CORVALLIS, Ore. - It's been nearly 40 years since Inupiaq villagers lived on King Island in the Bering Sea between Alaska and Russia and recollections of their rugged life fade with the passing of each elder.
The National Science Foundation is funding an innovative project to capture the oral history of surviving King Islanders, while at the same time weaving in scientific data collection and the training of Inupiaq youth to conduct research, learn survey techniques and record the project.
A team of Oregon State University researchers has received a four-year, $517,209 grant from the NSF to document the cultural geography, biogeography, and traditional ecological knowledge of King Island Inupiaq peoples and compare it with 21st-century science.
"This is really a meeting of the minds between the observations and recollections of elders' traditional knowledge and modern scientific techniques," said Deanna Kingston, an assistant professor of anthropology at OSU and one of the principal investigators in the study.
"There is some tension among a few of the elders about this 'collision' of science and tradition, in that youth are being taught in a Western educational setting versus the traditional setting of listening to elders in the community houses," added Kingston, who is an Inupiat descendant of King Island villagers.
"But there is also the understanding that today's generation is not learning what the elders learned and they are lamenting that loss of knowledge. They understand that kids need to learn Western scientific techniques and knowledge in order to operate in modern society."
During the four-year project, the OSU researchers and colleagues from Alaska will take about 50 Inupiaq elders to the island, where they will provide their recollections of collecting greens, hunting marine mammals, fishing, gathering bird eggs and observing landforms, weather conditions, and village life. Inupiaq teens will record those recollections on tape, at the same time, documenting visually many of the plants, birds, rocks and other subjects referred to by the elders.
Jesse Ford, an associate professor of fisheries and wildlife at OSU and co-principal investigator, will lead the complementary scientific investigation of the island's flora and fauna. Another OSU colleague, Kim Nelson, will lead a study of the island's birds, including murres and awklets, while a graduate student will be hired in 2005 to conduct studies of the area's marine mammals.
Others "Western-educated experts," Kingston said, will include archaeologists, a linguist and a videographer.
The research will not be easy. King Island rises steeply from the Bering Sea and the old village is built into the cliffs and supported by stilts. The top of the island, which is about 2.5 miles long and 1.5 miles wide, is somewhat flatter, yet still rugged, cold and covered in tundra.
"My oldest uncle was said to be able to predict the weather from the top of King Island," Kingston said. "He would go up there to observe the conditions and then tell the others that 'in three days, it will be safe to cross to the mainland.' And sure enough, in three days, they could cross.
"That is the kind of intersection between the knowledge of the elders and scientific techniques that will be fascinating to compare," she added.
Science, in fact, may provide a key for helping indigenous peoples of the area prepare for potential effects from apparent global warming. Some of the first major impacts could hit the polar regions, which may be affected by melting icecaps, rising waters, changing currents and altered habitats - all of which could influence people's dependence on fish, birds and sea mammals.
In turn, the elders' knowledge may help scientists better understand the complex interactions between weather conditions, the environment and natural resources.
The fact that King Island has been vacated since the mid-1960s also makes it an interesting place to study, Kingston pointed out. The team's scientists will be looking to see whether the absence of humans - who left when jobs became scarce and the village school shut down - has helped some species of birds, plants and fish recover. They are looking to the recollections of the elders to help them make such comparisons.
However, the oral historians may hear a different story.
"In the world view of many Inupiat, the animals give themselves up to people who are worthy of their respect," Kingston said. "If the people aren't there, the animals would choose to leave. The animals need the people to help them with their rebirth, their reincarnation, through ceremonies and rituals.
"So while some scientists may see the lack of human habitation as regenerative," Kingston said, "some Inupiaq would foresee the opposite effect."
The OSU scientists are contracting with Alaskan archaeologists to study the island. Kingston said little is known about how long the Inupiaq have lived there, though Russian historical records from ship captains navigating the Bering Sea in the 1700s noted that King Island was inhabited.
"One of the things my mother told me is that there is a cold storage cave east of the village that kept meat frozen year-round," Kingston said. "Each family had its own spot in the cave. We'd like to find it, though it may be iced over after 40 years. But there may also still be meat caches in there."
The researchers will first visit King Island in the summer of 2004 to assess the condition of the old village and determine whether or not it is safe to stay there.
The actual study will take place in the summers of 2005 and 2006. During the fourth year, they hope to return photos, DVDs, video and other documentation of the island and the interviews to the community.
"A major goal of ours is to see how King Islanders perceive their place and their interaction with that place," Kingston said. "They say that it is paradise, it is sacred, it is next door to heaven. Its history is wrapped up in the Inupiaq origin story of the island.
"We hope to capture that sense of power and paradise."