Follow the ice: From Alaska to Hawaii

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Lanikai Beach. Photo: Mia Bennett, 2017

Last week, I attended a conference about the Arctic in Hawaii. It might seem completely out of place, if not totally out of touch, to talk about a faraway, frozen place on a tropical island. But there are a surprising number of linkages between the Hawaiian islands and the Arctic, and they start with ice. The clear, cold solid forms the basis for one of the most famous desserts in the Pacific, “shave ice,” and was once one of the most lucrative exports from north to south.

After swimming in the warm and prismatic waters off Lanikai Beach on Oahu’s windward shore, I craved nothing more than an ice cold drink. This wouldn’t be hard to find. Oahu is an island where every town has shops selling smoothies, ice cream, soda, and shave ice. This last dessert is the precursor to the snow cone’s, dessert of choice of every kid at every state fair on the mainland. When President Obama would come home to Hawaii during his vacations, he would indulge in shave ice at his favorite shop, not too far from Lanikai Beach.

 

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President Obama enjoying shave ice with his daughters in Kailua, Hawaii. Photo: Pete Souza, 2010/U.S. Government Work

Although frozen desserts on Hawaii are basically ubiquitous, their prevalence on this remote chain of jungle-covered volcanoes in the Pacific is pretty much just as bizarre as an Arctic conference taking place in Hawaii. Hi‘ilei Julia Hobart, who researches Indigenous peoples and food studies at Northwestern University, has written about the history of ice as a commodity in Hawaii. In a recent paper in Food, Culture & Society, she explains that American and European settlers’ taste for chilled drinks encouraged the creation of an “infrastructure of coldness” in Hawaii. Features like air conditioning and refrigeration contrast with the “infrastructure of warmth” that can be found in Arctic communities, from over-ground heating pipes in permafrost-laden Russia to geothermally heated sidewalks in Iceland, which melt the snow on top of them.

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Shave ice in Hawaii. Photo: _e.t/Flickr 2.0 CC License

In nineteenth-century Hawaii, colonial energies were directed at keeping things cold. Starting in the 1850s, various companies began exporting ice to the booming port city of Honolulu. Newspaper advertisements, as Hobart describes, extolled the virtues of “a quantity of that greatest of luxuries in a tropical climate — ice.” In 1854, anticipating the start of a regular ice trade, local ship dealers Swan & Clifford built an ice house. The first delivery of ice to Hawaii, comprising some 500 tons, hailed from Sitka, Alaska.

At the time, Sitka was the hub of the Russian-American Company. The state-sponsored joint-stock company was chartered by Tsar Paul I in 1799 to carry out colonization efforts in Alaska, which was then Russian America, by means of exporting natural resources like furs, fish, and ice, and establishing settlements. The most important of those settlements was Sitka, which was established in 1799 by a Russian trader named Alexander Andreyevich Baranov. He named it Novo-Arkhangelsk (New Archangel), after his hometown, which was an important port city in the Russian Arctic on the White Sea.

Sitka was set up on land inhabited by the Tlingit people for thousands of years. In fact, the Tlingit were employed to stack the ice for shipment to faraway places like California and Hawaii. Thus, it is very possible that the first ice which arrived in Hawaii – ice from a town in Alaska named after a Russian city in the Arctic – was stacked and put into the ship by Alaska Natives.

After his successes in Alaska, Baranov sought to expand Russian America to Hawaii. In 1815, he sent a representative to the islands to establish a way station for Russian ships sailing from Alaska to China with lucrative furs. However, neither the Russian government nor navy supported Baranov’s aspirations, and Baranov’s delegate was forced to leave Hawaii, with the Russian trading posts abandoned.

The 1850s saw a boom in trade between Alaska and Hawaii. Besides ice, Alaskan wood products, timber, fish, and some Russian manufactured goods were exported south in exchange for Hawaiian sugar, molasses, and salt, according to anthropologist Lydia Black. Many Alaskan goods were traded to San Francisco, too. The burgeoning City by the Bay was in the throes of the gold rush and had a big appetite for ice. With the commodity going for $75 a ton, ice became the most profitable trade along that route.

While ice kept relatively well in the year-round cool and foggy climate of San Francisco, it did not hold up in Hawaii’s hothouse climate. Despite early excitement around promises of regular importation of ice, consistent deliveries from Alaska never really took off. It was hard to make a profit on a commodity that melted rapidly in the heat. As the nineteenth century drew to a close, ice machines came to take the place of empty ice houses.

The lack of success of ice imports in Hawaii mirrored another, more calamitous failure on the islands that originated in the Arctic: Captain Cook’s third voyage, from 1776-1780. The British explorer’s fateful sailing to the Hawaiian archipelago originated in the Alaskan Arctic. At the northernmost point of their three-year voyage – a little over 70 degrees north, just west of modern-day Wainwright, Alaska – on August 18, 1778, HMS Resolution encountered the edge of the Arctic sea ice. Captain Cook wrote in his journal, “We were, at this time, close to the edge of the ice, which was as compact as a wall; and seemed to be ten or twelve feet high at least. But, farther North, it appeared much higher. Its surface was extremely rugged; and here and there, we saw upon it, pools of water.”

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HMS Resolution reaches the Ice Islands in the Arctic Ocean, north of the Bering Strait.

Unable to penetrate any farther north and failing to have found a passage between Europe and Asia, Cook and his crew turned south. Here in the Arctic, even in summer, ice was hardly the “greatest of luxuries” as it was in Hawaii. Seeking warmth and relief from horrible seas, Cook headed towards the Pacific via the Bering Strait. The ship stopped in the Aleutian Islands along the way, where Cook infamously forced his crew to eat walrus meat, which the crew thought was disgusting and tasted like “train oil.”

Alaska did not let them leave easily. “Mountainous seas,” in the words of British historian Frank McLynn, tormented the sailors, and it would be another 31 days before they would sight the lush island of Maui. Of course, any vision of relief from the ice would be a mirage. It would be on these ice-free islands that Cook would meet his ignominious fate, bonding Hawaii and the Arctic in a morbid and unforeseen way.

Today, if you ever have the chance to enjoy a shave ice in Hawaii, remember how precious ice used to be before ice machines were invented. It was so dear that it was shipped thousands of miles across the sea from Alaska, where it was stacked into piles by indigenous peoples for whom ice was part of the fabric of their landscape – not something that was hacked up and shipped out thousands of miles across the sea, only for it to melt away.

So how did shave ice come to be one of Hawaii’s most popular desserts?

Even after ice machines were introduced to Hawaii, it took some time for the flaky indulgence to be introduced to the islands. While the dessert has many origins, the Hawaiian version traces its roots to Japan, where it was first created over a thousand years ago during the Heian period (794-1195) using ice brought down from the mountains. Shave ice grew really popular after it burst onto the scene in the port city of Yokohama in 1869. Japanese immigrants to Hawaii in the 20th century reputedly used family heirloom swords to slice blocks of ice into the snowy, soft dessert that is today synonymous with island refreshment. The shop Obama frequents is called “Island Snow Hawaii” – bringing the tropics and the weather of the Arctic together under one banner. I guess the main difference now between ice in Hawaii and ice in the Arctic is that shave ice is rainbow-colored, while Arctic ice is clear, white, blue, or green.

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A snowy scene in Japan. Maybe ice came from mountains like these. Image: Kanbara, by Utagawa Hiroshige (1797–1858)

Sidebar: Dealing with ice still has its archaic moments, as seen in this video of an ice crushing machine I took a few years ago at Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo.

Announcing the Polar Film Fest 2017

Polar-Film-Fest-2017Following the success of last year’s Polar Film Fest 2016, I’m leading US APECS’ organization of the second-ever Polar Film Fest, which will take place from September 18-22 during International Polar Week. This year’s theme is #PolarWorld, so we’re looking to showcase the best the planet has to offer in movies about the Arctic, Antarctic, and wider cryosphere – no matter what language they’re in.

We’re looking for film suggestions that fit any of the following themes: 

1) #PolarWorld: Polar Issues are Global
2) Science in Action: Working in Extremes
3) People at the Poles: The Human Dimension
4) Polar Policy: Preparing for the Future
5) Icing on the Cake: Frozen Fun

Film eligibility and submission
We invite you to please submit your suggestions by August 25 through the Google Form we’ve set up. Films may be original or produced by someone else. To submit your own film, upload it to a video sharing site (i.e., YouTube or Vimeo) and submit the link, along with a description of the film and a note indicating that you made the film, on the submission form. Films produced by others must be available publicly online. Films that can be watched for free are preferred, but please do not submit links to illegal streaming websites.

In-person and virtual watch parties
Once the films have been selected and curated, organizers from US APECS will be putting together a schedule with virtual and in-person watch parties. If you’re interested in organizing an event, please get in touch!

Spread the word!
Please share this email and the above graphic with your networks. The more submissions we have, the better.

In the Arctic Ocean, an Alaska Native corporation seeks to fill void left by Shell

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Drilling on Alaska’s North Slope in Deadhorse. Photo: Mia Bennett

When Shell aborted its $7 billion Arctic drilling efforts in the Beaufort Sea in September 2015, environmentalists breathed a sigh of relief. The multinational corporation’s 28-vessel fleet, including its drillship and drill rig, quietly sailed south from Alaska towards warmer waters, avoiding any such catastrophes like the Kulluk’s grounding in 2013. Those opposed to drilling for oil in the Arctic Ocean felt even more encouraged when the U.S. and Canada jointly banned new leases for Arctic oil and gas drilling in December of last year. Expanded Arctic fossil fuel exploration, it was hoped in some circles, would be postponed indefinitely, at least in North America.

Yet little attention has been paid to what happened to Shell’s leases after the oil company quit Alaska. Just days before the moratorium was announced, 21 leases in a part of the Beaufort Sea Lease Area called Camden Bay were purchased in 2016 by a subsidiary of Arctic Slope Regional Corporation (ASRC), the wealthiest Native corporation in Alaska. At about precisely the same time that ASRC was criticizing Obama’s ban on further developments in the Outer Continental Shelf, the protests at Standing Rock against the Dakota Access Pipeline were exploding. If you thought that all indigenous peoples were uniformly opposed to oil drilling, think again.

According to a list provided by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, most of the leases purchased by ASRC Exploration are set to expire at the end of this year. Two are valid until summer 2019. In order to prevent the expiration of nearly all of the leases, as Alex DeMarban at Alaska Dispatch News writes, ASRC Exploration requested unitization of the offshore leases from the U.S. Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE). Unsurprisingly, under an administration that’s more pro-oil than the previous one, BSEE approved the unitization of 20 of the 21 units.

The benefits of unitization are that whatever happens in one lease now applies to all other 20 leases, since they’re now considered part of the same area. Petroleum News explains, “Unitization binds together a group of leases, which often have multiple owners, to encourage orderly and thorough exploration and production with minimal waste of dollars or resources.” For ASRC, this means if they find oil in one lease area, the rest of their leases stay active and exploration can continue.

The next challenge for ASRC will be to successfully obtain an extension of the leases from BSEE. Shell wasn’t able to do this earlier, but that was under the Obama administration. Under Trump, things could be different.

Ty Hardt, Senior Director of Communications at ASRC, wrote over email,

“As we mentioned when we first announced the acquisition of the leases in Camden Bay, while regulatory and permitting uncertainty eventually drove Shell out of Alaska, we know there is still tremendous potential in Alaska’s offshore. We also know responsible resource development translates into economic stability for our region, and every community across the North Slope of Alaska will benefit from responsible development.”=

Since its formation in 1971 under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, ASRC has transformed into a major economic force in Alaska and beyond. In 2010, Forbes ranked it the 190th largest private company in the U.S., just behind Burger King, with revenues of $2.33 billion. The corporation represents the interests of some 13,000 Iñupiat shareholders, most of whom reside in seven villages scattered across Alaska’s North Slope. Every quarter, Iñupiat receive dividends from ASRC, whose value often reflects whether oil has been up or down.

ASRC’s active involvement in Arctic industrial development puts a spin on the usual narrative that’s woven of Arctic indigenous peoples being both victims of outside exploitation and staunch protectors of the environment. The regional corporation’s bread and butter has been oil field services for a long time, but it’s also been involved in mineral exploration for decades. In 1991, for instance, the Alaska legislature awarded $2 million to the company for coal exploration and feasibility studies in northern Alaska. Even back then, potential export markets were Asia and Europe via a “northern Arctic Ocean sea route,” as a 1992 report from the Alaska Department of Natural Resources referred to it. Since the late 2000s, ASRC’s interest in oil exploration has grown.

Apart from natural resource developmente, ASRC, like all Alaska Native corporations, is also able to expand rapidly in government services largely due to the 8(a) Business Development Program. This is intended to help businesses owned by people who have been historically disadvantaged to compete in the marketplace by allowing them to receive government contracts without having to compete with other bids. Unlike other companies classified under the 8(a) program, Alaska Native corporations have no upper limit on the size of government contracts they can receive. This exception has allowed some Native corporations, like ASRC, to grow so big that not only are they attempting to fill the shoes of Shell on the North Slope. They’re also doing things like hiring cyber security engineers in Saudi Arabia.

I asked Hardt, the ASRC communications director, what he would say to those who would argue that ASRC’s oil exploration might exacerbate Arctic climate change and jeopardize the well-being of future generations of Iñupiat shareholders. He responded,

“What jeopardizes future generations of Iñupiat on the North Slope is the threat of a failing economy and a diminishing number of opportunities for our people. We believe offshore exploration and development in the Alaskan Arctic can be done safely and successfully, which has proven to be the case in other regions, such as the Canadian and Russian Arctic.”

His words resonated with a conversation I had in March with Crawford Patkotak, Chairman of ASRC’s Board of Directors, at the Ukpeaġvik Iñupiat Corporation’s (UIC) Arctic Business Development Tour in Utqiaġvik (Barrow), Alaska last March. Patkotak stressed the need for self-driven development rather than government handouts for Alaska Natives. He noted,

“We had to remind Congress that [the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act] wasn’t going to be a welfare bill. It was a rightful claim to not only continuously practice our traditional way of life, but having rights to resources that will improve and enhance the welfare of Iñupiat people. So over the years, seeing environmentalists, animal rights groups, that find ways to systematically strip our rights to develop our own resource – based on that whole theory of climate change…”

Anti-whaling and seal-clubbing protestors aside, one could argue that ASRC is simply a for-profit corporation that doesn’t really have the best interests of all its shareholders in mind. After all, Native corporations have had their fair share of scandals, from fraud and self-dealing within the Cape Fox Corporation to the dissolution of the 13th Regional Corporation after some pretty heinous corporate mismanagement. So maybe ASRC, in exploring for Arctic oil, is really just looking out for its wallet rather than its shareholders.

This is certainly a possibility, but Arctic oil is no easy game to play. Instead, ASRC could just stick to its tried and true practice of winning 8(a) contracts. But that doesn’t necessarily help to build an economic base for the future, which is what ASRC is trying to do in spurring Arctic oil extraction — even if the economics of it seem crazy at the moment. And beyond mere dollars and cents, the story here is also about protecting not only indigenous rights to traditional cultural practices, but protecting indigenous rights to develop. In some cases, the two are even intertwined. Economic development can generate the funds necessary to support traditional cultural practices that, for better or worse, might not be viable on their own anymore in an economy that has both subsistence and market practices. Making a sealskin boat for whaling, for instance, doesn’t come cheap. Sure, the sealskins and caribou intestine thread come from the land, but the wood has to be purchased, and later the motor and fuel, and so on and so forth.

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Women in Utqiaġvik working on the boat’s outer skin by stitching sealskin pieces together with caribou intestine thread. The men are working on the frame of the boat. Photo: Mia Bennett.

The words of an Elder I spoke to in Utqiaġvik reflected the determination of some Iñupiat to move forward with economic development. I asked Wesley Uġiaqtaq Aiken, a former whaling captain and World War II veteran, how he felt about oil and gas exploration. He mentioned the recent discovery of oil at Smith Bay on the North Slope and recalled how in days long past, Iñupiat used to haul seeping oil that had dried up on the bay’s surface to burn on shore. Looking to the future, Aiken remarked,

“I’m glad these young people are willing to go further out on the land – not the ocean. If they open so-called Alaska Native Wildlife Refuge – that one’s got natural gas out there. There must be something out there.”

He was hopeful, but also wary of outside intervention whether it was for or against oil drilling. Underscoring the importance of recognizing and upholding Native rights to the land and sea, the Elder reflected, “The Arctic Ocean is my beautiful garden – nobody messes around with it.”

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Looking out over the Arctic Ocean in Utqiaġvik (Barrow), Alaska. Photo: Mia Bennett