Barrow is an Inupiaq community rooted in centuries of tradition. The northernmost town of the continent is also "ground zero for climate change,” regional leaders said.
Leaders in the region are struggling to build a future while addressing problems of the present without threatening traditions of the past.
Patuk Glenn is a curator at the Inupiat Heritage Center, which has a room, dedicated to a whaling exhibit, complete with a whaling camp — “the gem of our museum.”
Before Glenn or the museum was conceived, the North Slope was a different place.
“It has changed a lot from basic subsistence living because there were few jobs when I was a boy,” said Jacob Adams, North Slope Borough’s chief administrative officer.
Adams is an Alaska Native elder who has held multiple government positions and has seen the region evolve over the decades.
“(We) now have water and sewage systems, running water, modern health clinics, fire department, police department we never had before because there was no money available to communities,” Adams said.
Barrow is in the seat of the North Slope borough, much of which was built through oil revenue “and until the bell rings and something different happens in our region, our future's dependent on continued oil and gas development,” said Richard Glenn, Patuk’s father, a geologist who currently heads up Arctic Slope Regional Corporation’s lands and natural resources division.
“If you're talking about oil exploration, a lot of it can be timed so it has almost no effect on whaling,” Richard said.
It’s that mentality that keeps the elder Glenn confident.
“I’m not as nervous as you might think. I’ve toured the energy explorers—both production and exploration,” he said. I’ve seen their dedication to safety. It’s one of these ‘trust by verify’ type situations.
Richard says the energy explorers need people who know the area and can contribute to programs to make sure risks are minimized.
“I need a plan in my mind for the future; for our grandchildren,” Richard said.
Not everyone is as optimistic. Many in the community, including Glenn’s daughter, are concerned about the effects of offshore development on their food source.
“We worry of something happening just like what happened in the Gulf,” said Glenn’s daughter, Patuk. “It's scary. It's a very real thing that could happen, that could jeopardize our food and in part our way of life.”
“I think development will happen eventually, but we need to be prepared for it,” Adams said of Shell’s offshore plans.
Throughout Barrow are bowhead whale bones that symbolize a way of life for the region’s roughly 5,000 residents. A whaling crew is the mascot for Barrow High School.
Whaling is not just about subsistence and tradition; locals say it’s about identity.
“I was one of the first, if not first, white man to be on a subsistence whaling crew,” said Barrow Mayor Bob Harcharek.
“Whaling is a very important cultural and traditional practice among the Inupiaq people of the North Slope; probably the very center of our culture because it's means so much to our people,” Adams said.
Whaling “really brings our community together in a joyous event to be able to feast, be with one another and be happy,” the younger Glenn said.
It’s also a spiritual activity.
“The whale is part of us,” Harcharek said. “We don't catch a whale. People believe sincerely, and I do, too, that the whale gives itself to us.”
Harcharek has called Barrow home for nearly 40 years. He raised a family here and was recently re-elected mayor.
“One of the reasons I fell in love with Barrow is its value of nature,” said Harcharek, who has seen a lot of change, but doesn’t embrace all of it. “If you'd been up here 10, 15 years ago, the ocean would be frozen. We could go for a snow machine ride on it. Right now, it's just open water.”