Alaska, Barrow Alaska, History, Hunting, Ideology, Internet, Meat, Social Media, Unilinear Evolution
Sometimes moving to a new location can change your place in history as much as it does your place on the map. I first noticed this a day or two after arriving in Barrow as I watched a small child drive an ATV down the street. No-one seemed to notice, not that time or the next. I’m pretty sure that it’s as illegal here as it is most places I’ve lived, but law on the books and law in daily life aren’t always the same thing. So, I saw this for the first time, and the word ‘frontier’ came to mind.
…and I smiled.
Of course, the notion of a ‘frontier’ (with all its ideological baggage) would seem to place Barrow on the cutting edge of history. That notion comes up from time to time, especially in the context of oil exploration and drilling, but also with scientific research, and other topics that people like to project onto a scheme of ‘progress’.
At other times, the logic of history places us behind the curve, so to speak. By “behind the curve” I mean that we fall behind someone else’s idea of the direction history is supposed to be going. It might seem more reasonable to think of the issue in terms of straight-forward disagreement, people do things that others don’t approve of, but the point is that people sometimes filter such disagreements through ideas about the general arc of history. It may be a history they urge on the public, or it may be a history they take for granted, but people often plot their values on some sense of an historical timeline. It’s not real history that I’m talking about; it’s an ideological projection of the way history ought to proceed.
I was reminded of this quite clearly the other day when a student of mine recently shared the video below. It starts with some beautiful outdoor shots of Barrow, AK, but (readers be warned) it continues to show the butchering of a Bowhead whale. The video might seem a jarring journey to some, but for most of us (I believe) here on the North Slope, the transition seems quite natural. A whale harvest is a joyous event as it means food for a lot of people. Much as the serene images at the start of the video, a whale harvest is prone to make us want to smile.
I asked what kind of comments, the video had gotten. A moment of scrolling later, I received my answer. The images of whaling had drawn criticism both on the video and on my student’s Facebook account. On the video itself one individual had written; “It’s really strucked up about how cruel people are to animals. It would be great for all animals and humans to go vegan and to respect each other.” I smiled and laughed as I recalled the first time I posted images of a whale harvest to my own Facebook account. I’ve since learned to post warnings and what-not.
This is one of the many ways that life in Barrow (and much of Alaska) differs markedly from that of the lower 48; hunting is a way of life for many people up here. It simply isn’t for the majority of people down there, and at least some of those people imagine all of history moving towards their way of life. The many artifacts of subsistence hunting are bound to rub such folks the wrong way. A friend once commented about the necessity to remove one’s furs before hitting the Seattle airport, and we both laughed. Surrounded by folks in all-manner of furs, I could only imagine the reception some of the day-to-day outfits of the North Slope would get in other places.
I remember once trying to find a gift for a friend who likes Native American art. A vegetarian with significant interest in animal welfare, she would not have appreciated the ivory earrings or baleen etchings locals produced, nor the many varieties of fur. Most of the native artwork here involves dead animals of one form or another, and that really should come as no surprise in a community where hunting is for many people a fundamental part of their way of life.
The issue isn’t simply a question of whether or not to support or oppose hunting, fur, whaling, and so on.; it’s also a question of how you frame the issues. There is a big difference between the commercial fur industry and the hand-made clothes of locals who’ve eaten the meat previously kept warm by that same fur. Likewise, there is a big difference between a whale taken for commercial purposes and those whose blubber will be shared out to the community. Whether or not that settles the issue is another question, but quite often I think people simply fail to notice the difference.
Which brings us back to whaling!
There is a world of difference between the significance of whaling up here and the meaning given to it in other places. This problem was all over a New York Times article on Spring Whaling published a few years back. Its author framed the whole issue in terms of ‘tradition’, then proceeded to worry over the use of technological innovation in pursuit of that tradition. I also recall a discussion of the Makah whale hunt on a random website (I can’t find it now). Participants simply dismissed the idea that native whaling could be anything but a token gesture, a practice akin to preserving a museum exhibit. A similar view can be found in one of the comments to this post, Whaling Camp: Frozen Seas and Ice-scapes at the blog, Cutterlight. In response to this post, a woman named Kirsten Massebeau wrote:
There is no humane way to kill a whale. Today we know whales and dolphins are higher beings. Sometimes these whales suffer for up to 5 hours after being harpooned. Isn’t it time we stop letting the word “tradition” be an excuse for doing something so wrong. Please stop murdering the people of the sea! You are obviously wearing store bought clothes and shoes. Surely you can see your way clear of murdering our ocean friends.
Don’t get me wrong, I think this woman (as with others) raises some legitimate concerns in her comment, but I also think there are legitimate answers to those concerns, and I think the whole thing thrown askew by a certain refusal to take the Native Alaskan population seriously.
What all of these examples have in common is a refusal to allow or even to imagine the practice of whaling in the modern world. They cannot even fathom the possibility that such a thing could occur in the present world. To many of these folks, whaling (or at least the indigenous version of it) is by definition a thing of the past, a mere tradition, and one gathers an empty one at that. This seems to be a common perception of whaling on the North Slope, and that perception injects a great deal of prejudice into any subsequent discussion. It is a prejudice shaped and defined by people’s ideological views about history as much as anything else.
Whaling here on the North Slope is first and foremost a native matter, but it affects us all. The effort to bring in a bowhead is not limited to the crew of a single boat. Extended families and friends all work together to outfit and support a given crew, and the entire community of the North slope accommodates the needs of those involved. Time off from work is granted without question when it’s time to cut a trail through the ice. Homework deadlines are extended when it’s time to butcher and cook the blubber. Blubber and meat are shared throughout the community following a successful whale harvest. Whaling is no quaint tradition on the North Slope; it is one of the most important economic activities taking place up here.
Seeing the importance of whaling to an entire community, the condescension of some of these random comments can be quite maddening. Of course these are merely random comments on social media, but they provide a telling glimpse into the way that the larger public closes itself to local realities. Folks just can’t seem to find room in their view of the present for activities such as whaling and subsistence hunting. Presented with evidence to the contrary, it seems a common response to construe such things in terms of a museum exhibit.
…even when that exhibit is real people going about their daily lives, very much in the present day.
Epilogue: The disconnect between people’s perceptions of whaling works both ways. I recently received a charming example of this when a student of mine who teaches in one of the local villages passed information about the New England whaling fleet of the 19th century onto her own native students. They wanted to know how the meat and blubber would be shared.
and speaking of disconnect…this (particularly the our friends from the sea comment) had me thinking that cattle from somewhere out of line of sight are killed in the same way every day to feed us
the reality of the daily seeing of the family cow or cattle, that have names being live one day and on the table the next is lost.
perhaps this loss, and this imaginary wish not to have to deal with the idea that everything is sacrificed to some human wish or human purpose creates over-consumption and a lack of ceremony, community and of respect for what life is given up in order to support our own
i like it that everybody eats, it’s not something that i have generally found to be important in our culture, i think that in fairness it is no longer true as a generalization that native culture still lives and teaches this concept, to some even it is seen as romantic wanna-be-ism
What an interesting post/point of view. I cannot agree with you more.
Talking Trees Gallery said:
Many people who have only a small portion of native blood find they have nutritional disorders that can only be treated by eating foods from an “aboriginal” diet. There are a lot of “white” people out there that don’t understand why their stomachs hurt all the time. More medical research has to be done to determine the role native food has in people’s lives.
Maria Falvey said:
I’d like to know how a vegan diet would work in an area where the growing season is less than 120 days and imports from the lower 48 are 44% more expensive (sometimes higher than that).
Sad that people are so emotional about these issues when it involves ” wild” animals and they fail to see that the hamburger they are eating or the pepperoni on that pizza was once a living breathing animal also.. The detachment from our food source is what is killing all of us.. fillers, chemicals, nitrates. all to make things look good and last forever Yet clean,and nicely packaged. Thank you for your a point of view! This information is real and important and is getting lost in the ever increasing world that dose not want to see the true that death is part of life.
“It would be great for all animals and humans to go vegan and to respect each other.”
I would love to see anyone try to convince their cat to go vegan. Also, what Maria Falvey said above.
There is probably a point where population, technologically-increased hunting rates, etc. make “traditional” consumption of an animal product (or any product) untenable. Japan has a whaling tradition, too. But, it also has a larger population and other food sources, other ways of getting/producing things like soap and fuel and other formerly whale-based products. Not to mention super-efficient whaling boats (ships?).
I remember once lying in bed with a man from Alaska, of all places, and he said to me, “We were so poor growing up, I had nothing to eat but salmon.” Living in New York City at the time, I had to suppress an urge to laugh. Although I did get the point he was making, the contrast between his life and mine was dramatic. He was describing what it was like to grow up dependent on subsistence fishing and hunting.
I’ve heard similar conversations with the disconnect you’re describing when people were talking about seal hunting in Canada.
Also, I feel like a bit of a nut bringing it up, but veganism has killed children and babies of nursing vegan mothers have died from malnutrition. I really think the meme that there’s something inherently healthy about veganism needs to be actively opposed. There’s not any science behind it, just ideology. People want it to be true. Hell, I’m a total sentimental softy about animals. I would love it to be true.
And the White Lion Roars! said:
I understand and appreciate the sentiments shared here, Northier, but the problem isn’t small populations of subsistence hunters. The problem is when the larger population of “takers” create ways to kill more whales more quickly and don’t share the wealth. It’s the old saw about how Native Americans use the whole buffalo, while white hunters decimated the herds almost to extinction, and would scalp the fur and leave the rest of the buffalo rotting in the field. There are things that can be made from ivory, but now there are poachers out there who have driven elephants almost to extinction just to cut off tusks. I must completely agree with Elisa, slaughtering animals for food is never pretty, and the animals that are produced for food in this country are horribly mistreated. But I have a feeling the woman who wrote that post has never gone to a slaughter house to see what inhumane treatment the animals get…she just goes to the grocery store to buy her meat. Well, she may be a vegetarian or vegan, but most people have no clue where their food comes from, and if they did it would likely change the way they eat.
I don’t like to see nor hear of any animal or mammal suffering, and yet people have to eat. Vegan doesn’t cut it for me, unless you consume huge amounts of non-animal protein, it’s very unhealthy, otherwise noted as “Rabbit Food”. I have heard grass fed animals are healthier in consumption, but it’s cost discourages me from pursuing it.
David Scott Moyer said:
I am curious as to what the “legitimate answers” to the “legitimate concerns” are. It seems to me that there are two such concerns. First, whales are indeed highly intelligent creatures. Second, they have been hunted to near extinction. I am not a vegetarian. I comfortably eat all sorts of meat, even in the knowledge that the animals which provide it do not live in the best of conditions. I do not, however, eat endangered creatures (sea turtles, for example), and I would not eat whale or dolphin or higher primates, because I believe they pass some subjective threshold of intelligence that makes it akin to cannibalism.
Juliana Lightle said:
I appreciate animal rights and abhor cruelty as much as anyone, but realistically I think being vegan, or even vegetarian, would not be very realistic in your area. To be either necessitates living in a locale where it is possible to grow a lot of vegetables and fruit. Barrow does not seem to be one of those places.
I agree with your points.
As a person who is totally for animal rights and conservation my view on practices such as this is that it’s acceptable if it is within reason and done with measure.
Not like the stuff that’s happening in Denmark and Japan/China. That there is a real slaughter and these people should be punished!
As far as hunting/whaling and all sorts of animal killing goes I think it should be just for the sake of bringing food to the table. Just like the Eskimos lived for the past 200+ years. Kill just enough to get by and use every part of the animal – do not waste anything.
Thanks for sharing.