THE annual convention of the Alaska Federation of Natives is the largest gathering of its kind in North America.
Before it begins the First Alaskans Institute Elders and Youth Conference take place.
This year native First Alaskan elders gathered to hear the powerful story of a young whale hunter called Chris Apassingok.
The young hunter told a moving story of how he and his community are fighting to preserve a traditional way of life.
Chris’s extraordinary story and his dignity in the telling of it shamed PETA who targeted him in a hate campaign.
Chris from Gambell, Alaska, told how he helped catch a massive bowhead whale in April when he was 16, and how radical animal-rights activists went after him and his family. The whale helped them live by giving them fuel and food.
Chris said PETA won’t change them.
He told at the start of his conference keynote speech in St. Lawrence Island Yupik, how he started hunting seals at age seven and how climate change is affecting hunts in the Bering Sea.
He wore a ceremonial hat of polar bear fur and seal that an auntie gave him.
As he read his speech, elders, youths and chaperones at the Dena’ina Civic and Convention Centre interrupted with applause time and again.
Apassingok is 17 now, a high school junior in Gambell.
“The great land and ocean provide us with whales, walrus, a few kinds of seals, all kinds of birds, reindeer that has been on our island for over 100 years,” Apassingok said.
He spoke of greens and roots, berries and wash-ashore seafoods, small invertebrates they call tepaq.
He started going out with hunters when he was just three-years-old.
When he was very small, the men hunted whales from boats made of walrus skin and outfitted with sails.
In the quiet of a Bering Sea sailboat, hunters could sneak up on bowheads.
“We used to easily catch whales,” he said. They never had to travel far, not more than 10 miles from shore.
Then the climate started to change. Ice moved away from shore. A layer of thin ice would form over open water leads, damaging skin boats. And when the ice moved all the way out, seas were too rough for sailing. The last time men went whaling in skin boats was seven and a half years ago, he said.
“There is no more thick ice that comes around,” he said, no more shore ice called tuvaq.
Now hunters go out in aluminium boats with noisy high-powered motors.
Men must go far to find whales and walruses too.
This spring, walrus hunters boated in their 18-foot open skiffs 134 miles from Gambell.
“It is becoming windier. There aren’t as much calm days anymore. Storms are becoming more intense,” he said. “I am hoping things will be better.”
In his village, children practice hunting with mice and small birds, then move up to squirrels and shorebirds and on up until they are able to hunt the biggest animals, polar bears, and bowhead.
It’s like being in preschool, he said and eventually graduating high school.
Five years ago, he got his first polar bear.
He said he had been in dangerous situation.
There was the time the clamps came off the boat motor and his uncle held onto it by the steering shaft.
The time the boat motor failed in the middle of hundreds of walruses and an uncle arrived with a backup.
The time the motor scraped rocks on the bottom and he and his cousin had to camp out for two nights until search and rescue brought a motor from Savoonga.
His elders taught him that hardships happen, and never to be discouraged.
On April 17, he was with his father boating. They got a bearded seal and were butchering it when someone spotted a spouting bowhead.
“Not long after the chase, I struck the whale,” said Apassingok, who has been a striker throwing the bomb-rigged harpoon since age 15.
That time his harpoon didn’t stick — “it mekguut,” the word for when a harpoon falls out.
Another young whaler harpooned the whale. And in five minutes, he said, the whale was finished.
It took two hours to tow it to shore, four days to butcher it. The animal was massive, 57 feet, 11 inches, he said. Some said it could have been 200 years old.
An anti-whaling activist, Paul Watson, saw a story on the hunt and went after Apassingok on Facebook.
Hundreds joined in, threatening Apassingok and sending him personal messages on Facebook.
“Barely any of them were kind,” he said.
Watson was well known on the island. He had splintered off from Greenpeace over his opposition to any whaling, even by Native people to feed themselves.
He had accused Gambell hunters of killing children after a deadly boating accident when a storm came up as a whale was being towed.
Watson took down his post. The harassment didn’t end.
Yet their people shouldn’t be discouraged, Apassingok said.
“I am part land. I am part water. I am always Native,” he told the crowd, echoing the conference theme.
“Will you stand with me as I continue my hunting? Will you stand with me as we all continue our subsistence activities?”
Just about everyone stood up, clapping and cheering.
“Keep on whaling!” they shouted from the back of the room.
He left the stage with a certificate from Gov. Bill Walker and Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott.
It was in appreciation of “his skill and expertise in landing a bowhead and receiving the gift of the ancient whale’s life to sustain his people.”