Dying Breeds

Siberian Eskimos on the edge of the Earth and the brink of starvation saved their lives and their culture by reviving the lost tradition of whale hunting. Now they worry the gray whales are poisoned.

The natives were forced to abandon their small coastal villages, where they lived in sod and skin huts, and relocate to consolidated settlements inland, where they were crammed into concrete-block apartment towers. Instead of hunting and gathering, they toiled on state-sponsored farms, raising and skinning fur foxes. It was ghastly, humiliating labor. In a gross perversion of their traditional culture, the Eskimos were made to feed the foxes the meat of gray whales slaughtered by a Soviet factory whaling ship.

"Subsistence hunting is the basis of our life, our culture, our language," says Etylin of the new whale hunters' group in Chukotka. "When this was taken from us . . . we began to forget our identity as a unique people. We began to forget our traditions. We were lost."

Decades passed. Alcoholism and suicide consumed many souls, as the natives of Chukotka grew more and more dependent upon government subsidies and centralized shipments of food, clothing and fuel.

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Matt Kenia
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Vladimir Etylin, director of the newly formed Association of Traditional Marine Mammal Hunters of Chukotka, with his daughter, Olga, at a February conference in Barrow, Alaska.
Vladimir Bychkov
Vladimir Etylin, director of the newly formed Association of Traditional Marine Mammal Hunters of Chukotka, with his daughter, Olga, at a February conference in Barrow, Alaska.


Read the second installment in this series: "Devil Fish"

Then the shipments stopped coming.

After the Soviet Union disintegrated, and the new Russian Federation began its grueling transition from command to market economy, there was no money for Chukotka anymore. It was chopped off the supply lines.

"The government basically told these people, 'Sorry about the mix-up. You're free now. Okay, go be natives again,'" says Dr. Tom Albert, a wildlife scientist in Barrow, Alaska, who has worked extensively with Chukotka's subsistence whalers for the past 15 years. "There was just one small problem. They'd pretty much forgotten how."

More than 50 years of Soviet control was long enough for two generations of men to come of age never having built a skin boat, read the skies for an approaching storm or held harpoon in hand in the face of a charging gray whale. Their wives had never learned how to butcher meat, weave a net or make warm, waterproof hunting garb from reindeer skins. Lacking crucial knowledge and equipment, the natives of Chukotka faced a raw choice: start hunting whales again, or find out whether the world would let them starve like Somalians.

Last summer, native hunters killed 113 gray whales in the Bering and Chukchi seas. The summer before that, 121. This summer, with new weapons, they plan for the first time to kill 135 -- the maximum allowed them by international law.

The 17,000 native people of Chukotka have effectively returned to a traditional lifestyle based around marine mammal hunting (they also hunt walrus, seals and bowhead whales). They have relearned many ancient skills, including how to build hunting boats called baidaras from driftwood and skins. And they are spreading out, repopulating dozens of historic village sites along the coast.

"It was not a romantic choice for us to return to the old ways," says Etylin. "When we began hunting whales again, we were thinking only of how to keep living. Now we are realizing we may have saved not just our lives, but also our culture."

Yet in the midst of this revival, the natives of Chukotka remain a people in peril. The past three Siberian winters have been among the worst on record. This January, a freak cold front shoved the mercury to 55 below for two weeks straight. At least 113 people died. Last year, one village of 400 lost nearly 10 percent of its population to malnutrition and disease. Scurvy is common in Chukotka, and cases of cancer are rapidly accumulating, while the birth rate in Chukotka is crashing, down 50 percent since 1986.

The native whalers of Chukotka have a long list of worries.

They worry that many of the gray whales they eat are poisoned, just not poisoned enough to smell foul. They worry that the gray whale die-off will lead the International Whaling Commission to reduce their subsistence quota, or ban their hunt altogether. And they worry about defenders of animal rights who would love to see that happen.

Anti-whaling activists are fond of quoting the great-granddaughter of Geronimo, who delivered a message to a gathering of tribes on Orcas Island in 1998. She said, "There is an ancient prophecy that states 'Peace will come to humans when we make peace with the whales and hear their song.'"

But the native hunters of Chukotka say they don't have time for peace and whale songs. They're too busy trying to put blubber on the table.

Without a survival suit -- and the hunters of Chukotka have none -- a man has only minutes to live in the freezing seas between Siberia and Alaska. "There have been many tragedies," says Zelensky. "Men go in the water. Sometimes they are saved in time, sometimes not."

But fewer men die now than before. With each season, the revival hunters of Chukotka grow wiser, more organized and better equipped. This coming summer, with nine years of experience beneath their parkas, they will go on the water in sturdy boats with new outboard motors, outfitted with two-way radios, binoculars, navigation devices and modern, explosive-tipped harpoons.

The first few seasons were chaos by comparison.

The hunters went out in poorly constructed crafts scavenged from defunct state farms. Their weapons were a motley, inadequate array. One enterprising band found an anti-tank gun left behind by a decommissioned Soviet infantry division, positioned it atop a bluff overlooking a narrow strait and blasted away at passing whales, Guns of Navarone style. Other whalers returned to the ghost villages on the coast and foraged in garbage heaps for discarded harpoons.

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