THE TEENAGE WHALER
On an island in the Bering Sea, roughly 36 miles from the Russian coast, there is an island called St. Lawrence. Because of its isolation, the culture, which is older than America by a few thousand years, is well preserved. Many people speak Yup'ik as well as English. St. Lawrence island is one of the few places in the U.S. where people actually must hunt to live. The village relies on reindeer and marine mammals to offset the high cost of food that travels in by barge. Climate change-related storms have changed the ice conditions, making hunting harder every season. In 2013, the governor declared an emergency and sent food as there was such a small harvest,.
In April 2017, a 16-year-old boy named Chris Apassingok, acting as a young striker on a whaling crew, harpooned a whale. The whale was a bowhead, roughly 150,000 pounds and approximately 200 years old. In the village's traditional culture, there is no bigger honor for a young man. Taking a whale, hauling it in, butchering it and sharing it involves everyone in the village and is a central way that values are passed on from one generation to another. His story was picked up by the radio station in Nome and then by the Alaska Dispatch news, which is how it was discovered by Sea Shepherd, an environmental organization headed by Paul Watson, a co-founder of Greenpeace. Watson went on his FB page with a lengthy rant, which were then echoed by his followers.
And then Chris logged into his Facebook account and found people from all over the world sending him death threats. It's a complicated experience of being a village teenager in Alaska, and these contradictory messages are damaging. There is this point that you get to, villagers say, where as a kid you are trying to decide whether to accept or reject your culture, to leave your village or stay, and you are looking for identity and a sense of purpose and it's hard to navigate it all. It is worth adding that young Native men in Alaska may have the highest rate of suicide in America.
Chris's family and people in whaling communities all over Alaska took to Facebook to defend Chris. And Watson eventually took the post down. But Chris felt ashamed, his aunt said. She helped fundraise to bring him and his mother to Anchorage to celebrate his successful hunt, and now that months have passed and Chris has been recognized in many different ways in his state and community as being a cultural leader in his generation, healing has begun.