Environment

Meet the bowhead whale hunters of northern Alaska

Each spring, local hunters sit on the edge of the ice and wait for whales—a custom that’s at least 1,000 years old. Wednesday, 21 November 2018

By Daniel Stone
Photographs By Kiliii Yüyan

This story appears in the December 2018 issue of National Geographic magazine.

On the North Slope of Alaska, the culture of the Inupiat centres on whales. Each spring, men and women spend weeks on the tuvaq—the ice near the water—watching for bowhead whales migrating north from the Bering Sea to the Canadian Arctic. When one is spotted, a team pushes an umiak onto the water. There is typically one chance to harpoon the whale. If the hunt is successful, each person in the village can receive a share of the meat.

This story of cultural continuity enthralled photographer Kiliii Yüyan. Yüyan is indigenous himself, a descendant of the Hezhe (Nanai in Russian) hunters and fishermen of northern China and southeast Siberia. Stories portraying indigenous communities as degraded or destitute miss their complexity, says Yüyan. “You have to be with them to see their full hope and their joy.”

For 10 months in a span of five years, Yüyan lived among the Inupiat in Utqiaġvik (formerly known as Barrow). He camped with a crew on the sea ice to watch for whales, often volunteering for the night shift when the darkness and quiet set in. It’s a silence quickly broken, he learned: When a whale comes, a spotter calls out its position, urging the crew to launch. “When they’re close, [the noise] is not faint,” he says. “It’s notable. They sing songs. It’s like a musical.”