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People of the Whale

© Kiliii Yüyan

Every spring for the last 2000 years, the Iñupiaq people have stood on the tuvaq, the edge of the shorefast ice, waiting for the annual migration of bowhead whales. The whaling season has begun.

The Iñupiaq are the indigenous people of the North Slope of Alaska, whose culture developed around the practice of whaling. For over 2,000 years they have patiently hunted bowhead whales from sealskin boats called umiaqs. Kanisan Ningeok explains, “We sit on the ice and hope the whale gives itself.”

Bowhead whaling is a cultural cornerstone of Iñupiat identity and a primary source of food on the Arctic Slope, where the cost of living is nearly three times that of mainland US. For the past three springs, I have stood on the sea ice as a guest of a whaling crew. As an indigenous person, I wanted to understand and document their subsistence life in the Arctic, where the danger of cultural death is just as imminent as an attack from a polar bear.

Climate change makes the headlines the world over, but few understand how critical it is to the lives of the Iñupiaq. The sea ice has declined and become so unstable in the spring that conditions are nearly too dangerous for the hunters. Soon it will be 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 by. There is so much knowledge acquisition centered around the skinboats. This is all essential: how to hunt seals to cover umiaq frames, how to keep polar bears at bay, how to live on the ice.

This project began as a set of impressions of the stark and beautiful world on the sea ice. My crew stood on the ice next to our skinboat. We waited for the return of the bowhead whales.  We watched, day and night, as starving polar bears tried to catch us unawares. We felt the ice melt under our feet.

I’m beginning to understand the essence of this Native culture, and by extension, my own. The traditions, the whaling, they bring everyone together. From the moment a whaling crew begins to prepare, half the village finds a way to participate. This is what it means to be the People of the Whale. I started this project searching for the striking imagery of whaling. I leave this project with an invisible Iñupiaq sensibility so deeply embedded, I will forever seek to capture it my work.

People of the Whale is about resilience—adapting to the insidious forces of climate change, and Native resilience against globalization through tradition.

click to view the complate set of images in the archive

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