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This article was originally published in High Country News, a magazine about the American West’s environment and communities. Read more stories like this at hcn.org.
Before his story made the Anchorage paper, before the first death threat arrived from across the world, before his elders began to worry and his mother cried over the things she read on Facebook, Chris Apassingok, age 16, caught a whale.
It happened at the end of April, which for generations has been whaling season in the Siberian Yupik village of Gambell on St. Lawrence Island on the northwest edge of Alaska. More than 30 crews from the community of 700 were trawling the sea for bowhead whales, cetaceans that can grow over 15 meters long, weigh over 45 tonnes and live more than 100 years. A few animals taken each year bring thousands of kilograms of meat to the village, offsetting the impossibly high cost of imported store-bought food.
A hundred years ago—even 20 years ago, when Gambell was an isolated point on the map, protected part of the year by a wall of sea ice—catching the whale would have been a dream accomplishment for a teenage hunter, a sign of Chris’s passage into adulthood and a story that people would tell until he was old. But today, in a world shrunk by social media, where fragments of stories travel like light and there is no protection from anonymous outrage, his achievement has been eclipsed by an endless wave of online harassment. Six weeks after his epic hunt, his mood was dark. He’d quit going to school. His parents, his siblings, everybody worried about him.
In mid-June, as his family crowded into their small kitchen at dinner time, Chris stood by the stove, eyes on the plate in his hands. Behind him, childhood photographs collaged the wall, basketball games and hunting trip selfies, certificates from school. Lots of village boys are quiet, but Chris is one of the quietest. He usually speaks to elders and other hunters in Yupik. His English sentences come out short and deliberate. His siblings are used to speaking for him.
“I can’t get anything out of him,” his mother said.
His sister, Danielle, 17, heads to University of Alaska Fairbanks in the fall, where she hopes to play basketball. She pulled a square of meat from a pot and set it on a cutting board on the table, slicing it thin with a moon-shaped ulu. Chris dragged a piece through a pile of Lawry’s Seasoned Salt and dunked it in soy sauce. Mangtak. Whale. Soul food of the Arctic.
Soon conversation turned, once again, to what happened. It’s hard to escape the story in Chris’s village, or in any village in the region that relies on whaling. People are disturbed by it. It stirs old pain and anxieties about the pressures on rural Alaska. Always, the name Paul Watson is at the center of it.
“We struggle to buy gas, food, they risk their lives out there to feed us, while this Paul Watson will never have to suffer a day in his life,” Susan Apassingok, Chris’s mother, said, voice full of tears. “Why is he going after a child such as my son?”
On the day they took the whale, Chris and his father, Daniel Apassingok, were cleaning a bearded seal on the gravel beach when they heard a cousin shouting. A black back cut the waves a few kilometers offshore. The three of them scrambled to their skiff.
Every whale is different, Daniel had told his son many times. An experienced crew captain knows to watch how each one moves and to calculate where it will surface. If they get it right, the boat will be 1.5 to 3 meters from the animal when it comes up. Then everything rests on the acuity of the striker in the bow, who holds a darting gun loaded with an exploding harpoon.
Daniel works as the maintenance man at the village school, supporting Susan, Chris, Danielle, and Chase, 13. Daniel is a decent hunter, but Chris is something else. The boy was born with a sense for the direction of the wind, an eye for birds flashing out of the grass and animals bobbing in the surf, Daniel said. He could aim and shoot a rifle at the age of 5. By 11, he’d trained himself to strike whales, standing steady in the front of the skiff with the gun, riding Bering Sea swells like a snowboarder.
“He started out very young,” Daniel said. “Chris kind of advanced a little bit faster than most people, even for me. He’s got a gift.”
From the boat, Chris and Daniel’s village appeared in miniature, rows of weather-bleached houses staked in the gravel, four-wheelers parked out front, meat racks full of walrus and seal, cut in strips and hung to dry. Across the water the other direction, mountains on the Russian coast shaped the horizon. Chris removed his hat to pray and scanned the glittering chop, his compact frame taut, his expression slack as always. Daniel nudged the tiller.
When Daniel was a child, the village hunted in skin sailboats, chasing the whale in silence. Then as now, a boy started young, mastering one job, then another, until, if he was talented, he could try to make a strike. Daniel started as a striker at 19. He’d taken two whales so far.
The weather seemed to have changed permanently since he was a boy. He believed it was climate change. The ice didn’t stay as long and wasn’t the same quality. Whales passed at a different time. There were fewer calm days and more ferocious storms. The village was still recovering from one in 2016 that damaged 60 structures on the island, including their house.
Along with whale, the village relies on bearded seal and walrus for food. In 2013, hunting conditions were so bad, the village required emergency food aid to get through the winter. Subsequent harvests have been below expectations.
“It’s always hard,” Daniel said. “But it’s getting harder.”
They were a few kilometers offshore when the dark oblong of the whale passed their boat. Adrenaline lit up Chris. Just a few meters off the bow, the bowhead’s back split the sea. Chris raised the darting gun, a heavy combination of shotgun and spear. He aimed.
“Please let us get it,” he asked God.
He squeezed the trigger. The harpoon sailed, trailing rope.
Alaska Natives have been hunting bowhead in the western Arctic for at least 2,000 years. The animals were hunted commercially by Yankee whalers from the mid-19th century until the beginning of the 20th century, decimating the population. Since then, whale numbers have recovered, and their population is growing. In 2015, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimated there were 16,000 animals, three times the population in 1985.
Alaska Native communities in the region each take a few whales a year, following a quota system managed by the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission (AEWC). The total annual take is roughly 50 animals, yielding between 550 and 900 tonnes of food, according to the commission.
Subsistence hunting of marine mammals is essential for villages where cash economies are weak. The average household income in Gambell, for example, is US $5,000 to $10,000 below the federal poverty level. Kids rely on free breakfast and lunch at school. Families sell walrus ivory carvings and suffer when there isn’t enough walrus.
Store-bought food can be two to three times as expensive as it is in Anchorage, depending on weight. In the village grocery, where shelves are often empty, a bag of Doritos is $11, a large laundry detergent is more than $20, water is more expensive per liter than soda. No one puts a price on whale, but without it, without walrus, without bearded seal, no one could afford to live here.
The harpoon struck, but the wounded whale swam on. A second boat took another shot. The great animal lost power. It heaved over, belly to sky.
Soon Chris had congratulations in his ears and fresh belly meat in his mouth, a sacrament shared by successful hunters on the water as they prayed in thanks to the whale for giving itself. He had been the first to strike the whale, so the hunters decided it belonged to his father’s crew. They would take the head back to the village and let the great cradle of the jawbone cure in the wind outside their house.
They towed the whale in and hauled it ashore using a block and tackle. Women and elders came to the beach to get their share. Every crew got meat. Whale is densely caloric, full of protein, omega-3s, and vitamins. People eat it boiled, baked, raw, and frozen. Its flavor is mild, marine, and herbal like seaweed.
People packed it away in their freezers for special occasions. They carried it with them when they flew out of the village, to Nome and Anchorage and places down south to share with relatives. Everyone told and retold the story of the teenage striker. Then the radio station in Nome picked it up: “Gambell Teenager Leads Successful Whale Hunt, Brings Home 57-Foot Bowhead.” The Alaska Dispatch News, the state’s largest paper, republished that story.
It used to be that rural Alaska communicated mainly by VHF and by listening to messages passed over daily FM radio broadcasts, but now Facebook has become a central platform for communication, plugging many remote communities into the world of comment flame wars, cat memes, and reality television celebrity pages.
That is how Paul Watson, an activist and founder of Sea Shepherd, an environmental organization based in Washington, encountered Chris’s story. Watson, an early member of Greenpeace, is famous for taking a hard line against whaling. On the reality television show, Whale Wars on Animal Planet, he confronted Japanese whalers at sea. His social media connections span the globe.
Watson posted the story about Chris on his personal Facebook page, accompanied by a long rant. Chris’s mother may have been the first in the family to see it, she said.
“WTF, You 16-Year Old Murdering Little Bastard!,” Watson’s post read. “… some 16-year old kid is a frigging ‘hero’ for snuffing out the life of this unique self aware, intelligent, social, sentient being, but hey, it’s okay because murdering whales is a part of his culture, part of his tradition. … I don’t give a damn for the bullshit politically correct attitude that certain groups of people have a ‘right’ to murder a whale.”
Until then, Facebook had been a place Chris went occasionally to post pictures of sneakers and chat with his aunties. He heard about the post at school. By evening, messages arrived in his Facebook inbox.
“He said, ‘Mom, come,’ and he showed me his messages in his phone, calling him names like, ‘You little cunt,’ and ‘I hope you choke on blubber, you deserve to die,’ and ‘You need to harpoon your mom,’” Susan said.
A deluge of venomous messages followed, many wishing him dead.
Cleaning up after dinner, Danielle said she tried to keep count. She got to 400 and they kept coming, from across the country and from Europe. Chris has only been out of Alaska once, to a church conference in Indianapolis, she said.
“There was this one message saying that, I read on his phone, that they hope that our whole community dies,” Danielle said.
“It was pretty cruel,” said his brother, Chase.
Chris said he tried to ignore the messages, to laugh them off. When he heard his parents and siblings talking about them, his eyes grew wet and he clenched his jaw.
“It never stops,” he said.
Across the Arctic, people responded to Watson’s post with comments, petitions, and private messages in opposition. The Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission reported it to Facebook. Eventually, it was removed. Across the region, whaling captains reminded hunters not to put pictures on social media.
Watson wrote another post, refusing to apologize.
“This has been my position of 50 years and it will always be my position until the day I die,” he wrote.
Watson and Sea Shepherd declined to be interviewed for this story but sent a statement.
“Paul Watson did not encourage nor request anyone to threaten anyone. Paul Watson also received numerous death threats and hate messages,” it read. “It is our position that the killing of any intelligent, self-aware, sentient cetacean is the equivalent of murder.”
Villagers have been familiar with Watson’s opinions for many years. They have seen him on cable, and many remember 2005, when Sea Shepherd sent out a press release blaming villagers for the deaths of two children in a boating accident during whaling season.
Many environmentalists who object to subsistence whaling have a worldview that sees hunting as optional and recreational, said Jessica Lefevre, an attorney for the whaling commission based in Washington, DC.
“The NGOs we deal with are ideologically driven; this is what they do, they save stuff. The collateral damage to communities doesn’t factor into their thinking,” she said. “To get them to understand there are people on this planet who remain embedded in the natural world, culturally and by physical and economic necessity, is extremely difficult.”
The organizations are interested in conservation, but fail to take into account that Alaska Natives have a large stake in the whale population being healthy and have never overharvested it, she said. Some NGOs also benefit financially from sensation and outrage, she said, especially in the age of social media.
In the summertime, village teenagers live in a different time zone in the forever light of the Arctic. At 1 a.m. in June, their four-wheelers buzz down to a large wooden platform basketball court in the gravel by the school, where Drake pulses out of cellphone speakers. The girls wear polar fleece jackets, sparkle jeans, and aviator frames. All the boys have Jordan sneakers. A half-dozen fidget spinners blur.
On a recent night, Chris stood on the sidelines of a pick-up game. There was a girl with him. They didn’t talk, but they stood close. Occasionally, someone threw him a ball and he made a basket.
It is hard to be alone in a village. Even if the adults are inside, someone is always keeping track. Between blood relations, adoptions, and marriages, Chris’s family is huge, with relatives in many houses. Many are paying extra attention to him now.
Chris’s grandfather, Mike Apatiki, lives just down from the basketball court. He has a freezer full of meat his grandson brought. He worries less about Chris leaving school—hunting seasons have put him behind for years—than he does about him feeling shamed.
“These people do not understand and know our need for food over here,” he said. “Like the rest of Americans need to have a chicken and a cow to eat out there from a farm, we need our whale and seal and walrus. Makes us healthy and live long.”
“Neqeniighta,” the Siberian Yupik word for “hunter,” doesn’t have a perfect equivalent in English, said Merle Apassingok, Chris’s uncle, who lives across the road from his grandfather. It means something broader even than the word “provider,” and is tied to a role men have played for generations that ensures survival and adaptation. When a boy is a good hunter, he is poised to be a leader, Merle said.
“Hunting is more than getting a permit and fulfilling that permit with a grizzly bear or a Dall sheep or whatever,” he said. “There is happiness when a boy gets his first seal, there is joy. There is sadness when we have a tragedy. How can we isolate the word?”
He wishes that Chris’s story never left the island. He worries his nephew has not lived long enough to process all that’s happened.
“As far as day-to-day dinner on the table, hunters are everything in the village,” he said.
After basketball, when most of the village is asleep, Chris sometimes packs his backpack with ammunition, slips on his dirty camouflage jacket and pumps up the leaky four-wheeler tire. Hunting, he told his mother once, is like a story: suspense, conflict, resolution. He always prays the ending will be the animals showing themselves so he can take them back home, she said. As twilight edges into sunrise, he heads out alone down the coast, his rifle slung on his back. After a long ride, he crawls into a seal blind tucked behind driftwood on the beach, where he can stay for hours with only the birds and the smell of grass and the racket of the sea.
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