Beluga studies bring together Inupiat, Mashantucket tribe teens

North Slope research project spawns a whale of a long-term education project

An Inupiat student from Alaska’s North Slope with a beluga at the Mystic Aquarium in Mystic, Connecticut. Photo courtesy of the Mystic Aquarium.

A common interest in whaling, climate change and the power of education has brought about unique cultural exchange between teen-aged Inupiat Eskimo students on Alaska’s North Slope and their Mashantucket tribe counterparts in Connecticut.

The Point Lay Mashantucket Educational and Cultural Exchange Program, a cooperative cultural exchange between the Mystic Aquarium, in Mystic, Conn., and the North Slope Borough, is now in its 10th year.

Its roots lie in a Mystic Aquarium program that brought researchers from Connecticut to Point Lay, 179 miles west of Utqiagvik, in 1994, to study the only village in Alaska that hunts belugas as a community, said Tracy Romano, vice president of biological research and chief scientist at the aquarium.

Right from the start children in the small village on the shores of the Chukchi Sea were extremely curious about what the researchers were up to.

“During the hunt, when we were harvesting tissues from the belugas, the kids were right there,” some of them as young as 5 and 6 years old, Romano said.

“The people of Point Lay were so supportive of our research,” Romano said, who presented a talk on the project during the recent Alaska Marine Science Symposium in Anchorage. “We asked the elders what can we do for Point Lay in return? They said educational programs for our youth.”

Given her position with the Mystic Aquarium, Romano and others there brainstormed an educational program that would take place at the aquarium, bringing together the Inupiat teenagers from the North Slope with their counterparts in the Mashantucket tribe, who have been very supportive of the aquarium’s beluga studies.

The Mashantucket tribal people have donated money for Arctic coast whale studies, so we wanted then to be included in our program, she said. “We said here are two distinct populations who have relied on the sea, who can exchange their cultures and their traditions.”

Through the cultural exchange program which began around 2008, with financial support from the North Slope Borough, the students learn how different they are, but that they have more cultural similarities, Romano said.

Students from Alaska’s North Slope joined their Mashantucket tribe counterparts for a research cruise on New York’s Long Island Sound as part of the Point Lay Mashantucket Educational and Cultural Exchange Program, a cultural exchange coordinated by the Mystic Aquarium in Mystic, Conn. Photo courtesy of the Mystic Aquarium

“They both have a whaling history, but although their dances are different, they both have dances and drums. They have different foods with special significance,” she said. “Some of these local traditions and customs are being lost as elders die, so we are trying to engage youths to retain the culture as well as the natural resources.”

“Our goal was basically to encourage young adults, high school kids, to learn more about the bigger world and to encourage them to become interested in going to college,” said Robert Suydam, senior wildlife biologist for the North Slope Borough.

“What better than to have local students become scientists,” he said. “Some [as a result of the exchange program] have taken college classes and gone to school in Anchorage and Juneau. They get exposed to the bigger world, to science and conservation. The North Slope Borough has been incredibly supportive of this program and provided money for the program.”

Suydam said there was concern that students from Point Lay and other North Slope communities who participated in the program would have major culture shock going to Connecticut, “but they really don’t go through culture shock,” he said. “students coming from Connecticut (to Point Lay) have more of a culture shock.”

After the North Slope Borough had funded the program for a while, the aquarium recently received a grant from the National Science Foundation for the program for the current year.

“It is a lot of had work, but as very satisfying and worthwhile program when you see the kids learn,” Romano said.

The program provided an opportunity for students to get into the water with the belugas at the aquarium and for the North Slope students to go to the Mashantucket community center in Mystic and Indian powwows where tribes from all over the Northeastern United States gather.

“The kids get a lot out of that,” she said.

“I think every year we improve the program and it gets better and better,” Romano said. “This past fall was incredible. Usually the students are shy, but all the students opened up. By the end of the week they were best friends. We had some really great discussions on indigenous rights. The kids really opened up on that.”

To date the program has included a total of 40 North Slope students on eight trips from Alaska to Connecticut and four trips for a total of 14 students from Connecticut to Point Lay.

The program itself is really paving the way for the future, she said.

“I think the students are the future and our goal is to enable them to become the future scientists and wildlife managers, so that marine resources remain sustainable in the Arctic,” Romano said. “We hope the students will be inspired by their time here (at the aquarium) and hopefully go into science, to protect the environment for generations to come.”