To Inuit, Sea Ice Means “Freedom”

May 13, 2010


At the edge of the sea ice, a Barrow resident awaits the return of a seal-skin whaling boat. Photo: Faustine Mercer

Here’s a really interesting story on Shari Gearheard’s NSF-funded people and sea-ice study. Gearheard, a glaciologist from U Colorado’s National Snow and Ice Data Center, combined scientific sea-ice studies with the traditional knowledge of Inuit collaboraters who’ve spent their lives on or near the ice.  The aim: to gain a better understanding of how sea ice is changing in the Arctic–and how community lifeways around the Arctic may be changing in response.  

Gearheard and her collaborators speak extensively in the piece, and what they have to say about the changes they’ve seen in sea-ice conditions is compelling.   

“‘I’m a scientist so when I look at sea ice I see what its properties are. How dense it is. But I remember sitting with the hunters when we were all in Qaanaaq. They looked at the sea ice and the first thing they said they saw was ‘freedom’.  

‘(Sea ice) meant they could hunt for food. It meant they could travel to see relatives on the other side of the water, that they hadn’t seen all year.  

‘That was a very powerful thing for me as a person, not just as a scientist.'”–Shari Gearheard  

* * *

“‘When I was a boy, the ice used to hover around Barrow all year,’ 51-year-old Leavitt said. ‘Now when the ice takes off it doesn’t want to come back. So our hunting is very limited.'”–Joe Leavitt, Barrow resident and whaling captain  

* * *

“‘We used to live as nomads in those days,” Sanguya continued. “After Christmas, when there was enough snow, we’d go out on the sea ice and make igloos.  

‘In those days I didn’t have any math or measurements … or anything like that. But I remember looking down through seal breathing holes and the ice was so thick, they looked like they were tapering away.  

‘Today you don’t see that very much. You’ll probably see 4 feet or 5 feet (down) and that’s it.'”–Joelie Sanguya, Elder and hunter, Clyde River, Nunavut

Hunters in Qaanaaq, Greenland traditionally travel over the sea ice on dog-powered sledges like these. Photo: Hans Jensen


A Sense of Place

February 22, 2010

Erosion and flooding in Shishmaref threatens both infrastructure and lives. Photo: Tony Weyiouanna

For centuries, peoples of the circumpolar North lived in semi-nomadic communities, moving from place to place as food availability shifted with the changing seasons.  People relied on their surrounding environment for food and other materials through hunting, fishing, and gathering, their fortunes closely tied to the seasonal changes in the seemingly barren landscape around them. It was not often an easy life, but it was one deep-rooted in ecological knowledge and traditional life ways. 

Community-based whale hunt in the Chukchi Sea (off Chukotka, Russian Federation). Photo: Tobias Holzlehner

About a hundred years ago, many of these semi-nomadic communities began to be pressured into settling in permanent locations under state-induced policies that sought to stabilize the economy and mainstream the native population. The United States, Canada, Greenland, and, to a lesser extent, Finland and Scandinavia, attempted to assimilate native communities into the mainstream population by forcing an immobile lifestyle in which native families were required to send their children to state-run schools. Established communities were sometimes relocated again at the whim of far-off policy changes.

Between the 1950s and 1970s, the Soviet Union relocated hundreds of small indigenous Siberian communities in order to make the administration of these places more convenient, reasoning that it would be easier to control the birth rate if peoples’ whereabouts were known, particularly if they had come to rely upon government rations and services.

What were the impacts of these government-sponsored relocations?

“Moved by the State: Perspectives on Relocation and Resettlement in the Circumpolar North” (MOVE) is an international project within the BOREAS scheme of the European Science Foundation.  Peter Schweitzer, a professor of anthropology at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks (UAF), leads the overall MOVE project as well as the U.S. portion funded by NSF and housed at UAF. He and his team of post-docs and graduate students are working to answer the question raised above. They study the physical, psychological, and economic consequences of state-induced relocation in 20th century Chukotka, Russia, and Alaska.

Contemporary hunting base next to the former settlement of Nuniamo (Chukotka, Russian Federation), which was forcibly closed in the 1970s. Photo: Tobias Holzlehner

But they are not just looking back. By documenting experiences of indigenous peoples in Alaska and Russia, the MOVE team hopes to assist coastal communities in Alaska and elsewhere to cope with pending relocations resulting from climate change.

Post-doctoral research fellow Tobias Holzlehner, who has worked in Chukotka since the 1990s, is documenting historical relocations there by collecting sometimes heartbreaking narratives and by travelling to and studying abandoned settlements, an easier feat following the disbanding of the Soviet Union. Schweitzer attended the Beringia Days conference in Andyr last September. While there, he focused on reestablishing relationships with indigenous elders and government officials, who are cautious but helpful because they realize that his project has relevance to their lives.

Schweitzer says recording stories of historical relocations while keeping current with Chukotkan representatives are goals “imperative to understanding the bigger picture. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the government abandoned the region. Suddenly, there was no one providing rations, so many people were on the brink of starvation as they tried to eek out a subsistence lifestyle.” What we are seeing now is a re-appropriation of space. People are starting to reoccupy old settlements since the state is no longer creating new opportunities and they must fend for themselves again.”

Coastal Alaskan communities have a long tradition of being adaptable to changing environmental conditions–a good thing given the state of the coastline. The State of Alaska currently monitors more than 30 communities identified as potential candidates for relocation. Neither the state nor these communities want the move (an important contrast to Chukotka), but relocation may become necessary for many as beach erosion and thawing permafrost intensify with climate warming. The problem, says Schweitzer, is that unlike a hundred years ago, native Alaskans are now stuck in an “infrastructure trap” with their reliance on many modern conveniences as well as a strong sense of place.

Ph.D. student Elizabeth Marino works in the community of Shishmaref, one of several Alaskan villages the MOVE project works with; Shishmaref clings tenuously to the northern coast of the Beringia Land Bridge National Preserve. On a sand and permafrost barrier island three-miles long and only about a thousand feet wide at its narrowest point, Shishmaref is highly susceptible to beach-front erosion. Although people made camps on the island 4,000 years ago, no permanent settlements existed until the turn of the century with the opening of a post office in 1901.

Sarichef Island, where the village of Shishmaref sits, is three miles long and only half a mile wide. Photo: Elizabeth Marino

Since 1969, more than 200 feet of sand has eroded from the north shore–large storms in the Chukchi Sea create dangerous conditions for people and property alike. As a proactive measure, the city government along with the Indian Reorganization Act Council and the Shishmaref Native Corporation Board formed the Shishmaref Erosion and Relocation Coalition in an effort to take action. In July, 2002, Shishmaref residents voted to relocate their community of 600 people to the mainland across the Shishmaref Inlet. The MOVE team hopes that understanding this contemporary relocation in a longer historical context will give light to how vulnerability is constructed, and how to decrease these vulnerabilities in the future.–Marcy Davis

For more information, please contact Peter Schweitzer:

Understanding Arctic Evolution

February 9, 2010

Shelby Anderson, University of Washington Ph.D. candidate in archaeology, seeks to understand why Arctic cultures evolved into complex societies. Photo: Adam Freeburg

In the past 2,000 years, the people living in the Arctic evolved from simple hunting and gathering traditions to complex, hierarchical societies. They organized to hunt whales, developed villages with complicated social structures, made alliances with other groups and had times of peace and war. And they did this living in one of the world’s most inhospitable environments. Archaeologists have documented those societal changes, but none have yet answered the question: Why?  

Or, in other words, what prompted that social evolution? 

A Dissertation Project 

University of Washington Ph.D. candidate in archaeology Shelby Anderson hopes to develop a good answer. For about three years, Anderson has been studying the evolution of arctic cultures into complex social, economic, and political organizations using an approach that hasn’t yet been applied in the far north. She’s studying pottery

“We have historic records about how people were living in the Arctic in the 18th century, and they had amazing technology, artwork and impressive social networks and structures,” said Anderson. ” We have a faint record, through both archaeology and oral histories, of what life was like long before that, but we don’t really know why the rapid social and technological changes evident in the archaeological record over the last 2,000 or so years took place. I want to know how and why that happened.”  

Walking in their footsteps: field camp at Krusenstern, AK. Photo: Shelby Anderson

Existing records and data show that the populations in the region peaked roughly 1,000 years ago. Populations concentrated along the coast, and then, about 500 years ago, people began dispersing. Less is known about where they went and how their cultures evolved, Anderson says.

Looking For Cultural Evolution Clues: Pottery Lessons

Pottery fragments like these will help Anderson better understand Arctic cultures. Photo: Shelby Anderson

 Like many archaeologists who have teased out complex mysteries about native tribes in America’s southwestern region, Anderson is looking to pottery to provide clues and evidence of growing cultural sophistication. By analyzing pottery shards and “sourcing” them to specific regions, she aims to understand when trade between certain groups started, to trace the trade routes, and to understand which groups controlled access to the land that held the clay.

Scattered pieces of excavated pottery provide important clues to Anderson's research. Photo: Shelby Anderson

“I’m hoping to use pottery as a proxy for understanding if and how groups controlled access to raw material resources, which is a hallmark of more complex social and political structures, and also to understand the movement or distribution of pots and pottery styles, which is evidence of trade, mobility and group interactions.” 

Specifically, Anderson is studying archived and newly acquired pottery collections from Alaska’s Cape Krusenstern, the northern and central Seward Peninsula, including Cape Espenberg, the shores of Kotzebue Sound, and the Noatak and Kobuk River valleys. Working with the University of Missouri’s Archaeometry Laboratory, she is analyzing the chemical composition of pottery shards to hone in on where in the region the clay that made them came from. She will also analyze the minerals used to temper the pots to source these materials. 

Looking at Geography 

A major component of Anderson’s research involves better understanding settlement patterns. Currently, more data exists on coastal populations. But as the people moved inland, the record of their settlements is sparse. Anderson will conduct precision mapping and dating of archaeological features around this region, using these data to better understand regional settlement and population change. 

Painting the Big Picture  

Anderson’s research—now in its final year of fieldwork—will help paint a better picture of the complex, multi-faceted societies that evolved on both sides of the Bering Strait, she said. In the past 2,000 years, the different groups in the region formed strong regional identities that led to marked differences in styles and subsistence and eventually led to the expansion of Thule whale hunters eastward across the Canadian Arctic. 

A Different Perspective on Archaeology 

The relationships, interaction, and evolution of these ethnic groups remain among the most unresolved issues in the archaeology of the region, said Anderson. Often, archaeology focuses on what a population does and looks at cultural products, she said. By contrast, her research looks at why the populations evolved as they did. 

“It’s always fascinating to have long-term data on human behavior,” said Anderson. “My research will be relevant to others studying in the Arctic, as I try to answer bigger anthropological questions about why social change took place.” 

Anderson’s research is funded by the National Science Foundation and conducted in partnership with the National Park Service. 

— Rachel Walker

Building Beringian Bridges

December 8, 2009

The light blue areas represent the contemporary continents of Eurasia (left) and N. America. The tan area represents Beringia, the land mass revealed when sea levels dropped during the last ice age. Scientists think Beringia allowed plants and animals to migrate from Asia into N. America. Image by National Park Service.

During the last North American ice age, the continents of Eurasia and North America were united by a land bridge called Beringia. Only about 1000 miles from north to south, the now submerged land bridge allowed plants, animals, and humans to migrate between Siberia and Alaska. Many believe that the first humans to populate North America travelled this path from Asia around 15,000 years ago or so.  

In the spirit of this common Eurasian heritage, the annual Beringia Days International Conference unites Russian and American government and non-governmental organization officials, Native leaders, scientists, students, tourism developers, members of the public and native peoples from Alaska and Russia’s Chukotka province. During the three-day event, participants summarize progress on projects funded by the National Park Service’s (NPS) Shared Beringian Heritage Program and discuss topics and concerns common to the Beringia region.  

This year, about 30 Americans were invited to attend the program in Chukotka, including NPS regional head Sue Masica and NSF-funded scientists Peter Schweitzer, Andrew Kliskey and Sveta Yamin-Pasternak, all of U Alaska Fairbanks; and Nikolay Shiklomanov (George Washington U) and Fritz Nelson (U of Delaware). Our own Tom Quinn (who manages PFS support for researchers working in Russia) also attended the conference.  

The delegation assembled in Nome, Alaska, and flew over to Anadyr, Chukotka, one of Russia’s most isolated and remote regions. Given the shroud of mystery that often veils this region to outsiders, the next few days were both celebratory and highly enlightening, Tom reported.  

“It was fascinating to explore how the cultures of Beringia are alike and also how they are strikingly different,” Tom said. “For example, Sveta, an ethnologist who studies the traditions surrounding the history, harvest and consumption of wild mushrooms among the various ethnic groups in the region, talked about how mushrooms are celebrated on the Alaskan side of the Bering Strait, but hated and feared as ‘devils ears’ on the Chukotkan side.  

“I was able to talk with Chukotkan support providers and officials with whom I interact via email or telephone, but whom I rarely am able to meet in person when trying to secure permissions and support for NSF researchers who want to work in the region. It was really helpful to talk with them and gain a better sense of some of their constraints.”    

The conference coincided with Festival Ergav, Chukotkan for “Let’s Have Fun.” Conference attendees were treated to traditional dances and music.

Two days of presentations on research and planning for future projects were followed by a day of cultural demonstrations by native peoples from the Chukotka region. These included song and dance performances. “The demonstrations were very traditional and you could feel the reverence for past generations,” Tom said.

Gifts From The Ancestors

November 18, 2009

Okvik human head carved from Walrus ivory, Princeton University Art Museum; The Lloyd E. Cotsen, Class of 1950, Eskimo Bone and Ivory Carving Collection. Photo: Bruce M. White

For the first time since the late 1980s, a museum exhibition of ivory artifacts and other remnants from the ancient cultures of the Bering Strait is on display at the Princeton Art Museum, in Princeton, New Jersey. “Gifts from The Ancestors” opened Oct. 3 at the University’s art museum with an impressive collection of archaeological art collected over the past millennia from the Bering Strait Region. These objects served as tools to sustain the subsistence hunting lifestyle of the native people, and the exhibition aims to celebrate the artistry and ingenuity of the culture, said Bryan Just, curator of the exhibition.

“The exhibition brings an awareness of the region and its history,” said Just. “It also provided an opportunity to bring a number of Alaska natives to Princeton and involve them in a whole series of opening weekends. They had the chance to see how we’re presenting their ancestry.”

The majority of the objects are carved from walrus ivory and were originally unearthed from archaeological sites along the “Old Bering Sea,” which includes areas of the Chukchi Peninsula in Russia, northwest Alaska, and St. Lawrence Island. With funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Just and guest curators William Fitzhugh, National Museum of Natural History, and Julie Hollowell, cultural anthropologist, arranged for loans from museums and private collections.

Harpoon socket piece carved as a predator, Walrus ivory, Princeton University Art Museum Bequest of John B. Elliott, Class of 1951. Photo: Bruce M. White

The artifacts date from roughly 100 A.D. to 1600 and most are ornately carved with intricate designs endowed with various meanings. At once beautiful and utilitarian, the tools that allowed the natives to hunt whales from kayaks also evoked the spirits and testified to the communities’ faith, said Just.

“Lacking a written tradition around the time of the material it is difficult to know with any certainty if it was considered art,” said Just. “Since there is such beautiful carving on utilitarian objects, it suggests that the division between function and form is not necessarily relevant for this material.”

Much of the engraving on each object was believed to imbue it with the power of a spirit. Oral tradition suggests that this effort improved the efficacy of, say, a harpoon. Walking through the exhibit evokes the imagination, drawing the viewer in close to the objects, many of which measure only several inches tall. Many have specific and unique additions—little hooks and swivels that seem quite practical and functional. And many are polymorphic or polyiconic, said Just, meaning that when observed from different perspectives, an object can take on many forms.

“That layering of imagery is a fascinating thing and shows these objects are tactile works of art,” he said. “They are meant to be handled.”

Punuk or Thule Comb, Walrus Ivory, Princeton University Art Museum; The Lloyd E. Cotsen, Class of 1950, Eskimo Bone and Ivory Carving Collection. Photo: Bruce M. White

Unfortunately, the museum cannot allow visitors to touch the ancient artifacts, so the curators attempted to present them in a number of different orientations.

Their success is evident in the attention and number of visitors the exhibition has received. Courses at the university are incorporating it into classes, and local school children are taking field trips to the museum. The New York Times has written about the exhibition, as have other media outlets.

The exhibit addresses the issue of repatriation, and the Web site offers a detailed explanation of U.S. legislation that provides special protections for Native American sites. For example, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), passed by the federal government in 1990, provides a process for museums and Federal agencies to return certain Native American cultural items — human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, or objects of cultural patrimony — to lineal descendants, culturally affiliated Indian tribes, Alaska native clans or villages, and Native Hawaiian organizations.

And while art seems to belong to the humanities, there is overlap with scientific research. Polar Field Services supports several National Science Foundation-funded studies that make the connection (see this recent post on Aaron Fox’s music repatriation effort, for example). Connections between art and science—particularly at this moment in time of globalization and climate change—can be found in increased awareness of northern cultures, said Just.

“This art incorporates a sensitivity to beauty, and a deep and profound respect of the reciprocal nature of a people’s place in an ecosystem,” he said.

Twenty Years After The Oil Spill

November 13, 2009
Impacts of The Exxon Valdez Tanker and The Largest Oil Spill In History

Oil spills from the Exxon Valdez on the morning of March 24, 1989, after the vessel ran aground on Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound. Photo: Erik Hill/Anchorage Daily News

Studying the Effects of a Technical Disaster

 When Dr. Duane Gill (Oklahoma State University) traveled to Cordova, Alaska, in 1989 following the catastrophic incident of the tanker vessel Exxon Valdez running aground on Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound (PWS) and spilling 11 million gallons of crude oil, he could not have anticipated he’d stumbled upon his life’s work. A professor of sociology, Gill spent the next two decades documenting sociological impacts of the spill on the lives of Cordova residents. From their decimated fishery to an extended legal battle over remuneration that rose to the Supreme Court, he, Dr. Steve Picou and a research team including Maurie Cohen, Liesel Ritchie, and Kati Arata dove into the spill’s aftermath in what he calls a “20-year odyssey” studying the impacts of the largest oil spill in history and its devastating impacts.

2008:  Supreme Court Mandates A (Much Reduced) Punitive Damage of $500 million

In what may be his final assessment of the community, Gill is heading north 20 years after the spill with funding from the National Science Foundation for a research project to document how a 2008 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court ordering Exxon to pay $500 million in punitive damages affects the community. Exxon was originally ordered to pay $5 billion in punitive damages to 33,000 plaintiffs in a 1994 jury trial, but the Court implemented a one-to-one ratio of punitive damages to actual damages reducing the award to one-tenth of the original amount. Even with an additional $500 million in interest that Exxon has been ordered to pay, the total award does not cover economic, social and cultural losses experienced by many survivors of this disaster.

The spill eviscerated much of the wildlife and decimated fisheries. This devastated the local economy, which was based on natural resources. Photo: Wikipedia

In their latest project, Gill, Picou, and Ritchie will study impacts of the litigation decision and subsequent disbursement of money on individuals, groups and the Cordova community. Gill and Ritchie will travel to Alaska in mid-November to continue a panel study of commercial fishermen and Alaska Natives that began in 2001. A panel study collects data from the same person at different points in time; Gill hopes to survey as many of the original participants as he can. They will return to Cordova over the next two years to conduct intensive interviews as a continuation of a qualitative panel study initiated by Ritchie in 2002. Finally, Picou will oversee a telephone survey of the Cordova community during the last year of the three-year project. Gill expects to wrap up the study in 2012.

Community Reaction

 “Last year, when the ruling came out, people were shocked, devastated, and angered,” said Gill. “I heard a lot of cussing after the decision was announced. There was a sense of betrayal and loss of faith in the justice system.”

One Cordova resident confided to Gill that he “cannot say the pledge of allegiance anymore because the last line says, ‘justice for all,’ and that’s a sham.”

Gill said the bitter disappointment he witnessed last year, immediately after the ruling was announced, was emotionally tough. Over the decades he has earned the trust and respect of those he studies. And the academic value of his research allows him and his colleagues to maintain professionalism while having empathy for their subjects.

“Do I get emotionally involved?” he asked. “Of course. I have a heart. We maintain professionalism in the field and we don’t compromise that, but at the same time we’re human and there is empathy for the people and community.”

Ongoing Research on the Impacts of the Oil Spill: Ecological Damage, Psychological Distress


Crews clean up the oil spill on a beach following the accident with the Exxon Valdez tanker. Photo: Wikipedia

Since the spill, which occurred March 24, 1989, Gill and the research team have documented impacts of the environmental damage to the community. The research team examined how Cordova and groups like commercial fishermen and Alaska Natives are tied to renewable resources such as fish and how damages to these resources disrupted the local economy, as well as cultural activities and social networks. Much of the social disruption and psychological stress observed by the research team in the first few years after the spill were related to damaged resources that were slow to recover—20 years after the spill, only nine of 22 species damaged by the spill have completely recovered. In the mid-1990s, as Exxon appealed court rulings on punitive damages, Gill observed lingering disruption and psychological stress within the community.

“There was chronic distress because things weren’t resolved,” said Gill. “A lot of the stress was not only due to natural resource damages, but also to the unresolved litigation.”

Prolonged litigation is stressful, he said. Residents accustomed to a subsistence- and renewable resource-based lifestyle had to adjust to dealing with attorneys, a complex legal system, and a giant corporation with seemingly unlimited resources.

“There has been prolonged uncertainty as well as a sense that this case should have been resolved,” he said. “In addition, these people suffered a lot of damage, especially with the collapse of the herring fishery. The actual damage award was calculated in 1994 and does not cover the losses these people have continued to experience.”

Mental Health Impacts

 In the mid-1990s, the community invited Gill and his colleague Steve Picou to devise a mental health program focused on coping with technological disasters. Recognizing that a disaster like this oil spill had implications that reached far beyond the ordinary disruptions to services and jobs, the two social scientists aimed to address the less tangible impacts of the disaster. For instance, they noted “disruption of family structure and unity, domestic violence, depression, alcoholism, drug abuse, and psychological impairment.” At the community’s request, they developed a guidebook on how to cope with technological disasters.

“What began as an academic study on community impacts of a technical disaster evolved into a practical application to help (the guidebook), and later to a specific focus on litigation impacts in 2000,” said Gill. “The community expected a decision and waited for years. Instead of a decision, the case just got passed back and forth between the courts.”

Settlement Expectations

Initially, Gill and his colleagues expected the punitive damage award would have an overwhelming impact on the community. When residents were expecting payouts of billions of dollars, the research team anticipated an economic boom that would affect at least 40 percent of the households in the community and lead to a “money spill.”

“A lot of the fishermen who weren’t able to fish worked for Exxon in 1989, and some became known as ‘spillionaires,'” said Gill. Some felt those who worked for Exxon had sold out, and that they were enriching themselves as others suffered. There was concern that a similar scenario would be repeated with the punitive damage award disbursement. With the drastic reduction in punitive damages, the impacts are hypothesized to be different than previously expected.

Reluctant Resignation


Twenty years after the spill, the obvious damage has been cleaned up, but mistrust of the government and corporations remains and will likely linger, says Gill. Photo: Erik Hill/Anchorage Daily News

Now, with last year’s Supreme Court decision, Gill said this current research project may be the last. Twenty years after 11 million gallons of oil spilled into Prince William Sound, there may finally be closure. Gill said he expects to find evidence of “reluctant resignation.”

“The attorneys for the community see the Supreme Court decision as a loss,” he said. “I expect the stress and the disruption that we have measured over the past several years will begin to decline. I think the community will begin to arrive at some semblance of normalcy. They can begin to put this behind them.”

Granted, the Exxon Valdez oil spill will not completely be resolved until the ecosystem recovers, but from a sociological perspective, Gill anticipates the disruption and stress to dissipate. In its place, though, feelings of betrayal and distrust will likely linger.

“I think we will find a persistent loss and lack of trust in basic social institutions such as the court system, loss of trust in state and federal government, lack of trust in major corporations,” he said. “That equates into a loss of social capital that is based upon issues and networks of trust and reciprocity. This disaster has changed their worldview. Many people in Cordova believe they cannot depend upon things they used to depend upon.”

“Most of the people we have talked to believe the ecosystem will not recover in their lifetime,” Gill said. “For many, the only way the disaster will end is when they die.”

A Special Homecoming

October 19, 2009
Sitting with researcher Aaron Fox, Inupiat elder Martha Aiken peruses a photo from 1946 and recognizes her husband, Robert, at a young age. Photo: Chie Sakakibara

Sitting with researcher Aaron Fox, Iñupiat elder Martha Aiken peruses a photo from 1946 and recognizes her husband, Robert, at a young age. Photo: Chie Sakakibara

When Iñupiat elder Martha Aiken first laid eyes on the digital rendition of the aged photograph, she squinted her eyes and examined the teenager in the image. From her kitchen table in Barrow, AK., with the assist of a magnifying glass, the proud native woman, then 81 years old, nodded her head in confirmation. “That’s my Robert,” she declared as her eyes welled with tears.

"Her Robert," Robert Aiken, circa 1944. Photo: The Boulton Collection

Her Robert. Robert Aiken, left, circa 1946. Photo: The Boulton Collection

The Robert under the looking glass was the man who became her husband. Preserved in a photograph taken in 1946, his youthful smile and good looks mesmerized their observer, and Aiken momentarily lost herself in remembrance.

That was 2008, several months after researchers Dr. Aaron Fox (Music, Columbia University) and Dr. Chie Sakakibara (postdoctoral research fellow, The Earth Institute, Columbia University) first traveled to Barrow, Alaska, to conduct fieldwork for their NSF-supported project: “Community-Partnered Repatriation of Iñupiat Music.” They arrived bearing roughly 130 photographs and about 120 recorded songs collected more than six decades ago by Laura Boulton, an American ethnomusicologist.

nupiaq elder Fannie Akpik and Inupiaq educator Jana Hacharek reading through Laura Boulton's account (Music Hunter) on Barrow, Alaska. Photo: Chie Sakakibara

Iñupiaq elder Fannie Akpik and Iñupiaq educator Jana Hacharek reading through Laura Boulton's account (Music Hunter) of Barrow, Alaska. Photo: Chie Sakakibara

They sought entry into the lives of the tribal elders. Wanting to respectfully return the music and the images to their original owners, the two academics (Fox is an anthropologist of music and Sakakibara is a geographer) often found themselves in the kitchens and sitting rooms of the likes of Aiken, painstakingly reviewing each image, provoking memories, and collecting a rich and deep oral history.

An alternate copy of the photo reproduced in Laura Boulton’s 1968 book The Music Hunter (Doubleday).  Pictured, from left to right, are Rodger Ahalik, Otis Ahkivgak, Willie Sielak, Guy Okakok, and Alfred Koonaloak. Photo: Smithsonian/Folkways Records FW00044, 1955)

An alternate copy of the photo reproduced in Laura Boulton’s 1968 book The Music Hunter (Doubleday). Pictured, from left to right, are Rodger Ahalik, Otis Ahkivgak, Willie Sielak, Guy Okakok, and Alfred Koonaloak. Photo: Smithsonian/Folkways Records FW00044, 1955)

“Many of the elders we interview were young when the recordings were made and have knowledge of these art and verbal traditions,” said Fox. “When they hear the recordings of their ancestors or see the pictures, it stimulates their memory in a really powerful way.”

Fox and Sakakibara have delved into the controversial world of repatriation with the goal of creating a new model that promotes collaboration between institutional archives and Native communities. By working closely with members of the Iñupiat community to describe, interpret, translate, and identify the historical features of Boulton’s material, they aim to gain insights into the geographical, historical and ethnomusicological problems and questions that extend beyond the materials. By treating the archives as a basis for building relationships and developing dialogues with members of the native communities, they hope to develop a ubiquitous model to assist in other repatriation projects.

“Photographs, like music recordings, are duplicable, so the underlying object is replicable and the repatriation is straightforward,” said Fox. “But it’s important the rights to the archives be restored to the community, and that we help the tribe develop consensus of how to maintain jurisdiction.”

The disbursement of heritage resources can be political and contentious, but reaching agreement with the Iñupiat has been “remarkably successful,” Fox said. To that end, the material has already begun working its way into the school curriculums and local cultural events. Fox and Sakakibara have presented the recordings to numerous schoolchildren and are working with teachers to develop future uses for these materials in the classroom.

Visiting Ipaalook Elementary School in Barrow to talk to pupils about Laura Boulton and historical recordings. Photo: Chie Sakakibara

Visiting Ipaalook Elementary School in Barrow to talk to pupils about Laura Boulton and historical recordings. Photo: Chie Sakakibara

And a group of young people formed a traditional dance group to learn and perform the songs on the recordings.  This group, called Taġiuġmiut dancers, which means “People of the Sea,” includes Riley Sikvayugak and Vernon Elavgak, two descendants of Joseph Sikvayugak, one of the primary performers on Boulton’s recordings. So far the group has had success, including winning first place at the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics.

Dancers re-enacting the 1946 songs at Nalukataq (Whale Feast), June 2008. Photo: Chie Sakakibara)

Dancers re-enacting the 1946 songs at Nalukataq (Whale Feast), June 2008. Photo: Chie Sakakibara)

“There is no cookbook or single prescription for how to do this kind of thing [repatriation],” Fox said. “You can set goals, but the important thing is to treat this as a relationship not a transaction. It’s a restoration of cultural resources rather than just a return of something.”

The archived music recordings date back to Boulton’s visit in 1946, during which her assistant John Klebe also shot photographs. However, some of the images are clearly not from the season she visited (October, 1946), and Fox said he believes it is likely those photographs were taken by Marvin Peter, a local, respected Iñupiaq photographer of the period.

“We presume he would have given them to Boulton, as that would be a very Iñupiat thing to do,” said Fox.  “We don’t know this for sure. We do know he was among the people she and John Klebe photographed while they were there.”

Fox and Sakakibara will return to Barrow at Thanksgiving to continue their field work, which has NSF funding for two additional years. They also hope to hand over the publication rights to the Iñupiat recordings to the tribe within the next year.