Kiavallakkikput agviq (into the whaling cycle): Cetaceousness and climate change among the Iñupiat of Arctic Alaska

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Abstract

The Iñupiat of Arctic Alaska identify themselves as the "People of the Whales." The flesh of the bowhead whale (Balaena mysticetus) is high in vitamins and other components that traditionally sustained human physiology in a climate that is unsuitable for agriculture. Not surprisingly, the People of the Whales depend on the bowhead for sustenance and cultural meaning. The bowhead remains central to Iñupiat life and culture through the hunting process, the communal distribution of meat and other body parts, and associated ceremonials and other events to sustain cultural well-being, which I call the Iñupiat whaling cycle. For this study, I coined the term cetaceousness as a hybrid of cetaceous and consciousness, which links human awareness with cetaceans or whales. I use this term to refer to human-whale interactions at all levels. Particularly in Alaska, cetaceousness is a social and emotional process for the Iñupiat to communicate with the whales. Based on my ethnographic fieldwork in Barrow and Point Hope, Alaska, from 2004 through 2007, this study reveals how collective uncertainty about the environment is expressed and managed in Iñupiat practices and, by extension, how deeply global warming penetrates the cultural core of their society. To do so, I illustrate different aspects of Iñupiat-bowhead whale relationships or the ways people make whales a central feature of their lives. By influencing the bowhead harvest and the Iñupiat homeland, climate change increases environmental uncertainties that both threaten and intensify human emotions tied to identity. This emotional intensity is revealed in the prevalence of traditional and newly invented whalerelated events and performances, the number of people involved, the frequency of their involvement, and the verve or feelings with which they participate. Thus, this study investigates how collective uncertainty about the future of the environment would be expressed and managed in Iñupiat practices and, by extension, how deeply climate change penetrates the cultural core of their society. My findings demonstrate how the Iñupiat retain and strengthen their cultural identity to survive unexpected difficulties with an unpredictable environment by reinforcing their relationship with the whales

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1003-1012
Number of pages10
JournalAnnals of the Association of American Geographers
Volume100
Issue number4
DOIs
StatePublished - 2010
Externally publishedYes

Keywords

  • Adaptation
  • Arctic Alaska
  • Bowhead whale (Balaena mysticetus)
  • Climate change
  • Cultural identity
  • Global warming
  • Humanistic geography
  • Iñupiat

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Earth-Surface Processes

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