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The Whale Hunt
Alex Steffen, 10 Dec 07
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As the kind of kid who grew up listening to my parents playing whale-song records and getting driven around in a car with a "save the whales" bumpersticker, my attitude towards subsistence whale-hunting is, to say the least, ambivalent.

On the one hand, I think it's time we left the whales the fuck alone.

On the other, I recognize that for some groups of native peoples, the whale hunt is vital to survival, and their relatively sustainable hunts have essentially nothing to do with the worldwide collapse of whale populations.

So Worldchanging ally Jonathan Harris could not have touched a more sensitive nerve with his latest project, The Whale Hunt. As he says,

In May 2007, I spent nine days living with a family of Inupiat Eskimos in Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost settlement in the United States. The first several days were spent in the village of Barrow, exploring ramshackle structures, buying gear, and otherwise helping the whaling crew to prepare for the hunt. We then traveled by snowmobile out onto the frozen Arctic Ocean, where we camped three miles from shore on thick pack ice, pitching our tents about ten feet from the open water. Boats were readied, harpoons prepared, whaling guns loaded, white tunics donned, a snow fence constructed, and then we sat silently in the -22 °F air, in constant daylight, waiting for whales to appear.

A thousand-year-old tradition, the Inupiat whale hunt provides the community’s annual food supply, currently limited by international law to 22 whales a year. Each spring as the ocean thaws, ice breaks away from the mainland as a single massive chunk, which then floats out to sea, creating a canal of open water called the "lead". It is through this lead that Bowhead whales migrate north to the Arctic Circle, where they spend summers, surfacing for air every 30-45 minutes en route. We saw hundreds of whales on the horizon, but most were too far away to attack. Finally on the fourth day two whales (each 36 feet long and weighing around 40 tons) were harpooned, hauled up onto the ice using a block and tackle system that resembles a giant tug of war between man and sea, and summarily butchered, the meat and blubber then distributed to the Barrow community.

I documented the entire experience with a plodding sequence of 3,214 photographs, beginning with the taxi ride to Newark airport, and ending with the butchering of the second whale, seven days later. The photographs were taken at five-minute intervals, even while sleeping (using a chronometer), establishing a constant “photographic heartbeat”. In moments of high adrenaline, this photographic heartbeat would quicken (to a maximum rate of 37 pictures in five minutes while the first whale was being cut up), mimicking the changing pace of my own heartbeat.

You may hate it. I think it's brilliant. More, I think it's telling: it's a great example of what I've been saying recently that much good art and journalism these days is about revealing the backstory of the way things work in our world in a way that lets us connect to others and their actions in a way that makes us sympathetic, better informed and more able to think clearly about how (and if) to create change.

Seeing the world for what it is may not make us happier (though there is enormous beauty and hope amidst the sadness and terror), but it absolutely makes us more worldchanging.

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This piece is a good one. We can learn something about conservation and care of the earth from northern peoples who need to hunt to survive and get sustenance from a diet that is natural for their bodies instead of the starch/sugar loaded diet of their more southern neighbours. They also use all of the beast that they take down.

Strange, though that Jonathan Harris uses the term "Eskimo." In Canada it is considered pejorative to apply it to first nations people of the north and its only reference is a football team from Edmonton, Alberta.

Posted by: SayBlade on 11 Dec 07



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