Carving Out a Survival

by Marie Michelson

July 24, 2006

The following posting is from Adam, who is onboard in the Bering Sea…

St Lawrence Island. Town – Gambell. Weather – still, 45 degrees warm, some cloud and a little patchy fog.

From the beach you can see Siberia, people walk there in winter across the ice to visit relatives and to hunt bear and walrus. The town is built on a gravel spit of land, exposed to the elements, a few tufts of grass the only green in the whole place. The gravel is deep, made up of small round rocks and pebbles that are extremely tiring to walk in. As a consequence everyone drives around on 4 wheel farm bikes, I mean everyone. The population is 600 and there must be about 600 bikes there. We were the only ones on foot.

Whale skull The one way people can make money here is by selling ivory carvings, and artifacts that are in abundance buried all through the village. Gambell has been here for thousands of years, it’s a good spot for fishing and hunting.

As soon as you step off the boat onto the beach there are people wanting to sell you new ivory and ancient tools, bone harpoon heads, bone needles, fishing weights, bone shovel heads, and many other tools from the past. Beautifully carved whales and bears in gleaming white ivory with baleen eyes and polar bear claw tails.

 Above the beach is the refuse from years of subsistence whale and walrus hunting. Huge bones the size cars, sculls that weigh tons. Walrus hides stretched out on wooden frames, drying till ready to skin the frames of sleek wood frame skiffs. Big chunks of the meat also hang near by drying, the smell is intense.

The people are tough and hardened to life. I spoke to one man who had harpooned a whale from his little skiff with a hand held harpoon, just like the drawings in Moby Dick. He said whales are scared of human hands so when the whale tried to come up under the boat he would lean over and put his hands and arms down in the water where it could see them, and the whale would go back down. This is survival, not even vaguely related to the commercial mechanized hunts that Greenpeace so strongly opposes.

The one thing the Upik are worried about is climate change. I was surprised that this topic was brought up straight away without a word said about it by us. They say the big ice from the north isn’t coming down, and the ice around the island is only as thick as a man’s height. They know it’s to do with carbon dioxide and what people down south are doing, but that it’s clearly too big to fight. They said what can Greenpeace do?? You guys going to fix it?? What an awful question.

I do not know how Greenpeace wants to respond to that question to these people at this time, so all I could do was commiserate and tell them stories of the native island peoples of the south pacific, where I come from, and the problems they are facing there as a result of climate change. And that all over the world people are fighting the burning of oil and coal. It was a solemn conversation.

At the end of this eye-opener of a day we are back on board. Two men from the village are with us and we are heading down the coast in search of whales. We will hear their tales, and show them how to record what they see, so that it can be useful as data for the science people need to argue more strongly the case of the Bering sea.

I better stop there or I’ll end up writing a book!

SAVE OUR SEAS! For the people and animals that live there.


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