On the Sea Ice with the Iñupiat of the North Slope

Every spring for the last 4000 years, the Iñupiat people have stood on the tuvaq, the edge of the shorefast ice, waiting for the annual migration of bowhead whales. The whaling season has begun.

Bowhead whales were once thought to be a threatened species due to excessive international whaling in the 1800s. However, by the 1980s, Iñupiat whalers had proven that their own understanding of the bowhead whale population was far more accurate than scientists once believed. Today, Iñupiat communities manage hunting quotas of bowhead whales themselves. Unlike whaling in much of the world, the subsistence practices of the Iñupiat people maintain the bowhead whale as an unthreatened species — just as they have done for thousands of years.

Bowhead whaling is a cultural cornerstone of Iñupiat identity and a primary source of food on the Arctic Slope, where the cost of living is nearly three times that of mainland US. In spring of 2016, I spent 5 weeks standing on the sea ice as a guest of a whaling crew. As an indigenous person, I wanted to understand and document their subsistence life in the Arctic, where the danger of cultural death is just as imminent as an attack from a polar bear.

This video is a set of impressions of the stark and beautiful world on the sea ice. My crew stands on the ice next to our skinboat. We wait for the return of the bowhead whales, and give thanks to the gift of the whale for feeding an entire community. We watch, day and night, as starving polar bears try to catch us unawares, and the ice melts under our feet.