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IU trip above the Arctic Circle for repatriation

October 1, 2015

The month of June 2015 found IU anthropologists Jayne-Leigh Thomas and April Sievert over 350 miles above the Arctic Circle in Barrow, a town with a population of 4,000 on Alaska’s North Slope.

Bundled against the 40-degree summer cold, they ate maktak (bowhead whale skin with blubber) and natchiq (seal meat), and then Thomas was thrown in the air on a bearded seal skin blanket (trampoline-style) held tight by villagers; and attended late-night traditional dances at a local gym — all part of the Nalukataq, an annual whaling festival and celebration of community.

“We were invited by the Native Village of Barrow. Travel arrangements were made so we could attend the entire celebration,” says Thomas, director of the IU Bloomington NAGPRA Office.

She and Sievert, director of the Glenn Black Laboratory of Archaeology, traveled to Barrow to repatriate Alaska Native human remains and funerary objects from IU. The project was funded under the auspices of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, known as NAGPRA. Federal law requires museums and agencies to inventory human remains and sacred items and return them to the appropriate tribes. The project was a collaborative effort in partnership with the Native Village of Barrow Iñupiat Traditional Government.

Their visit is the continuation of a relationship that began nearly 100 years ago between Barrow and IU. The collection came to IU from Mollie Greist, a missionary nurse from Monticello, Ind. She and her husband, physician Henry Greist, lived and worked in the remote North Slope community from 1921 to 1936.

The IU anthropologists say they were made to feel extraordinarily welcome by their hosts, Native Village of Barrow president Thomas Olemaun, finance director Eunice Brower, and NAGPRA coordinator and realty director Flossie Mongoyak, who helped arrange the visit.

“It was great to finally meet Flossie after so many phone conversations and emails over the past year,” Thomas says.

Thomas worked with representatives of the Native Village of Barrow to be awarded the National Park Service NAGPRA grant.

Oil and gas exploration brought change to the North Slope in recent decades, and modern Barrow is well connected to the global economy. The Iñupiat people make up two-thirds of the population of Barrow and continue to live the subsistence lifestyle, which is vital. The Iñupiat depend on whaling, fishing, hunting seals, walruses, caribou, and geese.

Bowhead whales migrate along the coast twice a year, allowing for whaling seasons in the spring and fall. The Iñupiat whale in skin boats in the spring, using harpoons to harvest 30- to 49-foot long whales. Whaling is regulated by the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission and the International Whaling Commission. This spring, nine of 39 crews succeeded in harvesting the whales.

The spring whaling season is followed by the Nalukataq. Successful crews celebrate their harvest and share their bounty with the entire community. All attending are fed and portions are distributed: frozen whale meat, maktak, fins, fermented whale, duck soup, baked bread, eskimo doughnuts, donated oranges and apples, a sprinkling of candy, unlimited tea, coffee, juice, and, finally, cake.

“It’s all about community,” Thomas says. “Nothing is wasted.”

The festivities continue with the characteristic blanket-toss. Participants are bounced into the air on a seal-skin blanket. The day concludes with traditional dancing. Children to elders, many wearing traditional clothing, take turns dancing with joy to ancient songs.The celebrations extend past midnight but take place in bright daylight: The midsummer sun doesn’t set in Barrow for nearly three months.

Eldon Fischer and Forrest Ahkiviana, Native Village of Barrow employees, did the main work to rebury the ancestral remains and associated funerary objects. The remains and objects were laid to rest in the Barrow town cemetery.

Soon after Thomas and Sievert returned to Bloomington, additional remains were repatriated. They were from museums in Alaska and Illinois and the Utkeagvik Iñupiat Corporation. A plaque recognizes the three institutions and the Utkeagvik Iñupiat Corporation Science anthropologist Anne Jensen for their roles in returning the remains.

The IU scholars hope the relationship will lead to other projects — for example, bringing Barrow residents to Indiana.

Their travel aligns with several priorities in the university’s Bicentennial Strategic Plan, including a global university and a community of scholars.

This story, written by IU Communications media specialist Steve Hinnefeld, originally appeared in Inside IU Bloomington on  Sept. 30, 2015. A subsequent interview with Steve Russell  first appeared on the Indian Country Today Media Network website and on the Newsweek magazine website.