Beneath the surface, Arctic Currents is a story about more than bowhead whales and Arctic marine ecosystems. It is a film about working together.
What we know about bowheads comes from thousands of years of traditional knowledge and decades of collaboration between researchers and subsistence hunters. We want our story to reflect everyone involved.
One key to this collaboration is language. Eleven villages in Alaska harvest whales for subsistence. Of those, nine speak Inupiaq and two speak St. Lawrence Island Yupik. English is also common, but the rich cultural understanding of the bowhead has been passed between generations through Alaska Native languages.
We needed translators who were not only willing to work through a 25-minute script, but also review the film, offer suggestions, and narrate. The search was on.
St. Lawrence Island Yupik
Gambell and Savoonga are on St. Lawrence Island, west of mainland Alaska, in the Bering Sea. St. Lawrence Island Yupik hunters harvest bowhead whales that migrate near the island in the spring and fall.
I’ve never been to St. Lawrence Island, and neither has anyone on our production team. I went downstairs to check in with Ethnology & History Senior Collections Manager Angela Linn. She knew just the person.
Angela took Central Yup’ik language classes with Chris Petuwaq Koonooka in the late 90s. Eventually, he worked on the Native Advisory Committee for her master’s project.
“When I learned about your project, I thought he’d be an ideal fit. And he has a beautiful voice to boot,” she wrote.
Chris teaches technology and St. Lawrence Island Yupik to students in middle and high school in Gambell. He has a bachelor’s degree in Yupik and Eskimo studies from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. Now, he teaches students at Gambell School to embrace their Yupik heritage through his language classes and traditional storytelling.
“I was always impressed with his knowledge about SLI culture and language, even as such a young man. Over the years he’s been really helpful in helping me ID artists of objects in our collections,” Angela wrote.
Chris spent part of his summer translating our script and making suggestions. When it came time to record, he ventured on a long, nine-hour journey from Gambell to Nome to Anchorage to Fairbanks.
I learned quickly how good a storyteller Chris is.
A script with many unfamiliar words – copepod, telemetry, hydrophone – can fall flat without the right narrators. Usually when voice coaching, I’m imagining a particular character or cadence. With Arctic Currents, we wanted our translators to bring their own voices to the project. Chris and I discovered the English script came to life when he integrated what he’d learned from telling stories in Yupik.
Meanwhile, two educators in Barrow were translating the same script into Iñupiaq.
I came to see Pausauraq Jana Harcharek and Fannie Akpik, two instructors who are well known in their community. They work at the North Slope Borough School District Iñupiaq Education Department.
When Hannah Foss visited Barrow in Spring of 2014, she described the film to Department of Wildlife Management officemates Qaiyaan Harcharek and Andrew VonDuyke. Qaiyaan brought Hannah to meet his mother, Jana, and Fannie. Hannah found out they were open to translating the film into Iñupiaq. Even better, the school district had a recording studio. Seven months later, I landed in Barrow with a couple bags of audio equipment.
Coordinator of Curriculum & Instruction Linda Frame brought me to see Fannie.
This is Fannie. She will invite you to travel with her to see the goings on around town. She will tell stories about her family at lunchtime. She let me flip through the just-published “Iñupiatun Uqaluit Taniktun Sivuniŋit/Iñupiaq to English Dictionary.”
Fannie read the English script in just a day and a half. In the final film, her soft voice balances Chris’s deep bass tones.
I happened to arrive during a very busy week in Barrow. While I worked with Fannie, Jana stole away to read the Iñupiaq script for me. In a single day she went through 10 pages of script and wrapped up the translation.
“I woke up this morning with a mission,” she said.
After the day shift, I swung by Sam & Lees for dinner and then trudged back through the blowing snow to the elementary-school-turned-administration building, which was also my home. I wound through back halls to itinerant housing, and started on the night shift: editing. As the final readings of English and Iñupiaq began to take shape, I reflected on what I’d learned.
Directing and voice coaching is a delicate process. Films that inspire us often have a familiar narration style. When we calibrate our ears to what we’re used to hearing, audiences miss out on learning about the many methods of storytelling there are in this world.
You’ll rarely hear the Barrow dialect or the Gambell dialect in a feature film, but Chris and Fannie delivered the English versions of the script powerfully.
The story has a lot of science, and bringing life to unfamiliar scientific terms is no easy feat. The script needed their voices.
Their expertise, their familiarity with their culture, and their strong voices are ways to connect a film produced far away in Fairbanks back to these communities. If they read the script how I would have read it, that connection would have been lost.
Chris, Fannie, and Jana were all very gracious with my suggestions, but often practice was all it took. I learned the best way to direct was to help actors become familiar with the script and then back off and let their personality shine as they spoke in their own ways.
Thanks to Chris Koonooka, Jana Harcharek, Fannie Akpik, Linda Frame, Dave Ramey, and many others.
Stay tuned for more adventures as the film tours Alaska this winter, prior to being released in January.
–Kelsey Gobroski (UAMN Digital Media Producer)