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The Iñupiaq Supercomputer:

What The Whale Hunters Know
& Some Scientists Want To Discover

by Charles Wohlforth

Originally published in the Anchorage Press, Nov. 8-14, 2001
Copyright Charles Wohlforth, all rights reserved

To safely harpoon a whale from a small boat, you must get close. To do that, you need quiet and harmony in the boat. Even the women who sew the skin of the bearded seal for the boat’s hull must be harmonious and refrain from raising their voices when they stitch together.

That’s what Richard and Arlene Glenn learned from their elders in Barrow. Richard is co-captain of the Savik Crew.

"At the end of the day, the old man said, ‘You can get the boat right there, and put the boat right on the whale’s neck,’" Richard said. "And when the time came, and I was there, I was afraid, but I knew what that old man said, and I put the boat right there on the whale’s neck. Right on him. And it worked out right. If you had been scared and pulled away to the side, you would have had a lot more risk when you throw the harpoon."

Arnold Brower Sr. teaches that kind of knowledge. Seventy-nine years old, he is the last surviving son of Charles Brower, the famous Yankee whaler who spent his life in Barrow. Arnold Sr. still heads a crew named for him, which landed a bowhead this fall (although Arnold was gathering white fish ashore at the time). He knows how to approach a whale without alerting its keen sense of smell and hearing, where to strike with the harpoon for a clean, sure kill, and where on its body to find the choicest cuts of meat.

I recently sat in Brower’s kitchen for a few hours watching the ulu in his old hands cut black whale meat into chunks for fermentation. Outside the kitchen window the Arctic Ocean was freezing over — that was the day the icebergs visible from town stopped moving in liquid water. Listening, I felt like I was walking through the stacks of a library, reading only the spines of great books. Brower’s wry smile and low voice gave me that much.

But Brower’s knowledge wouldn’t fit in books, because it is intuitive and organically a part of this place and its moments. It was obtained through the observations of many hunters over vast distances and centuries of experience, and distilled by gradual consensus. Passed down through generations, it’s bigger than any one person, part of an entire cultural universe Brower calls "the ministry of nature."

He said, "We know the whales’ movement and migration. The whales know their time. All animals know time. They know when to get out of here for survival, and when to come back for reproduction. We’ve got to know that for subsistence, when to harvest them. We’re not perfect, I’ll tell you that much, but we’ve learned enough to survive and make it."

He told me why you have to get close to the whale to harpoon it: "Whaling is dangerous if you don’t observe closely the procedures of whaling." he said. The whalers I spoke to all used this precise language. The habits of care developed in orally communicating technical information carries over beyond the original Inupiaq language.

"I’ve seen ‘em turn on a boat," Brower said. "The mouth is big." He pointed to a whale jawbone hanging on his wall, which stretched halfway across the room; the largest whale he ever landed had a mouth 12 feet long, and he avoids the larger whales, some over 200 years old, which yield tougher meat.

The incident happened in the ice of spring whaling many years ago. Brower was some distance away when another crew harpooned a whale that then opened its mouth around the umiak — the skin boat — and smashed it.

"The pressure of that bite was tremendous. I wouldn’t want to be there. This was a wounded one. The wounded one turned on the boat and everyone jumped out of there. There were women in that boat, and I could hear the yells and screams a mile away. We had no recourse but to stampede over there and help them out of the water."

This is a story about knowledge.

For the Iñupiat, knowledge means survival on the ice. Scientists started coming to Barrow in the 1940s, sent by the Navy to study the ice and cold weather. They brought Native guides along for safety, but they didn’t often rely on Iñupiat knowledge for their studies. They didn’t know how.

For each side, the knowledge held by the other contains a strong element of magic. Arnold Brower Sr. can see the value of a Global Positioning System receiver, for example, but he has yet to master the instrument, much less explain how it works. He knows how to navigate by the stars. Scientists coming to Barrow could see that Natives could keep them safe, but they didn’t know how they did it any better than a layman understands the internal workings of a GPS unit.

Kenneth Toovak served as such a magical safety guide to early researchers at the Naval Arctic Research Laboratory. Toovak, now 78, worked at the lab, known as NARL, for decades, taking care of the boats and other practical matters and contributing to many science projects. One summer day in the 1970s, a fine, warm day without much wind, the director asked for a ride to Point Barrow in an 18-foot boat with an outboard motor.

"He wants me or one of my boys who works with me to go with him," Toovak said recalled. "I knew that weather was going to happen maybe. I told him, I’d like for you to wait a bit."

The scientist left, paced around, and came back 15 minutes later. The weather remained clear and fine. He had to complete his work in two days and return to Fairbanks. He couldn’t afford to waste a rare day of good conditions. He impatiently returned to where Toovak was working with the boats and asked to get going.

"You really want to go out I’m going to give you a boat and an outboard," Toovak told the scientist. "You can go. But I’m not going to give you a driver. And I don’t think we’re going to look for you even. You really want to go out, go on and go.

"OK, he understands what I meant, and he goes back to the lab. And here comes the wind. White caps and everything. And here comes the guy who wanted to go. He comes right out to me and he shakes hands.

"‘Kenny, I thank you for not sending me out.’"

Today, scientists not only rely on Eskimo knowledge to stay safe, they also are trying to reverse engineer the magic so they can use it for research, too. Anne Jensen, senior scientist for Ukpeagvik ((put a dot over the ‘g’)) Iñupiat Corporation, Barrow’s village corporation, is part of a University of Colorado project funded by the National Science Foundation to collect and categorize the traditional knowledge of people such as Toovak to help understand global climate change. Maybe instruments could see whatever Toovak and other elders see in the weather to better understand and predict climate and severe weather. "They must be using physical correlates," Jensen said. "We have to figure out what they are."

When I asked him, Toovak said, "It was something about the sky, the clouds and south wind, a bit warm. It’s always kind of rapid, it always happens in a rapid way. I learned that lesson from my parents and from the elder people. When the wind is kind of blowing from the south you better hold off for a while and see what the weather will do."

Toovak is happy to help the scientists. He used to wear caribou pants in the cold. The fur would fall off and he would soon have skin pants instead. Now he wears high tech fabrics that were developed at NARL years ago, tested by men sitting in snow caves with heat sensors under their clothing to see what worked best.

Today Barrow is the site of some of the world’s most advanced and intensive research on climate change. The National Science Foundation, funding most of that work, is requiring researchers to communicate with the community and find out what people there already know.

"If scientists are studying something they basically know nothing about, it makes sense to listen to people who live with it and do know a lot about it," Jensen said.

But, as obvious as that seems, it represents a large and hard-won change. Scientists traditionally discounted knowledge held by indigenous people, commercial fishermen, and others who live by the environment. Jeffery Johnson, an anthropologist with East Carolina University, has studied this barrier, and has shown that what fishermen and Native people know is often as accurate as what scientists know. Part of the problem is the conservatism of science, he said. To accept a statement as true, its measurable probability must be greater than 90 percent. That standard diminishes scientists’ interest in information without statistics attached and can render them formally ignorant of the obvious. (I once read a scientific study that attempted to prove that men are attracted to voluptuous women.)

Cultural translation between science and indigenous knowledge has become a hot research topic worldwide and Alaska is on the leading edge.

John Tidwell guided his big white van with caterpillar tracks on a ride out to Point Barrow to see polar bears. The whale bone pile out there is a polar bear magnet, and a small business opportunity for Tidwell, who carries tourists every day over the miles of pea-gravel beaches.

We traveled along the straight, frozen streets of town, past modest, plywood-sided houses and larger but hardly grander metal-sided public buildings, all of which are built on legs to prevent their heat from thawing the permafrost below. Barrow is not a pretty town, but it begins to feel comfortable and homey quickly, like a cluttered living room. At first the town’s presence between the flat, frozen ocean and flat, frozen tundra seems arbitrary. But when you’ve spent a few days there, it becomes its own universe, a living island in the huge dome of stars and endless snow.

Tidwell’s only other passenger that day was a tourist with an impressive camera collection who was aching to see a polar bear, but didn’t want the bone pile in her pictures. The whale leavings, visible from miles away, resemble the carcasses of picked-over Thanksgiving turkeys, magnified thousands of times. It’s a coarse, sobering sight. In the comfort of the van, the tourist bemoaned that whales had to die for her photo opportunity; she thought there was no good reason for the Iñupiat to hunt whale when they have a large grocery store in town.

Tidwell, a white man, stopped her short.

"If you tell the Eskimo he can’t hunt the whale, you might as well tell him he can’t be an Eskimo," he said.

I tried to think of a parallel she could understand: removing money from of the culture of Wall Street, denying box office numbers to Hollywood, or canceling Christmas gift-giving for America’s children and retailers. But those are all materialistic rites: the whales of Barrow bring no economic benefit. The successful whaling crew spends a lot of money and takes a lot of risk, then gives everything away to the community. If there is a parallel in the dominant culture, it would be potluck dinners, church or school gatherings, barn raisings or volunteer fire departments--anything that makes us a community rather than only individuals. Except, to a large extent, we’ve already given up those things. Through the whale, the Iñupiat are holding onto something we’ve already forfeited.

In 1977, it looked like the Iñupiat would lose whaling. With the number of whale strikes by Natives rising annually, a count of bowhead by federal scientists indicated only 600 to 2,000 remained in the wild. The International Whaling Commission ordered an immediate ban on Eskimo whaling; the United States, a treaty member of the IWC, passed the decision down to Iñupiat whalers as a fait accompli. One scientific paper said the extinction of the bowhead was already inevitable.

But the hunters of the Arctic Ocean knew the count was wrong; there were far more whales alive. What happened next has now taken on the status of a modern legend, recorded in an exhibit at the Iñupiat Heritage Center, a museum in Barrow. The whalers formed the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission to negotiate a small quota of strikes, and the North Slope Borough hired scientists to improve the quality of the count. Veterinarian Tom Albert headed the Borough’s Department of Wildlife Management and John Craighead George, known as Craig, led the count’s fieldwork.

Researchers had counted bowhead as they always had counted whales: they chose a spot to watch from and noted the animals that passed by, then used statistics to estimate how many they might have missed. Federal scientists believed migrating whales would swim by within clear view. But the late Harry Brower Sr., his brother Arnold Sr., and other elder whalers took Tom Albert aside and explained that many whales migrate under the ice, breaking to the surface with their hard, bow-shaped heads to breathe. They also said some whales swim far off shore, out of sight of observers. A shore-based count would overlook all those whales.

"A lot of times you don’t see them when they’re breathing under the ice, but you can hear them," Arnold Brower Sr. said. "We agreed that the whales were not nearing extinction."

Kenneth Toovak said he didn’t believe it either. He said the whales move over a large area in search of food, far beyond Alaska’s coast. Indeed, other wildlife studies have shown Alaska Natives to have a better idea of animal numbers than scientific studies that relied on counts in a constrained area: no matter how good your statistical analysis is, it won’t work if you’re looking for the animals in the wrong place.

Craig George came from the scientific perspective. A member of the famous Craighead family of wildlife biologists from the Yellowstone National Park region, his mother is Jean Craighead George, author of the classic children’s books, "Julie of the Wolves," and "My Side of the Mountain." He came to Alaska to escape the shadow of his illustrious family, but did not leave behind the assumptions of the scientific culture.

"Harry was saying, ‘You’re missing a lot of whales,’" George said. But scientists were skeptical. "We weren’t sitting on a thousand years of traditional knowledge, and we frankly were taught we were scientists and we were doing stuff scientifically, carefully, and the other information was anecdotal."

Counting whales you can’t see isn’t easy. It wasn’t until 1984 that the team invented the gear to do it: arrays of hydrophones that could listen for whale vocalizations and triangulate the animals’ positions using the time it took for sound to arrive at the widely separated points. Getting this bulky technology onto the ice required another set of inventions. And even then it didn’t always work, especially in the first, tough year.

"Set up the gear, put up a perch, and slam, the sea ice slams into it, and we’d lose all our gear. All of it," George said. "It was like a war. We were using lead acid batteries. Fifty pound batteries. All our clothes were ruined with battery acid," because the batteries became brittle in the cold and cracked open.

In 1985, the team finally got a good count. With the help of sophisticated statistical techniques the team produced a population estimate of 6,000 whales, almost six times the original mid-range estimates. Counts in subsequent years yielded ever-higher numbers; despite increased Native whaling, the bowhead population is strong and rising, now well over 8,000.

"The Natives were vindicated," George said. "They were right. They were right about all these things."

The bowhead population issue wasn’t the only controversy in which the Natives were proved right and the scientists wrong. Craig George can reel off half a dozen and other scientists I talked to added more.

After a career in Barrow, however, George isn’t entirely sure how the Iñupiat do it. He thinks it has to do with Native skills of observation and communication, perhaps growing out of their oral tradition. Nearly every Native home there contains a two-way VHF radio (and often a TV, radio, computer and other information sources all going at the same time), bringing news and analysis about what is happening on the tundra, on the ice, and around town and the world. Dozens of observers — hunters and fishermen — continuously cover a far greater area than any temporary scientific survey team could manage. The Natives have a huge real-time data set and constant discussion to analyze it. George thinks the community is a giant data-crunching machine.

"It’s a bit of a black box to me," he said. "There’s conversation, conversation, conversation back and forth, and then there’s this statement that comes out. ‘We know this.’ They’re taking in massive amounts of data and processing it like a supercomputer."

In statistics, more observations mean more confidence in the result. But observations alone don’t provide answers; minds must synthesize them into meaning. Anyone who has been in an Internet discussion knows that adding voices alone doesn’t yield greater insight; often it merely amplifies dissonance into cacophony. In our individualistic culture people don’t function like parallel processors in a computer. Somehow, through their shared knowledge and traditions, their communication skills, and the status accorded to skill and wisdom in their culture, Iñupiat hunters do.

The Native supercomputer has been right enough times that the relationship between traditional knowledge and science has reversed. Now scientific researchers come to village elders hat in hand, driven by their own ignorance and by funders who make researchers promise to exchange information with local communities. Traditional knowledge is as officially fashionable now as it was officially spurned two decades ago.

But scientists (and journalists) find that Natives aren’t always ready to share knowledge with people just off the plane. Harry Brower Jr. was cautious about talking to me. He is the son of the man of the same name who helped lead scientists to the answer about the bowhead population, and he is a whaling captain himself. His suspicion is a hard-learned lesson. Brower was more open with a group of paleontologists who arrived in Barrow some time ago asking about mammoth bones. Brower often passed big bones out on the tundra on the way to his hunting camp. They were useful, beloved landmarks.

"We give them all this information and they go out there with their helicopters and pick them up. And now we don’t have anything. They’ve been taken away. You know, that’s not right for a person to come seek information and then, without saying any more than what he has to, he asks us for our knowledge of where these items are. That’s taking advantage of a person that’s been traveling and using that area for many years and learning of these items. … That makes me very cautious as to who I’m talking to from now on… I’ve learned over time never to talk so openly."

Brower’s job today is Subsistence Research Coordinator with the North Slope Borough’s Department of Wildlife Management. He asks elders and other hunters about what they’ve observed and what they make of it, but he keeps their identities and the exact locations of their best hunting and fishing sites confidential.

This information is valuable. Jeffery Johnson, the anthropologist, calls it intellectual property, although it doesn’t have that status legally. Knowledge is what makes hunters and fishermen successful. Spreading that knowledge increases competition: if you knew how to get rich in the stock market, you wouldn’t tell everyone about it. But there also is a more subtle way to own what we know, when we know it with the intimacy of personal discovery or through a relationship with a mentor. To strip away the context of such learning is to reduce a memorable journey to an itinerary, or to describe a love affair as a list of meetings.

Various scientific and cultural institutions have developed ethical standards for researchers gathering and using traditional knowledge, but Patricia Cochran, director of the Alaska Native Sciences Commission, says they are often ignored or used only as window dressing. Such standards stipulate how scientists should exchange information with communities. Any exchange should be for equal value so knowledge comes back to the community as well as leaving. People who contribute to studies should receive credit on scientific papers just as other researchers do.

Harry Brower Jr. knows how to evaluate the accuracy of statements by the reputation and the number of people who agree. He understands the language (Iñupiaq has word endings and inflections that reveal the source and certainty of a statement, and it is much more specific in describing animals and arctic phenomenon). He lives as a hunter, so he experiences this knowledge as well as hearing it on an intellectual level. Physicists, climatologists and other scientists coming to Barrow for a few weeks a year have none of those advantages.

I heard far more examples of well-meaning people doing a poor job of trying to obtain traditional knowledge than I heard of successes. Scientists have arrived with questionnaires they wanted elders to fill out. They have asked for information, received it, and then gone out to do their work exactly as they had planned to do it anyway. They have set up meetings but have been unable to wait for the slow, circuitous way thoughts are expressed: sometimes you have to listen to a 20-minute story to get to the point. Or they have been misled into listening to the most talkative person in a meeting, who may not be the most informed. Some have hired local Native organizations to gather information, but with the same short deadlines, as if the point were to buy racial approval rather than gain knowledge.

Translation is difficult between any two languages; here translation also is needed between cultures and ways of thinking about the world. Traditional knowledge is holistic. Scientific knowledge is reductionist. One way of thinking is based on a broad, intuitive understanding based on experience and collaboration. The other is based on measuring data points precisely and objectively and then combining them into findings that can be traced mathematically to their constituent parts.

Richard Glenn, the whaler at the beginning of this story, knows as much about the process of translation as anyone: he is a scientist who worked on a doctoral dissertation about sea ice, and he wrote a paper for a scientific conference on using traditional knowledge. Glenn is as skeptical as anyone I spoke to about bridging the gap between these two ways of seeing the world.

"You get traditional knowledge by living," he said. "They’re overreaching if they say they can document and tabulate traditional knowledge."

He has experienced the divide from both sides. When he returned to Barrow to study sea ice academically, he found that his knowledge as an Iñupiat didn’t make him a genius. The Eskimos understand the behavior of ice as a material on the large scale; scientists understand it in terms of its microscopic physical properties.

Glenn brought ice samples into a freezer to study under a microscope, a process that baffled his friends and relatives. "I’d bring a few people in and they’d say, ‘What the hell are you doing?’"

But Glenn does think an exchange is possible, on the one-to-one basis of expert-to-expert, with mutual respect. He has seen it happen.

"Take a scientist who knows everything about remote sensing out onto the ice," he said. "What usually happens, if he’s a real expert, he’ll say, ‘Wow.’ It’ll open a whole new door for him. It’s very much the same if you take an elder in and show him the synthetic aperture radar from a satellite, and see the first year ice, the multi-year ice, the pressure ridges. He’ll immediately see the usefulness of that tool."

When a Barrow crew lands a whale, its members gather for a prayer and two-way radio spreads that circle to the entire community. The broadcast also tells everyone that help is needed to butcher the animal. The eldest member of the crew is usually the prayer leader. He thanks God for the weather and the harvest of the whale. A good prayer leader saves for last the piece of information everyone is waiting to hear over the radio. Bringing a great cheer from those at hand, he informs everyone listening over the air who got the whale.

Then the work of dividing the whale begins.