Eroding Edges Alaska Whale Bones Graveyard at Point Hope

photo by: KNBA/Frontier of Change

October 26, 2016

The Disappearing Tradition of Whale Hunting in Point Hope, Alaska

The traditional Iñupiaq word for the Alaskan Arctic village of Point Hope is “Tikigaq,” which means “pointer finger.” The village is so named because it lies on a spit of land that protrudes, digit-like, into the Chuchki Sea. This geography is also why Point Hope/Tikigaq is one the oldest continuously inhabited places in North America—the protrusion of the village into the sea has meant that villagers don’t need to travel far to hunt whales and other marine mammals.

Some estimate that people have been living and hunting in Point Hope for nearly 5,000 years—and it’s a tradition that continues to this day.

For most of 2016, the project Frontier of Change worked to bring stories about climate change from rural Alaska to urban ears. While most Alaskans live in cities, this huge state (twice as big as Texas, 12 times the size of New York) is overwhelmingly rural. And most urban Alaskans don’t have the opportunity or need to travel to “The Bush.”

Our project worked to bridge the divide between these two worlds. Our team comprised independent producers Josie Holtzman and Isaac Kestenbaum, along with essentially the entire staff of the Anchorage radio station KNBA, including news director Joaqlin Estus, operations manager Frank Chythlook, and producer Joel de Jesus—who grew up in Point Hope, but hadn’t been back in nearly 15 years.

One day in May, Joel saw on Facebook that his friends and family (including his uncle) in Point Hope were catching whales. We all realized that this would be the perfect opportunity to tell the story of the Point Hope whaling feast, or Qagruq, which is a three-day celebration of a successful whale hunt. So, after having not been back to his hometown since the sixth grade, Joel returned for nearly a week in June.

There is a certain urgency to document Point Hope, as climate change is having a profound impact on life there—especially to the tradition of hunting whales. Nearly everything in Point Hope seems tied to whaling, from the whale bones that fence in the village’s graveyard to the name of the school sports team: The Harpooners. Yet melting permafrost is causing traditional underground ice cellars to collapse, and a lack of necessary sea ice is making it harder to hunt whales.

Joel produced a 10-minute film about Point Hope, which screened at the Anchorage Museum and was followed by a panel discussion with Joel, Isaac, Joaqlin, and former mayor of Point Hope Steve Oomittuk.

This story was created by the project Frontier of Change, a production of KNBA and Finding America, a national initiative produced by AIR, the Association of Independents in Radio, Incorporated, and with financial support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Wyncote Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts.

By: Josie Holtzman and Isaac Kestenbaum

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