Smithsonian Spotlight: Alaska Native Language Recovery

D Roy Mitchell 2009 crop small
Date: Thursday, November 5th at 7pm

Location: Arctic Studies Center at the Anchorage Museum

D. Roy Mitchell, research analyst for the Alaska Native Language Preservation & Advisory Council, discusses the causes of language loss including involuntary boarding school programs in the past to ongoing economic and political domination, and the work by Alaska Native communities to revitalize their languages.

This event is sponsored by the Recovering Voices Program, an initiative led by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.

Tracing Roots: Delores Churchill and the Hat of the Long Ago Person Found


What would you do if you found a woven spruce hat in a retreating glacier?  For master weaver Delores Churchill, it was a chance to connect the past to her present. The National Museum of Natural History will host a screening of “Tracing Roots: Delores Churchill and the Hat of the Long Ago Person Found” on October 28th.   Please join us as we accompany her on a journey into the past to discover the origins of this unique artifact and what it means to the Haida culture. 

Delores Churchill is a Haida elder from Ketchikan, Alaska who has devoted much of her life to mastering the craft of weaving and preserving her cultural heritage.   As a child, she was forced to leave home and attend a residential school.  While there, she was not allowed to speak her native language or adhere to her tribe’s cultural practices.  Despite this, Delores remembered her language and tradition and is a strong proponent of keeping traditional language and culture alive.  She learned to weave from her mother Selina Peratrovich, a respected weaver in her own right, who taught Delores everything she knew.  Haida weaving uses cedar bark and spruce roots to create tightly woven baskets and hats.  The weaving is so tight as to be waterproof.   Traditionally only females were allowed to weave in Haida culture but males are now learning the craft as well.   Delores is certain that passing the knowledge down through classes and traditional channels will help keep the Haida weaving tradition alive and ensure that Native art is viewed as part of the modern world, not just as museum artifacts.

This program on October 28th is free and open to the public. The film screening begins at 6:15 in  Q?rius Theater at the National Museum of Natural History. After the screening, there will be a discussion session with Delores Churchill and producer/director Ellen Frankenstein where we welcome your questions, as well as a weaving demonstration. Earlier in the day, Delores will demonstrate her weaving in NMNH’s Q?rius Education Center.

Please RSVP for this event here

Harvest: Quyurciq and other films

PWilliams by Fabio Domenig CROP


Date: Sunday, October 11th at 2pm

Location: Anchorage Museum auditorium, FREE


Documentary shorts about Alaska Natives, including Harvest: Quyurciq featuring Peter Paul Kawagaelg Williams (Yup'ik) of Sitka. Other films are A Way of Making Life Beautiful: Yup'ik Art Between Two Worlds, Trapping at 15 Below, and The Story of NANANordic. A question and answer session with Williams follows the film screenings. Free. Enter through the Seventh Avenue entrance.

Photo by Fabio Domenig

Material Traditions Artists' Residency

Tsimshian whistle 014171_000 smVoices from Cedar: Carved Whistles and Rattles of Southeast Alaska

Whistles, rattles, and clappers summon spirits and echo their voices during the dances and ceremonies of Southeast Alaska. Carved from red or yellow cedar, these traditional instruments blend distinctive musical sounds with complex beauty of form. Master carvers John Hudson (Tsimshian), Norman Jackson (Tlingit), and Donald Varnell (Haida) will demonstrate how they are made and share knowledge of their cultural meanings during the Voices from Cedar artists’ residency October 5th-9th at the Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center, located in the Anchorage Museum. The artists will teach students and museum staff, and compare their own work to historical examples in the Living Our Cultures, Sharing Our Heritage exhibition. Museum members and the public are welcome to meet the artists during open house hours on Thursday Oct. 8 and Friday Oct. 9 from 1-3pm.

The program is sponsored by the Surdna Foundation, CIRI Foundation, and Smithsonian Council for Arctic Studies.

Photo: Tsimshian whistle. National Museum of the American Indian collection.

Smithsonian Spotlight: In the Scheme of All Matters Iñupiaq

Edna MacLean EQ smallDate: Thursday, September 3rd at noon 

Location: Arctic Studies Center gallery at the Anchorage Museum

According to Iñupiaq scholar Edna Ahgeak MacLean, Ph.D., "Courses of change to the Iñupiaq people of the North Slope will require strong programs for the retention of our identity as Iñupiat." In this lecture she discusses how her recently published North Slope Iñupiaq dictionary plays a part in this process.

This event is sponsored by the Recovering Voices Program, an initiative led by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.

Arctic Studies Center & Anchorage Museum Host Skateboarding Events

The URBAN Interventions series of Polar Lab motivates and empowers youth through creative, healthy expression. The first program in this series, Skate Art, brings New York-based skateboarder Jim Murphy to the museum. A member of the Lenni Lenape tribe, Murphy is the co-founder of Wounded Knee Skateboards and the director of the Wounded Knee Four Directions Skateparks program of the Stronghold Society, a non-profit organization working with Native and non-Native youth through skateboarding and the arts. The museum hosts Murphy as he works with local youth to personalize skateboard decks with art inspired by Anchorage Museum and Smithsonian collections.

Additional free public events are: 

Public Lecture and Film Screening
7 p.m. Friday, Aug. 14 

Skate Jam
3 to 5 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 16
Spenard Recreation Center at the Anchorage Museum
Music, prizes, demos
Boarders and spectators welcome

Smithsonian Spotlight: Traditional Healing for the 21st Century

Meda DeWitt-Schleifman
Date: Thursday, August 6th at noon

Location: Arctic Studies Center gallery at the Anchorage Museum

Tlingit Traditional Healer Meda DeWitt-Schleifman discusses how Alaska Native traditional health practices are relevant and accessible, and how they can provide the basis for living well today.

This event is sponsored by the Recovering Voices Program, an initiative led by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.

Arctic Spring Festival Success!

By: Bill Fitzhugh. Originally published in the ASC Newsletter, No 22. 62-63.

Official poster for the Arctic Spring Festival.

More than 50,000 people were in the museum during the Arctic Spring Festival and over 5,000 people interacted directly with experts at stations in the Sant Ocean Hall and the Evans Gallery, while an additional 1,900 visited the Q?rius Education Center to play games, learn crafts, explore objects, jam on video games, and watch films related to Arctic science and culture. Just as one example, Martin Nweeia’s narwhal station in the Sant Ocean Hall logged 1,262 visitors in four hours!

Martin Nweeia attracts a crowd with his replica narwhal tusk! Photo: James DiLoreto, Smithsonian Institution.

The festival also featured performances in the Rotunda and Q?rius Loft by a youth group from the Uummannaq Children's Home in Uummannaq, Greenland, and a contemporary music and dance performance by Jody Sperling’s NYC-based dance team on the theme of melting Arctic ice.

Jody Sperling's group performs Ice Cycle.
Choreographer Jody Sperling, her company Time Lapse Dance, and composer Matthew Burtner present Ice Cycle for the evening dance performance on Saturday, May 9. Photo: Trish Mace.

Visitors and experts, young and old, local DC residents, and travelers from afar all had great conversations with Arctic experts and unique educational experiences throughout the Museum.

Igah Hainnu instructs Noor Johnson on traditional caribou carving. Ms. Hainnu is an artist from Clyde River, Canada, who was sponsored by the Embassy of Canada to come down for the Festival and share her knowledge and art with our visitors. Photo: James Di Loreto, Smithsonian Institution.


Bill Fitzhugh, Director of the Arctic Studies Center, addresses a question at the panel. Left to right: Mead Treadwell, Craig Fleener, Stephanie Pfirman, Bill Fitzhugh. Photo: Brittany M. Hance, Smithsonian Institution.

The program began with a Friday afternoon panel discussion with eight Arctic experts from the Smithsonian (Krupnik and Fitzhugh), Arctic Research Commission (John Farrell), DOS (Nikoosh Carlo), Canadian Museum of Nature (Margaret Beckel), Stephanie Pfirman (Barnard college), Craig Fleener (Alaska Governor’s office), and Mead Treadwell (former ARC chief and Lt. Gov. of Alaska). The panel was opened with Sounds of the Arctic by Charles Morrow and CAFF award winning photos and other Arctic photos from government agencies, set to sound by Meghan Mulkerin. Arctic films were shown on Friday at the panel and all day on Sunday, by the Greenland Eyes International Film Festival. In addition, the Uummannaq Greenland Youth Ensemble delighted the audience with a short performance at the panel. A reception was hosted Friday night by the Danish/ Greenland Embassy. Friday afternoon and Saturday were devoted to the public education events noted above, presented by NMNH, NOAA, NPS, DOS, DOI, USFWS, BLM, CAFF, BOEM, NSSI, NAS, NSF, NASA, ONR, National Ice Center, Tromso Museum, the Arctic Council, the Canadian Embassy, the Royal Norwegian Embassy, and the Danish Embassy with Visit Greenland.

Pablo Clemente-Colón, Chief Scientist from the U.S. National Ice Center interacts with a visitor in the Sant Ocean Hall.

More than 150 people from over 20 partner organizations and agencies participated and provided materials and specimens, literature, website programs, Arctic ice maps, temperature curves, and nature photography for the festival – among the more unique items were a musk ox (with head) and polar bear pelts; a demonstration on how to make boots from king salmon skins; a narwhal tusk; Greenland ethnographic objects; and an ingenious melting ‘glacier goo’ game led by the PoLAR Partnership. The Uummannaq Greenland Youth Ensemble performed numerous times in different places of the Natural History Museum.

The Uummannaq Children's Home Youth Ensemble performs in the Rotunda of the National Museum of Natural History during the Arctic Spring Festival, May 9, 2015. Photo: James Di Loreto.

The festival made a major contribution to public understanding of the Arctic and was a fitting way to introduce the new US Arctic Council Chairmanship period and its theme of public outreach and education. The Arctic Spring Festival would not have been possible without the generous sponsorship our our donors and the herculean contributions of Meghan Mulkerin, our new Program Coordinator in the Arctic Studies Center, and our colleagues in the Office of Education and Outreach, Barbara Stauffer, Margery Gordon, Jen Collins, Trish Mace, Colleen Popson, Naimah Muhammad, Courtney Gerstenmaier and Megan Chen. Igor Krupnik, Stephen Loring, and Bill Fitzhugh were also instrumental to the process of gathering partners and entertainers together for this wonderful program.

Joel Issak, Meghan Mulkerin, Rebecca Clemens, and Barbara Stauffer at the fish skin sewing activity.
Joel Issak shows Meghan Mulkerin, Rebecca Clemens, and Barbara Stauffer the finer points of fish skin sewing. Photo: Robert Radu.

The Arctic Spring Festival was generously funded by: the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, Arctic Studies Center, Living in the Anthropocene Initiative, and Recovering Voices, with additional support from The U.S. Arctic Research Commission, The PoLAR Partnership (supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation: DUE–1239783), Oak Foundation, The Ed Nef Foundation, Embassy of Canada, Royal Norwegian Embassy, and Embassy of Denmark.

A Social Media Internship with the Arctic Studies Center

By: Ismelda R. Correa. Originally published in the ASC Newsletter, No. 22, pg. 77-78.

Isme with Henry the elephant in the rotunda of NMNH

I was in residence with the Arctic Studies Center as a social media intern as part of the University of Houston partnership with the Smithsonian for three-weeks. The idea of working on social media in an anthropology office was a new experience for me. While I am confident in my technical knowledge—my major is chemical engineering—I knew I was going to work on two subjects I had limited experience with: social media and the Arctic. Don’t misunderstand me. While I am active on social media as much as every other 20-year-old, I did lack a Twitter and Instagram account. Additionally, I did not know how a research center in the most visited natural history museum in the world used Facebook. Could they post memes?

With her cheerful and approachable personality, my mentor, Meghan Mulkerin, soothed my worries soon after meeting her. My assignment was to provide the Arctic Studies Center (ASC) feedback on their social media outreach, which ranged from their own website and blog, Magnetic North, to platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, and to create some content of my own working with Meghan and Bill Fitzhugh. A few days after starting my internship, Meghan arranged for me to meet two other social media experts within the Smithsonian community; Maria Anderson, the Press Secretary for Latino Media and Adriel Luis, the Curator of Digital and Emerging Media at the Asian Pacific American Center. In our separate meetings, they discussed successful social media strategies and answered all of my questions. By the end of the meetings, I was better prepared to complete my assignment and amazed at the support the Smithsonian Institution offers to its interns. 

As I was learning about the do’s and don’ts of the various social media platforms, I worked on honing my tweeting skills. In an attempt to use the information I had learned on successfully engaging with our followers on Arctic subjects, I came up with my first tweet. As the day progressed, I constantly monitored the amount of retweets and favorites. Needless to say, I am extremely proud of it. As a note, the Unangax/Aleut people live in the Aleutian Islands located in western Alaska.

Isme's first tweet!

One of the benefits of interning at the Smithsonian’s NMNH is the behind the scenes access interns and fellows have to the collections. While my internship was short-term, I got to see three different collections, the Burgess Shale, paleobiology (fossil marine mammals) and the birds collection. The tours were led by researchers within the departments that encouraged our questions.

As the end of my internship approaches, I appreciate social media is more than a form of entertainment. It is a powerful tool museums are using, and constantly improving, to engage with the American public; a public that has changed and is constantly changing the way they obtain information. Most of all, I have to praise the willingness of the Smithsonian Institution and the smaller research-divisions it is made up of (like the Arctic Studies Center) to embrace the  use of social media to reach out to the American public in order to uphold their mission of increasing and spreading knowledge.

If you are interested in learning more about internships at the Smithsonian, please visit the Office of Fellowships and Internships. Watch the video below for more on what Isme and her fellow interns from the University of Houston had to say about their experiences at the Smithsonian!



Arctic Crashes: Harp Seals and Eskimos in Labrador and the Gulf of St. Lawrence

By: William Fitzhugh. Originally Published in ASC Newsletter No. 22, pg 29-33.

Harp seals have been intertwined with human history ever since people began living along the Arctic and Subarctic shores of the North Atlantic. Harps were quite likely a resource for Upper Paleolithic cultures of Europe and for hundreds of years and more recently have been a mainstay for Saami, Finns, and Russians living around the White Sea. In the Northwest Atlantic, harps have been important for Maritime Archaic Indian cultures between 8000-4000 years ago from Maine to northern Labrador and have sustained Paleoeskimo, Inuit and Innu peoples who occupied the regions in the Canadian Eastern Arctic and Greenland south to Newfoundland and the northern Gulf of St. Lawrence. The latter regions have been investigated by the Smithsonian for more than thirty years. The presence or absence of Harp seals may have been a major factor, along with climate change, for cultural migrations and boundary changes between these culturally-distinct populations.

Field Program 2014   

Testing this hypothesis became the focus of a sub-project of the ASC’s “Arctic Crashes” project in 2014-2015 as part of the author’s on-going research into Eskimo and Inuit culture development in Labrador, Newfoundland, and the Quebec Lower North shore. Arctic Crashes is exploring the causes and effects of fluctuations in northern animal populations and its impact on human societies. The recent discovery of Inuit winter occupations on the LNS west of Blanc Sablon has provided a new data-set with which to test the climate/pack-ice/southern Eskimo migration model in which three culturally and chronologically distinct Eskimo/Inuit groups occupied—and then abandoned—the northern Gulf of St. Lawrence and Island of Newfoundland: Groswater Paleoeskimo 2500-2200 BP; Newfoundland Dorset 1800-1400 BP; and Labrador Inuit AD 1500-1750.

Hart Chalet site under excavation by Alaina Harmon and Mariel Kennedy in August 2014. View north through entry passage into house interior.

With support from the Smithsonian’s Grand Challenge Program, we conducted field surveys and excavations in July and August 2014, from Hamilton Inlet (Labrador) to Brador and St. Paul Bay on Quebec’s LNS. Fieldwork was facilitated by the ASC’s research vessel Pitsiulak was staffed by a field team including Alaina Harmon and Notre Dame student Marielle Kennedy. Ted Timreck and Sandra Kingsbury produced video documentation for the ASC and NMNH’s Q?rius Education Center. Our activities concentrated on excavations at the Hart Chalet Inuit winter village site near Brador (Quebec) where we spent ten days conducting excavations in Houses 1 and 2 and recovered a large sample of bone and shell midden material dated to ca. 1700. This sample is now being analyzed by Claire St. Germaine of University of Montreal. After species identifications have been made we will be submitting samples for isotopic analysis to determine water temperature and other characters suitable for environmental reconstruction. (See here for related Crashes studies of the paleo-marine environment conducted by Walter Adey and colleagues.)     

Project Background    

Thirty years ago when we identified major north-south movements in Labrador’s Eskimo-Indian boundaries, correlations between these changes and climate cycles identified in the pollen records and Greenland ice cores suggested climate as the primary causal factor. The correlation was particularly strong with the distribution of Eskimo groups, who were heavily dependent on sea ice and its associated fauna. The mechanism suggested was shifts in the duration and southward extent of seasonal pack ice. Cooler weather brought more pack ice south and produced longer winters in coastal regions. Eskimo resources that came with the pack ice were ring, harp, bearded, and bladdernose seals, and walrus and bowhead whales. We also knew that the historic period Labrador Inuit had expanded their whale-hunting culture into areas of central and southern Labrador formerly occupied by the Innu. But earlier Paleoeskimo groups like the Dorset and Pre-Dorset were walrus and seal hunters, not whalers. Dorset Paleoeskimos expanded far south of the Thule/Labrador Inuit boundary, occupying the entire Island of Newfoundland and nearby northeastern shore of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. What was it about the pack ice that enabled this Dorset expansion about 2000 years ago, as well as an earlier Groswater expansion, also including all of Newfoundland around 600 B.C.? Walrus remains are not common in Groswater and Dorset sites in Newfoundland, but harp seals are present in great numbers. The more that we researched the question of early Eskimo expansions and retreats from their maximal southern limits, the more it became evident that the answer must be found in changes in the distribution of pack ice and harp seals.

Harp Seal Biology and Ecology

Harp seals are the most abundant marine mammal in the northwestern Atlantic—some 6-9 million animals. Their biology, ecology, and migratory behavior (Sargeant 1991) have been investigated in detail due to the species’ economic importance to traditional and commercial hunters from Greenland to Newfoundland, and because of the controversy over the commercial hunt of its new-born ‘whitecoats’ around Newfoundland and in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Harp seals migrate annually from Baffin Bay and Davis Strait in large companies of 20 to 100 or more individuals. The migration strikes the northern Labrador coast in late October or November and proceeds south in waves, with animals hugging the shore and entering the exact same bays and island passages year-after-year just as ice begins to form. Labrador Thule and 16-18th C. Labrador Inuit sites contain large numbers of harp seal bones. During the 19-20th C. thousands of harps were caught annually by Inuit and Europeans with rifles and nets along the Labrador coast and the Quebec Lower North Shore. A Newfoundland hunt (both traditional and commercial) for adult harps and white-coats has been conducted off-shore on the floating pack-ice by ship-borne hunters since the mid-19th century.

The main mass of the harp migration takes several weeks to pass any given location. Reaching southern Labrador, part of the herd remains on the newly-formed pack ice east of southern Labrador and northern Newfoundland in a region called “The Front.” The other segment passes with the drifting ice through the Strait of Belle Isle into the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Part of this group hugs the Quebec coast west to Natashquan and Mingan where they remain a few weeks feeding before turning south to their birthing area on the ice floes north of the Magdalen Islands. The rest of the Gulf herd passes south along the west coast of Newfoundland before re-grouping north of the Magdalens. They remain here and in other areas of stable ice throughout the winter. In February and March, the females give birth on the ice to pups known as white-coats. The mothers tend and feed their pups for several weeks as they cannot feed themselves or even dive because the thick furry white coats that keep them from freezing on the open ice are too buoyant. When their blubber has thickened and the white-coats have been replaced by shorter hair, they begin to swim and feed on their own.

In April, the adult harps gather again, this time to bask in the sun and to moult, and when the pack ice melts in April and May, they head north in small companies. Adults leave first, then the young, following a hydrographic feature known as the “Eskimo Channel” that parallels the west coast of Newfoundland. It is this northward migration that was the primary target of Port au Choix Dorset hunters, as their route passes close to shore at Pointe Riche. After leaving Newfoundland the migration is generally too far off-shore in the outer pack off Labrador to be accessible to shore-based hunters and reaches the summering grounds around Greenland and Baffin Bay in June and July.

Like the arrival and departure of geese and of salmon, the harp migration was a relatively dependable phenomenon during the historical period. Catch statistics varied considerably though, as a result of variable hunting access due to storms, dangerous ice, or inaccessible locations far from shore. Throughout the historical era the harp catch was a crucial early winter and spring resource to the Inuit, European settlers, and some Indian groups throughout Labrador, along the Quebec LNS, and northern and western Newfoundland. When unavailable due to population decline, abandonment of the Gulf, or inaccessibility, the loss of harp seals caused hardship for European settlers, and for traditional cultures, it could spell disaster.

Whale bone and caribou antler implements from Hart Chalet Inuit winter village site (House 1).

It has long been known that the economy of the Phillip’s Garden Dorset site at Port au Choix, one of the largest Paleoeskimo sites in the Eastern Arctic and Subarctic, was based predominantly on harp seals.  This dependence, particularly at the key site of Port au Choix, has led to speculation that a change in migration route or a precipitous population crash may have caused the site’s abandonment, and subsequently, in a domino-like effect, the disappearance of Dorset culture throughout the rest of Newfoundland (Bell and Renouf 2008, 2011; Renouf and Bell 2009). In earlier years, the discussion was all about the ice—how close and how thick it was; where was it moving; and how to get to it—because this was where harp seals congregated. Every year conditions varied from region-to-region, but western Newfoundland in early spring was where seals could be expected most dependably (Hodgetts (2003, 2005; Hodgetts et al. 2003), especially at Port au Choix where the cape bordered the Harp seal migration north following the Eskimo Channel (LeBlanc 1996, 2000). For many years local hunters have reported that shifting spring winds and currents in the Gulf ice sometimes caused harp migrations to shift from western Newfoundland across to the Quebec Lower North Shore, taking the animals out of reach of Newfoundland hunters (D. Sargeant pers. comm. 1972). Similarly, LNS hunters frequently speak about winters when harps become unavailable during their early winter migration because of lack of ice or from ice having been blown too far off-shore to reach with small boats (pers. comm. with Harrington Harbor hunters, 2001-10; Murray 2011).

Archaeozoological studies have made cultural and environmental reconstructions more specific. Hodgetts et al. (2003), citing a decreasing percentage of harp seal bones and diversification of diet to include more fish and birds in the later Dorset components at Port au Choix, suggest a broadening of the diet and less dependence on harp seals than in earlier years. Changes like this could be a response to reduced harp seal availability. Citing chronomid midge frequency changes in sediments from nearby Bass Pond, (Rosenberg et al. 2005) suggested that terrestrial warming at Port au Choix peaked at 1100 BP, coincident with the end of the Dorset occupation. Marine pollen transfer function studies off southwestern Newfoundland (Levac 2003) indicated a warming of Gulf waters at this time. Based on these studies, Renouf and Bell (Renouf and Bell 2009; Bell and Renouf 2011:37) speculated that climate warming may have undermined sea ice conditions and destabilized the harp seal population and its migration routes, ending Dorset tenure at Port au Choix, and through cascade effects, severing Dorset contacts with Labrador and bringing an end to Dorset culture throughout Newfoundland.

Seal mandible from Hart site H1 midden which produced shells and large amounts of caribou bones.

Based on observations of the past few years, a variation of this hypothesis may be suggested that more explicitly links advances and retreats of Groswater, Dorset, and southern Inuit occupations south of Cartwright to cycles of harp seal availability. Johnston et al. (2005, 2012) report that, since 1996, the formation of pack ice in the Gulf has declined dramatically, such that in many areas there is no ice at all, and where it is present it is weak and breaks up in storms. This situation has become even more dramatic since 2007 and has been widely reported in the press. If ice thins or disappears before the white-coats have molted, they usually drown. The winters of 2010-2012 in the northern Gulf were so mild that many areas had no ice, and female seals had to give birth in the water or on shore. When this happens pups drown or are abandoned and die on shore or are lost to gulls and other predators. Poor ice conditions are thought to have resulted in a large losses of pups in 1981, and in 1998-2005.

Hart Chalet House 1 west midden, where shells, mammal and fish bones were recovered.

In July 2010, during fieldwork on the Quebec LNS, we found harp pup carcasses on-shore, and local hunters told of “thousands” dying in the vicinity of their villages. Without the winter ice platform, wildlife officials cannot conduct aerial population counts, so the effect of these recent low-ice winters on the population is not easily quantified. Johnston et al. (2005) documented a significant reduction in sea ice cover on the east coast of Canada since 1995. These data show cyclicity in ice presence and absence that seems to be keyed to the North Atlantic Oscillation. A more recent study (Johnston et al. 2012) using satellite photography has shown that “warming in the North Atlantic over the last 32 years has significantly reduced winter sea ice cover in harp seal breeding grounds, resulting in sharply higher death rates among seal pups in recent years.” This study found that seasonal sea ice cover in all four harp seal breeding regions around the North Atlantic has declined by up to 6 percent each decade since 1979, when satellite records of ice conditions began, and that in low ice years virtually all the young of the year die. Whether the current pattern will persist long enough to have a significant impact on harp seal population remains to be seen, because these losses can take a decade to have an effect, after the current cohorts reach sexual maturity. If the ice does not return, the Gulf portion of the herd will decline or disappear, and the remaining animals will have to shift to the Labrador Front or to other locations where pack ice remains. If this happens, it will result in the loss of the most dependable marine mammal resource in the eastern Gulf and the one that has been the sustaining resource for southern Dorset and Inuit population extensions. Its negative impact on Labrador Eskimo populations would diminish northwards, since harps would still be migrating south, though in smaller numbers, to whelp on the Labrador Front. Its importance to Maritime Archaic and later Indian populations is difficult to determine, because their economies were more diversified, judging from their settlement systems and rare instances when faunal remains or organic tools have survived.

Ice cover is the sine qua non for harp seal availability in the Gulf. Warmer temperatures, both of sea water and air, have been steadily reducing the winter and spring build-up and persistence of pack ice in the Labrador Current. Owing to the narrow and shallow Strait of Belle Isle most of this winter ice does not enter the Gulf but rather follows the south-moving Labrador Current along the northeast coast of Newfoundland. For this reason the amount of Gulf pack ice that forms is mostly dependent on local conditions, especially wind and temperature, which can vary depending on whether air masses are Arctic or Atlantic in origin. For the past several years conditions have produced little or no ice, and a strong correlation has been found between Gulf ice and the North Atlantic Oscillation (Johnston et al. 2005, 2012). According to this research we may expect the trend toward low ice years in the Gulf to continue for some time. Since rising temperatures are generally thought not to have reached the peaks known from the Hypsithermal or Medieval Warm levels, the loss of ice in the Gulf in recent years suggests that these waters may have been free of winter ice even in periods of moderate warmth. If so, the Gulf harp herd may be seen as a marginal or episodic population that comes and goes in step with climatic cycles. While the loss of the Gulf harp population may not have serious consequences for Labrador and possibly eastern Newfoundland, which are ‘upstream’ in the harp southern migration, it would cripple intensive adaptations to this resource in the northern and eastern Gulf. As a result, it seems likely that climatic conditions controlling the appearance and disappearance of winter ice in the Gulf have also governed whether cultures with a high degree of dependence on this one marine resource, most particularly Groswater and Dorset Paleoeskimo and Historic 17-19th C. Inuit cultures, could survive here over the long-term. There is therefore a good chance that these climate/ice/seal cycles explain the southern Groswater expansion and at least the disappearance of Newfoundland Dorset. Absence of large, dependable harp populations in the Gulf and around Newfoundland may also offer a possible explanation for the dominance or resurgence of Indian cultures on the Central Labrador coast during warm climatic periods.

New Findings

New research techniques and more local studies are beginning to allow us to investigate these issues. The development of more paleoenvironmental records from Newfoundland noted above have contributed to understanding human-environmental interactions in the island’s prehistory (Bell and Renouf 2008; Renouf and Bell 2009). New studies from the Gulf that document changes in the annual monthly duration of sea ice cover in the Gulf, on the Labrador coast, and around Newfoundland will provide the key data for substantiating the hypothesis presented here. Recent studies of corraline algae, a slow-growing coral-like species that formed encrustations on underwater rocks, has provided information on marine climate along the Labrador and Newfoundland coasts (Halfar et al. 2014) that begins to corroborate other proxies with data specifically keyed to seasonal sea ice duration and overall reductions in southern extent of pack ice. If physical conditions can be correlated with modern population numbers we may have a solid foundation for understanding southern Eskimo territorial expansions and retreats. Another line of inquiry presently being followed is reconstruction of local paleo-marine temperatures from isotopic studies of harp and other marine mammal bones from dated archaeological deposits. These tests are currently being conducted under the ASC’s ‘Arctic Crashes’ project using fauna from our Labrador and Lower North Shore (Quebec) collections.     

For more on our Arctic Crashes project, please visit our website, and check out the other posts on this blog.


Bell, Trevor, and M.A.P. Renouf
2008    The Domino Effect: Culture Change and Environmental Change in Newfoundland, 1500-1100 cal. BP. The Northern Review 28:72-94.
2011    By Land and Sea: Landscape and Marine Environment Perspectives on Port au Choix. In The Cultural Landscapes of Port au Choix: Precontact Hunter-Gathers of Northwestern Newfoundland, edited by M.A.P. Renouf, pp. 21-41. Springer.

Halfar, Jochen, Adey, Walter H., Kronz, Andreas, Hetzinger, Steffen, Edinger, Evan, and Fitzhugh, William W.
2014    Arctic sea-ice decline archived by multicentury annual-resolution record from crustose coralline algal proxy. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110(49): 19737-19741. doi:10.1073/pnas.1313775110.

Hodgetts, Lisa M.
2005    Using Bone Measurements to Determine the Season of Harp Seal Hunting at the Dorset Palaeoeskimo Site of Phillip’s Garden. Newfoundland and Labrador Studies 20(1):91-106.
2007    The Changing Pre-Dorset Landscape of Southwestern Hudson Bay, Canada. Journal of Field Archaeology 42 (4) 353-367.

Hodgetts, L.M., M.A.P. Renouf, M.S. Murray, D. McCuaig-Balwil, and L. Howse
2003    Changing Subsistence Practices at the Dorset Palaeoeskimo site of Phillip’s Garden, Newfoundland. Arctic Anthropology 40(1):106-120.

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