One of our students here at Iḷisaġvik College was curious about the foxes living out behind our dorms. Olive tells me they will chase a red dot over the tundra, for a little while anyway. She filmed her little experiment.
One of our students here at Iḷisaġvik College was curious about the foxes living out behind our dorms. Olive tells me they will chase a red dot over the tundra, for a little while anyway. She filmed her little experiment.
As I recall, the picture was a selfie. My student was one of many people who come up here from the lower 48 to teach somewhere in the K-12 system. She was taking a course from me to help satisfy her certification requirements to remain in the state system.
…And there she stood in the picture with a polar bear walking along the beach in the background behind her. No, she wasn’t that close. She was fine, but really, it was a fantastic picture. I could imagine her showing it to people and chattering on about it for years to come. I was happy for her, and just a little jealous, but mostly happy for her. It had to have been a cool moment.
…which is what I said.
To my surprise, a frown immediately captured her face and her shoulders slumped as she looked down. For all the coolness of the pic, it was evidently not part of a happy story. She struggled to explain why. It turns out that someone shot the bear mere moments after she had posed for the picture.
No, this is not a story of criminal activity, at least not that I’m aware of. The hunter was an Alaska Native, and yes, they are allowed to take polar bears for subsistence activities. Still, I couldn’t help but feel for the student in this instance. To see a bear go from shared space in a selfie to dead on the beach in a matter of moments must have generated a kind of moral whiplash.
(Clunky metaphor, I know.)
I can’t help thinking the sudden transformation of the bear from a living breathing subject that one might want to share space with in a selfie to a dead animal must have been a bit shocking. I suspect the issue here is more than the sudden death of the bear; it’s this sudden change in the way circumstances invite her to think about him. One minute, she was celebrating the presence of the bear, and the next it was no longer a presence to be celebrated.
Is a bear fit for a selfie? Or is it fit to eat (and perhaps to wear)? You can answer both of these questions with a ‘yes’, but it may be a little disturbing when both answers play out at the same time and in the same place, and most particularly, with the same bear.
I thought about this over the last week or two as a polar bear had been hanging out near the college where I work for several days. Wildlife had to shoo him off a couple times. For those of us at the college, he was both a source of excitement and at least a trace of anxiety. More than a few of us grabbed our cameras, but even as we took pictures, several wondered if he wasn’t a little too close. He wasn’t so close as to generate immediate alarm, but he was close enough to make us all a little more careful as we went outside. In time, we began to worry about his own fate as well. If he didn’t move on soon, would officials end up shooting him?
I don’t know what happened to the bear. I have some ideas as to why he was here, and I believe he moved on eventually, but I don’t know this for a fact. For the present, the possibility itself, that he could have been shot is the interesting point. What would it mean to me, I wondered, if the bear in these pictures had been killed within days (or perhaps hours) of my taking them? It isn’t simply the possibility that he might die on his own. Hell, cycles of life and all that! No, the point is that a picture of a bear that might be killed because he is close enough to take pictures of him makes for something of an ironic photo subject.
The whole thing reminds me of the old bit from Marshall Sahlins on how you tell the difference between an animal you can’t eat and one that you can. Perhaps, I think, taking a picture with a bear is a bit like giving it a name. It’s one way of imparting a sense of personhood to the creature, one way of making it part of the world of lives about which you have some fucks to give. This is especially true if you hope to tell tales of the creature at some later date. I suppose it depends a bit on the picture, just how much the taking of a picture actually imparts meaning to its subject, but a selfie with a bear is probably on the maximum end of the personalizing spectrum. (We put ourselves in pictures with people and creatures, we like, not usually those who loathe or simply don’t care about.) At the other end of this spectrum, I guess we’d have to count most of the pictures taken by trophy hunters over a fresh kill. If trophy pictures impart meaning to the animal, I can’t help thinking it’s one of conquest. In contrast, I reckon most of those taking a picture of a bear want to talk (and think) about their encounter with an exotic living creature. They might want to think of him, for a time at least, as alive and well and going about his business long after the picture-taking two-legged has found its way to warmer homes and (hopefully) eager ears. At the very least, such stories are compromised by the thought that the very encounter that produced an image of the creature in question could also have reduced it to meat headed for the dinner table.
Good to eat and good to selfie, but not at the same time.
So, if the camera ensouls an animal, so to speak, the gun would seem to do just the opposite, at least for some people. Beyond the actual act of killing an animal, the willingness to do so would seem to transform an animal into something less than personal; it shifts from an end in itself to a means of sustenance.
Or does it?
Certainly not for indigenous hunters. If anything, their own traditions are saturated with motifs attributing personhood to animals. Whalers up here consistently speak of the bowhead as giving themselves to the hunters voluntarily, and similar themes can be found in hunting traditions of indigenous peoples around the world. For example, the oral traditions of hunting peoples often contain references to a time when animals spoke as humans do. As often as not, the loss of this quality in such stories will occur by choice, and as often as not that choice is motivated by the needs of human hunters. In some stories, animals may still take human form under designated circumstances. The upshot is a world in which role of animal and hunter is the conscious decision of persons who must be respected if the relationship is to continue.
But I don’t think the notion of hunting as a respectful enterprise is entirely limited to indigenous traditions, or indigenous people in general. Talk of respect is quite common among hunters, all the more so for those who do so as a means of feeding themselves. Animal rights activists may well dismiss this as convenient rhetoric, but the lives of subsistence hunters are far more intimately involved with the cycles of nature and the lives of animals than those of your modern citizen. There is little reason to believe those who invest a significant portion of their thought and their activities on the animal world come away from this with little but a utilitarian sense of those animals. It might be different for commercial hunters, and likewise for a certain scale of commercial farmer, but the people I know up here who feed themselves from the ducks, the geese, the caribou, and yes, the whale, live lives fairly filled with thoughts about these creatures.
Which brings me back to the shock that shock of becoming an unqitting witness to the harvest of an animal. I reckon, it must be a bit more unsettling to those who’ve never participated in such activities. Folks may know that their beef was once a cow; their bacon was once a pig, and their chicken was once, …um, a chicken, but most have never witnessed (much less contributed to) the process by which the one becomes the other. For the average consumer of market meats, the consumption of animals is easily imagined as an entirely objective process. Vegetarians may escape this tangle of dissonance, but a fair number of those uncomfortable with hunting are fairly caught right up in it. Their discomfort is at least partly a function of seeing (or thinking about) a process which normally occurs out of sight, but which is absolutely essentially to their own sustenance. In contrast, participating in single hunt can be a lasting reminder that the food on your table was once alive. I’m not saying, everyone draws this lesson, but I certainly did (it’s been a log time), and I believe I see similar views in those around me now.
…all of which means, ironically enough, that shooting an animal may not equate to depersonalization after all, at least not for everyone. I reckon, it will always be a bit shocking for those unaccustomed to such activities, and it would be that much more so for anyone unfortunate enough to be sharing a selfie moment with a creature just before seeing it go down, but the real difference in worldview may be less a question of those who appreciate the lives of animals and those who don’t so much as a question of those who remember their own lives come at the expense of others and those for whom that connection is fuzzy at best.
The bear, from a couple weeks back (click to embiggen). He is, I believe, still alive. I’m sorry the pictures aren’t that great. I of course wanted to stay much closer to a door than he was to me.
This was many years back, and it may be too much information, but I still think it’s a funny story. Sad to say, it’s not fiction
How low can you sink in life?
That was my question, sitting there on the toilet seat, staring at the roll of toilet paper standing upright on the floor in front of me, my last roll of toilet paper.
…and realizing it was damned near out.
My cats were there to help me of course, as they always are when I head to the bathroom, but neither Fido nor Junkmail had any special skill in toilet-paper assessment. They flittered about my feet a little while before sliding one by one out the door and leaving me to ponder this new dilemma all by myself.
Would it be enough?
And might I need more before the day was out?
I knew I was also out of napkins, because I had used a bit of toilet paper for a napkin the night before. Presumably, I didn’t have any paper towels either. I would certainly have used one of those at dinner, if it’d been available.
So much for the store bought stuff!
I wondered if a few extra napkins from a fast food joint might be tucked away in a coat pocket somewhere, or perhaps stuffed into a space near the computer. Could I have set one to the side while downing a burger?
But of course, getting through the crisis of the moment was one thing; living through the next couple days was another. I really didn’t want to spend the five dollars remaining in my wallet on a package of toilet paper. So, this was a tough call.
I thought perhaps I could walk over to the mall and use their toilet, but wow! That’s desperation. When you can’t afford your own toiletries, you know life hasn’t turned out the way you planned.
I supposed I could get a single roll at the store for a little over a dollar if I remembered the prices correctly. That would leave me with about 4 dollars for other things. I preferred to buy in bulk, but that was no longer an option, much less a preference. In toiletries too, the inefficiencies of poverty prevail, even for those of us with no valid excuses for being poor. I had long since lost count of the stupid mistakes that had put me in this situation.
There was nothing feigned about that little moment of self-contempt. I was pretty pissed at myself. How much worse can things get, I wondered, as I reached for the roll? How much more pathetic?
In a blaze of black and cream-colored fur, Fido flew into the room, tackled the roll and tumbled into the far corner of the bathroom, just out a little beyond the reach of my hand, His claws and teeth whirled furiously about for a second or two before he darted out the door just as quickly as he’d entered it.
And there I sat, my hand still extended, staring at the pile of shreds that had formerly been my last roll of toilet paper.
So, I spent most of June on the Metlakatla Indian Reserve on in Southeast Alaska. It’s easily one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. Its eagles were one of the first things I noticed about the place. It seems to have a lot of them. Locals seemed amused to see me clicking away at the local equivalent of pigeons, but to me they were damned beautiful pigeons, and so I clicked on. These are lazy eagles, or so one my students told me. They don’t hunt as much as eagles out and away from the harbor. These guys obviously get a lot of easy meals off the boats, I’m sure. And still, that doesn’t make them any less majestic looking. So, again, I clicked away.
When an eagle looks back at you, it’s hard to escape the notion that one is being judged. Yeah, judge me if you like dude; I got your picture, so there! It’s really hard to get a decent picture of these guys in flight. I tried hard and almost managed it a time or two. I definitely prefer it when they perch in a tree and pose for me. They can judge all they like, just so long as they give me time to zoom in.
So, I figure, what could be more fitting for an Independence Day post than a bunch of eagle pics? Anyway, have a look!
(You may of course click to embiggen.)
Metlakatla is the only Indian reservation in Alaska. It began when William Duncan, an Anglican missionary separated with his church and brought a portion of his Tsimshian congregation from old Metlakatla to Annette Island, thus founding the community of New Metlakatla. It is still predominantly a Tsimshian community, though Tlingit and Haida, and a whole host of other peoples live there as well. Father Duncan’s faith isn’t the only one here anymore, but with half a dozen churches in a town of 1300, it is still very much a Christian community.
The town has a casino, but that didn’t get a lot of action while I was there, or at least I didn’t notice it. They also have a tourist ship, which seems to get a little business. (At least they did from me.) They also have a cannery, and this meant lots of outsiders showed up as the fishing season started. …Suddenly Russian could be heard all over the place. All in all, it was an interesting place.
(Click to embiggen. You know you wanna!)
I recall talking to someone before I went about activities on the island. She said, there were plenty of good hiking places. I asked if it was dangerous, and was told in reply that there were no bears on the island. So, I hiked a good 5 miles or so away from town out on the beach. Later someone told me they do have wolves.
…good to know.
Funny thing about beaches. It’s no real surprise that refuse washes up on shore and sometimes people leave stuff. They should know better, yes, but they do. What’s not so obvious is just why so much of it gets hung up or stuck on a tree branch.
(Don’t click to embiggen this stuff! Seriously, just don’t!)
One day, I had the oddest exchange. It went like this:
Stranger: Sorry to bother you, I had to check on my log.
Me: Your log?
Stranger: My log.
The mystery was somewhat resolved when a boat came to haul it away. The skipper told me it was going to be a totem.
For most of the time I stayed on the island, local fisherman used drift nets, but the very morning I left, they shifted to seine netting which was a bit more interesting cause you can see the floats.
(Click to embiggen!)
The eagles certainly found these nets rather interesting. They were very interested in seeing the results.
Happy July 4th everybody!
“Are you a no-kill shelter?” the woman asked as she readied a $20.00 bill for the donation box? The honest answer was ‘no,’ and my explanation didn’t help matters much, …at all really. With one corner already inside the box that twenty dollar bill did a U-Turn and headed straight back to the woman’s purse. Our consolation prize was a $5.00 bill.
And I thanked her.
I’m writing that now, because I sure as Hell wasn’t going to say it the, and yes I do feel better. That wasn’t the only irritating moment that I recall from the year and a half I worked at a local Humane Association, but I suppose this is to be expected. There is indeed something terrible about a conventional will-kill shelter. Looking at it from the perspective of the lady above, I had effectively told her that the organization I worked for killed perfectly healthy kittens and puppies, …and that I wanted money so that we could continue doing so. Under the circumstances, I suppose I should have been damned thankful to get a five.
Seriously, what a bastard!
It’s tough to find a sound patch of middle ground on some issues and this is one of them.
I had that job for about a year and a half, and this was hardly the first time I’d taken grief from someone in favor of no-kill shelters. There was the volunteer who wouldn’t step foot in our shelter. There were the interviews that ALWAYS raised questions about euthanasia, even when that was clearly not the issue at hand. And then there were the phone calls, the ones that went something like this; “I don’t want to bring him to you, but no-one else will take him, what do I do?” And of course there were countless times I heard people describe themselves as rescuing an animal from us, often one we had been at great pains to keep alive.
But this was all pretty minor stuff really. All in a day’s work.
I have to admit that it got a little under my skin the day that a volunteer from the local low-kill shelter told me with a smile that she heard her own shelter had just saved 12 cats from us. See, the problem was that we had plenty of room at the time, and none of these animals were in danger. In fact, giving them 12 cats had left our own cat kennels near to empty. We had given the cats to the other shelter because they were suddenly short felines, and I knew damn well the reason they were suddenly short. It wasn’t a pretty story. I wanted desperately to tell the volunteer that her shelter hadn’t saved any animals by taking them off our hands on that day. Not at all.
This young lady doesn’t get called a name. She didn’t know. And anyhow I don’t feel as cranky as I did 3 or 4 paragraphs back. Still that was a bitter pill to swallow. Suffice to say I thought for a time there that a companion animal stood a better chance at our own will-kill shelter than they did with our low-kill counterpart. If I am hearing right lately, it sounds like the latter has cleaned up its act and both shelters are working together more lately. That’s a very good thing.
What bothers me about no-kill shelters is not the way they actually work, when they actually work at any rate; it is that their rhetoric tends to work just as well regardless of the details on the ground so to speak. If that woman with her twenty dollar bill really understood how our shelter worked and decided we weren’t a worthy recipient for her money, I would have been fine with that decision. But she didn’t. What she knew was one thing; we were the bad guys and that was about all there was to it.
I also remember a day that we ran out of room in our dog kennels and the local low-kill had been among the organizations that took a few off our hands. They took two, a pit bull and one other dog. I had been so relieved, because all of us loved that pit bull, even though she had been with us 6 months. At last she was safe, …except she wasn’t. Both of those animals ended up getting put down. And I never called the low-kill shelter again, not to help us keep one of our animals alive at any rate.
All of this had already happened on that day when a twenty climbed back into that woman’s purse and sent a five to take its place. I couldn’t help but wonder if the lady knew where people took their pets when the low-kill ran out of space? I also wondered if she knew just how many animals did get put down over there? Or if she could wrap her mind around just how many more animals we took care of on a fraction of their budget, all without the privilege of selective admissions. I’m guessing she didn’t. To her, I was a black hat. The other fifteen bucks were presumably looking to make their home with a white hat.
Circumstances vary from one community to the next, but in that community at that particular time there were exactly two-shelters in the area; one low-kill and one will-kill. The low-kill had begun with aspirations of no-kill policies and still maintained enough ties with the no-kill movement benefit from its reputation. We were open to any animal someone wanted to bring in; they could and did turn problem animals down. When they filled up, we got the overflow. When we filled up, first we turned to the phones, then we turned to the needles.
What so few of the local no-kill advocates in town seemed to realize was that when we were putting animals down it really was a community affair. If we were putting healthy animals down, odds were high that both shelters were full and all the fosters in town were overflowing. Hell, by then more than a few kind-hearted people had already taken more home than they could afford to feed. It really wasn’t a decision made in a vacuum, and when an adoptable animal went down it was literally because we couldn’t find anyone with the will and the resources to care for it.
By the time I left the shelter I had long since come to think of the total impact of the two shelters in terms of the total animal population for the region. Were were in competition for resources and public support, but both shelters contributed to the overall care of animals throughout the region. Our shelter was more efficient, but they could offer a reasonably higher guarantee of survival for any animal successfully placed with them.
…at least they could when they had their act in gear.
In some ways the competition between our shelters may have improved the odds of survival for the unwanted animals of the town. The no-kill movement was a positive force at our own shelter and I knew it. It was one of the reasons we partnered with Petsmart and Petco, went to countless adoption events, advertised adoptions widely, and even began working with Foster agencies. No-kill advocates had developed a lot of the techniques we used to help adopt out our animals, and pressure from such advocates had helped to ensure we used them. In that respect at least, no kill had a very positive impact on our own shelter. Still, some of its advocates could prove damned clueless about the details of animal welfare.
If anyone really wanted to help the animals in our region, a dollar in our donation box was at least as good as it was in that of the local low-kill shelter.
Arguably better at the time.
But you can’t tell some people that. I mean you really can’t.
So, I opened the door to head off to work earlier today and this fellow was sitting outside. He stayed long enough for me to get my camera and snap a few pics. Being totally free of superstition and all, I immediately decided this fellow was trying to tell me I have been a jack-ass for letting my blog go like this. One of my students ended up giving me a ride. She figured it was the same owl that’d been scaring her dog and said he was probably in town looking for food.
She’s right of course, but I’m going to commence rebloggination anyway.
…starting with this guy.
“What is that?”
“That right there out on the ice, is that a Nanook?”
“Is that a bear!?!”
“Is that a bear?”
Is that a bear?”
“Oh hey, I see it.”
“Is it sitting down?”
“Did it just move?”
“Oh, yeah, it looks bigger now. It definitely moved?”
“I think it’s a bear.”
“I can’t zoom in enough without losing it.”
“That’s definitely a bear?”
“Do you see it? Is it a bear?”
“I think it’s moving?”
“Let me just snap the picture and see if I can see it more clearly afterwards…”
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.