May 5, 2015: Rays stream from sun onto ocean to strike hunters from all angles, cooking them out of their clothing layer by layer until finally they stand bare chested at the water’s edge. I remember a beach in Mexico – but this is Arctic Alaska, where Iñupiat hunters have ventured onto Chukchi Sea ice to seek the gift of aġvik – the bowhead whale. Since Time Immemorial, aġvik has given Iñupiat not only nutrition, but the foundation of a resourceful, resilient, culture and enabled them to thrive in one of the harshest environments on earth.
Multiple threats have followed the British explorers who sailed into their home in the early 19th century, followed by the Yankee whaling industry, which decimated the bowhead. Imported diseases decimated the Iñupiat.
Both survived and slowly began to replenish their populations. By 1977, the Iñupiat had adapted to incredible change. Money to buy imported goods, high-priced food included, had become vital. Yet bowhead remained central to diet and culture. Each spring, Iñupiat ventured onto Chukchi Sea ice and paddled their bearded seal-skin covered umiaks into the lead to meet bowheads migrating to summer waters in the Canadian Beaufort.
Come the open water season of late summer and early fall, hunters again met aġvik as bowheads migrated back through the Beaufort and Chukchi to their winter home in the Bering Sea. Through intimate observation, Iñupiat knew bowheads numbered many thousands, were increasing and so were shocked when the International Whaling Commission suddenly placed a moratorium on their hunt. IWC claimed the Western Arctic bowhead population numbered as few as 600.
Iñupiat joined other Alaska Inuit, organized the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission and took their fight to an IWC convention in the UK. Greenpeace protesters waved “Save the Whales!” signs at them. AEWC secured a pitifully inadequate quota of 18 strikes to land 12 whales for ten Alaska whaling villages spread along a coastline longer than California’s. With financial support from the Utah-sized North Slope Borough, founded by Iñupiat in 1972 to tax oil company property and thus recapture a sliver of the Prudhoe Bay wealth Congress had just taken from them, AEWC launched what with support from the US and Canadian governments became the most intense, ongoing, scientific, peer-reviewed whale census ever conducted. Additional federal studies proved the deep Iñupiat nutritional and cultural need to hunt bowhead.
The most recent tally shows a best-estimate of 16,892 bowhead, growing by 3.7 percent a year. Alaska whaling villages currently hunt under a block quota of 306 landed bowhead, parceled out over six years. Future quotas will be based on future census numbers. Even Greenpeace now favors the Iñupiat right to hunt bowhead. Ailments of the modern world not withstanding, the hunt is strong.
Now the big threat is climate change, happening faster in the Arctic than anywhere else. The spring hunt in the Chukchi becomes ever dangerous as ice thins. The Beaufort late summer/early fall hunt also grows more dangerous. Huge reaches of open water allow violent storms to whip up waves that threaten hunters and shorelines alike. Polar bears have always been present to hunt and be hunted by Iñupiat, but hunted seals from plentiful icebergs and seldom bothered fall hunters.
Now, there are fall seasons when no icebergs can be seen. Polar bears need solid platforms to rest and den upon. They need to eat. They come to Cross and Barter Islands, where Iñupiat from the villages of Nuiqsut and Kaktovik hunt. Many bears now turn to the Iñupiat and the bowhead they land in their own quest to survive. Whalers must be continually wary, lest they fall to a nanuq.
From 1985 through 1995, I repeatedly returned to six whaling villages spread along the Arctic Slope from Point Hope in the west to Kaktovik near Canada to make my magazine, Uiñiq, funded by the North Slope Borough. This resulted in my book, Gift of the Whale (Sasquatch, 1999).I spent the next dozen years plus covering Native people and issues elsewhere across Alaska, but returned to the Slope enough to see the dramatic impacts climate change was bringing to the Iñupiat and their hunting way of life. I saw what looked to be pending offshore oil development – both opposed and supported within the Iñupiat community. For now, oil exploration has stopped in the Chukchi, although smaller scale, near-shore development continues in the Beaufort.
In May, 2008, I launched what I intended to be a comprehensive update but one month later fell, shattered my shoulder and got a new one. A variety of ailments and surgeries followed, but now I am at it again. Should health, life and funds permit, I hope to complete my update by the summer I turn 70 – four years from now.
Then I plan to go sit on a beach in Rio.
I will stay here, in Alaska – most of the time.
When he was five, Bill Hess looked up into the ethereal shimmer of a rare display of northern lights in the Oregon night and felt a mysterious call to the north. The call persisted as his Mormon family migrated about in the land and mythology of the American West. Reality punctured myth during the two years he served on a mission to the Lakota and the five he spent as a one-man-band newspaperman and freelancer on his wife Margie’s White Mountain Apache Reservation. On July 14, 1981, his 31st birthday, he finally followed the call home to Alaska. No job awaited, no house for his family and he knew no one, yet his soul was soothed. He has dedicated his career since to learning about his home from those who know it best – the First Peoples of Alaska. He extends his thanks to them for allowing him to walk, eat and sleep upon their lands, waters and ice, for all they have so generously shared with and taught him.