went. Devilish little boys I'd seen at school were now wearing white shirts with vests and ties, and the older girls were carting around younger siblings on their hips. People I'd just met introduced me to their mothers and fathers, cousins, and neighbors.
When everyone was seated, elder Isaac Akootchook (who I learned was also the retired Presbyterian minister and who looked to me like a Shakespearean friar, with his gray hair cut straight across his forehead) led us in prayer. Partly in English and partly in Inupiaq, we gave thanks for the food that came from the land and the sea. Then the servers, a group of young adults working in pairs, brought around the pots and platters to everyone in their seats. First came the soups—sheep, goose, duck, and caribou, ladled into our held-out bowls—and the breads. Then came the ham, turkey and stuffing, coleslaw and macaroni and Jell-O salads, a compote made from dried fruits, a huge bowl of crowberries, cans of pop.
Everybody ate and ate, and took seconds, and then, when the soups and other foods came around for a third time, opened their coolers and filled containers to take home. Elders smiled, children played, babies were passed around, everybody ate some more. My bowl of sheep soup had chunks of meat in a rich broth, the fry bread with raisins was warm, and the compote reminded me of meals I'd had in Russia. I wondered who had picked all those crowberries, and I thought of fall on the tundra and what it would be like to be part of a berry-picking party, seated among plenty, fingers turning blue.
The servers came around again, this time lugging the bags and boxes of muktuk, then whale meat, whale tongue, and the highly desirable pieces of whale flipper. Each recipient was asked the size of his or her household, and shares, parceled out accordingly, went into the various coolers.
This is Inupiaq tradition—sharing throughout the community by the whaling captains, regardless of who may have helped (or not) with the whaling or the work that followed. Shares had been distributed after the September hunt, and the next occasion would be at Christmas.
As if we all hadn't had quite enough to eat, the ulus (crescent-shaped knives used by Eskimo women) came out and tastes of muk-tuk were sliced up on plates or on cardboard atop coolers. As a snack, muktuk is cut very small. The pieces are not much longer or wider than matchsticks, the whitish whale fat with the black skin on one end like a match head. I watched one little boy with his own small ulu cut and salt a piece and hold it out to his mother. I watched others dipping theirs into a pool of ketchup. When Austin, one of the boys I knew from school, offered me a piece, I was glad for it and a second one, too. Despite my full stomach, the salted fat and soft chew of skin filled a certain craving, not unlike the one I might have for a sweet at the end of a meal.
The fire chief, George, was showing Pete something on his camera, and Pete waved me over. "This was two nights ago," George said and turned the viewer to me. The picture was of a polar bear standing at an open Dumpster, its front paws on the rim and its head reaching in. "Someone threw some whale scraps in there."
A couple of evenings later, Pete and Elaine plugged their video camera into the TV to show me polar bears—specifically polar bears feeding on leftovers from that fall's whaling. The first of the three bowhead whales allocated to Kaktovik (by international and Alaskan whaling commissions) in 2008 was taken on September 6, towed to shore, and stripped of its fat and meat. That night, when the bones and scraps had been hauled to the bone pile on the spit, Pete and Elaine joined others in the community to watch the bears feast. The scene was illuminated by headlights, while people got out of their cars and trucks to stand just fifty feet from the powerful animals.
On the video, three white bears work over the bones and the mounds of waste. They're beautiful animals—thick bodied and narrow headed, bellies already bulging, impossibly plush fur rippling with every turn and every extension of long, reaching necks. One has a dirty face, and another wears a research radio collar around its neck—a white band that glows like a reflective strip on a child's jacket. They seem utterly intent on eating, equally indifferent to the lights focused on them and the people moving around and talking. The video picks up the murmuring of appreciative voices, someone saying, "There's one lying down over there."
In recent years Kaktovik has become famous for its polar bears— for the opportunity to see them close up, at the bone pile. Tourists come from afar after whaling season for precisely this opportunity. I remembered the advertising I'd seen back in the summer—see polar bears! see them before they're gone! Several photographers and photographic guides who live in Kaktovik now make their livings from the easy accessibility of the bears, as do Art and Jennifer Smith, who operate a business specializing in "embedded natural history media productions" and in 2009 would release a documentary film, Ice Bears of the Beaufort.9 Two "hotels"—trailer or trailerlike structures with a lot of character if not class—cater to the increasing number of visitors.
This polar bear tourism, which might rightly be considered one species of "climate change tourism" is not without its challenges and controversies. Was it not at least ironic for wealthy people to fly thousands of miles and spend gobs of money to see creatures that their well-traveled and materialistic lifestyles are responsible for threatening? A friend of mine who operates high-end hiking and rafting tours in the Arctic Refuge recently added a Kaktovik polar bear tour. The biggest challenge, she'd found, was getting there in foggy September. But the bear viewing, when they did get there, was fabulous. She laughed when she told me how, the first day, they'd been so careful about approaching the bone pile and bears— stopping their rented vehicle a long way off, without lights, whispering. Then the locals had arrived, roaring up with bright lights and loud voices, and the bears never even looked up from feeding.
(In fact, though, individual bears react differently to such disturbance, depending on such things as past experience with humans, nutritional status, and approach distance and speed; some are more tolerant than others, and it's never a great idea to crowd them. Data collected by bear researchers has found that at the Kaktovik bone pile—and elsewhere—bears are frequently affected and sometimes displaced by human viewers.)
Elaine's video, as we watched it that night, captured more whaling and more bears. As the date in the corner showed us progressing into and through September, we watched three bears swimming smoothly across the lagoon next to town, flocks of ravens perched on whale bones while bears moved around them, an Arctic fox with some summer brown still in its coat, a collared mother bear with two small cubs, six or seven bears all feeding together. "The most we saw out there at one time," Elaine said, "was thirteen bears."
We watched, on the video, as a collared bear moved to the side and exposed an odd-looking square patch, the size of a sheet of paper, on its haunch. I leaned toward the TV. "That looks like it was shaved." I remembered something I'd read: Researchers had taken muscle samples from the bears' rumps to see whether fasting bears were getting their energy from fat stores or muscle, and they had inserted small thermometers under their skin to monitor body temperature and see if they were in an energy-conserving state known as "walking hibernation."
"The villagers don't like that, the collars and the other research." Elaine sipped her tea. "They think it's disrespectful to the bears, and sometimes the collars get too tight on their necks."
By all accounts, there are more polar bears around Kaktovik now than there have been in the remembered or storied past. The reason for this is not an expanding population but a shift in habitat use. It's that shift—related to the loss of sea ice—that researchers are trying to understand.
Polar bears are categorized as marine mammals and evolved to live primarily over the ocean, on sea ice. They survive in punishing physical conditions by eating the fatty seals they capture at breathing holes or at the edges of broken ice. But now, with more open water in summer, a longer melt duration, and younger and thinner ice, the bears have lost much of their habitat.
In Canada's Hudson Bay, where the loss of sea ice has led polar bears to spend longer periods onshore, those bears generally fast while they wait for the return of the ice and their access to seals. The well-studied bears there have gotten smaller and thinner and have demonstrated poorer reproductive success and survival.
The Beaufort Sea situation so far is less dire, although comparisons between data collected twenty years ago and today show that more bears in the southern Beaufort Sea are now going without food and for longer stretches of time, that fewer cubs are surviving, and that adult males weigh less.10 A study completed in 2007 by the U.S. Geological Survey concluded that, within fifty years, two-thirds of the world's polar bears, including all those now living along and off Alaska's coast, will likely be gone. The only place in which a remnant population is projected to survive is the high latitudes of the Canadian Arctic and northwest Greenland, the last area projected to hold summer sea ice.
Since the early 1990s, scientific surveys and observations from local residents have suggested that bears are increasing their use of land during the open-water season. In addition, scientists have found that since 1998, more females have been denning on land instead of on the ice. Researchers now estimate that, for the southern Beaufort Sea population, up to 8 percent are using the coast during summer. Before this last decade, it was rare to see any polar bears on land in summer.
One Alaska study, based on weekly aerial surveys since 2000, confirmed that the number of bears on land increased when sea ice was farthest from shore.11 Bears congregate onshore near high densities of ringed seals, their primary food source once they regain the ice, and in areas closest to the ice edge. The part of the Beaufort Sea coast with both the highest ringed seal density and the shortest distance to the pack ice edge is at Barter Island. The scientists have theorized that, if the summer ice pack continues to decline as predicted, more Beaufort bears will come ashore in anticipation of reaching seals from the land-fast ice that forms in the fall, as opposed to staying out on the pack ice and waiting longer for it to extend, from the other direction, over the continental shelf and the seals.
Of course, the whale carcasses onshore are an inviting source of food. There are more carcasses in Barrow compared to Kaktovik, but more bears at Kaktovik, as many as sixty-five seen eating at the same feeding site at one time. Thus, the bears at Barter Island not only avoid fasting by feeding on whale carcasses, they position themselves for seal hunting once ice re-forms in the fall.
A University of Wyoming study involving bears fitted with GPS collars was a two-year program designed to understand just how the Beaufort Sea bears are coping with longer ice-free seasons. How are bear health and survival being affected? What strategies are bears employing to access habitat and food?
In the first part of the study, twenty-nine bears along the coast were captured in August 2008, and twelve were fitted with radio collars. Two months later six of the collared bears were recaptured. (The other collars were programmed for automatic release in November.) Measurements and samples were taken from the bears, to determine how they fared over the period onshore. One of the biologists involved, Eric Regehr of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, told me shortly after his return from the recapture effort that his "impression was that the bears on land were pretty fat and healthy."
(Later, the second year's research, which used an ice-breaking ship to reach the summer ice pack two hundred miles north of the coast, involved collaring eleven bears and recapturing four of them later in the season.12 The comparison between how bears were doing on the ice and how they were doing onshore would take longer to complete, but the researchers noted with concern the scarcity of seals available to the bears when the sea ice is so far out, over deep water. They also found the thinness of the ice a safety issue—for both themselves and the bears.)
Susi Miller, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said to me about the capture work, "That research has given us much of what we know about bears, but we have to be sensitive to concerns in the Native community. We have to be handling the bears only when we absolutely can't get data any other way."
A Kaktovik resident warned me, "If you worry about the bears, you better also worry about the seals." Ringed and bearded seals, the two largest parts of the polar bear's diets, are also "ice-dependent species." The lairs where ringed seals birth on the ice are collapsing now earlier in spring, leaving the young vulnerable to the cold as well as to predators, including ravens. Bearded seals forage for invertebrates on the sea floor—habitat they cannot reach from ice that's retreated far over deep water. Walrus, too—not near Kakto-vik but farther west—need ice as a platform for resting and bearing young. In recent years young walrus have been abandoned by mothers that had to swim hundreds of miles from the shrunken, distant ice pack to find food in shallower seas. Walrus have also crowded onto beaches, where they're more vulnerable to predation by humans and bears, and to trampling one another when panicked. In October 2007 an estimated 6,000 to 10,000 walruses came ashore in Northwest Alaska, for the first time in recorded history. Then again, in 2009, some 3,500 walruses were spotted along that same coast, and a few days later 131 of them—mostly young animals—were found trampled to death. Aside from the risk of trampling deaths, researchers questioned the feeding success of so many animals confined to small areas; one biologist likened it to putting all the cattle from a farm onto one little pasture.
Polar bears, seals, walrus—they're the megafauna at the top of the whole ice-dependent ecosystem. The Arctic food web begins with algae that grow on the underside of the ice. Tiny shrimplike amphi-pods and other zooplankton feed on the algae, then are fed on by Arctic cod and other small fish, which are then fed on by seals and seabirds. Bowhead whales also feed on zooplankton—up to three thousand pounds of them per day, each. The equation's pretty simple: no ice = no algae = no zooplankton = no "higher order" animals, all the way through the food web.
There aren't a lot of eyes watching what happens in and over Arctic waters, but troubling reports have been floating in of exhausted polar bears seen swimming far from any ice or shore. Elaine had captured with her video three bears—a mother and cubs—swimming almost effortlessly one after another across the lagoon by the bone pile. With their big paddle-shaped paws and their buoyant fat layers, polar bears are capable of crossing up to a hundred miles of calm open water. But they can't swim forever or in rough seas, and there have been reports, too, of bloated humps of drowned bears drifting through Arctic waters.
Alaska's polar bears had, just months before my visit to Kaktovik, been listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act. I knew how environmentalists felt about this—surprised that the Bush administration would list anything, no matter how clear the case might be, and then angry when they read Interior secretary Dirk Kempthorne's order and realized how limited the protection would be. And I knew how the state of Alaska, which likes its oil and gas industry, felt. The state, despite having no polar bear biologists of its own, had argued that the bears were doing fine and immediately announced that it would sue to overturn the listing.
The listing got mixed reviews in Kaktovik as well. While Fenton
Rexford, the tribal administrator, criticized it as unnecessary, hunter and wilderness guide Robert Thompson called the listing "essential." My sense was that two main issues were wrapped around individual responses. One was nervousness about whether there'd be a new layer of regulation and perhaps restrictions concerning subsistence hunting, and the other was attitudes toward oil development.
Rexford, a whaling caption who'd held many leadership positions in the village and region, was both wary of outside interference in local matters and in favor of economic development—specifically opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. (He'd once appeared on PBS's NewsHour as a local expert, to explain that Kaktovik had prospered from Prudhoe Bay oil tax revenues—prosperity that had brought running water and flush toilets to the village in 2000.) Rexford is well aware that climate or weather, and particularly the sea ice situation, has been changing, though he's not sure how much of that change can rightly be attributed to global warming associated with greenhouse gas emissions. He might or might not have been kidding me when he told me about an icebreaking oil tanker that had come through in 1969, when the industry was testing the possibility of moving Prudhoe Bay oil by tanker as opposed to building an eight-hundred-mile pipeline; that, he said, could be a reason the sea ice was now more fragile.
Guide Robert Thompson was perhaps Rexford's polar opposite. An activist who opposes oil development—onshore and off—in the Arctic, he was hooked up by the Internet to national environmental organizations, traveled frequently to conferences as an Inupiaq speaker, and wrote editorials. I had known of his involvement with an Alaskan Native grassroots network known as REDOIL (Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous Lands) and was glad when he offered to stop by teachers' housing one evening to talk.
Thompson, a sturdy, middle-aged man with a professorial talkativeness, understood the polar bear listing as an essential part of the larger picture—the changes we need to make to move from a fossil
122 part three fuel-driven economy to renewable energies and sustainability. The first thing he said to me was, "Look at polar bears. Some people say, 'I don't think they should be listed. There's lots of them.' There's lots of them because there's no ice for them to get onto out there. If you look around you and see that there's twenty bears out at the bone pile, you might think there's plenty, you don't have to be concerned. But it's a little bigger than that. Look at the satellite photos."
Noting that nine hundred thousand people had written letters or e-mails or signed petitions supporting the listing, Thompson compared the place of polar bears in the sea ice situation to that of caribou in the Arctic Refuge. "The polar bear's the poster child for the climate change issue. We need something for people to rally behind."The essential part of the listing, for him, was the protection of habitat, which would include onshore denning sites as the bears spent more time ashore. "You don't just list it and say it's listed and carry on with oil development or whatever."
The effort to get the polar bears listed went back to 2005, when a number of conservation groups first petitioned for the designation, based on the loss of sea ice habitat. There have since been five more petitions for ice-dependent species—walrus and four seal species; these determinations are still being studied and/or litigated. Conservationists have wanted, with such listings, to bring attention to global climate issues—and more, to force our government to address climate change and reduce carbon emissions. When the polar bear listing (as a threatened species, not yet endangered) was finally announced in May 2008, Kassie Siegel of the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the petitioners, said, "Even the Bush administration can't deny the reality of global warming."13
The celebration was short-lived. Interior Secretary Kempthorne, forced into the listing by the science and federal courts, added a caveat that the listing would not "set backdoor climate policy"—that the ESA could not be used to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. He stated that no new regulation of either industry or subsistence hunting in Alaska would be necessary. He specifically ruled that oil and gas development allowed under the standards of the Marine Mammal Protection Act would also be allowed under the ESA. Only one change to the status quo was anticipated by Interior officials—polar bear trophies could no longer be imported from Canada to the United States.
Indeed, it's hard to say just what the ESA listing will mean for the bears, not until we've had years more of litigation. Conservationists have challenged the rulings that oil and gas development can continue in bear habitat and that emissions are immune from controls. And, Alaska has its own lawsuit, which insists that projections for sea ice loss are only hypothetical.
When I asked Susi Miller, the polar bear biologist, what she thought the ESA listing meant for the bears, she said, "I don't think we'll stop the ice from melting." She was hard put to say what might be different, except that the listing had made people more aware of climate change. The Fish and Wildlife Service would continue to work with the oil and gas industry to minimize potential conflicts with the bears, and she thought they'd be taking a hard look at critical habitat—specifically key denning and feeding areas and the role of barrier islands. She hoped there'd be some funding for new research and the development of a long-term conservation plan.
Almost a year later, the Obama administration would propose 200,541 square miles of critical habitat for polar bears—7 percent of it barrier islands and onshore denning sites and the rest sea ice in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas. The designation would not stop oil and gas or other development but would require consultation with the Fish and Wildlife Service. The announcement was made the same week that the Interior Department approved a plan for exploratory drilling in the same, critical-habitat-designated area of the Beaufort, a move environmentalists called "schizophrenic."
Thompson, on his third cup of coffee, told me about his plans for installing a wind generator at his house, about the difficulties of cleaning up spilled oil in broken ice, and that, when more droughts and food shortages resulted from climate change, "we'll make it, but the person who buys from the store, they could be in dire straits."
I asked finally, as delicately as I could, about hunting—or, more accurately, polar bear shootings. I had heard that three polar bears had been shot in the village recently—bears that were staying around and considered potentially dangerous—and that Thompson had shot two of these, one of them in his yard. "People don't just go shoot them," Thompson said. "Nobody's abusing the privilege." He estimated that, in the last twenty years, no more than two or three were taken each year in and near Kaktovik. "What we're looking at is protecting the habitat. It's not just for the polar bears, it's for the whales and all the other animals."
Thompson turned the conversation back to oil development. "We've been told for years we had to support ANWR [that is, opening the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil development] so they don't go offshore." While the inland Gwich'in Athabascans have steadfastly opposed drilling on the coastal plain, calving grounds of the caribou they depend on, the people of Kak-tovik have generally been okay with oil development on land but adamantly against it offshore. Although the refuge is, quite literally, their backyard and they eat caribou, too, their Inupiaq culture is based primarily on what the sea provides.
Aside from environmental effects, one big difference between onshore and offshore development is that local governments and the state of Alaska receive taxes and other payments from the first, but only the federal government makes money from the second.
If administrator Fenton Rexford held a viewpoint of someone in authority who needed to worry about public services, and Robert Thompson was an activist concerned about the global environment, Marie Rexford was largely traditional in her views. Marie, sister-in-law to Fenton and an artist known for sewing traditional women's clothing out of unusual fabrics (like the atikluk, or overdress, she'd worn at the Thanksgiving feast, with sailboats and lighthouses on it), met me one day at the Waldo Arms Hotel, one of two establishments in Kaktovik that serve food. Surrounded by historical and wildlife photos, maps and big baleen fronds etched with whaling scenes, all the material culture that makes the hotel-café almost a museum, she lamented to me the intrusive nature of some of the polar bear research. ("We keep telling them, why don't they just go to the elders. The elders have all this knowledge.") And then she told me about growing up in Kaktovik and the changes she's seen over the years.
Marie told me how "weird" it was not to see sea ice in the summers anymore, about the erosion of the barrier islands on which people had always camped to escape bugs and mice, and about catching a new kind of fish and having to take samples to the Fish and Game people to identify because no one had ever seen them before. A few years earlier the caribou herd from Barrow had come to Barter Island for the first time anyone could remember, and then an ice storm covered the tundra and prevented the animals from digging their way to food. Many had died.
Marie had been a part of a whaling crew but wasn't going out anymore, was letting the younger people go instead. The last time she'd gone, she said, was "hard for women." When I looked puzzled, she explained: It had to do with the sea ice, that there wasn't any, and so there was no ice to get out on, away from the crowded open boats, when they needed to relieve themselves. (I had to smile when brother-in-law Fenton later told me that whaling was actually easier with less ice, because "it wasn't in the way.") Elsewhere across the north, whaling is typically done from the ice edge, in open leads, and lack of ice is a serious problem for those hunters.
We talked more about whaling: There used to be eight crews in the village; six had gone out this year. Marie said, "We lost two people this year."
"Do you mean the boating accident?" I had heard about this earlier, when it had happened in the summer.
"It was not a boating accident!" Marie was emphatic about this. "We never had an accident like this in this village."
Haltingly, Marie told me about the family—related to her and, it seemed, everyone in Kaktovik—that had been traveling along the coast by boat. They'd camped on a barrier island, leaving the boat in a protected area behind a point and taking a four-wheeler to a higher spot. A big storm—the same one that had flooded the airport and undercut the bluffs at Kaktovik—blew up.
Marie paused to wipe her eyes with a napkin. I murmured something about how sorry I was, but I was thinking how similar this story was to the one I'd heard in Fort Good Hope a year earlier, about a sudden fierce storm that swamped a boat on the Mackenzie and drowned three villagers. The weather used to be something the elders were good at judging, the dynamics of the water something they knew, the land a solid state. Now the world was different, less predictable, more dangerous.
Choking back tears, Marie described how the family had gone back to get the boat, only to find that the storm had cut a channel through the island. The older man tried to wade across, sank into a soft area, and was knocked down by waves. "The big waves got him. His son was trying to help him, and he got washed out." Both were swept by fast currents into the ocean and drowned while the wife of one, mother of the other, watched helplessly. It was several more days before she and a grandchild were able to reach the boat and motor back to the village, just the two of them pulling into the lagoon on a beautiful summer's day. "It was the first time this happened," Marie said again, and blew her nose. "We couldn't believe it."
I hated to probe at such obvious pain, but I had to ask: "I'm wondering, though, do people associate that storm with changes in the weather and climate? Was it because the sea ice was so far away that there were big waves?"
"I think so," she said with emphasis. "Not enough ice out there. That's how we're losing our barrier islands. They're going underwater."
As is the case everywhere in the rapidly changing north, environmental and societal changes are hard to separate from one another. At one point while we talked, Marie lamented that she'd been "born too late," that she wished she'd lived in an earlier time when people were more nomadic, traveling on the land instead of staying home and watching TV. When her six kids were finished with school, she wanted to move into the mountains, to allotments her family has there, and live a life more connected to the land. "At least I have my hunters," she said, referring to her sons and a young grandson, "when I can't go anymore." But she also thought that oil development was necessary to the economy, and she was looking forward to the $4,000 dividend the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation would be paying every shareholder in December.
We talked about art. As an artist, Marie made—in addition to clothing—caribou skin masks, drawings on baleen, purses, and note cards. I asked if she thought "climate change tourism" could provide more of an economic opportunity for Kaktovik, if people concerned about polar bears made it a travel destination. She was not much interested in tourism, she said. She had all the art market she wanted from people already passing through the village as they visited the Arctic Refuge and who were sometimes a problem when they camped on private land. She'd worked, very briefly, for one of the operations that brought tourists to see bears at the bone pile. "It was really boring for me," she said, to stand there for hours and answer the same questions over and over.
Marie was reluctant to talk too much about the future, to speculate on what climate change might do to her village and the lives of her children and grandchildren, or to suggest what things might be done differently to prevent the worst from happening or to adapt to what was happening, or would, or might. "How can you tell the
128 part three future?" she asked. "You cannot, because it's always going to change. Elders say, 'Be careful what you say. What you say can happen. You have a powerful mouth.'"
Later, Marie's words kept returning to me. I knew I was always pushing, trying to learn from others what they knew and what their expertise could teach the rest of us about what it takes to cope with climate change, what we could learn from traditional cultures about adaptation and resilience. I had learned less well to understand that the success of northern people has also come from acceptance of what can't be controlled and from a knowledge that people are not in charge of the natural world, but a part of it, susceptible to its rules rather than being its ruler. It would be a hard thing, in the Inupiaq culture, to believe that humans had altered basic conditions of life on earth and that we should think about the future we have wrought and how we might live in it. It was a step even beyond that to consider what we should do to reverse the harm.
On Sunday, Elaine and I attended the Presbyterian church service, in the simple wooden building with a velvet Jesus on the wall and an altar with its one lit candle. (It was First Advent Sunday.) I was not normally a churchgoer, but I'd long been intrigued with the way Alaska Natives have married traditional spirituality and practices with the Christian beliefs and rituals brought by missionaries. To be sure, missionaries, like teachers and government officials, had done much to denigrate and destroy Native culture, but Native people didn't so much assimilate as adapt, actively choosing what worked for them as they shaped modern lives around age-old values. I had found that, in villages, I could learn something about strength and resilience by attending church.
The ordained minister, Mary Ann Warden, was a large woman in her sixties, dressed in sneakers and slacks and wearing a beautiful beaded necklace with a cross and a dove over a plain blouse. Warden had grown up in Kaktovik but, like so many of her generation who were now in leadership positions, she'd lived elsewhere and been well educated—in her case earning degrees in criminal justice and sociology as well as an MA in divinity. She'd returned to Kaktovik only a few years earlier, when her uncle Isaac retired from the ministry.
On this Sunday the theme was awakening, and Warden spoke (in English for the morning service—an evening service would be in Inupiaq) of the religious sense of being awake and ready for the return of the Lord, and then she'd spoken more particularly about the value of being awake generally, paying attention to the world around us. Hunters, she reminded us, would have to be awake, but so would the family at home. We wouldn't know when the hunters might return, but we would cook up a big pot of soup and have it ready for them at any time.
The other part of the service I most enjoyed was the "prayers of the people," when congregants offered prayers to specific people in need. There was a prayer for a woman who was having all her teeth pulled the next day, for Uncle Daniel who had a pain in his shoulder, for the family that had gone to California to get medical treatment for a child.
When I spoke with her later, Warden, like so many others, told me she was seeing different kinds of birds than she had as a child, and that the ground was melting. I was curious about her religious view; did she teach that whatever happened was in God's hands or that humans had a responsibility to care for the earth? She was emphatic on this point: Presbyterian and Inupiat values were the same regarding the environment. "Our people have deep roots in taking care of the land," she said. She remembered her grandmother collecting "mouse food," the seeds stored by lemmings in their burrows, to feed her own family; she would always put something back for the lemmings, so they wouldn't go hungry. "And we never polluted the land." But there were other teachings, too: "A long time ago they said the island might fall into the water," so perhaps what the elders had said was coming true.
In Kaktovik, the whale bone pile is purposely located on a far spit past the airport, away from the village, and away from the beach where the whales are brought ashore and butchered. We tried to drive there one afternoon, but the road was drifted over and the bears were gone, anyway. Only the massive rib and jaw bones stuck up in the air like an old shipwreck.
The idea with the bone pile was that scavenging bears would stay there and not wander into the village, and when they left they would swim to the barrier islands beyond or the ice itself, when it came. This worked, for the most part. The bears had feasted in September and October and then left on the ice. Still, and as much as residents and tourists enjoyed seeing the bears, the bears could be a danger. Two decades ago in Point Lay, another North Slope village, a young couple walking through town in the middle of a December night was attacked by a polar bear, and the young man was killed. In Kaktovik, a sign in the post office warns beware of polar bears! DO NOT leave children UNATTENDED OR FOOD IN THE OPEN, and one door of the school is always left unlocked so that anyone can escape into a vestibule for safety.
I visited Nora Jane Burns, the village liaison for the North Slope Borough, in her office in the Borough Building. Partway through our conversation, when she showed me photos on her computer of the airport flooding, she also showed me her screen saver picture. It was a photo of herself in the village in the 1960s: a little girl, apple-cheeked, her face circled with a wolverine-fur parka ruff, and piles of snow all around.
Among Burns's duties was to coordinate the community bear patrol. For the sixteen darkest hours each day/night (when the truck was running, which it wasn't right then), a member of the patrol drove up and down and around Kaktovik's few streets, watching for bears and listening for the sounds of barking dogs (the usual bear alarm). Any bears that were where they shouldn't be were run off by the vehicle or by firing "crackers" into the air to frighten them. The idea was primarily to keep the community safe, but also to protect bears by discouraging them from coming into town, where they might learn bad eating habits, become too comfortable around people, and be shot. Bears that were still around this late in the season were considered to be dangerous; they were usually in poor condition and especially hungry, looking for an easy meal. Soon they would either go away or be dead, and the polar bear patrol would cease for the season.
The bears were running out of ice, Burns said, but a big factor that brought them to Barter Island, in her opinion, was the food supply. "The new generation of bears is attracted to whaling. They know how to live off the land." The real problem, and the need for the polar bear patrol, was that "people aren't putting their shares up." They were leaving whale meat and muktuk in their yards or unsecured storage places, and bears were attracted to that food source, just as they were to the bone pile until that was picked clean. More grizzly bears were showing up, too, from inland; someone had shot one recently. Grizzly bears are considered to be more aggressive— indeed, they'll run the larger polar bears off the bone pile—and villagers have no tolerance for them at all.
(This habitat overlap between species was something new, with grizzlies moving northward to the coast and polar bears moving to the coast from the ice. In 2006 on Banks Island in the Canadian Northwest Territories, a hunter shot an odd-looking bear that, with DNA analysis, turned out to be a hybrid between the species—with a father griz and a mother polar bear. The hybrid has been called a pizzly or grolar bear.)14
Aside from the patrol, there was also a polar bear committee just getting started. Its purpose was education and preventing bear problems. One project under discussion was the purchase of sturdy, bear-proof containers for residents to store their shares of whale meat in. Another was establishing a safety zone around the bone pile, to keep people from getting too close to the bears. They'd discussed blocking that road altogether so that people couldn't drive right up to the whale bones, and they had raised the idea of bulldozing the whale remains into the ocean instead of leaving them on land.
That, Burns said, was controversial. First, because nobody knew what the loss of that food source might mean to the bears—whether they would disperse, go hungry, or come into the village even more. And second, because bear watching had become very popular.
There had to be limits, though, or someone was going to get hurt. Burns, in her stylish blue-rimmed glasses, looked very stern. "Right now people go right up to the bears. If you're going to be a guide, you have to follow some rules." One man, a local who had started a guiding business, had walked up to and touched a sleeping bear, and a video on YouTube ("Polar Bear Tag") showed a photographer being chased around his vehicle by a bear.
Burns worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife people, like Susi Miller, who visited frequently from Anchorage. Relations with the federal agency "used to be real bad, but they're getting better. Now they ask questions and get advice, instead of telling us how it is." Miller and her colleagues had assisted residents with text for posters and pamphlets; a poster on the wall in Burns's office read You are in polar bear country and listed proper behaviors.
Now, at least, the community whale meat was being stored in old steel-sided shipping containers and people were more careful with their trash and about "airing" their meat in their yards to age it.
Alaska isn't the only place to have polar bear patrols. In fact, such patrols began in Chukotka, Russia, on the northern coast that faces the Chukchi Sea, assisted by the World Wildlife Fund. Later, I would meet Chukotkan hunters from those patrols, when they visited Alaska to share their experiences in managing human-polar bear interactions. At a presentation given by brothers Sergey and Vladilen Kavriy, Vladilen told how they began to see major climatic changes in the 1990s. Both walruses and polar bears, which should have been living on the sea ice, began to come ashore. "In the 1980s," Vladilen said through an interpreter, "ice was along the coast all summer. Now it's very far offshore." At Cape Vankarem, close to three villages, huge numbers of walrus—more than thirty thousand—began to haul out on the rocky beach. "This is not a natural habitat for them," Vladilen said. "They stampede in this environment" when disturbed, and they can be disturbed by anything, "even the sound of an unusual bird." Trampled animals were scavenged by bears, which then also came into the villages.
The Umky (from the Chukchi name for the polar bear) Patrol was initiated in 2006 by villagers to protect the walrus, the bears, and the villagers.15 The general goal, Vladilen explained, "is to protect nature and to teach people to live harmoniously with nature." The haul-out area was guarded by a "keeper," someone to keep people and dogs away, and hunters learned to hunt the walrus they needed for food with spears, quietly and carefully from the edge of a group, to prevent stampeding. The local people proposed that the haul-out be formally protected, and the regional government did just that in 2007.
Today, the Umky Patrol moves walrus carcasses from the haul-out to a place farther from the village of Vankarem, where the bears (as many as two hundred) feed as they migrate down the coast. "Fat and happy," they then pass by the villages. The patrol keeps an eye out around the villages and scares away bears that come too close; its members teach safety lessons, escort children to school, and generally educate people about bears and how to live among
134 part three them. Hunters also work with biologists to locate and protect bear denning sites and to collect traditional knowledge and other data to help with bear conservation.
During school hours in Kaktovik, I spent much of my time at Harold Kaveolook School, named for the first Kaktovik teacher, who came from Barrow in 1951 and personally built the first school building out of DEW-line scraps. With sixty-odd students from kindergarten through high school, the current school felt spacious on the one hand and intimate on the other. The class sizes were small, the classrooms cheery, the entire building well equipped—with a wood shop where Pete taught, a library that also served the community, a gym, and even a small swimming pool that doubled as a water supply for fire safety. The teachers, who complained to me about the not-designed-for-rural-Alaska No Child Left Behind requirements, did their best to make education relevant to their students.
There were certain motifs to the artwork hung on the walls, bulletin boards, and lockers. Whales. Polar bears. Inupiaq names. Northern lights. Turkeys.
On my first day, Elaine's first- and second-graders were dizzy with excitement over the Pilgrims, the first Thanksgiving, and the paper turkeys they were constructing for table centerpieces.
Another day, the third-, fourth-, and fifth-graders, avid writers, shared with me stories they'd written about their lives and the things they most enjoyed. One had written about fossils and wanting to be a dinosaur scientist, several others about helping with whaling and then helping the researchers take samples from the dead whales and how they'd gotten to hold a whale's eyeball, which felt "gushy." There were stories about wolverines and how "tourists go crazy for polar bears," and about making the northern lights move around by whistling and humming. One very excited boy read to me about his first seal hunt and how he'd presented the seal to elders. I was struck with how many of the stories exhibited pride of place, and how many were grounded in both Inupiaq culture and Western science, exhibiting no contradiction between eating an animal and wanting to study it. Scientists who worked in the region very often volunteered talks at the school, and it seemed that some of that had rubbed off.
The junior high students were fidgety, but we talked about writing and about doing research for books, and they told me, very matter-of-factly, that the ice was disappearing and salmon, formerly sparse in the Arctic, were showing up more frequently in their families' nets. Later, in the library, I paged through the photo book The Last Polar Bear with some of those same kids.16 They called out the familiar images: the bone pile, bears feeding, the village on a clear day with mountains in the distance, eroding coastline. They told me the land was washing away.
"What do you think will happen?" I asked.
"People will move away."
"Where will they go?"
They didn't seem to have thought about the whole village—Kak-tovik—moving, only that individual families would leave for other communities, perhaps where they already had family.
I talked to the high school science class about science writing and heard from them a litany of changes they'd observed—the waves washing across the runway, permafrost melt out on the tundra, an ice cellar filling with water. They told me about poor polar bear cub survival. They told me these things as though they were facts of life: what they knew to be true, a reality they lived with. They told me, without judgment, who had killed the recently killed bears, and they told me that one of their uncles had made a Disney film about polar bears.
The high school English class had recently written letters to U.S. representative Michele Bachmann (R-Minnesota), and copies
136 part three were posted on the classroom door. Bachmann, after an American Energy Tour by members of Congress, had described the coastal plain of the Arctic as being buried in snow and ice most of the time and "covered in complete darkness" for three months of the year, without wildlife or other values worthy of protection.17 The indignant student letters said things like "Readers of your comments would assume that no one lives in this supposed wasteland" and listed some of the animals—whales, seals, caribou, polar and grizzly bears, foxes, lemmings, and birds—that live around the village and are "vital to our culture." They'd been asked by the teacher to limit their letters to misstatements of fact made by Bachmann, and so they didn't express opinions about oil drilling on and near their lands, but what was clear from their letters was the hurt of having their place and lives misrepresented, their pride in who they were and the bountiful place that was their home.
At school one day, I talked to Flora Rexford, the twenty-two-year-old Inupiaq culture teacher (and daughter of Marie) as she was tidying up her room after her last class. With a big poster of a polar bear face looking down on us, Flora rolled up butcher paper sheets she'd been using to teach Christmas carols in Inupiaq and wiped away the dust from reindeer antler carving. She'd recently interviewed Kaktovik's elders for a university professor documenting climate change. "The biggest concern from all the interviews is how much smaller the island's getting," she told me. The elders were alarmed that the erosion was taking graves and historic sites. That is, it wasn't just land that was disappearing; it was cultural history, knowledge of the past.
Flora herself was clearly concerned. In the summer she'd worked on a cleanup project, collecting trash that had blown onto the tundra. She could hear water running and at one point broke through the surface and fell into a hole up to her armpits. "The TV says that in ten years we'll be underwater. I don't know if that's true, but if it is, it means the whole community will have to move." If the worst happened, if civilization collapsed, she wanted to be prepared and to know the old ways. "I want to learn to survive here on my own, just in case."
If Flora represented the young generation that was staying home, dealing with climate change on the local level, her cousin Allison Warden, who visited from Anchorage over Thanksgiving and was, with Flora, one of the servers at the feast, represented those who had taken their cultural knowledge and personal experience out into the world. Allison, a performance artist who had lived in New York and Seattle before returning to Alaska, created an acclaimed one-woman show she called Ode to the Polar Bear. I hadn't seen it, but I'd heard a lot about it as she performed it around Alaska (standing ovation at the Last Frontier Theatre Conference) and in Seattle. Later, when I did see it in Anchorage, I appreciated the way she impressed upon her audience the reality of melting sea ice and its consequences for bears and Inupiat, while also conveying Inupiaq values. By playing four separate characters—a bear, a dreaming girl, an old woman, and a hunter—she wove together a number of stories, "all true," all heard from her family and other elders, about polar bears and what people have learned from them. In her view, the bears were moving, following the ice east toward Greenland, and the Inupiat, too, will adapt, as they always have. After all, she said, elders had long told stories about Alaska once being a tropical land; they taught that the palm trees would return.
In my last days in Kaktovik, I thought often of the young people I'd met. We're all stakeholders in this changing world, of course, but for some the stakes are higher. I thought about the boy whose seal hunting had given him both pride and a respected place in his family. I thought of the young girl who had said with great nonchalance, "They'll move to Fairbanks." I thought of the tiny children eating muktuk at the Thanksgiving feast, and one little girl, out in the middle of the community center floor later that night, dancing with the women while the men struck their traditional circular drums and sang in Inupiaq. I thought of the high school science students who understood how melting permafrost released carbon dioxide and methane, and who might stay in the village and try to live a subsistence life or might go out to college and might or might not come back. I thought of Flora, serious with the importance of her culture, and Allison, who adhered to traditional values even as she embraced experimental art. All of them will live in a world vastly different, in so many ways, from that of their elders. They may see within their lifetimes physical changes that, in earlier eras, took place over thousands of years. All of them will have to decide how, and where, and for what, they'll live.
Just before Christmas, when I was home again, Elaine sent me some photos she'd made from her video of bears feeding at the bone pile. The enclosed note, after news of weather, ravens, foxes, and the other teachers, read, "Someone shot another bear. They brought it in Pete's shop to skin it. I held its paw for a while and apologized to it . . ."
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