Sea Shepherd and others attacking Native whaling are allies of conquest

By Charles Wohlforth, Alaska Dispatch News - May 10, 2017
This 200-year-old female bowhead whale was caught off Gambell by 16-year-old Chris Apassingok. (Karen Trop / KNOM)
This large female bowhead whale was caught off Gambell last month. (Karen Trop / KNOM)

The conquest of America continues — the theft of the continent from indigenous people — with ignorant online attacks against a teenage harpooner who took a whale off Gambell last month.

The celebrity environmentalist who started this controversy is Paul Watson of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, who spent years fleeing justice for his violence at sea against fishermen he disagreed with.

[Residents rally behind teenage Gambell whaler]

The group’s website says, “Sea Shepherd operates outside the petty cultural chauvinism of the human species. Our clients are whales, dolphins, seals, turtles, sea-birds, and fish. We represent their interests.”

In fact, that perspective is the essence of cultural chauvinism, as a subset of the world’s wealthiest people idealize certain animals and put them ahead of the needs of human beings and ancient cultures.

Europeans came like a plague to the Americas. But the spread of the dominant culture was already four centuries old when large numbers of non-Natives came to Alaska.

Here the conquest looked different. Rather than taking land, Americans took resources and culture. Alaska Natives died just as the victims of Columbus and Custer had done, but mostly from starvation and disease rather than warfare.

Salmon streams blocked by cannery fish traps starved villages upstream. In the north, industrial hunters slaughtered walruses and whales, mostly for ivory and bone, and villages that had survived millennia on sustainable catches of those animals faced catastrophe.

The loss of food supplies came with horrendous epidemics that wiped out whole villages — ancient communities whose unique dialects and practices disappeared. Survivors struggled to carry on in shattered communities without their traditional web of roles and relationships

Early territorial leader Scotty Allen reported seeing prospectors feeding their dog teams on the bodies of Natives fallen from disease.

[A photographer, Instagram and the whaling life of Alaska’s North Slope]

Missionaries who arrived amid this calamity could be forgiven for thinking Native culture was dead and indigenous people’s best hope was to take part in the dominant society. But their policy of suppressing traditional ways made the harm much worse.

The people who had originally owned Alaska lived in a connected universe. Their lives depended on how they used resources. Their cultural and spiritual practices encompassed those relationships.

For example, they believed animals had spirits like their own and that taking them required ceremonies reflecting respect and kinship.

Those beliefs never died.

Over the last century, Alaska Natives fought their way out of the valley of death, scarcity, humiliation and oppression. The overhang of grief remains, but there is an antidote to that.

The antidote is a moment like the one when that young man in Gambell threw his harpoon and helped bring tons of healthy food home to his village.

[A teenager on a Gambell whaling crew scored the village’s second successful strike of the season]

For those of us whose spiritual connection to the Earth comes from a Communion wafer or a Thanksgiving turkey raised on a factory farm, the moment of prayer when a crew kills a whale to feed the entire community is a profound new experience.

At that moment, the loss and pain of so many generations dissolves. A community regains its connection to one another and to the land and sea that created us all.

I’ve been there and wept. And wondered what it would be like to be part of something as deep as that.

But now comes Watson and his ilk. They were out in force on Facebook denouncing Alaska Natives for killing whales. Some suggested they instead buy hamburger in Styrofoam trays and eat like the rest of us.

The missionary impulse never dies.

Indigenous whaling will survive. It came back against the resistance of environmentalists like these before who, with government bureaucrats and scientists, said the bowhead whales of the Arctic were too few to allow a hunt.

Arctic elders knew otherwise. With money from their North Slope oil, the Inupiat people hired their own scientists to prove whales were abundant enough for a subsistence take. And they made their case at international bodies.

That happened a generation ago. Since then, environmentalists have worked to build connections to Native communities who should be their natural allies, since both value the natural world.

Watson is a clown and shouldn’t represent the environmental movement, but he does, and this incident with the Gambell whalers has probably done long-term damage to the movement to protect the Arctic.

It has hurt Alaska too, because it divides us.

We need to be able to learn about and respect one another. Diversity is a defining characteristic of our state.

The internet sometimes helps that happen. My favorite example was how Byron Nicholai became a star using an iPhone to post clips of himself singing in Yupik on Facebook.

But the internet can unleash ugliness too easily. We’re all learning to keep our heads down.

Native hunters, who have more to lose than most, may become more cautious with their photos. Journalists’ jobs will become more difficult too. Smart village councils will be careful about who they let in.

Native culture isn’t superior. Nor is subsistence sacrosanct.

As Native communities become larger and richer — with better tools — subsistence can become unsustainable. There’s no magic to it.

But indigenous culture came first and deserves respect. It is here and thriving.

The Western version of seeing people inside certain animals is much newer. It is based more on our disconnection from nature than our knowledge of it.

When you’re with wild animals, it becomes obvious they’re not cartoon characters.

There’s no moral justification for putting one animal above another aside from conservation needs. (And don’t say intelligence — crows and rats are smart like whales and dolphins.)

The culture of people like Watson who put certain creatures on a pedestal has spread through the world’s most privileged people, the same people whose ancestors previously imposed Christianity and the necessity of eating with knives and forks.

The conquest should end.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by Arctic Now, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary (at)