Qaiyaan Harcharek is the harpooner of his Iñupiaq whaling crew in Utqiaġvik, the northernmost city in Alaska. “I’ve been blessed with nine whales,” he said, which is no small feat. Bowhead whales can grow up to 60 feet long and weigh 75 to 100 tons. To land one requires extensive skill, deep-rooted relationships with whales and the Arctic environment, and cooperation between all crew members.
The Iñupiat have for generations hunted bowhead whales every spring and fall. “We’re whalers. It’s who we are as a people and it’s what has sustained us to thrive in this harsh environment for thousands of years,” Harcharek said. In Alaska’s vast North Slope Borough, most of the 9,700 residents are Iñupiat, and while bowheads are not an endangered whale species, they do face environmental and human-caused threats to their ongoing recovery.
After a successful hunt, whaling crews spend hours towing the whale onto the icy shore and then butchering it into specific portions for families and feasts. “Right after a whale is caught, the very next day, we cook enough to serve the whole community,” Harcharek explained. The rest of the whale—thousands of pounds of meat and maktak, or skin with blubber—is distributed to families involved in the process or cooked during community-wide feasts on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Nalukataq, the spring whaling festival.
No part of the whale goes to waste. Or it didn’t until recently. It’s common for Iñupiat families to store whale meat and other subsistence foods in icy cellars deep underground, but in recent years, many people have reported that their cellars are either becoming too warm and causing food to spoil, or failing completely due to flooding or collapse. For instance, a 2014 inventory of ice cellars in the coastal village of Wainwright conducted by the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium found that 19 out of 34 cellars had been abandoned.
Traditional siġluaqs, or ice cellars, are made by digging a tunnel 10 to 20 feet into the earth’s surface and creating a small room deep inside the permafrost. A heavy cellar door, three to four feet wide and made of wood, covers the entrance. To reach the crisp earthen room, which should remain approximately 10 degrees Fahrenheit year-round, one must descend a long ladder—and bring a light.
“Now, we will lose all our siġluaqs very soon because of the ocean and flooding. . . . They are melting, too. It’s getting warmer inside,” said a Point Hope resident named Macy, as quoted in the 2020 book Whale Snow by Chie Sakakibara. “Now, we have to haul up water by buckets from siġluaqs because the permafrost is thawing out. Otherwise, our whale meat will all go bad. . . . Will we need a big freezer in the future?”
The Arctic is warming faster than the rest of the world, causing permafrost to degrade “extensively, persistently, and rapidly,” according to new research published in the journal Advances in Climate Change Research. While permafrost thaw is a major issue affecting ice cellars, they can fail for a variety of reasons, including other impacts from climate change, poor maintenance, and ground disturbances from urbanization.
Despite the risks, Harcharek plans to build a new ice cellar on a plot of land that will one day be the site of his family home; he is married with four kids, including twin babies. He said he will establish the cellar in an area with low soil salinity (since saltwater melts quicker than freshwater), dig deeper on higher ground, reinforce the tunnel with sturdy materials, and carefully monitor and maintain the cellar. Harcharek is not ready to give up on the siġluaq, because it’s not just a place for storing and preserving food—it’s considered the terrestrial home for the bowhead whale, an animal at the center of Iñupiat culture.
The Iñupiat take great care to prepare their cellars for a new whale’s arrival—chipping out old blood, oil, and dirt and lining the floor with fresh snow—because they believe whales know which crews have a clean home waiting for them.
“There’s a lot of hard work and pride” in cleaning the ice cellar, Harcharek said. “When you’re doing it, you try not to have negative thoughts. It’s a humbling and kind of cleansing process . . . and it’s that connection that we have with the whale and how we’re going to take care of it that allows us to be potentially successful [in the hunt].”
When the last ice cellar is no longer usable, a piece of Iñupiat culture will be gone. But the people, Harcharek said, will figure out new ways to live—just like they always have. “You need to adapt to your environment because if you don’t, you die.”
Adapting to a Changing Arctic
Indigenous Alaskans have adapted to cycles of climate change in the past, said Meda DeWitt, a Tlingit traditional healer. “However, when you start looking at how fast it’s coming about, then that’s where [this time is] different. We’re going into a situation that we actually haven’t fully been in before.”
Many Indigenous Alaskans—not just the Iñupiat—are facing food insecurity as rapid environmental collapse is upending natural cycles, including caribou migration patterns, berry season, and salmon runs. This poses a threat to their survival. “In some of our communities, there is an 80 or 90 percent reliance on subsistence foods” that are foraged, fished, hunted, or grown through small-scale agriculture, said Tikaan Galbreath, the Intertribal Agriculture Council’s technical assistant specialist for the state of Alaska and a member of the Mentasta Traditional Tribe.
It’s not feasible for people in rural communities, many of which are only accessible by bush plane or boat, to depend on grocery stores because of the extremely high cost of importing food. “It’s an incredible strain when a gallon of milk is $10 or a loaf of bread is $8,” Galbreath said.
Sudden environmental change also causes immense grief for Indigenous Alaskans because it disrupts their cultural and spiritual relationships with the land and other living beings. DeWitt, who in February spoke at the Democratic National Committee Environment and Climate Crisis Council’s Alaska Listening Session, said “everybody overall is experiencing the grief of not having access to our traditional practices because of the changing climate. This climate grief is also known as solastalgia, and that’s something that Indigenous people have been trying to express for a very long time.”