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.

It could be all of the above.

The best clues to this mystery may be hidden in the meat of the fresh specimens the hunters of Chukotka bring to shore this summer.

"A good question is why did we decide to study these hunted whales only now, once a crisis is upon us?" says O'Hara. "We are not as clever as we may think."

Bill Hess
In the Chukotkan village of Sireniki, revival hunters found and used a 100-year-old darting gun.
Bill Hess
In the Chukotkan village of Sireniki, revival hunters found and used a 100-year-old darting gun.


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

Last month in Barrow, Alaska, a delegation of whalers and native activists from Chukotka attended an annual meeting of the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission.

Among the agenda items were strategy meetings in which the Chukotka hunters were coached in how to prepare for next year's International Whaling Commission convention. There, while anti-whaling protesters gnash their teeth outside the meeting hall, a company of native hunters far from home will ask for permission to kill more gray whales.

(According to the IWC's own Scientific Committee, the stock of Eastern Pacific gray whales could lose 482 whales a year and still increase in population by 2 percent annually.)

Thomas Napageak, chairman of the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission, officially welcomed the Chukotka hunters to Barrow: "You have come a long way, and we will continue to support you if you need us at any time. We would like to go to your blanket toss one of these days."

As the meeting proceeded, Barrow whaling captain Ron Brower -- grandson of the legendary Yankee whaler Charlie Brower, who settled in Barrow in the 1890s -- huddled in a workshop with his young nephews, finishing a batch of 30 darting guns he had spent the last month crafting.

Back in the community room of Barrow's Inupiat Heritage Center, Vladimir Etylin thanked the assemblage of Alaskan whalers for this latest gift.

"Now that we are receiving 30 new darting guns, almost all of our whaling boats that need a weapon will have one. . . . Our hopes for next season's harvest are very good. We believe that for the first time, we may harvest the maximum number of gray whales we are allowed by the IWC, which will prepare us to make a new quota request in 2002.

"We understand that the only way to obtain a satisfactory quota in 2002 is to keep working together with our friends in America.

"Finally, we know time is moving forward, and we need to change generations. We need our young people to move forward. This is why I am pleased to say that my daughter, Olga, will be coming soon to Barrow to work in the AEWC office to learn better how to organize and how to protect our culture."

That night, as he waited for native dancers from Chukotka and Barrow to perform a celebration of the previous summer's hunting, Etylin acknowledged there are millions of people in the world who believe his culture -- one based on killing whales -- is not worth protecting.

"We try to understand these people, but we cannot," he says. "What would happen if we started telling French people it is disgusting to eat frogs, and they must stop, because it is violating the rights of the frogs? We would be laughed at. But people say, 'Oh, you cannot hunt the whale, because the whale is magical,' and they are taken seriously. It is not right. These people who work against us, they come from rich countries. They have everything. They should just leave us alone."

That's not likely to happen.

While indigenous people around the world are fighting to revive lost traditions, environmentalists are still fighting to save the whale. The two sides are on opposite banks of a cultural chasm, yet both claim the moral high ground. Until one yields, the issue of native people killing whales in the name of their culture -- to say nothing of filling their bellies -- will stay steeped in scorching controversy.

"Whaling is a waste of sentient life," says the Breach campaign's David Smith. "Whales are highly evolved mammals. They have the right to be treated with compassion by all people everywhere. You cannot simply excuse the massacre of such beings by playing the 'cultural values' card."

Smith does allow an exception for indigenous people faced with imminent starvation. "But in such cases, the rest of the world has a moral imperative to supply those people with food and work with them hand-in-hand to stop the slaughter."

No thanks, says Etylin.

"We want to feed ourselves. Hunting whales is what gives us pride. It is what reminds us of who we are.

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