Alaska’s Information Management Section in Anchorage, attended the workshop as part of her experience in BLM’s Leadership Academy. She was prepared for a business meeting, but ended up joining Iñupiat dancers and Barrow residents on-stage and learning the traditional dance. She experienced a potlatch-style dinner hosted at the high school gym. She wore bunny boots and bundled up to experience ‘breaking the trail’ more than a mile out across the snow-covered Chukchi Sea by snowmachines. The whale hunters will need the trail in late May to move boats and gear out to the open sea for the whale hunts. She listened to Iñupiat whalers, Mayor Edward Itta, and local citizens of Barrow describe their observations of climate change, their dependence on natural resources, and how critical it is to embrace and support modern science while sharing their traditional ecological knowledge.

Satrina Lord learns a traditional Iñupiat dance from one of the performers.

Satrina Lord learns a traditional Iñupiat dance from one of the performers. Photo by John Payne.

Lord also came to understand why the NSSI and science of the North Slope has ramifications far beyond Alaska. "The extremes of the Arctic show climate changes 15 years before they appear outside of the polar regions," Satrina explains. "What the NSSI is working to achieve by bringing together scientific data across the North Slope is crucial for the future for not just Alaska, but globally. We have a 15-year window ahead of changes people observe everywhere else."

Mayor Itta’s welcoming speech at the workshop is one everyone wanted to bring home with them, to have copies made, and to quote and refer to again and again. Itta spoke from the heart about the interconnectedness of all things. He spoke of his father growing up in a camp on the eastern side of Teshekpuk Lake in the midst of today’s National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. He told how the family followed the migrations of marine mammals and land-based animals of all kinds.

Itta said that he and all of the Iñupiat who came before him were scientists and protectors of the Arctic. "Our knowledge comes from repeated observations over a long time. Our science is one where we lived and died by our ability to observe and interpret what we saw, understanding the subtleties of ice and ocean and tundra," Itta said. "We have created a database of knowledge passed down through our generations, both of nature’s behavior and consistency and the changes over time."

Barrow Mayor Edward S. Itta

Barrow Mayor Edward S. Itta. Photo by John Payne.

"The pace of these changes seems to be increasing," Itta said. "and we are very concerned about how it will affect the whale migration and the ability of other marine mammals and shore-based animals to survive. Since we are inextricably tied to these subsistence species, their fate is our fate."

Breaking the Ice

Breaking the Ice with snow mobiles
Photo by Scott Guyer.

Before they go to sea

To practice the act of a thousand years

They must prepare a trail

To hunt the great whale

We all came to break ice

In words or deed we each took part

In forging bonds and building new paths

Like children listening to stories of old ways

At the feet of elders in the early days

We all came to break ice

And with our hearts and hands

We chipped away at a frozen sea

Of wounds and mistakes made in the past

Hopeful that newly-forged memories will last

We all came to break ice

So let us dance the Native way

To tell the story of the hunt

And how we each must live and be

To protect the land and the sea

We all came to break ice

~Composed by Satrina Lord

First day of the Workshop.
First day of the Workshop. Photo by John Payne.