What Walrus and Polar Bear Have to Teach Us About Wisdom and Sustenance
September 20, 2018
By Anna Hoover, curator of the exhibition Aiviq & Nanuq: Sea Horse and Sea Bear of the Arctic
For thousands of years, Alaska Native people have co-existed with our animal neighbors in various environments and land/seascapes. We have persistently learned through trial and error how to best utilize every raw material these animals’ bodies offer us. It is this continued co-evolution that I strive to protect.
The flesh that nourishes our bodies, the gut that keeps us dry, the bone that makes strong tools and weapons, the clam feed from the stomach, the skin that carries our seafarers over water, and the fur that protects us from the cold, not to mention the teeth and ivory of our cherished amulets - these are our sustenance. We have kept track of the populations that provide us this sustenance.
Because of our ancient relationship with animals like walrus and polar bear, we carry a heavy weight when they are in need. We require the same resources they do, and when they are showing stress, we must pay attention. Because we still exist in the environments they inhabit, we directly observe changes in their behaviors and lifestyle.
I am proud to have been a part of the planning of Aiviq & Nanuq: Sea Horse and Sea Bear of the Arctic exhibition, which is on view Oct. 5, 2018 through May 12, 2019, at the Anchorage Museum because I believe that in curating knowledge and objects for the public to experience, we are paying due respect to these animals and their life experiences. We are also paying homage to the individuals who for millennia have been inspired by, appealing to, and living alongside these great creatures of the North.
When Patterns Become Science
During my short lifetime I have heard stories about many animals whose lives are being affected by forces outside their control. I believe we have a responsibility to raise awareness of how these forces influence the animals who cannot speak for themselves.
Walruses call Bristol Bay home. Large male herds dot our coastline. We learn about their lives from local headlines and through stories shared by old-timers. When the herd has moved to a new haul-out location or a stray animal as turned up in an odd place, these are clues that there perhaps has been a landslide at the cape, the place of their regular haul-out, or that food has become scarce in their typical feeding grounds. We learn through observation. We are the first scientists.
The same goes for the polar bear. We share our environment and observe each other’s behavior daily and are able to detect patterns that over time become science. Lately, polar bears are spending more time on shore. This behavior is interpreted as being related to changes in their floating home, the sea ice. When sea ice melts, there is less floating surface area reaching the shore, changing both polar bear and seal (a primary food source) habitat and making seals less convenient prey.
Foretelling A Future Arctic
In climate-induced conflict such as this, humans usually win. Hunters who drag their harpooned whale to shore now offer an enticing ready-caught meal to a hungry polar bear whose instinct compels him to approach a human’s kill. Only time can tell what the future holds within this scenario.
I hold my hands up in gratitude to the doers and makers who continue the age-old practices of observation and interpretation. Without their generations-old wisdom, our lives would be much less informed and rather drab.
IMAGE CREDIT: Film still from "Generations" a film by Anna Hoover.