12 Jan

People of the Whales: Climate Change and Cultural Resilience among Iñupiat of Arctic Alaska

Preview was written by Chie Sakakibara

People of the Whales

People of the Whales



Map of North Slope Borough, Alaska

Q: What is the main purpose of your study?
A: My study is a collaboration with the Iñupiaq community on the Arctic Slope of Alaska. In this study,we reveal how Iñupiat reinforce their cultural relationship with the bowhead whale—the culturally salient creature that have been sustaining Iñupiaq physical and mental well-being for at least 1,000 years—to better cope with the socio-environmental challenges imposed by climate change. It is a process of adaptation and building resilience to survive an unpredictable future, and I believe that learning from Iñupiaq cultural adaptation can shed light on future dislocations of human identity even outside the Arctic, as well as outside of indigenous communities.


Barrow Alaska

Q: What are the practical, day to day implications of your study?
A: Our study reveals the importance of cultural identity, sense of community, and rootedness to a place in a non-Western society where the residents experience the impact of climate change nearly twice the rate as the rest of the world. These elements altogether make the community resilient, and enables the survival of the people and their culture. It is my hope that the voices from the Arctic are heard elsewhere in the world, and that those involved in explorations of human-environmental relations take note of the expressive and emotional dimensions of global climate change.

Q: How does your study relate to other work on the subject?
A:Resilience is one of the key concepts discussed in this paper. Many studies exploring resilience in sociology and anthropology have confirmed strong correlations between positive engagement with indigenous culture and indigenous well-being. Resilience consists of the processes by which people overcome life challenges to achieve a sense of well-being, and is often deeply rooted in a sense of place. The connection between these processes is clear. Some studies of history and memory emphasize connections between historical understanding and cultural identity. However, few studies have explicitly revealed how cultural identity and its development play into indigenous social well-being and resilience. To bridge this gap, our study explains how a strong and positive synthesis of their culture, history, and also the outside world sustains the society when the community responds to social and environmental hardships, especially in the time of climate change.

Q: What are two or three interesting findings that come from your study?
A: Among Iñupiat, I believe almost all interesting findings boil down to various dimensions of the human-whale relationship. In particular, I found the manifestations of this integrity intriguing when they were reflected in traditional and contemporary expressive culture of the people, such as storytelling, music performance, and political activism. Altogether, these expressive dimensions of the people’s lives contribute to the making and re-making of Iñupiaq society in the face of global climate change.


Drumming at Nalukataq

Q: How does your research help us think about Geography?
A: The interdisciplinary nature of Geography intrigued me when I first immersed myself in the discipline for the first time as a graduate student. Yet, in my own department, I occasionally couldn’t help but to feel tensions within the discipline, especially among the clusters such as natural sciences, social sciences, and the humanities. Our collaborative work was framed by humanistic geography, which is also known as geographical humility and environmental humility, or the study of place, heart, and soul. It started out as a revision of scientific approaches, which tended to separate nature from culture, art from science, mind from body, and humans from their habitat. Humanistic geography is an active and constructive approach that offers research possibilities by reconciling the humanities and social sciences. I am pleased that this paper is the fruit of this humanistic approach I pursued as a collaborative effort with the community members of Barrow and Point Hope.
To discuss the impact of climate change, social scientists now recognize the importance of the humanism, because it links environment with a sense of cultural well-being. However, although social science research pays attention to climate change’s correlation with cultural transformation, as well as native views of environmental change, few social scientists have touched on indigenous cultural responses to changing environments, nor elaborated on the emotional qualities of social life in transition. The methods based on humanistic geography helped me open the doors of the local community during fieldwork that would have otherwise stayed closed: during my time in Barrow and Point Hope I was encouraged to learn about and participate in the local processes of building resilience. Through Iñupiaq eyes and voices I learned about coping with climate change.

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