Bringing beluga back to Buckland
When Ernie Barger was young, learning to hunt beluga from the older men in his family, the land was his classroom and their stories his books.
"It's something we looked forward to each year. We prepared for that hunt months ahead of time. Every season, everything falls into place. That's how we learned growing up — not by book, but watching our ancestors, our grandfathers, our fathers, for what it takes. We learned by watching," Barger said. "That's how we are where we are today. We kept the traditional hunt."
Beluga and Buckland have always gone together.
"In the basic sense, every community in rural Alaska has the resource or resources that define who they are, that guide and focus their subsistence activities," said Glenn Seaman. "For Buckland, it's the beluga whale."
In the decades since Barger began to hunt, technology has changed, communities have moved, people have grown older, and the beluga whales the Kanigmiut have relied on for generations have all but disappeared.
"The people started to wonder what was going on out there. We didn't have the foggiest idea what was going on and why [the beluga] weren't coming back. Nobody had the answers," he said.
Watching the whale populations decline year after year, pushing the people toward store-bought food and away from their traditional summering grounds in beluga territory, Barger realized he was watching the way of life he'd grown up with beginning to disappear.
What happens when knowledge becomes history? How will the beluga people adapt to a life without beluga? Where did the beluga go? Will they ever return? Barger said he started asking questions.
Out of those questions and the concerns of a community watching its resource diminish, a grassroots project grew to find out what happened to these whales, what can be done to help them recover, and what to do for the next generation in the meantime.
Back in the day
"Beluga has been around forever, I think, because they've got some archaeological evidence that goes back thousands of years here in Kotzebue Sound over at Cape Krusenstern," said Willie Goodwin, chair of the Alaska Beluga Whale Committee. "It's been a wild source of food for our people every spring. I grew up hunting them, me and my brothers did, anyway, so it's been an important activity both culturally and for our food."
The hunts have been documented, both through oral histories and on paper, going back at least as far as the 1800s. Some stories remember them hundreds of years ago. Others, like those that deal with many of the traditional practices from the region, go back so far they are outside of time.
The Kanigmiut, who live in present-day Buckland though the community has moved locations numerous times over the last several generations, traditionally hunted beluga out at both Elephant Point and Sisiivik at what is now Eschscholtz Bay.
In the early 1900s, hunters used kayaks and hunted communally, driving pods of whales from the deeper water into the shallows where they could be speared and caught.
Based on oral histories, it's known that hunters began incorporating motorboats in the late 1920s or early 1930s. As boating technology has advanced, so has the equipment the hunters have used.
By the 1960s and 1970s, using outboard motors, or kickers, was common in the hunt. However, hunters still followed traditional local rules for catching the beluga.
"It was more than the hunt itself — it was the actual ability to practice and train and involve people of all ages in really charting out their Inupiaq values — not only getting food, it's more than that," said Seaman, who consulted on the beluga study. "It involves hard work, communication, respect for Elders, respect for the resources, all those values can be found in one way or another in what they did with beluga whales in Elephant Point. It was a very important part of their annual cycle. They would go down to Elephant Point and they'd spend almost a month down there and they'd been doing this for hundreds of years."
Rules of the hunt
For generations, the hunters agreed to follow guiding principles to keep the hunt a community-oriented and sustainable part of life.
Some of those rules the local Kanigmiut hunters would follow were to allow the first whales to come in, select a hunt leader, keep quiet during rising tides, minimize boat traffic, not talk about beluga whales or brag about the hunt, make careful whale selection, not compete with other hunters, and to always share, cooperate, and have respect for others.
By allowing the lead whales to come into the bay by Elephant Point and stay there for a few days without risk, the hunters thought that would encourage their pods to follow, knowing the area was safe. According to traditional knowledge cited in the beluga study, sometimes the younger whales wouldn't enter the bay for a few days.
By not hunting females with offspring, the Kanigmiut promoted conservation.
Selecting a hunt leader who would silently direct the hunters in a single-file line out into the bay to begin the drive kept clear who would make the calls on when and where to go.
It also kept the hunters quiet — having a leader meant talking wasn't necessary. There wouldn't be boasting and competition, or loud conversations that could bring bad luck to the hunt.
Nobody could compete for a single whale; if a hunter began pursuing one on his boat, others could help him kill it, tie it, or tow it, but would never try to take it from him.
Everyone worked together and shared what they had, Elders said.
"My memory would be seeing the beluga on the beach when they caught them and then everybody working on them," said Tribal Administrator Mona Washington. "It was good to see and learn how you cut them up first and then how you pack all that water because Elephant Point was saltwater. How much work it takes to cut up the belugas and all the ladies that were just so patient and probably wanting to holler at us kids and stuff. They were so good about it, maybe because they were making the food we love to eat."
In those days, hunters remembered, the whales were plentiful and people usually got what they needed. The men would take out the boats and the women gathered supplies on the beach and processed the meat and muktuk once the bounty was in.
"I learned from our Elders, uncles, and my dad, and grandfather, on how to hunt them and we brought them to the beach," Goodwin said. "I remember helping my mom and my sisters when they cut them up to prepare them for storage for winter."
Those bountiful hunting days, governed by local rules developed within the community, continued through the 1960s.
A time of change
However, by the 1970s, times were changing faster than ever before.
"The Kanigmiut hunters have seen changes in beluga whale hunting at Elephant Point from the introduction of motorboats, to the development of Elephant Point, to other socioeconomic changes," the study's authors wrote. "Prior to the 1970s, these changes were more gradual and Kanigmiut hunters adapted in a way that...maintained most of their hunting traditions and rules and enabled hunters to continue to meet their community needs for beluga muktuk and meat."
People who hunted the waters north of Buckland, closer to the Kotzebue area, found their populations diminishing, which caused a ripple effect that found its way down to the hunting grounds of the Kanigmiut.
Hunters from the Kotzebue area talked about a few factors that they believe may have contributed to the smaller groups of whales coming into the area, like noise from the other hunters' boats traveling through the water to new predators.
"[Killer whales] just started coming up when the ice started getting thin and leaving early. As it got warmer they're coming up," said Goodwin. "When I was growing up, there were hardly any out there. We'd be lucky if we ran into anything out there like that. But, things are changing so much now with climate change that killer whales seem to know where the food is and they come up all the time. They're seeing them more up north than before."
Hunters from other villages also began making their way to the Elephant Point area to hunt the bay were the populations, while smaller than they had been, were still substantial.
As the study found through oral histories, the new hunters brought with them new sets of rules to follow which didn't always fit seamlessly with those the Kanigmiut used themselves. The leadership structure began to dissipate, the hunts became more disorganized, younger hunters were sometimes more competitive. Faster boats came in and with them more stress on both the beluga and the older Buckland hunters using outdated equipment. Kanigmiut hunters found themselves unable to meet the needs of their community.
Newer boats, VHF radios, and shifting attitudes also meant more noise.
"I remember growing up when we were over in Sisualik living with my grandparents, we had to keep the dogs quiet," said Goodwin. "So, when they start to come in, we'd know, and then we could see them. But, even before we could see them, we'd put our paddles in the water with one ear on the paddle and turn it until the flat part we could hear where the belugas are coming from. We always knew when they were coming, whether we were on the land at Sisualik or on the water."
Beluga whales are sensitive to noise and spook if they hear too loud of sounds, hunters say.
Along with the changes in participation, the whales themselves were becoming less plentiful and sometimes, the hunters realized, they may have hunted too many in comparison.
"Buckland hunters report the whales were plentiful into the early 1970s. There was a reported harvest level of about 120 whales in 1972. Several hunters reflected on a large harvest in 1975, in which locals estimated between 125 and 200 whales were harvested," the study's authors wrote. "This large harvest made some local harvesters begin to wonder if they were taking too many whales. A young hunter said his grandfather, Paul Hadley, told him 'that it was too easy to get whales ... we are taking too many ... .'"
After the 1975 hunt, it became harder to get the whales, some Elders said. By the early 1980s, the hunt had changed dramatically. In 1982, the study noted, the hunt brought in 129 whales. The following year, there were only 48.
In 1984, there were none.
The end of an era
"It got started back in early 1970s when the beluga started to deplete, or decrease in numbers, starting from mid to late 1970s, and it continued on slowly. In the early and mid 1980s, there was not much of a response for the belugas to come back to Elephant Point," said Barger, who is now one of the project leaders. "We went to Elephant Point every spring to set up camp and wait for belugas, and even though they didn't show up we continued to go on down there, year after year since the 1980s. When you mingle with community members, there's a big question mark on what is going on out in the ocean. Nothing was being done. It got started because of the concern of the communities — are the beluga still out there? Are they going to come back?"
Buckland harvests continued to flatline or, at best, bring in a couple dozen whales each year. Through the 1990s and early 2000s, Kanigmiut hunters saw more than a dozen years with no whales at all.
1997 and 1998 saw one whale apiece. 2007 was an outlier at 62 whales, but it's surrounded by five and six years of zeros on either side.
Some hunters turned to store-bought food that was expensive and not as good. Others began hunting ugruks to make up the difference.
"In remote Alaska over the years, as far as I can remember, [there was a] lack of work, a lack of jobs," said Barger. "These foods help supplement our diet from just Western foods. It's like living in two worlds. We adapted to that."
When asked what they thought may have contributed to the decline, locals have a few different ideas.
There was an entrapment of several thousand whales in the winter of 1984 to 1985 in the Bering Strait. An icebreaker ultimately freed most of the whales but according to the study, "some biologists and committee members had speculated that this event may have included a significant portion of the Kotzebue Sound belugas."
Other oral history participants did not have an opinion on the decline or did not want to speculate, but wanted to find out more information. Others thought animals had been misused, in that people had started selling muktuk and stopped sharing, which may have brought bad luck.
Some believed warming weather and climate change to be a factor, while others thought the animals had been overhunted.
"The Buckland community has gone through years of only a sporadic harvest of beluga whales," said Seaman. "There has actually in some cases been somewhat of a loss of hope that anything would actually change."
A way forward
However, for the last several years, this group of people has been trying to do just that — change the way the belugas are handled and change the narrative.
They initiated the Buckland Beluga Whale Traditional Ecological Knowledge Project, of which the study is a product.
Through an extensive series of oral histories, the authors gathered as much traditional knowledge as they could about the whales, their patterns, and the hunt.
They plowed through scientific studies and data, and included previous writings and studies done on the hunt in earlier decades.
"When [the Kanigmiut] moved back to what's now Buckland, they established this school. As part of that name is the Sissuani, which is the new land of the beluga people. Some of them have not seen a beluga whale. Most of them have not even hunted beluga whales," said Seaman. "So, what this study does is it has documented their story, which is harder and harder to document as we lose village Elders. It really brought together their story, how they hunt, what the rules were, what the changes were, and it also helped build a commitment to resolve it as best we can. I hold this up and I say, 'This is your story.'"
The study's leaders hoped to bring together representatives from all the beluga hunting communities in the Northwest Arctic to talk about the issues they were having and hear each other's perspectives.
Oral histories aside, they hoped to let bygones be bygones and keep old tensions in the past, thinking only about the future.
"Everybody in Kotzebue Sound, the coastal villages like Buckland, Kotzebue, Noatak, Kivalina, and Deering, these are the people that know what it takes to have a successful hunt. Hopefully by getting all the hunters together from all five villages and discussing the matter, [we can talk about] beluga whales depleting," said Barger. "When we get together, we put everything in context, where we would get started and how everybody would cooperate and work together, so that hopefully we can repopulate Kotzebue Sound. Any way that we know how, that we can have all these hunters and all five villages cooperate in a management form, not the federal government, but the Native hunters themselves, to try and solve the problem of repopulating Kotzebue Sound for our future generations, our great-great-great-grandchildren, 50 or 60 years from now. So that's why today, we are working very hard to make this program a success."
It's important to Barger and the others that this is a locally-driven study and project. The beluga whale committee has been an active participant as have many local organizations. While it's received some support from federal agencies, they have said they don't want this problem "solved" through federal management and limitations on hunting.
"Keeping this beluga study in Native hands and not in federal hands, we [can] take the lead and have the opportunity [to fix it]," said Barger.
The group has held in-person gatherings and events, bringing the conversation to people around the communities. They held what they called a Wisdomkeeper Workshop, which produced a handful of project ideas for scientists and communities to pursue, including water assessments, genetic sampling projects, satellite tagging studies, aerial surveys, the creation of a management plan, and the need to research the local killer whale population.
They also established a working group, which is meeting to come up with recommendations for the stocks.
Through the oral histories, they've come upon a handful of ideas for moving forward, as well, like working together, not fighting over whales, using talking circles, engaging in cooperative research, taking habitat considerations into management decisions, perhaps voluntarily abstaining from the hunt for a decade to help the population rebound.
"Hopefully one day, I know it will take time if they do rebound, hopefully the new generation, the future generation, will experience what we have experienced in our traditional hunts, of how we cooperate in our hunts, and managed our hunts in that area," said Barger. "We don't know what's going on out there. That's why we need to get together."
A living document
Although they are committed to finding a way to save the population and bring back the old hunt in a successful and sustainable way, many people, like Barger, know at this point, that's still just a hope.
There are many factors that may have contributed to the population decline and the demise of the Buckland hunt and it may take a very long time to fix them, if they are fixable at all.
That was one of the driving forces behind creating the document that's the result of the study — it's an accessible history of the people, the place, the animals, and the hunt, that the younger generations can hold onto.
"Now that there aren't any beluga, we're lucky that there is this beluga program that documents the traditional knowledge so our kids will know," said Washington. "They have a curriculum at the school which will teach the kids how to make the harpoons and stuff, so at least they'll know how to make the tools to hunt."
The follow-ups to the study specifically focus on engaging youth and school programs to bring them into the story of Buckland's beluga.
"If the belugas do not rebound, we hope that collecting traditional knowledge and working with the school children at Buckland School, learning the traditional hunt that our ancestors did and is all written down, hopefully we will keep this document for many years to come, so that our historical seasonal hunt will not be lost," said Barger. "That was the intent — for our traditional hunt not to get lost."
For many of the Elders, like Barger, who remember the days of the successful hunts down at Elephant Point, it's about sharing the joy they once felt with those who may never see it. He's watched his own past become history and is now helping create the stories to share that knowledge of the land he grew up on.
"At that time, we didn't think anything about belugas declining and having to work what we do today to get them back," he said. "But, one of the special memories that I have is driving the hundreds and hundreds of belugas into the bay to get our share of only what we need for the winter — that's all we go after — just seeing the enormous amounts of belugas that we used to see, especially when you're driving hundreds of belugas toward the sunlight, you could see hundreds of sprays from their blowholes like steam out of the water. Those are the special moments that we keep today, hoping that one day our children will experience that."
The follow-up meetings are ongoing, with the final Kotzebue Sound Tribal Beluga Working Group gathering happening May 22-23 in Kotzebue. At the meeting, the group will talk about recommendations for a plan to rebuild the stocks and where to go from here.
For more information on the project, contact Mona Washington at the Buckland IRA at 907-494-2171 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Shady Grove Oliver can be reached at email@example.com.