Greetings from Barrow, Alaska at the “top of the world” and the northern-most city in the United States. It’s also the home of the northern-most National Park Service unit – the Inupiat Heritage Center. This unit was the subject of a super question in one of Professor Bob’s quizzes.
I have come to Barrow on a one-day tour from Anchorage, a long and expensive trip. Lenny, my husband, and I are treating Alaska as if it were a foreign country; it’s a long way from our home in Asheville, North Carolina, and who knows if we’ll ever come back again. Barrow, on the Arctic Ocean, 330 miles north of the Arctic Circle, is in the North Slope Borough and home to about 6,000 people. The Inupiat, the native people of Barrow, make up about 75 percent of the population; Inupiat means "real" or "genuine."
Our tour bus consists of a group of seven tourists from Turkey, a couple from Sydney, a couple from Oklahoma and us. Ryan, our tour guide, is a very enthusiastic young man who doesn’t pretend to be an expert on his people. He seems to be constantly learning and is as thrilled as us to spot a snow owl today and as disappointed to not find a polar bear. But it’s OK with me. As I tell visitors in the Smokies, “I can’t promise that you’ll see an elk – this ain’t Disneyworld.”
In Barrow, houses are on stilts because permafrost coats the ground from about 2.5 feet to 350 feet. If you built your house directly on the ground, you’d melt some of the permafrost and the house would shift. Permafrost determines so much of the infrastructure in Barrow – the utilities, sewer lines, telephone system, even how people are buried. Bodies are sent down to Anchorage for embalming, and then brought back to Barrow where they’re buried 15 feet below in the permafrost. The cemeteries just have wooden crosses, not monuments.
The Inupiat culture depends on subsistence whaling – here subsistence means that the rural community traditionally hunted whales and can continue this practice under controlled conditions. The community is allowed to catch 21 whales in the spring and another 21 in the fall.
The Inupiat Heritage Center explains every stage of the whaling ritual. A huge whale suspended from the ceiling greets the visitor. The displays include whaling tools, ivory sculpture, dolls dressed in traditional parkas, and old photographs of the celebrations after a successful whale hunt. A temporary photography exhibit shows the modern whaling process -- from getting ready for the hunt and women cooking for male hunters to getting boats in the water and butchering the whale to celebrating a successful hunt.
Ryan emphasizes that the whales are shared with the whole community – Eskimos and non-Eskimos alike. “Yes, it’s fine to use the word Eskimo,” he quotes from one of the many reference books that he has on his bus.
But the heritage center seems much more casual and homelike than most national park sites. Girls hang around waiting to perform drumming and dancing only to learn that the drummers have gone to a drumming competition somewhere south and will not be able to join them.
Several artists lay out their wares - carvings, jewelry and dolls. They belong to Echospace, a native artist and cultural group. Lenny buys a pendant for his mother and just hands the artist cash – no accounting necessary. Gilford, one of the artists, explains that his grandfather owned a loon headdress that he wore for the Kalukaq ceremony, a special dance performed for the messenger feast. He shows me a picture of his grandfather and the headdress, which he donated to the museum.
Inupiat Heritage Center is an affiliated area to New Bedford Whaling National Historic Park in Massachusetts. In 1848, New Bedford was the whaling capital of the world. The oil barons of the day were the whaleship owners. Whale oil was used for city street lights and as a machine lubricant. Baleen, the bonelike filter in whales’ mouths, was considered the plastic of its time for ladies corsets, parasol ribs, fishing poles and many other products.
So it’s not surprising that whales in the Atlantic were disappearing fast. Whaling captains went further and further out and north until they collided with bowhead whales in the Arctic. New England whalers learned Inupiat whale hunting techniques; some married local women and stayed in Barrow.
The tour shows us the way people in Barrow live today. The tourists from Turkey are surprised and then annoyed to learn that the Inupiat people do not live in igloos but in wooden frame houses. The roads in Barrow, almost all unpaved, are full of pick-up trucks, ATVs, and motor bikes. The residents have cell phones and satellite TV like the rest of us.
People in the lower 48 don’t live in the 19th century. Why should the Inupiat?
At the high school, boys in football uniforms are doing wind sprints. As we approach the field, the coach shoos us away. “We have our first game in a couple of weeks. We don’t have time for visitors.” Yep, we may be on “top of the world,” but we’re still in the United States.