The Seal Hunters of Greenland: A Photo Essay
Fewer Inuit youth than ever are learning how to become hunters in Greenland. What does it mean for their culture?
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California-based photographer Justin Lewis traveled to Greenland in 2012 on a mission to visually document the Inuit people, their hunting traditions, and how globalization and climate change have impacted their culture.
In Greenland, my goal as a photographer was to tell the story of a remote community of people and their fragile, yet vital, connection to hunting. What I witnessed in the small Inuit village of Qaanaaq, the world’s most northerly municipality, was beautiful and eye-opening. Never have I experienced such a range of blue hues in a single scene, often accented with pinks and reds as the Arctic sun tracked just above the horizon, making for incredible magic-hour lighting that lasted for hours. An image-maker’s dream.
But as an outsider, after a month and a half spent in the community, I viewed firsthand the troubling legacy that inevitably encroaches with modernization. The contrast of Inuit history with their present reality intrigued me.
Qaanaaq is about 1,400 kilometers from the North Pole. Historically, it was the primary departure point for polar expeditions of the early 20th century. And in this century, Qaanaaq, population roughly 650, and its surroundings have become well known for a different reason: it’s a beacon of climate change studies, drawing scientists from around the globe eager to ponder any insights it may provide. In this way, Qaanaaq could be considered as the most modern of towns.
Modernity—arriving in waves via the Norse, the Dutch whalers, the Danish colonizers, the American military, and, finally, the polar and scientific explorers—has had its consequences.
One of the ripple effects has been a dependence on imported goods. Planes, laden with food and other products, regularly fly in from Denmark; in summer, ships bring in heavily subsidized oil to warm homes, produce electricity, and melt down iceberg chunks for fresh water. The Inuit supplement their imported diet with some hunting of narwhal, muskox, reindeer, and fish. But they sell and export much of the fish they catch, which provides them with a meager income. The most commonly hunted animal, seal, mostly ends up in the bellies of hungry sled dogs—Qaanaaq has more huskies than humans. Feeding their sled dogs allows the hunters to travel across vast stretches of open sea ice for days at a time.
After a few days camping on the open sea ice alongside the hunters, it was obvious to me that hunting—and the animals that the people of Qaanaaq relied on for food, shelter, and fuel—defined the culture. Arctic animals are the centerpieces of their stories, their traditions, and their religion.
Today, it makes sense to outsiders—in this case faraway government institutions—to impose strict catch limits and hunting quotas. The primary focus of authorities is to protect all Arctic species, which are vulnerable to the accelerated climate change experienced by the region. And I agree with that, but there are consequences: few Inuit youth now learn to hunt. I saw only aging hunters out on the ice stalking seals or preparing for narwhal season. It may be that, like youth in Westernized societies, technology lures them away from a life on the land, but there are undeniably fewer opportunities to hunt.
As hunting restrictions tighten, a way of life, and a core element of their culture, is taken from them.