As the ice melts, the days of traditional whaling are ending. Each spring Iñupiat hunters set their umiaq sealskin boats out on the sea ice and wait for migrating bowhead whales, as they have done sustainably for the last 2000 years. Today, the sea ice has declined and become so unstable in the Arctic spring that conditions have become increasingly dangerous for the hunters, and impossible for the crews to haul their catch onto the ice to butcher and distribute. Yet, for this culture whose identity centers around the whale, there is no option to stop hunting. The whale is who they are, what their community is bound over. The Iñupiat worry about newer generations losing connection with the sea– such as hunting seals to cover the skinboats, keeping polar bears at bay, and how to live on the ice.
For a foreigner to a Native village in the Alaskan Arctic, the difference is in the ice, the smell of the walrus, the quiet way that Iñupiat speak. But underneath lies the deeper values of an indigenous identity, a lifestyle that prioritizes sustainable land practices. The Iñupiat are the indigenous people of the North Slope of Alaska, a subset of the Inuit, whose culture developed around the practice of whaling. For over 2,000 years they have patiently hunted bowhead whales from sealskin boats. Kanisan Ningeok explains, “We sit on the ice and hope the whale gives itself.” As an indigenous photojournalist, I have been documenting Iñupiat life in the village of Utqiagviq, Alaska for three years. I spent several seasons on the sea ice alongside a traditional Iñupiat whaling family, and learned that vanishing sea ice is making traditional subsistence dangerous. Many Iñupiat no longer whale from skinboats. Makalik Wilhelm says, “I don’t think people realize how dangerous it is out here… We hunt because we have to feed our community.” Climate change makes the headlines the world over, but the unseen effect is the accelerated degradation of traditional culture. As traditional ways of life decline in remote Arctic communities, suicide rates have skyrocketed. Drug abuse and crime are far higher in Native villages than nearby communities. For the young at-risk generation, tradition and subsistence remains important. The public defender for the Alaskan Iñupiat villages has witnessed the importance of traditional practices to the health of the community and notes, “During the whaling seasons, probably four months of the year, crime becomes nonexistent. All the young men are out whaling.” In spite of the challenges, the Iñupiat are not helpless victims. Their story is one of self-determination. The mounting challenges to prosperity are being met head-on through education and a resurgence of traditional practices. Yet the Iñupiat and all the Arctic peoples need help in awareness of their unique situations. The governments that provide vital services and funding have seldom had any experience of arctic life. These same governments have been increasingly restricting subsistence rights, and refusing assistance in climate change mitigation. There are communites whose foundations are literally eroded away that need relocation. This is about cultural understanding -- that outsiders living far away might gain insight into the unique challenges for Arctic indigenous and why assistance is needed to mitigate the effects of climate change.
Kiliii Yuyan is an indigenous photographer (Nanai) whose work is dedicated to Native cultures and natural history. He has worked alongside Iñupiat whalers in the Arctic, Anangu aboriginal hunters in central Australia, Inari Sami reindeer-herders in Finland. Kiliii is also a traditional kayak-builder. Through photography, his work tells the stories of the voiceless– people, wildlife, and the changing land.