Percy Nusunginya was interviewed on February 25, 2016 by Karen Brewster at the Tuzzy Consortium Library in Barrow, Alaska. Sarah Skin, Oral Historian for the North Slope Borough Iñupiat History, Language and Culture Commission (IHLC) was also present at the interview. In this first part of a two part interview, Percy talks about his family's history as whalers, his own education about sea ice and whaling, and the importance of understanding the wind, the current, and the ice conditions in order to be safe on the ice. Percy also talks about drifting out on the ice, the role of ice in whaling and choice of whale camp location, and the effect of climate change on changing ice conditions.
Digital Asset Information
Project: Sea Ice Project Jukebox
Date of Interview: Feb 25, 2016
Narrator(s): Percy Nusunginya
Interviewer(s): Karen Brewster, Sarah Skin
Transcriber: Sue Beck
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Personal and family background
Working on Naval Arctic Research Laboratory (NARL) ice islands
Family whaling history
Becoming a whaler, and getting his first snowmachine
Learning about sea ice and how to be safe on it, and changing ice conditions
Stories about drifting out on the ice
Effect of wind and current on ice conditions
Importance of understanding and checking the current
Ice break up event in the 1950s, and current dependence on search and rescue
Deciding on location for whaling camp
Determining safety and thickness of the ice, and generational transfer of knowledge
Changes in subsistence hunting, and changes in seasons and effect on whaling
Rough ice and pressure ridges
Teaching ice knowledge, and thinning ice and ice break off events
Deciding on ice safety and whether to go whaling, and location of whaling camp
Effect of climate change on ice conditions
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After clicking play, click a section of the transcript to navigate the audio or video clip.
KAREN BREWSTER: This is Karen Brewster. Today is February 25, 2016. And I’m here with Percy Nusunginya in Barrow, Alaska to talk about the sea ice for the Sea Ice Jukebox.
I’m also joined by Sarah Skin, the oral historian at the Inupiat History, Language, and Culture Commission here in Barrow.
Aarigaa, Percy. Thank you for coming in this morning.
PERCY NUSUNGINYA: My pleasure. My pleasure there, Karen. And good morning.
My name is Percy Nusunginya. I was born in -- I was born and raised here in Barrow. My ancestral lineage have been here in Barrow ever since Barrow was probably established back -- back -- back when.
KAREN BREWSTER: Thousands of years ago, huh?
PERCY NUSUNGINYA: Thousands and thousands of years ago. Because in -- in the oral history of the -- Barrow, there were four clan houses or qargi's, and one of them is Ualinaaqmiut and that is our family qargi.
Ualinaaqmiut meaning -- Ualiñaaq meaning "west." So, Ualinaaqmiut, we are of west side.
So if we were living back then, I would now be the chief of that clan.
And in my family’s whaling history here in Barrow has been since time immemorial. From the latest history of my family, we had from Point Barrow Expedition that was done by John Murdoch and Lieutenant -- Lieutenant Ray.
So, one of my ancestor -- my great-great-great grandfather, Amayuna, he had seven whale -- whale flukes tattooed across his chest.
And there is a controversy about that, Smithsonian keeping that piece of skin, which is -- which my family’s.
So therefore, whatever the white man is keeping, well, we would like to get it back. And that -- and that is my ancestor we’re talking about. KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah.
PERCY NUSUNGINYA: And so my -- my ancestors have been whalers, meaning that if you’re a whaler, you have to have some kind of supernatural powers. So, I am quite confident, back then my ancestors were shamans.
And you -- you have to be in order to survive, to keep going, and to lead your people.
So that is my family history on the whaling and -- and so we’ve been here since time immemorial, and we never came from anywhere, other than my mom came from Cape Lisburne.
KAREN BREWSTER: And your mom’s name?
PERCY NUSUNGINYA: Is Faye Kimmialuk Lisburne.
KAREN BREWSTER: And your father’s name?
PERCY NUSUNGINYA: My father is -- my father was late Reverend Ned Nusunginya.
KAREN BREWSTER: And when were you born?
PERCY NUSUNGINYA: I was born here in Barrow 2/25/1941.
KAREN BREWSTER: And how many brothers and sisters?
PERCY NUSUNGINYA: Well, I had -- in my family there were ten of us, but two -- two died earlier.
Now, there’s only my two sisters -- my two older sisters and myself living.
KAREN BREWSTER: Okay. Aarigaa. And did you go to school here in Barrow?
PERCY NUSUNGINYA: I -- I went to my grade school here by Barrow Day -- over there at Barrow Day School, which it was -- back then the Bureau of Indian Affairs school.
And we go to school 180 days straight with federal vacations, no teacher in-services, nothing. And we take a holiday on a federal holiday and no long weekend.
And why -- why we’re doing this I don’t know. It just make these -- I guess the immigrants that come up here want shorter working hours and keep the -- and therefore calling us lazy because we don’t have set hours to work, you know.
While the jobs are going to somebody else. None of ‘em are going to the Iñupiaqs, the Natives, so --
And -- and they have nerve enough to call us we’re lazy. So -- so with that, I -- you know, I ---
KAREN BREWSTER: What grade did you finish in school?
PERCY NUSUNGINYA: I finished here, my grade school here in Barrow, and then, too, the -- the Bureau of Indian Affairs have a policy -- a policy that you send your kids away to school never to return. Never to come back.
In my family, my grandfather, Max Egasak, was a great believer in education. My uncle, his name was Roscoe Aalaak. And then -- and then the funny part about it was the minute they took him away, put him to school, all of a suddenly my uncle became Roscoe Max.
KAREN BREWSTER: Yep, they mixed names up.
PERCY NUSUNGINYA: All of suddenly, my uncle became Roscoe Max.
So -- and the success -- The success part of the Bureau of Indian Affairs schools sending us away was never to come back, and my uncle was a BIA success story because he never came back.
And another successful BIA story was my brother. The oldest brother. My father sent him to school down in Eklutna and Sheldon Jackson, and he’s another BIA success story that he never came back.
KAREN BREWSTER: What was his name?
PERCY NUSUNGINYA: His name was Ronald. He was the oldest of our family.
KAREN BREWSTER: And did you go to Mount Edgecumbe?
PERCY NUSUNGINYA: Me, I went to Mount Edgecumbe for four years, but I am not a BIA success story. I came back.
KAREN BREWSTER: Uh-huh. And what did you do when you came back? For work?
PERCY NUSUNGINYA: When I got out of high school, I kicked around. Then one time, people at the Arctic Naval Research Laboratory (NARL) were looking for -- looking for someone. And then they found me.
And from then on, the -- the -- the lab or Arctic Research, they have a tendency to send people out to the middle of nowhere.
KAREN BREWSTER: Oh, did you go to ice islands?
PERCY NUSUNGINYA: I’ll get to that. KAREN BREWSTER: Okay.
PERCY NUSUNGINYA: But, I -- I -- I like -- I like their, you know, sending people out somewhere, because back then my folks had moved somewhere else. And nobody around here, so in a sense I was homeless.
Yeah, I was homeless ‘cause my folks were not here and somebody else was using the house, so I was -- I was homeless.
So I went to work for NARL and -- and -- and to make a -- so I -- I -- I asked him if I could stay out there and they agreed with me, and I stayed out there in their camp.
So that’s -- that’s -- was, you know, like I said, I was pretty much homeless. And then they -- they ship people around, especially -- ‘Cause I like to go there, ‘cause it’s something new to me.
And -- and then they were -- one time they were looking for someone to go to an -- to an ice island.
Now what the hell’s an ice island? I found out it was just a thick piece of ice -- glacier ice with rock debris and everything.
And the first -- first ice island I ever went to was Fletcher’s Ice Island, T-3. And that was -- it broke into a couple of pieces, three or four pieces. And the big one we were at was five miles by seven miles. And it was a hundred feet thick.
And it have, you know, mud debris, rocks, boulders, small boulders. But that -- that was --
They had two islands, and the other one was ARLIS II. That is the island that went around the Greenland, and it went back up. After it rounded the south part of Greenland, it went back up to the -- to the Ellesmere Shelf.
So I was also on the -- Altogether, my ice experience up there was about five years of my life. I spent about five years out there on the ice floating around.
Back then, there was a hot war. Vietnam was going on, and there was also a Cold War, which the Russians were very active up there -- up there in the Arctic.
They had more ice islands and more personnel than the Americans. But then the Americans had me, so we were alright.
KAREN BREWSTER: Right. So, can you talk about when you first went out whaling and out on the ice off of Barrow?
PERCY NUSUNGINYA: Actually, I never -- I -- I was not even interested in whaling. ‘Cause my grandfather, Michael Qiuġak, my mom’s adopted father, he was a whaler. But he was never a captain. He was just a whale killer.
And how he did -- how he did those was every time he touched that whale he would sing a song and the whale would come up belly up.
So -- and then my grandfather asked me if I wanted to learn his song. I was maybe about six, seven. And I told my grandfather, "Aapa who's gonna be a whaler?"
And -- and -- and my grandfather's song is lost some -- with him. He took that with him, so --
When I started whaling, I run into opposition that I could never even dreamed of. I never knew these people here in Barrow didn’t know anything about whaling. Only except what they’d learned from the others.
Back then, there were very few whaling crews. And to top it off, you know, in those few whaling crews during the Depression, back in 1920s and ‘30s depression, it hit everything up here. It hits us up here, too.
And those of us that don’t had, you know, any other -- any other way to make a living, ‘cause everything had plummeted down. The prices went down. Everything. Price of fur.
So quite -- quite a few -- quite a few of the old whaler -- whaling family were lost with during that depression.
Case in point, Sarah’s grandfather, Timothy Toovak, he was a big known whaler. But like I said, the Depression took -- took its toll.
Another one -- one of the big time whalers here in Barrow was also Isaiah Okakok. The father of the Okakoks here. And Timothy Toovak was the father of the Toovaks here.
So those were the two families that -- two big whaling families that I know of that were lost.
And the other one big family, the big whaling family that was lost during that depression was Savikpaligauraqs. And those Savikpaligauraqs are the Koonaloaks. That Koonaloak’s father was Savikpaligauraq. So, as far -- they were -- those people were whale killers.
KAREN BREWSTER: Did you -- when you were a boy, you didn’t go out whaling yet. Did you go out seal hunting?
PERCY NUSUNGINYA: Those I did, but, now, like I told you who was going to be a whaler.
I -- I -- yes, my family was whaling. I go out with them. My brother, Donald. My sister, Mabel. They’re -- they're whaling.
But -- and then -- and then -- and then somewhere along the line I got -- I got married to my first wife. Her name was Molly Ekowana. And then she died later on while our kids were young, so I with my second wife, Dora Iñuuraq.
But with my first wife, I found out that I had to -- my family had to eat. It was not just working for wages that -- that was not going to pay -- pay all the food bill. So I found out I had to go out with somebody.
So, at first, I went out with my sister Mabel’s crew. Because right after work, after five o’clock, my brother-in-law, Joseph Panigeo, Sr., would go out -- go -- go with his crew and I’d hop on with him, and we’d spend the night.
But the next year, me and my wife talked about it so we -- we decided to buy a snowmachine. And back then snowmachines, even though they were less than $1000, they were still up there as far as the moon.
KAREN BREWSTER: Was that in the ‘70s? PERCY NUSUNGINYA: Yeah, ‘60s. KAREN BREWSTER: Oh, '60s? PERCY NUSUNGINYA: ‘60s, ’70s.
KAREN BREWSTER: Oh, yeah. First snowmachine? PERCY NUSUNGINYA: Ii. KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah.
PERCY NUSUNGINYA: And I was hauling ass with a twelve-horse Bombardier. I mean, hauling ass.
KAREN BREWSTER: But when you were a little boy, did you go out seal hunting on the ice?
PERCY NUSUNGINYA: Now and then I just had to do something. I had to learn how to shoot.
KAREN BREWSTER: Right. And you had to learn about how to be safe out on the ice?
PERCY NUSUNGINYA: You had to -- you had to listen to somebody or you have to be very observant.
‘Cause otherwise nowadays they just go. They -- they -- they don’t know -- they’ve never been taught other than that the ice is frozen water.
KAREN BREWSTER: So who did you learn from?
PERCY NUSUNGINYA: Pretty much watch people and myself, ‘cause I had to go out there and go do it -- go do it. See if I could do it.
KAREN BREWSTER: Uh-huh. So what did you learn? What was something you learned by watching?
PERCY NUSUNGINYA: Something like I -- I could never -- never walk on the newly formed ice, because I’m always -- you know, when I tried to walk along that I would be sinking.
So you have to have an expertise to do -- to walk on the sikuliaq, fresh formed ice.
KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah. Did somebody ever show you how to walk on it? PERCY NUSUNGINYA: No. No. No. KAREN BREWSTER: You still don’t?
PERCY NUSUNGINYA: But I’ve seen pictures of them spreading their legs far apart, so -- so if I have to, I’ll have to try it that way.
But on my ice, as we know, whether the rest of the world wants to believe it or not, but up here in the Arctic we are really warming up. And even some newcomers would notice that it’s not cold up here.
Case -- another one case in point, this February we had this winter. It never even went below twenty below.
Back -- I remember back then it used to be about forty to fifty below without the chill, wind chill. But nowadays, especially this morning, I didn’t even -- I never even had to plug in my truck, which we forgot to plug in last night.
So I mean, it was -- the weather, the climate is changing. So, what ice we have out there, it forms and then the wind and the current would blow it away.
And then we’d have open water and then it would freeze again, and the right wind and the right current and it would take that ice away, so actually we don’t --
If we go out this spring, we will be lucky to have what little fast shore ice we could have.
KAREN BREWSTER: Yep, because when that ice goes away and new ice forms, it’s -- is it thin?
PERCY NUSUNGINYA: Yes. And -- and -- and it’s so thin, it don’t have a chance to anchor anywhere, so the wind -- it’s in the mercy of the wind and the current.
KAREN BREWSTER: Okay. Even if it connects back to the shorefast ice?
PERCY NUSUNGINYA: Right. As long as there is no pressure ridges to anchor it, you’re just in -- in a sense floating.
KAREN BREWSTER: Have you been on ice that’s floated away? PERCY NUSUNGINYA: Oh, yes!
KAREN BREWSTER: Can you talk about that?
PERCY NUSUNGINYA: Those are -- if you are one of those people that panic, it’s -- that’s it. But if you’re out there -- get adrifted -- well, what else can you do?
‘Cause like I said, my grandfather, Max Egasak, he -- he provided our family with lots of polar bear. That’s why me and my uncles don’t even care to eat polar bear meat.
And he’s always being adrifted out there, but people -- people around here never worry about him. He’ll be back -- he’ll be back quick.
‘Cause like I said, my family were whalers and you have to be -- you have to be a shaman.
And as far -- even though my grandfather was a big devout Christian, I doubt if he ever took his amulet off.
KAREN BREWSTER: When he drifted out, did he ever talk about that?
PERCY NUSUNGINYA: Oh, yes. KAREN BREWSTER: What did he tell you?
PERCY NUSUNGINYA: The people always talk about when he get drifted he would reach land up around Cape Simpson.
If he’s on the other side of the -- west side of the point, he would be -- he would go down around Peard Bay.
KAREN BREWSTER: And then he’d walk home?
PERCY NUSUNGINYA: Oh, yes. Well, like I said, he’s got -- he had to have something. And I always suspect that I think he flies. Yes.
KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah. Yeah. Well, do you think he knew where he was going to end up? PERCY NUSUNGINYA: Oh -- he has to.
KAREN BREWSTER: He knew how the ice moved? PERCY NUSUNGINYA: Ii. KAREN BREWSTER: He knew those currents and where the ice would go? PERCY NUSUNGINYA: Oh, yes.
KAREN BREWSTER: Did he teach you that?
PERCY NUSUNGINYA: I -- I never knew my grandfather. KAREN BREWSTER: Oh, okay.
PERCY NUSUNGINYA: Like I said, it’s -- it’s in my DNA. Okay? Whether you don’t -- whether you believe that or not, but whatever you -- it’s in my DNA.
KAREN BREWSTER: Okay. You mentioned the right wind and the right current pushed that new ice out. What’s the right wind and right current?
PERCY NUSUNGINYA: The right wind is north-northeast wind. It’s not east or northeast. It’s gotta be north-northeast. That’s nigiqpaq.
KAREN BREWSTER: Nigiqpaq. Okay.
PERCY NUSUNGINYA: Nigipapiaq. What we’re having right now, east wind is nigiqpaq.
But nigipapiaq is north-northeast, where even with a slight -- slight breeze it will blow the ice out. That’s the right wind and the right current.
KAREN BREWSTER: And what -- what’s the current doing? Is the current also northeast?
PERCY NUSUNGINYA: No, the current will have to come from the west going east. Qaisaġniq. KAREN BREWSTER: Qaisaġniq. Okay. PERCY NUSUNGINYA: Okay?
KAREN BREWSTER: That seems like the wind and the current are opposite.
PERCY NUSUNGINYA: Yes! Exactly. And for the white man to think, "Aw, that’s not true!" So.
With your white-man mentality that don’t work. It’s against the law. Okay?
But here, that’s the way it is.
KAREN BREWSTER: That's the way it works? PERCY NUSUNGINYA: Ii. KAREN BREWSTER: So having --
PERCY NUSUNGINYA: ‘Cause the wind coming from down there will be blowing even with a slight breeze, while that west current -- west current is making it open. That wind is gonna blow the --
KAREN BREWSTER: So does the wind have to be stronger than the current? PERCY NUSUNGINYA: No. KAREN BREWSTER: No? PERCY NUSUNGINYA: No. KAREN BREWSTER: It doesn’t matter? PERCY NUSUNGINYA: No. KAREN BREWSTER: A little bit of wind?
PERCY NUSUNGINYA: Another case in point, the current is so strong. On an ice island, we were going down the east Greenland Sea and the wind outside was blowing sixty miles an hour.
And we were going against that sixty miles an hour in the current. We were traveling three miles a day. KAREN BREWSTER: Wow. PERCY NUSUNGINYA: Against a sixty miles an hour wind.
KAREN BREWSTER: Because the current was pushing you?
PERCY NUSUNGINYA: The current was -- current is, you know, it got -- the ice -- the ice on the ice island, on ARLIS II, is seventy-five feet thick.
So the current can take it anywhere.
KAREN BREWSTER: Uh-huh. So when you’re out whaling and you're check -- you check the current, right? PERCY NUSUNGINYA: Oh, yes.
KAREN BREWSTER: So, is the current more important to check or the wind?
PERCY NUSUNGINYA: The current. Your current -- your -- ‘Cause, like I said, the wind is up here on the top. And the -- in some places you might have a deep pressure ridge, which the current can move around.
So the current is what you watch out for.
KAREN BREWSTER: Okay. So, what’s a safe current to be out at the lead edge. What’s safe?
PERCY NUSUNGINYA: Well, if we’re watching it, I would like to be on the qaisaġniq, the current coming from west. But those boys always cla -- you know, people that don’t know anything --
But the most dangerous current is coming from the -- coming from the east. Up there at the Point (Point Barrow), even though how tough you are, you get caught on it, and I have. And I had experience with that even with --
When I first started whaling with the men I had. Not boys. Men, that knew what to do. We were caught and we had to really rough it. KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah.
PERCY NUSUNGINYA: So, that -- so I pretty much stay away from the Point area.
KAREN BREWSTER: The current is stronger up there?
PERCY NUSUNGINYA: The east -- when the current is coming from the east.
KAREN BREWSTER: East. More up there. So can you tell about when you got caught out there? What happened?
PERCY NUSUNGINYA: Just got caught, that’s all. We thought we were faster than the current, but the current was faster.
KAREN BREWSTER: So was the ice breaking up?
PERCY NUSUNGINYA: No, coming in. The ice was coming in. The current was bringing in that loose ice.
KAREN BREWSTER: And why is that dangerous?
PERCY NUSUNGINYA: ‘Cause it will pile you up. Even out -- within open -- open water the loose ice can pressure -- can pressure ridge and there've been people that were killed that way.
KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah. Becomes an ivu?
PERCY NUSUNGINYA: Yeah. But with that open water back there that’s --
But the ice was big enough to pile up in front. It’s not really an ivu. It’s just what we call -- What the heck? Piling up.
Do you know mayuqtit? Ice is mayuqing. It’s climbing up.
KAREN BREWSTER: Okay. So it’s kind of going on top of each other? PERCY NUSUNGINYA: Ii. Ii. With the -- KAREN BREWSTER: But not building up? PERCY NUSUNGINYA: Just the current pushing that big ice.
KAREN BREWSTER: Okay. So, yeah, it kind of pushes up on top in one big pile?
PERCY NUSUNGINYA: And it -- and it kill them old whaler’s back -- back in the --
KAREN BREWSTER: I’ve heard about a time, it was in the ‘50s, there was a big wind and -- PERCY NUSUNGINYA: Oh, that time we didn’t lose any -- we didn’t lose anything.
KAREN BREWSTER: Were you out there when that happened?
PERCY NUSUNGINYA: Oh, yes. But me -- my uncle was with me, so he knew what to do. So we -- he made me pack.
We packed everything up. And before the wind even got stronger, he took us ashore.
KAREN BREWSTER: So how did he know it was time to leave?
PERCY NUSUNGINYA: Well, like I said, he know. This was not just going to be an ordinary wind, ‘cause the wind was warm.
KAREN BREWSTER: Okay. So that -- he -- he was paying attention to the wind? PERCY NUSUNGINYA: Right. KAREN BREWSTER: And he knew something was gonna change? PERCY NUSUNGINYA: Ii.
KAREN BREWSTER: Aarigaa. That was a big -- lots of crews had to run pretty fast, huh?
PERCY NUSUNGINYA: I guess so. We had no radios, nothing.
You just had -- when you went out there you did it on your own. Nowadays, you have to depend on somebody.
KAREN BREWSTER: Hm-mm. Yeah, nowadays they all have radios to talk to each other.
PERCY NUSUNGINYA: Ii. And, you know, even though with that kind, we still get people lost and coming up frozen because they’re not prepared.
‘Cause they’re -- up in their mindset the Search and Rescue is gonna come and pick ‘em up. And some -- and sometimes the Search -- One of these days Search and Rescue will never come. KAREN BREWSTER: Right.
PERCY NUSUNGINYA: And some of those people that don’t know how to do it out there, they just better kiss -- kiss -- kiss themselves goodbye.
KAREN BREWSTER: So, when you’re going out to put out whale camp, how do you decide what’s a good place? PERCY NUSUNGINYA: Ha! We look. KAREN BREWSTER: What are you looking for? PERCY NUSUNGINYA: Good place to camp.
KAREN BREWSTER: What -- what makes a good place to camp?
PERCY NUSUNGINYA: Well, for one thing, it better be smooth.
But out there you -- you have to find yourself a place where the whales are coming up. Whether it’s a good or bad, you have to be where the whales are. Not where you want to be.
KAREN BREWSTER: So you -- if it’s a good point in a bay or something where the whales are gonna come -- PERCY NUSUNGINYA: That’s where I’ll set up my camp.
KAREN BREWSTER: It doesn’t matter if the ice is thin. PERCY NUSUNGINYA: Well, we’ll just sit there with a windbreaker.
KAREN BREWSTER: Hm-mm. Do you ever set camp farther back and just go out to the -- PERCY NUSUNGINYA: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah. If it’s not safe? PERCY NUSUNGINYA: When it’s not --
Like I said, you can go out there with your boat and a windbreaker and have your camp up there farther on the safe ice.
KAREN BREWSTER: Do you test the ice for how thick it is? PERCY NUSUNGINYA: Well, you’d look.
KAREN BREWSTER: How do you tell?
PERCY NUSUNGINYA: Well, after years of experience you learn how to -- you learn how to tell. It’s not something that you -- they taught you in school or --
You have to be there physically to see it. Because most of these people around here, when you talk, they don’t listen. When you show ‘em, they listen,
KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah. Well, I know for ice you have to see it. PERCY NUSUNGINYA: Yes. KAREN BREWSTER: Definitely.
PERCY NUSUNGINYA: Yes. When you talk about it, you don’t know what you’re -- most of them will say, “He don’t know what he’s talking about.”
KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah. So what do you look for? How do you tell it’s good, thick ice?
What does it look -- can you describe what it looks like? I know it’s hard sitting here.
PERCY NUSUNGINYA: Ii. I mean, to describe it for somebody out there, you know, they would say that this guy don’t know what he’s talking about. You have to physically show. KAREN BREWSTER: Okay.
PERCY NUSUNGINYA: If I tell you, all I can say speaking English, "It’s a thin ice."
KAREN BREWSTER: Hm-mm. How would you -- is there a better way to describe it in Iñupiaq?
PERCY NUSUNGINYA: Well, English language is a bastardized language. There’s few Iñupiaq words in there, mainly Latin. So it’s not precise.
When you say "ice" in English, it’s a frozen water. But when you say "siku," it’s siku. It’s frozen water.
Sikuliaq is a newly formed ice. Okay?
Sikutchiaq is a new ice (similar to the type of new ice known as qinu).
So, if I tried to tell you in English, they would say I don’t know what I’m talking about.
KAREN BREWSTER: You can say it in Iñupiaq. PERCY NUSUNGINYA: Ii. But then again, what white man is gonna listen to Iñupiaq?
KAREN BREWSTER: But your kids and grandkids would listen in Iñupiaq.
PERCY NUSUNGINYA: Ii. They would. But if -- like I said, I am teaching them. KAREN BREWSTER: Good. PERCY NUSUNGINYA: Ii. Not just talking.
KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah. You take them out and show them?
PERCY NUSUNGINYA: Well, I try to. I try to teach ‘em.
But then again, these people here nowadays have a very short attention span. Very short.
KAREN BREWSTER: Ii. Yeah. Do you still go out seal hunting?
PERCY NUSUNGINYA: No, seal hunting -- Nowadays, it’s getting to be more of a recreation.
‘Cause the days of subsistence living are gone. They are. The subsistence is -- is gonna be a thing of the past.
KAREN BREWSTER: Why do you say that?
PERCY NUSUNGINYA: Because nobody’s learning it. It seems cheaper and easier to go to the store than to gather up all your hunting gear and get all your gas and go out for a few days and get nothing. What --
Where does that put you? How much money you wasted.
So, this white man will say that subsistence way of living is a way to go. It was back then. But nowadays nobody is doing it.
Only reason why you see so much of it is because they’re putting it on shows, and those people that are on the show are making money. So.
KAREN BREWSTER: I was going to ask you more about when you go whaling.
Everybody talks about the climate changing and the season for the ice getting shorter. Have you noticed that?
PERCY NUSUNGINYA: Oh, yes, definitely. Because if we go out this spring come May -- Take our last year’s weather for -- for example, because in early April and May we were raining. KAREN BREWSTER: Really!
PERCY NUSUNGINYA: Really. KAREN BREWSTER: Ah, man.
PERCY NUSUNGINYA: And when it’s raining, that is not very good for the ice.
KAREN BREWSTER: No. So, has it changed when you go out whaling? Are the whales coming earlier?
PERCY NUSUNGINYA: No. No. The whales -- it’s their pattern. It won’t change.
But the ice conditions and -- are changing. So therefore, you think the whaling is getting shorter. Yes, it is.
Because we don’t have any more thick fast shore ice to stay on. So, the whaling season is getting shorter and shorter. But the whales are up here on their -- on their schedule.
KAREN BREWSTER: Hm-mm. Yeah, I was wondering how you were adapting to the shorter season.
PERCY NUSUNGINYA: That’s what -- See, these people are not realizing that.
They want to go out later and later, but with -- with me finally getting back to this whaling scene, we’re going to see some changes with the way Barrow is whaling.
Because we got no leadership. No leadership in whaling whatsoever.
KAREN BREWSTER: Well, and you can’t go out ear -- You know, maybe you want to go out in February when the ice is better, but there're no whales.
You can only go when the whales are there. PERCY NUSUNGINYA: Ii. KAREN BREWSTER: Right?
PERCY NUSUNGINYA: Yeah, that’s right.
KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah. What -- what could happen if the ice gets so thin you can’t go out when the whales are here?
PERCY NUSUNGINYA: Well, I’ll have to change back my tactics, like -- like they do in fall whaling.
Just have to get a bigger boat and go out there. Okay?
KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah. What year did you start your own whaling crew? Do you remember what year?
PERCY NUSUNGINYA: My brother, he -- They moved to Anchorage. My first wife and I were, you know, didn’t know what the hell to do.
And then I asked her, “Do you want to go out?” Said, “Yeah!” So that was back --‘70s.
KAREN BREWSTER: Okay. I wanted to ask you about last year’s whaling. I heard that there was more rough ice last year than --
PERCY NUSUNGINYA: No. No. There was no rough -- it was no rougher than before.
Just that these -- like I said, these boys are just getting plain lazy.
KAREN BREWSTER: Then it was rougher than they were used to from the last couple of years? PERCY NUSUNGINYA: These boys don’t know what a rough ice is.
KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah. ‘Cause when you started, it was big pressure ridges --
PERCY NUSUNGINYA: Yes, these pressure ridges are -- you know, the ice is about eight to ten feet thick.
KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah. And you had to break trail through that, right?
PERCY NUSUNGINYA: Well, back then it was -- it was not that bad, because they were big chunks of ice.
KAREN BREWSTER: How is that different?
PERCY NUSUNGINYA: Because, you know, you’d be able to go around those, instead of just jumbled up.
Like what it’s been going on. Jumbled up ice and they got no big, thick ices around anymore, so on this thin ice, piles up real quick.
KAREN BREWSTER: I see. So is it harder work to build a trail through the little jumbles?
PERCY NUSUNGINYA: Yeah. ‘Cause it don’t break that easy. KAREN BREWSTER: Huh. I don’t know, I would think -- PERCY NUSUNGINYA: That’s your white-man -- your white-man mentality. KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah. Exactly.
PERCY NUSUNGINYA: Ii. Because ice is ice.
SARAH SKIN: I read an oral history. I want to say something. KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah. Go ahead, Sarah.
SARAH SKIN: The ice a long time ago in the ‘50s used to be flat. PERCY NUSUNGINYA: Ii. SARAH SKIN: And we had really thick -- You know, seventy five-foot thick ice back then with pressure ridges. KAREN BREWSTER: But it was flat?
SARAH SKIN: They said it was really flat back then. But nowadays it piles up really fast, the thin ice.
And the old men back then said it was -- like, crazy back -- you know -- to -- for it to pile up like that. No trails, no flat ice.
So today I think we see more, you know, real thin ice piling up really fast.
PERCY NUSUNGINYA: Because it piles up faster and it don’t bring that much pressure. It don’t take that much pressure to pile it up.
KAREN BREWSTER: Right. So it piles up even easier? PERCY NUSUNGINYA: Yeah. Small chunks and hard to chop.
KAREN BREWSTER: Oh, I see. Yeah, they get all tight together. Is that what you mean? They're tighter? PERCY NUSUNGINYA: No. It’s just long, thin pieces.
KAREN BREWSTER: Oh, okay. I was thinking it was like glue. PERCY NUSUNGINYA: No. KAREN BREWSTER: You know, it's all -- PERCY NUSUNGINYA: No.
KAREN BREWSTER: -- like a puzzle and glue. But no. That’s interesting. I’m glad you explained that. Thank you. I would -- as you say, my -- I’m just learning.
And so I don’t think of it in all these different ways. So that’s helpful.
My one question was, how would you ex -- someone like me who’s a beginner and just learning about going out on the ice, is there advice you would give somebody like me?
PERCY NUSUNGINYA: Well, I -- I -- I don’t take no white man or anybody out there, just my family and extended family.
‘Cause why would I want to teach somebody that just came up?
KAREN BREWSTER: Well, I’m -- okay. What would you teach your grandkids?
PERCY NUSUNGINYA: Now you want to know my secrets. You’re going to have to pay me to get it out. KAREN BREWSTER: Okay. PERCY NUSUNGINYA: Okay?
KAREN BREWSTER: I don’t want you to share your secrets. That’s okay.
But, yeah, it’s interesting. So, you said you’ve been on ice that’s floated out? PERCY NUSUNGINYA: Oh, yes.
KAREN BREWSTER: Can you say what happened? What kind of ice it -- it was thin ice?
PERCY NUSUNGINYA: It can -- it can be anything. The ice just might decided to crack right now. On a calm day.
KAREN BREWSTER: Oh! So was the current -- ?
PERCY NUSUNGINYA: It can break any time. Like I say, it’s only ice.
KAREN BREWSTER: Right. I’ve heard people say that it’s breaking more close to Barrow here. Nowadays, it breaks more close to town than it used to.
PERCY NUSUNGINYA: Like I told you, it’s a thin ice. And it got no anchor. KAREN BREWSTER: So, have you -- have you -- ? PERCY NUSUNGINYA: It can go out any time.
KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah. Does it seem like it’s happening closer?
PERCY NUSUNGINYA: It’s happening out there. KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah. More than -- ?
PERCY NUSUNGINYA: If we ever have a good strong wind from somewhere, the fast shore ice is gonna blow away.
Like about five miles down the coast, it’s right on the edge.
KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah. Wow. No shorefast ice? PERCY NUSUNGINYA: No shorefast ice. KAREN BREWSTER: Wow. PERCY NUSUNGINYA: That’s why I might have to get my big-ass motor -- my big boat here this spring.
KAREN BREWSTER: I was going to ask, do -- how do you decide that it’s okay to go out whaling? That it’s safe?
PERCY NUSUNGINYA: Well, these people around here will have to wait for the decision from Barrow whaling captains. KAREN BREWSTER: But for you, yourself, and your crew?
PERCY NUSUNGINYA: But for me, I can handle them. If I decided to go, we’ll go.
KAREN BREWSTER: Is there any time you’d look at ice and think, "It’s no good. We’re not going."?
PERCY NUSUNGINYA: I cannot say that. I have to go. I have to go out there and take those boys out there.
Okay, we’ll sit camp here. If we have to stay there a week, we will.
KAREN BREWSTER: When do you start going out and scouting? Like, right this time of year? PERCY NUSUNGINYA: Oh, the boys go out. KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah. They going out now?
PERCY NUSUNGINYA: I don’t know. But nowadays we got drone, satellite pictures and whatever.
KAREN BREWSTER: Do you use that stuff?
PERCY NUSUNGINYA: Satellite. Other drone, we got them, but we have to learn how to operate one.
KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah. Have you ever used those maps? That’s -- Matt Druckenmiller worked on a couple years ago, and --
This is from last spring. That shows the trails that everybody used.
PERCY NUSUNGINYA: 'Cause ice is never the same year after year. KAREN BREWSTER: No. PERCY NUSUNGINYA: Ii. You make new trails.
KAREN BREWSTER: Right. I didn’t know if last -- if you saw that from last year, and did you use it last year?
You can’t use it this year. It’s different, as you say, but --
If where you went whaling is on there? PERCY NUSUNGINYA: No, we’re way in the hell over here somewhere.
KAREN BREWSTER: Oh, you go way south, huh? PERCY NUSUNGINYA: Ii.
KAREN BREWSTER: Do you always go to the same -- ? PERCY NUSUNGINYA: We go in that direction.
KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah. You always go the same direction. Why -- why do you go south?
PERCY NUSUNGINYA: Because, like I said, I got caught up there in the Point and I’m not going to get caught again. KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah. So you like it to the south.
PERCY NUSUNGINYA: Because every time there’s ice -- ice starting to come in, those people will start to run. Ask Sarah.
Her -- her family’s over in the -- and they hunt -- they stay over there. SARAH SKIN: Yeah. KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah. So -- Neat.
PERCY NUSUNGINYA: So this -- When this ice is coming from the east, it goes out straight out from around this area.
So that’s why I stay further down around Monument.
KAREN BREWSTER: So the ice tends to not go out so much there? PERCY NUSUNGINYA: No.
KAREN BREWSTER: Well, that’s interesting. And the same -- PERCY NUSUNGINYA: But then again -- But then again, that’s too far for the other boys and not like it.
KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah. You use a lot of gas to get there, huh?
PERCY NUSUNGINYA: Well, I don’t think so. Because they use a lot of gas because they’re close to Barrow and they come back and forth every five minutes. KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah. So you guys stay?
PERCY NUSUNGINYA: We stay over there fully loaded for -- We’re fully loaded for a week. KAREN BREWSTER: Okay. Yeah, cool.
PERCY NUSUNGINYA: And I have to teach my boys, you know, on how to start cooking with blubber and everything. Blubber instead of using so much propane and everything.
That way we would be more dependent on each other. ‘Cause we never even know when we’re gonna run out of gas or propane.
KAREN BREWSTER: Hm-mm. Or like your great -- your grandpa. You never know when you might drift away and need to survive for a while. PERCY NUSUNGINYA: Mm.
KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah. Aarigaa. Is there anything else?
PERCY NUSUNGINYA: Like I said, the climate is changing very, very -- faster than what they’re predicting.
Because here, noticing that, you know, our ice is not -- is -- seems like it’s getting thinner and thinner and our temperature up here is getting warmer and warmer.
And we are starting -- if -- you might notice that we are starting to have a little bit more winds.
KAREN BREWSTER: Oh, really? PERCY NUSUNGINYA: Ii.
KAREN BREWSTER: And is that affecting the ice, the more wind?
PERCY NUSUNGINYA: Well, like I said, it’s keeping it -- it’s moving it. KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah, moving it more.
PERCY NUSUNGINYA: It don’t give it a chance to stay in one place and pile up. KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah. Okay. Yeah.
PERCY NUSUNGINYA: So, other than that, that’s about what I can think of right now.
KAREN BREWSTER: Okay. Sarah, did you have any questions?
SARAH SKIN: I think I've -- we’ve heard what we want.