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The New York Times inaccurately depicts Alaska Native whaling

  • Author: Edward Itta
  • Updated: June 29, 2016
  • Published October 23, 2011

I was disappointed by last Sunday's New York Times article on the fall subsistence whale hunt near Barrow. I've noticed that when Outside reporters visit our region and write news stories about cultural activities, the problem is not so much that they get the facts wrong -- although they often do that. The larger issue is that they see activities happening in the context of our local culture, but they don't try to understand them except in the context of the mainstream culture. If reporters are going to get the story right, they really have to get out of their comfort zone and work to understand our traditional culture as a living experience.

Reporter Bill Yardley and the New York Times failed the test last Sunday. Even their headline was sarcastic and small-minded, suggesting that if the hunt involves motor boats, it's no longer sacred. The Times seems to believe that, unless we remain frozen in time as noble savages, then our traditional subsistence whale hunt is somehow invalidated. That's easy for Bill to say from the urban comfort of his Seattle home.

Yardley's article starts with a tone of sarcasm ("the traditional forklift"). Is that appropriate for a guy who's never even been here before? Maybe it works for the Times, but it betrays a shallowness that I've always thought is beneath the standards of "America's newspaper of record."

Yardley's only nod to the core of our whaling activity -- the spring hunt -- is to say, "Many hunters use more traditional methods in the spring." Now there's an understatement. The spring hunt is launched from the edge of shorefast ice in skin boats without motors, and the whales are pulled onto the ice by hand. Yardley would have to come back for spring whaling to realize how foolish it sounds to summarize that part of the hunt in a single sentence.

He says that "some blubber ends up in the trash" because we no longer burn it for fuel. I'd like to know how much discarded blubber he saw. I guarantee it was less than one percent of what was harvested. We may not burn it anymore, but we still prize the blubber as a food source to be shared with the community, and very little if any gets thrown away. Whale blubber is believed to be one of the foods that allows the Iñupiat to survive in the extreme cold of the Arctic.

I'm surprised that this article was so culturally shoddy, because the New York Times has sent other reporters in the past who have done thorough and credible jobs of telling about the unique way of life here. This time they missed the mark by a long shot. It's a sad day for us, but that won't help unless it's also a sad day at the Times.

Edward S. Itta was elected mayor of Alaska's North Slope Borough in 2005. He is a past president of the Barrow Whaling Captains Association and a past commissioner and vice-chairman of the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission. He was vice-chairman of the federal government's subsistence advisory council for northern Alaska, and represented Alaska as a member of the executive council of the Inuit Circumpolar Council.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch. Alaska Dispatch welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

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