Cultural wealth, Point Hope subsistence and sea ice

Whale boat captain Clark Lane distributes whale meat to members of the community at Unagsiksiksauq (Clan Boat Celebration), Qagruq (Whaling Feast), Point Hope, The Purchase Centennial Project / Photo by Clark James Mishler
Whale boat captain Clark Lane distributes whale meat to members of the community at Unagsiksiksauq (Clan Boat Celebration), Qagruq (Whaling Feast), Point Hope, Alaska / Photo by Clark James Mishler

Whale fin slices in the hands of Point Hope locals are evidence of ancient tradition. Subsistence hunting and gathering provide food and raw materials which support rural Alaskan communities. Subsistence activities make possible customs and traditions… they help define culture. A warming Arctic and associated environmental changes threaten these ways of life.

Unagsiksiksauq (Clan Boat Celebration), Qagruq (Whaling Feast), Point Hope, The Purchase Centennial Project / Photo by Clark James Mishler
Unagsiksiksauq (Clan Boat Celebration), Qagruq (Whaling Feast), Point Hope, Alaska / Photo by Clark James Mishler

Photographer Clark James Mishler is well known around Anchorage for his ongoing portrait-a-day portfolio highlighting local life. “I’ve often referred to myself as a visual anthropologist,” he told Frontier Scientists. Mishler visits rural Alaska to document Native subsistence techniques. He’s photographed culture in Alaska’s Point Hope.

Ancient techniques

Mishler: “I find Point Hope the most fascinating place. Imagine: it’s a gravel pad jutting out into the Chukchi Sea. There’s nothing– there’s no trees, there’s no vegetation, there’s nothing but gravel. It’s a gravel spit, and there are people living on that spit. And they’ve been living there for thousands of years,” Mishler related. “That’s pretty amazing from an anthropological standpoint.”

“They talk about the whale and how important the whale is. And for heaven’s sake, before they started bringing lumber up to build houses, they fashioned everything out of the tundra and whale bones! And if it didn’t involve whale bone or the tundra it didn’t get built.” Underground cellars were built to keep whale meat cold all year. Whale bones were used to provide the structure in traditional homes; bones curving up together covered by tundra sod made an interior which preserved heat. “So they basically lived 100% on whale meat and under the– in the ground covered by sod. And it was a pretty meager existence, yet they flourished for thousands of years doing exactly that. And they talk about the people who were there before them. And they go back even further,” Mishler said. Locals told tales of the past to Mishler: “‘These people lived here for thousands of years and then our people came: the whale hunters,'” Mishler related the tales, “‘We’ve only been here for a couple of thousand years. But the people before us were here for thousands of years before that.’ So even the people now who live at Point Hope have a real perspective of who they are,” Mishler said. The culture maintains a true connection to the past.

Photo by Clark James Mishler
Photo by Clark James Mishler

Whale festival traditions

“I was out there a couple of years ago during the whale festival and it was an incredible three days of dancing and blanket toss events,” he related, “Cutting up and sharing the whale meat with the community and people walking out with bags of whale meat. And the boats that they fashion…” seal-skin boats that can be slipped into leads in sea ice and paddled quietly as whale hunters strive to get close enough to a bowhead whale to loose a harpoon.

Mishler described “And the rookie– the guy that captures his first whale– his boat gets cut up, traditionally. His beautiful boat gets cut up and the hides are given to the elders and the elders take those and fashion boot and gloves and different things out of that. It’s a tradition that the boat gets destroyed. So it’s a very humbling experience to watch this captain give his boat to the community.”

Cultural subsistence sea ice climate change whaling Point Hope photography
Whale boat frame, Point Hope, Alaska / Photo by Clark James Mishler

Whale hunting and other subsistence activities march along with the weeks, months and seasons, defining meals and centering traditions. Hunts provide food, clothing, shelter and supplies for transportation and for hand-crafted articles. Subsistence activities promote community well-being.

That’s notable. Beyond just food and resources, subsistence activities provide community togetherness. I’ve heard it said that these activities promote spiritual values, self-esteem and self-worth. There are also the moral and ethical gains associated with working together and sharing resources. Subsistence living cannot be measured only with dollar signs. Those who bring resources to the village feel good about themselves and show their deep respect and care for their community as they distribute the harvest, like the whaling captains who give their boats’ materials to elders.

“To be able to see that and feel the emotion that goes with that, and watch the elders receive these pieces and roll them up and walk away with them,” truly impacted Mishler. He treasures the memories both preserved in images and as experience. “Those kinds of experiences are hard to explain,” he said. Photography can capture the moment and give glimpses of a culture. Mishler thinks “50 years from now they are going to be even more important.”

Culture and identity are inextricably linked. Rural families– often living in areas where lack of transportation infrastructure means inconstant incomes and sky-high prices for goods– depend on subsistence harvests for nutrition and for cultural practices. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game estimates 36.9 million pounds of wild foods are harvested annually by rural subsistence users.


Hunting and foraging relies on traditional methods and timetables, and being able to predict conditions boosts success. That means the unpredictability associated with climate change can burden or threaten this way of life.

In the National Park Service release titled ‘Effects of Climate Change on Subsistence Communities in Alaska’ prepared by Don Callaway of the National Park Service, contributing author Alex Whiting of Kotzebue IRA, Kotzebue, Alaska, gave insight into cultural differences in regard to changing weather patterns. The release recorded:

“As Alex Whiting noted, there also seems to be substantial cultural differences in how climate is evaluated. Kotzebue receives the weather forecast from TV stations in Anchorage. Often times the weather person seems to be rooting for warmer weather and becomes ecstatic when Kotzebue reaches 40 degrees Fahrenheit. People in Kotzebue who depend on early freeze-up to access marine mammals on the ice, to ice fish, or to use snow cover to access terrestrial mammals by snow machine are yelling ‘No! No!’ to 40 degrees. In western culture weather appears to be an inconvenience, whereas expectations about its effects are absolutely integral to subsistence communities.”

Sea ice change challenges traditional knowledge

Long-held traditions run into changing environmental conditions. In the Arctic we’ve observed a decrease in multi-year sea ice (ice which survives the summer season, and may have been frozen for many years). Less multi-year sea ice means thinner and less stable first year ice reigns.

Andrew Mahoney, geophysicist and assistant research professor in the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute, studies sea ice near Barrow, Alaska. Multi-year sea ice provides access to fresh water. Snowfall, precipitation, or summer heat makes the very top layer of multi-year ice melt. “Melt water flushes out these brine pockets, replacing the brine with fresh water and that means that this ice is less salty,” Mahoney said about multi-year ice. “You can melt this ice and drink it. And that’s what the people living in the Arctic for millennia have done.”

Mahoney stated “Multi-year ice is also stronger than first year ice. It poses more of a challenge for an ice breaker pushing its way through, but also proves a more sturdy platform.” After a successful whale hunt the whaling crew must haul the carcass onto a sea ice platform for butchering. Mahoney: “If you want to pull a whale up out of the water and onto the ice, this type of ice… the multi-year ice can take a lot more weight. That’s another reason why this type of ice is sought after by the local Iñupiat.” Thicker ice means older, larger whales can be taken. Thinner ice restricts hunters to smaller hauls.

Barrow resident Nagruk Harcharek is the Operations Manager at UIC Science, in Barrow, Alaska, and also a Native whaler. “The way that scientists put it is, it’s called multi-year ice but what we would call it is called piqaluyak,” described Harcharek. “It’s actually where we go to get fresh water ice, believe it or not, on the ocean.” Multi-year ice trends are changing. Harcharek said “There used to be a lot more of it and I can remember it: growing up there would just be fields of this stuff. Not anymore… I haven’t come across it in a number of years. All of the ice that is formed and is right offshore now that we are actively whaling off of, or will be within the next couple weeks, is all first year ice, when previously it would be multi-year ice which is a lot thicker, can support a lot bigger whale and is also just inherently a lot safer to be on because of the thickness. It’s grounded.”

Sea ice trends are changing, impacting people who rely on the ice for subsistence hunting and cultural activities. The changes increase safety risks and monetary costs. When the sea ice pack extent (area) is smaller, and the pack ice is further from shore, hunters must travel greater distance over dangerous waters to access marine mammal resources (i.e. to hunt seals). Dyre ‘Oliver’ Dammann, University Alaska Fairbanks graduate student, is part of the University’s Sea Ice Group in the Geophysical Institute at University Alaska Fairbanks. Dammann told Frontier Scientists: “It’s becoming, in many areas of the Arctic, increasingly harder for many populations to use their traditional knowledge and understand what the quality of the ice is and how safe it is.”

Laura Nielsen 2016

(Cultural subsistence sea ice climate change whaling Point Hope photography)

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