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The Last Ice: Stories From Sacred Spaces

By Nainoa Thompson, Pwo navigator

(Photo by Manu San Felix)
Water and ice take on countless varieties of form in the Arctic. (Photo by Manu San Felix)

As Hōkūleʻa traveled to her farthest northern point on this Worldwide Voyage, I found myself thinking back to a moment not so long ago when I sat with our staff and our friends at the National Geographic Society discussing ideas for the North American legs of Hōkūleʻa’s Worldwide Voyage. We talked about the places and people whose stories could change our worldview, about places where sacred beauty and knowledge are still a part of the natural fabric of existence.

In particular, I heard about the Pristine Seas project that the National Geographic Society has been working on for almost a decade to protect the last truly wild places of our ocean through documentation, storytelling, and advocacy. Recently, they have conducted expeditions to explore an area known as the Last Ice Area—the area north of Greenland and Ellesmere Island in Nunavut, which is projected to be the only area harboring year-round sea ice by 2040. It tells a story that we can relate to not just as islanders in the Pacific or ice people of the North, but as people of Island Earth.

(Photo by Manu San Felix)
Land meets ice and sea in the endless fjords of far northern North America. (Photo by Manu San Felix)

Sitting in that room in Washington, D.C., our team learned about the Arctic’s oldest ice, which has moved and changed over time in dramatic ways, but with recent threats to climate has all but disappeared. The remaining bit known as the Last Ice Area is found along the northern shores of Canada and Greenland, far north from even the farthest north of our Worldwide Voyage46 degrees N position in Sorel, Canada, where Hōkūleʻa recently visited.

As this Arctic ice disappears, it takes with it the ice trails and habitat that the indigenous people of the regionamong them the Inuit, Yuit, and Aleuthave stewarded and subsisted on for thousands of years. Polar bears, whales, and birds also rely on the sea ice as habitatas sea ice disappears, the Last Ice Area will become home to the largest concentration of Arctic wildlife, a critical component of Earth’s living systems.

(Photo by Manu San Felix)
In the Pacific or the Arctic, humans must be attentive to the messages conveyed by the environment. (Photo by Manu San Felix)

Sea ice disappearance also means the northward expansion of commercial ventures such as shipping and miningfurther threats to traditional ways of life.

Just as wayfinding practices in Polynesia came so close to the brink of extinction and our ocean resources have become endangered by so many factors, I sense major threats are looming for other traditions and cultures around the world in the wake of our changing climate and modern economies.

But traditional communities are not the only ones who suffer from disappearing sea icethe Arctic region plays a critical role in regulating climate and ocean currents as well as creating fresh water for the entire planet. What affects one area of our rapidly changing world affects us all.

(Photo by Manu San Felix)
Materials and ideas of more recent origin are fit into the techniques and adaptations that people have used from ancient times. (Photo by Manu San Felix)

The National Geographic Society and the World Wildlife Fund are working with Inuit communities to document the stories of this region, and to study the impact of the sea ice disappearance on wildlife and communities. Please visit the Pristine Seas Last Ice site to learn more about this work and view the breathtaking images of this amazing place that I hope to visit one day to see with my own eyes pay my respects to the people and traditions of this place.

(Photo by Manu San Felix)
As ice disappears elsewhere, arctic wildlife will concentrate in the Last Ice Area. (Photo by Manu San Felix)

As we sail south through the waterways of Canada and back to the United States, we bring the spirit of this story with us on the deck of Hōkūleʻa to share with the world so we may all learn to cherish and appreciate this sacred place. Join me in celebrating and honoring the work of people who dedicate their lives to mālama honua (care for the Earth), whether they are from the Arctic Ice or Pacific Islands, from North America to South Africa, to protect the lifestyles and values of our ancestors and future generations.  

For those whose stories have yet to be told, we humbly ask you to share with us the ways you, your organizations, and communities are working to help mālama this precious Earth we all call home. Please visit us at www.hokulea.com to learn more about our history and our mission, and share with us your mālama honua story. Help inform a sail plan for a voyage to a better future for our Island Earth.