Each June, the Inupiat community of Barrow, Alaska, kicks off the summer with a harvest festival called Nalukataq.

This annual ceremonial feast is as full of fun as it is reverence. There's singing and dancing and blanket-tossing and plenty of muktuk (fried whale blubber) and other traditional foods, sandwiched between solemn moments of prayer and reflection. People of every age and gender participate, celebrating their culture and showing their appreciation for the hard work that got them through another frigid winter.

But mostly, the festival is about their beloved bowhead whales.


Walrus-skin trampolines at Nalukataq. All GIFs via EchoSpaces/YouTube.

Barrow is the northernmost town in the United States. Which means that everything from Oreos to toilet paper has to be airlifted in.

Even the most well-stocked supermarkets, which do exist, still need to mark up all their merchandise in order to cover the costs of getting things on the shelves in the first place. As a result, the cost of living there is astronomical, even by today's standards.

Put another way: It's actually easier to get a bunch of people from Barrow together to hunt a whale than it is to buy a box of cereal. After all, a single 90-ton bowhead whale can provide a lot of things for a lot of people, if you know how to put all the parts to good use — which the Inupiat community certainly does.

Just a quick bite of muktuk.

The prospect of whaling might not sound ideal. But it's actually been a staple of the Inupiat culture and diet for more than two millennium.

They're not just tracking and killing these majestic leviathans for fun either; they're doing it because it's a necessary part of their lives.

And that's where the religious aspects of the Nalukataq celebration come into play. The Inupiat see the whale as something sacred, and the festival is their way of giving thanks to these mighty creatures.

"Our people are out on the ice providing the nutritious food from the bowhead whale," explained Inupiat activist Rosemary Ahtuangaruak in an interview with The Guardian. "We cannot replace those foods in our diet — not from shop foods out of a box."

An Inupiat whaler from a family of captains.

In fact, there's a special concession in U.S. law that allows for 50 whales to be hunted each year between all of the Inupiat communities — but absolutely none by commercial whalers.

Again: No one is particularly excited about killing any more of these gargantuan sea mammals. We've all seen the "Save the Whales!" campaigns. But those are more of a response to the commercial whaling industry, which was so eager to profit off the slaughter of these beautiful beasts that it drove the population nearly to extinction in just a few hundred years.

By contrast, the Inupiat found a way to make whaling into a sustainable and sacrosanct practice that allowed the whale population to thrive for thousands of years while also providing necessary food and supplies for their people. And that was long before the U.S. government came along to regulate it, too.


Mmmmm. Muktuk.

It's certainly important to protect the whales. But we would also endanger the Inupiat if we completely took away their livelihood — and they're already in enough danger as it is.

A full 25% of Native Americans and Alaskan Natives live in poverty, which means those marked-up grocery store prices in places like Barrow are just the even-more-frustrating icing on the hardship cake. Without their cherished whaling rituals, they'd have even less access to the food and clothing that they need to make it through the hardest seasons.

Oh, and just to make things even worse, a little thing called climate change is now threatening their ability to provide for themselves as well. Rising temperatures and the influx of industrial oil drilling are threatening to disrupt the migratory patterns of whales and other Arctic animals, too. In fact, there are even some Alaskan communities whose towns are actually melting away thanks in no small part to companies like Shell and oil drilling.

"The ecosystem renewal, which is needed for the many different animals that migrate here, is important because we are feeding our families from the ocean. We must keep this environment pristine," explained Rosemary Ahtuangaruak.


C'mon, that's adorable. You don't want to see that kid get hurt, do ya?

While this is about protecting the whales, it's also about cultural preservation and having respect for all living creatures.

Before we go scolding anyone for killing whales, let's consider the fact that conditions for some Indigenous communities are really bad. So the least we can do is help to preserve one of the few thriving communities left. After all, we're the ones who started this whole environmental mess — so it's up to us to get ourselves out of it, and that includes helping out the people who are suffering the brunt of it.

If you're interested in learning more about the Inupait, here's a wonderful look at the annual Nalukataq whaling festival:

Connections Academy

Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

True

Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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