Geoff's Notes

Fri, 04 Feb 2005

This morning we went to the Iñupiat (that word is spelled variously ending in "q" or "t" with no logic that I have been able to discern) Heritage Center for the Grand Opening of their People of Whaling exhibit. This is something that's been in the planning for years, and a great matter of pride for people of the North Slope. It has become clear to me that this, and experiencing Kivgiq, are why the ECHO partners from Barrow wanted us here now, and for me, what I heard this morning was very important. This is an indigenous culture that could easily have disappeared as so many have, but for the fierce pride these people have in their way of life. They have certainly been greatly affected by the incursions of outsiders, starting with Russian fur traders and on through Christian missionaries and commercial whalers, and while they have thoroughly embraced Christianity, they have held on to their language along with their central culture defining tradition of whaling.

This new exhibit has been partnered by the University of Alaska Museum of the North in Fairbanks, and that museum's Director, Aldona Jonaitis, had some interesting words to say about the erroneous role museums have most often played regarding native cultures, taking their "artifacts" and interpreting them with native input. This exhibit, she said, used "community curation" and has been driven by what people here said they wanted to say about their culture.

Two items of particular interest to me were fishing lines and nets made of thin enough strips of baleen to knot together, and a box drum, or Kalukaq, said to replicate the heartbeat of the bald eagle, who in tradition taught the Iñpiat to sing and dance. The whole exhibit is in one fairly large room. divided by various standing panels, not large , but packed with old and new gear related to the indigenous whaling here, and tells with power that part of this proud peoples story. Let me end with the words State Representative Reggie Joule whose son has grown up to be a whaler. Though he himself never whaled, when his son called from Point Hope after his first hunt and kill, Reggie was able to describe every moment ("..and as you paddled out, were your arms on fire?" "Yes." "And when you saw the blow of the whale, did the leaden tired feeling leave your arms?" "Yes.") as he had heard them from older generations. He concluded his speech with this:

It is said that we dance in the shadow of our elders. Let that be in the shadow of the dawn and not the shadow of evening.

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