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Last updated on : 12/4/2006
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UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA GRADUATE STUDENT
NORMAN – OU Department of Geography graduate student Chie Sakakibara believes in ghosts. More accurately, she studies ghost stories.
Sakakibara’s research of the indigenous Alaskan Inupiat people and their worldview of climate change, told through ghost stories, led to a national award at the Association of American Geographers 2006 annual meeting, held March 7 through 11 in Chicago.
Sakakibara’s award winning paper, submitted to the Indigenous People Specialty Group competition, focuses on the Inupiat people responding to a changing environment. The Inupiat tie their sense of identity to their environmental surrounds and tell stories of ghosts who currently live in their uninhabitable homeland due to such climatic conditions as flooding and erosion.
The villagers’ original homeland is Point Home, or Tikigaq. The story of the area, passed down through generations, reveals that the peninsula originated as a bowhead whale and transformed into the Inupiat land by the touch of a raven. The whale, interwined into the Inupiat cosmology, shows the dramatic role with the environment plays in the people’s identity.
“The ghost story is a part of their belief system,” said Sakakibara. “As long as they pay respect to the spirits and ghosts of animals and ancestors, they will hopefully retain their kinship with the land and the basis of their cultural identity.” The ghost stories weave tales of spiritual, but not fearful, encounters. The Inupiat ghosts are not the ones in stories told by American youths around campfires or in darkened tents. The Inupiat tell stories of ghosts that link the people to their cultural identity.
Fred Shelley, chair of the Department of Geography at OU, says Sakakibara’s research brings a critical social issue to light. “How are indigenous peoples such as the Inupiat affected by environmental change in the globalizing world? The results of Chie’s research bring practical and theoretical value. They are helpful to not only the Inupiat, but also indigenous societies throughout the world who cope with the rapid environmental change,” he said.
A major environmental transition began in 1976 and continues today following severe flooding and erosion of the area. Relationships with ghosts and other non—human beings help bridge the gap between the past, present and future.
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