Dr. Rosemary Ahtuangaruak knows a thing or two about wildlife migration journeys. After all, she’s the mayor of Nuiqsut in North Slope Borough—a village where children and families are educated on the importance of migration from an early age.
Ahtuangaruak, a longtime Iñupiaq environmental activist, has lived in the village for more than 35 years and was initially a community health aid. Now as mayor, she works to voice concerns North Slope communities may have when it comes to environmental issues and development in the Western Arctic.
And that includes protecting migratory species—such as the American Golden-Plover.
“It’s a pretty important bird for us,” she says. She says one of her elders talks about it being a bird whose call can be the first sign of the transition from spring to summer hunting.
“When you're at your geese camp and you hear the birds come, we're changing modes,” she says. “That wonderful sound that we hear in the morning reminds us of the changes, see?"
Ahtuangaruak says the migration journey of the American Golden-Plover is “something that we tend to educate our families about.” “We in our village make a point of talking to kids about this.”
The migration journey of the American Golden-Plover is an arduous route, starting from near Nuiqsut and crossing Canada and into the North Atlantic. They then shoot vertically across the Atlantic Ocean, flapping nonstop for up to eight days till they finally hit the Caribbean Islands or South America. Ahtuangaruak says the journey can act as a connection point for her village and other communities, highlighting the distance between the people.
“When we engage with other teachers or classrooms or educational systems, colleges, and whatnot, it is something that we can connect with, even though we're so very far away from one another,” she says.
And migratory wildlife in general is vital to the village of Nuiqsut for subsistence purposes.
“It's really important for us in the springtime to be able to await the migratory birds that come to us,” she says, stressing that her village has a very narrow window of time to harvest in the North Slope, unlike other communities. And the migrating wildlife brings “fresh new food that we're able to harvest,” she says. “It's not something we're pulling out of the ice or the freezer.”
In addition to subsistence, harvesting also offers the opportunity to share traditional knowledge.
“Our families really look forward to getting out as a group,” she says. “Going out and doing these activities together, sharing our traditions and culture in the stories of harvest in the various lands and waters that we access for these activities.”
The village is some distance from the Teshepuk Lake Special Area—one of five special areas in the National Petroleum Reserve–Alaska—where eight American Golden Plovers were equipped with GPS tracking devices so scientists and the public may follow their southbound migrations (see blog posts with River Gates and Rick Lanctot). However, Ahtuangaruak says the special area is special to them as well— especially the northeast corner where historic caribou herds are found.
“For us, it's about the spring migration coming into this area, and the calves being born and imprinting into this area,” she says, explaining how the best time for harvesting caribou is when they migrate back to the Nuiqsut. “That's when the caribou are in their prime,” she says, “and it's really important for us to be able to get out and harvest wild caribou while they’re in good shape.”
Again, it all comes down to the importance of migration. That goes for caribou, other Alaska wildlife species, and—to bring it home—birds.
“In this region, we have 190 birds that go through every state and every continent in our world. The concentration of birds in our part of this area of the Arctic is not the same as other areas of the Arctic,” she says. “So, each of us working to protect our lands and waters as our animals move through this very important migratory route is so very important to the health, life, and safety of our people, our communities, and our future generations.”