A wave of environmental changes, technological advancement and celebration of culture marked another year in the Arctic.

‘You can never give up’

In May, Point Hope whaling captain Jan Nashookpuk landed his first whale at age 63 — the culmination of years of work.

“I just couldn’t believe it,” Nashookpuk said.

Nashookpuk grew up whaling and became a whaling captain in his late 40s, after his father passed away. He went out on the ice most years, helped other crews catch whales and, since participating crews share harvests, provided meat for his own family.

After years of attempting to land a whale, Nashookpuk’s family considered retiring the crew.

This season brought a change.

Following a sleepless night, the Nashookpuk crew harpooned a whale and set off a chain reaction of human activity.

The bell rang, and for several hours, Point Hope buzzed with the sounds of snowmachines heading out to the ice. People were eager to help Nashookpuk’s crew pull their whale, more than 48 feet long, from the water.

The air was salty and cold. A call from one of the captains — “All hands!” — drew dozens of people to the rope. In a long single-file line, they pulled the whale onto the ice. Stopped. Pulled again. The whale moved inches at a time.

After about 3 1/2 hours of work, the whale was finally out of the water. It towered on the edge of the ice, the bristle of the baleen glistering in the lowering sun, the curves of its huge head and body smooth and round.

Jan Nashookpuk’s 25-year-old daughter, Janice Schaeffer, walked up to the whale, touched its back and cried. As a child, she used to imagine herself sitting atop a whale her father had hunted. Now the dream had come true.

“Honestly, it made me feel like a little girl again,” she said. “It healed my inner child, you know?”

After the whale was butchered, the last step was to put the whale skull back into the ocean — a ritual to help the animal come back to the captain again as another whale.

The crews carried tons of meat and maktak home.

“It’s good to feed the people, that’s what it is about,” Jan Nashookpuk said. “My children want us to keep going. You can never give up.”

Dancing alone in front of the crowd

Another cultural celebration happened when a 5-year-old star of Barrow Dancers got his first solo encore at AFN’s Quyana.

Stomping his feet and jumping up high perfectly to the tempo, Edward Long looked focused and calm at Quyana Alaska in October. A slightly surprised smile lit up his face when the crowd roared, asking him for an encore performance of his solo dance.

This was the first time Edward had performed alone, but as soon as the sealskin drums started singing again, without a blink he went back to aggi, Iñupiaq dancing.

“They’re saying, one day he’s gonna be the leader of the dance group,” his mother, Stella Okpeaha, said.

Warming Arctic

In 2023, the Arctic saw the warmest summer on record, according to the 2023 Arctic Report Card. As a result, Arctic communities and ecosystems continued to see dramatic changes — such as spikes and declines in salmon populations, stronger and more frequent storms and eroding coastlines.

Yet the shifts also brought about resilience and collaboration between scientists and Indigenous knowledge holders.

The report highlighted the Alaska Arctic Observatory and Knowledge Hub, the partnership between University of Alaska Fairbanks researchers and Iñupiaq observers who, since 2006, have documented the changing environment and how those changes affect infrastructure, traditional harvests and travel safety.

Through the partnership, observers have shared how increasing coastal storms contributed to flooding and erosion in communities, damaging roads and buildings, as well as community ice cellars critical to Indigenous food security and cultural preservation.

Observers have also described how weather changes led to shifts in where and when they can fish and hunt waterfowl, caribou and marine mammals.

“We don’t think of ourselves as victims of climate change or the environment,” Roberta Glenn said. “We’re able to go out and hunt animals and live lifestyles rich with cultural tradition. Climate change is happening but we are strong. We have ideas about how to move forward and we’re ready to share with whoever wants to listen.”

Technological challenges and breakthroughs

Last summer, several villages in the Arctic were left without internet and cell service. A cut to the subsea fiber optic network caused the outages, which lasted more than three months.

In the meantime, residents hit by the outages turned to satellite internet and analog operations. Businesses pivoted to cash transactions, and libraries manually checked out books. Others turned to satellite internet alternatives to get back online.

The latter was part of a bigger trend: In just a few months, satellite internet has reshaped web access in rural Alaska.

Since late in 2022 when Starlink internet became available in Alaska, thousands of residents have signed up at a pace that’s exceeding expectations, observers say.

The Starlink signal isn’t perfect, they say. Its strength diminishes as more users compete for bandwidth. But it’s also gotten faster and steadier as SpaceX has added satellites to the system.

About 2,500 Alaskans had purchased Starlink equipment through Microcom. The North Slope Borough ordered at least 25 Starlink units.

“I think most everybody, if they have the ability, have switched over to utilizing Starlink,” said Nagruk Harcharek, president of the Voice of the Arctic Iñupiat.

Even after the fiber-optic line is repaired, the Northwest Arctic Borough wanted to keep using Starlink to ensure there is internet redundancy and reliability, Ingemar Mathiasson said.

“It’s not clear if the Arctic fiber will be reliable enough to keep functioning,” he said. “It’s one thing to go up and fix it, but what if it happens again?”

State champions

When it comes to sports, teams from Arctic Alaska have been making headlines.

The Tikigaq girls basketball team repeated as 2A state basketball champions in the spring, defeating Metlakatla.

“We had even higher expectations of the girls this year,” Tikigaq head coach Ramona Rock said. “We’ve had a really good year.”

Almost seven months later, athletes from Utqiagvik won their divisions repeating as champions at the 2023 Alaska state wrestling tournament.

Senior Uatahouse Tu’ifua finished the season undefeated and won his third state championship at the 285 lb. division. Manusiu Muti won her second consecutive state championship in the 235 lb. division.

“They both have huge determination to just do everything the right way, perfect technique, strength,” Utqiaġvik wrestling coach Herman Reich said about the athletes. “They are what a coach dreams about.”

Since Tu’ifua and Muti joined the Utqiaġvik wrestling team, the program has grown significantly — in part because of their attitude and success, coach Reich said.

For Muti, inspiring more youths — especially girls — has always been a goal.

“Wrestling provides you with not only physical strength but mental strength and endurance. … It builds (up) your confidence — which is something important for girls to have in themselves,” Muti said. “I’m actually starting to see some of that confidence in the group of girls I had this season and it brought me so much joy to see that.”

North Slope’s only tribal school has its first graduates

It’d been 43 years since Wainwright resident Marlene Okakok first tried to complete her high school diploma. In spring 2023, at age 63, she finally became a graduate.

Okakok was one of three graduates from Qarġi Academy, the only tribal school on Alaska’s North Slope. The academy provides access to education based in the Iñupiaq language and culture, and while the school is located in Wainwright, it serves students across the North Slope.

At Qarġi, three local teachers, or Ilisaqtitchiriit, share traditional knowledge, Iñupiaq values, culture, history and language with academy students. Students also receive instruction online from certified teachers virtually.

For Okakok, the community-oriented nature of education in the academy was crucial for achieving her long-awaited goal. Born in Utqiaġvik, she grew up and studied in Wainwright, but moved to Illinois a month before graduating high school. When Okakok moved back to Wainwright nine months later, she couldn’t figure out how she could still receive her high school diploma.

“I tried and tried until I finally just gave up,” she said. Decades later, with help from Qarġi Academy teachers, Okakok was finally able to enroll and pass her U.S. history class and get all credits she needed. “Now I’m able to get my diploma through Qarġi. I am so excited!”

Inspired by that success, Okakok started working toward her driver’s license. But most of all, she wants her story to motivate other students.

“I want to encourage those who don’t have their diplomas to get their diplomas because if I can do it at my age, they can do it as well,” she said. “And we will be there to help them.”

Visitors to the Arctic

In 2023, the Arctic has been in the spotlight, attracting visitors.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg visited Kotzebue in August to speak about Cape Blossom Port construction. The same month, national health officials came to Northwest Alaska to discuss the importance of telehealth, the effects of climate change on health and the benefits of traditional food. In October, a U.S. Department of Energy climate scientist came to Utqiaġvik to examine permafrost projects.

One of the visits that brought a lot of joy to residents was from a former NBA player, Willie Reed.

At 6 feet, 11 inches, Willie Reed towered over the children and Elders surrounding him in Noatak this fall. With his encouraging message, Reed uplifted his audience and made his personal story of overcoming challenges relatable to rural Alaska youths.

Reed is a recent Miami Heat center and most recently played as a power forward for Buducnost VOLI in the Eurocup. He came to Northwest Alaska twice this fall to inspire youths and motivate them to stay healthy and true to their goals.

The visits were about more than basketball: Reed also spoke about bullying, staying drug-free and alcohol-free — and about taking care of your mental health.

One way to push yourself toward your goals, Reed said, is to make sure you have like-minded and growth-oriented people around you.

The basketball player also shared his story of overcoming challenges — from health issues to adversity he experienced as a child. Reed said that through his childhood experience, he can relate to some of the challenges Alaska youth might be facing. Reed grew up in Kansas City, Missouri, living in a three-bedroom house with more than 10 people.

“I understand what everyone’s going through here in the villages and just growing up in a tough environment and situations but being able to make it out. So I just want to share my experiences to help motivate and share joy with the people here,” he said. “I’m big on no excuses.”

Hearing Reed’s words, junior Vincent Jr. Onalik said he felt inspired and motivated.

“It’s a pretty interesting story about how he came from a pretty small family with a small house and how he became this NBA prospect,” Onalik said. “I’m basically in the same situation: me and my parents and my younger brother, we live in a one-bedroom house.

“And it’s a dream of mine to play on the college team,” Onalik said, “at least.”

To keep health aides safe, Maniilaq hires security guards

During her 23 years working as a health aide in Northwest Alaska, Eunice Carter has responded to numerous dangerous calls. But the incident she remembers most happened when she was performing CPR on a child in a family’s home.

A member of the family told her and several other health professionals in the room, all women: “If you don’t save my relative, no one is gonna live,” Carter remembered.

Carter and her colleagues suggested bringing the patient to the local clinic to get the necessary medication, and the situation was defused.

The incident is not unique: Health aides across Northwest Alaska often respond to emergency calls where they need to de-escalate the situation, and in many of those cases, they’re working without anyone who can protect them.

Over the last couple of years, the Maniilaq Association has noticed higher levels of violence in village clinics, said Kenneth Turner, Maniilaq Health Center safety officer. Elevated stress levels, staffing shortages during the pandemic and a rise in drug use were some of the factors that contributed to the increase, he said.

In October, the Maniilaq Association started a pilot program to bring security guards to Kiana, Kivalina, Noorvik and Selawik to assist health professionals working at the clinics.

Remembering the lost ones

Many Arctic residents grieved for their loved ones over the past year.

When traditional Inupiaq seamstress Mary Lou Sours died, she was remembered for her passion for craft, teaching and life.

Sours taught maklak-making classes in Noatak, Kotzebue, Anchorage and many other communities and made regalia for her grandchildren, relatives and friends.

“She had a passion for sewing and sharing her knowledge. She knew very well that the tradition that she carried, it’s being forgotten nowadays,” her daughter Alannah Jones said. “When you’re raised in a community where your traditions are dying, one thing you want to do is try to help preserve those traditions.”

Iñupiat leader and whaling captain Oliver Leavitt died this year at 79. He was remembered by his friends and fellow Alaska Native leaders as a giver, a cultural leader and a uniting force.

Throughout his life, Leavitt served in many leadership positions across the state and was a key player in the negotiation of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. He was treasurer of the Arctic Slope Native Association for 24 years, a board member of the Alaska Federation of Natives for 28 years and the first president of the North Slope Borough Assembly.

Leavitt was known as not only a prominent political and corporate leader, but as a revered whaler and skin boat builder.

“He was also a cultural leader,” said Willie Iggiagruk Hensley, another Alaska Native leader and one of the founders of the Alaska Federation of Natives. “People like him are very rare because he was firmly rooted in the language and the culture of the Iñupiaq people but he also became effective as a business person, as a political person.”

The death of Craig George, a respected bowhead whale researcher, was another great loss for the Arctic: He was swept under a logjam while rafting this summer.

George was an internationally acclaimed wildlife researcher who has contributed to projects in the physiology of the bowhead whales and studies on how they can survive in extremely cold temperatures. He was also a part of the team that learned bowhead whales could live for up to 211 years.

One of the main projects George contributed to was a whale census — an abundance estimate for bowhead whales in the Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort stock. The project started in the late ‘70s after the International Whaling Commission became concerned about the low whale population and put a moratorium on whaling.

From hunters and Indigenous experts, George and other biologists learned that the whales might be able to migrate far away offshore and travel under the ice: hunters have been hearing them singing through holes in the ice. So for the new whale census, scientists developed acoustics equipment such as hydrophones to count whales by analyzing their vocalization and estimating the distance to where they were. As a result, the population estimate increased by six times.

“He helped so many people and helped preserve and protect an Inupiat culture that was judged and stereotyped for years by outsiders,” said D.J. Fauske, the North Slope Borough’s director of government and external affairs. “He helped combine thousands of years of traditional local Inupiat knowledge with world-class technology and data.”

Utqiaġvik residents gather around a snow sculpture to honor lost loved ones

After the longest night of the year, Utqiaġvik residents held a candlelight vigil and honored lost loved ones as they gathered around an 8-foot-tall snow sculpture.

With hymns, songs and traditional dancing, about 150 residents celebrated Blue Christmas, the Christian tradition that supports people who are navigating grief and loss during holidays.

“The holidays can be so challenging when you are grieving the loss of somebody,” said Tandi Perkins, director of development at a nonprofit ministry, Arctic Mission Adventures, that spearheaded the event. “We don’t talk about that a lot. We grieve silently.”

As a symbol of support and unity, the highlight of the event was a snow sculpture depicting a semicircle of eight people with their arms around each other’s shoulders. An ice lantern with a light inside was inset into the chest area of each figure, said the sculptor, Paul Hanis, who was invited to create the sculpture.

“That kind of adds the symbolism of light that we have within ourselves,” Hanis said.

During the event, attendees came outside for a prayer, each given a flameless candle to hold. As people stood around the sculpture after the prayer, they turned on their candles, saying the names of their lost loved ones.

“You could watch the lights come on, as it moved across over (a hundred) people,” pastor Joseph Reid said. “And at the very end, all the candles were lit. … As they were saying the names of their loved ones, tears were flowing.”

The Blue Christmas tradition started in Utqiaġvik in 2019 as an attempt to open conversations about mental health and dispel the taboos associated with suicide, grief and loss.

“It’s important to tell people that they’re not alone, that, you know, there’s help,” Perkins said. “This holiday does not have to be a repeat, perhaps, of previous holidays where they felt isolated.”

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