Rural Alaska

For two Alaska villages, walruses remain essential. As sea ice disappears, can it last?

First in a series.

SAVOONGA — No one can quite believe this and yet they saw it coming.

Around St. Lawrence Island in the middle of the Bering Sea, a place closer to Russia than the U.S. mainland, the sea ice arrived later this year and went out earlier than anyone can remember. With it went the walruses that fill freezers and drying racks and provide ivory tusks for dozens of carvers.

"This year it's worse. Unusual. The ice moved out in April," said Larry Kava, 76, a tribal and cultural leader in Savoonga, an island village 164 miles west of Nome.

The people of the island are feeling pressure like never before, and it's coming from three directions all at once. Thinning sea ice puts walruses nearly out of reach. The federal government may list walruses as an endangered species. Ivory bans elsewhere that are rooted in concerns for elephants are making it hard for walrus-tusk carvers to sell their art, a vital source of money in a cash-starved place.

Nowhere do people rely on walruses more than on Alaska's St. Lawrence Island. The other day in old town Savoonga, Harriet Penayah, age 84, stewed a walrus for her extended family. Nearby, Roy Waghiyi half-cooked some walrus meat and blubber with skin on his Coleman stove for a late lunch.

"Most of the time, I eat this," he said.


[Part 2: St. Lawrence Island tribal groups tried to protect walruses. Now the animal they rely on faces a threat they cannot control.]

Delbert Pungowiyi, president of the Native Village of Savoonga, said the survival of the people of St. Lawrence Island depends on the walrus and its ivory. Pungowiyi, 57, who heads the tribal organization that most refer to simply as the IRA, for Indian Reorganization Act, talks of lives intertwined with walrus since "time immemorial."

Villages that decades ago created quotas to preserve walruses now risk losing them over circumstances beyond their control.

"The total loss of our identity is on the line," he said.

Spectacular seas

The sea still provides most of the food for the island's two villages, Savoonga and Gambell, home to about 1,400 people combined.

"Walrus capital of the world," says a sign on the Verlin Noongwook Memorial water plant in Savoonga.

Here, a community celebration or a corporation meeting may take place largely in St. Lawrence Island Yupik, a dialect distinct from the Central Yup'ik of Southwest Alaska. Kids know it too — if their parents speak it at home. Internet connections are slow and expensive here, so most people aren't glued to smartphones. Children double and triple up on four-wheelers — Hondas, everyone calls them, no matter the make — for trips to open gym at the school or the village store.

They hunt walrus because even with the high cost of bullets and gas, it still beats the local price of a frozen T-bone steak, $18.69 a pound. Plus, it's nutritious and familiar food.

In the past 10 years, Gambell and Savoonga accounted for 85 percent of all the walruses taken in Alaska, according to federal numbers.

So far this year, residents said they were thankful for the few brought in and eager for more.

Prime hunting time for walruses used to be each May when the mass of drifting pack ice went out. Hunters could launch skiffs into open leads and the Bering Sea. Giant ice floes bigger than most village buildings provided walrus resting grounds and hunting grounds too.

Walrus hunting went into June and even July some years. Now thick pack ice doesn't have time to form and the thin new ice doesn't last. Walrus season sputters to a close before some hunters get going.

Chasing the ice

A walrus, or, in Yupik, ayveq, is an immense, blubbery, whiskered beast. Bulls keep growing until age 15 or 16 and can reach 4,000 pounds, heavier than a small SUV, with tusks more than 3 feet long. Females are smaller and prized for smoother hides and tusks compared to males, which tend to rough one another up.

This year hunters went out from Savoonga's shore starting in March. By early April, they were fixated on the sea, the wind and the ice. They checked online weather reports. They watched waves. They talked to one another.

Kava, who no longer hunts, remembered how his father would predict weather a week ahead by reading the skies.

"I try but the skies don't work now," he said.

A hunting window opened around the second week of April when winds quieted and walruses were within 15 miles of shore — for a few quick days.


Carl Pelowook Jr. had already gotten a bowhead whale from the south side of the island. Now he was looking for walrus to the north for food to share with crews, their families, women, elders, whoever is in need of meat. It's hard work that he loves.

Along the Savoonga shore, wooden skeletons of walrus-skin boats rest on racks. These days everyone has switched from traditional skin boats to 18-foot-long Lund skiffs. They are safer, faster and easier to maneuver and maintain.

On the evening of April 13, the wind finally calmed.

On the water that night, his front man watched for walrus and seal — and dangerous ice floes — ready to raise a signaling arm. No one tried to talk over the 40-horsepower motor.

Everyone wants to ‘eat good’

At the kitchen table a few days after the hunt, his father, Carl Sr., listened to him tell the story and prompted him to share the signals with which hunters communicate.

Point to the feet for maklak, or bearded seal, the animal whose skin becomes the soles of the winter boots known as mukluks, the son said. Gesture with cupped hands from the face on down, like where tusks would be, and that meant walruses were ahead.

Pelowook, 37, and his team pulled up to big ice floes. They scouted with binoculars and spotted a small herd of males on the ice. Crewmembers aimed 30-caliber rifles. On this trip, they got three, plus a bearded seal.

Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, only Alaska Natives from coastal communities can hunt walrus. Under federal law, they can get the animals year-round with no limit, as long as they don't waste meat.


To conserve walruses, Savoonga and Gambell tribes long had have their own limits in place, now six adults per boat per trip in Savoonga and four in Gambell. Calves are unlimited. Split open, hung on racks and fermented for months, they are a sought-after delicacy in spring when walruses migrate past at calving time.

"We call them birthday food," Carl Sr. said.

Hunters from the island take almost all parts: livers, hearts, kidneys, red meat, intestines, flippers, the skin with blubber attached known as coak or, in Yupik, manguna.

On the ice, Pelowook's crew butchered the walruses. They chopped off the tusks and left the heads, which can weigh 100 pounds.

The skiff seemed small for the Bering Sea but if open leads close up, hunters must be able to pull boats across pack ice, Pelowook said. With plastic on the keel, his boat slides easily.

Fifteen miles out, sea ice kept the water flat and became azigutaq, shelter from the wind. But the hunters had to cross miles of open sea in the open skiff. The boat rode heavy with walrus and men.

"We got walrus and we're on our way in," Pelowook texted, using a satellite communication device.

On VHF radio, his crew announced that anyone who wanted walrus should come to his boat on the beach. He filled eight gunnysacks. Good crewmembers must be treated well, he said. Everyone got choice meat and fat, organs and flippers. Crewmembers got tusks too.

"Other people want to eat good as me, so I share them," Pelowook said.

The first night after the hunt, his family ate fried walrus liver, like they always do when they have it fresh. His favorite is the skin and blubber. Some serve walrus meat with Korean kimchi and other vegetables. Some like it in a stew with onions and potatoes.

Pelowook almost always comes home with food, be it birds or seal, walrus or whale, said Carl Sr., 73, who no longer hunts. His joints are wrecked from years of hefting walruses.

As Pelowook told the story, his 6-year-old daughter Winter came inside asking about the Honda. His twins, who are 7, are a bit picky but Winter loves Native foods.


"She likes anything I like, even raw," he said.

An east-side hunt

A week later, the ice pack was 50 or more miles out, hours away by small boat.

Richmond Toolie and two other men started their walrus trip on land. On April 20, they loaded up snowmachines and sleds with gas cans and grub, warm clothes and coveralls, then drove 90 winding miles across slushy snow to the island's eastern edge. There, they had a camp and skiff to launch to the closest ice.

An earlier hunting party had done the same but got nothing.

Many hunters can't afford gas, at $4.65 a gallon in Savoonga, for such a journey, elders said.

Toolie's niece, Delainie, 8, was one of few people not looking forward to fresh walrus.


"They are too stinky," she said, playing outside as the men geared up.

What does she like to eat?

"Chicken and even chocolate pudding."

A few days later, Toolie's group came home with three walruses to share. Some would go to those who couldn't hunt.

"Whenever seen, if you have the opportunity to catch one, you'll get one," Pelowook said.

Ivory at issue

Just about every man on the island is an ivory carver or has a brother who is, and some women are too. When a newcomer arrives, word flies through the village.

"Want to buy any carvings?" they ask. Some give a specific reason they hope to sell a carved ivory whale or halibut, a tiny bird or walrus: money for gasoline to hunt, food for the baby, heating fuel.

Others have direct lines to galleries and collectors. Many sell through Maruskiya's of Nome, a gift shop and wholesaler.

A web of conflicting and complex laws on ivory deters some potential buyers, said Andrew James, whose family owns the business. Some countries and even states have banned imports of ivory from any species.

"Without clarity, you are constantly on edge," James said. Maruskiya's stopped going to one promising Native American art show held each February near San Francisco, in part because of California's ivory ban, he said.

"When they come from out of country, like Germany, Australia and other places that have banned ivory, all they can do is look," said Felix Wongittilin, a 30-year-old in Savoonga who has been carving more than half his life.

It is legal under federal and state law for Alaska Natives to harvest, buy and carve walrus ivory as well as ancient ivory found from extinct mammoths.

Ivory from African elephants is the concern. The United States last year strengthened existing rules into a near-total ban of elephant ivory. Even where walrus ivory is legal, international travelers may need an expensive, time-intensive permit to transport it.

Carvers are not slowing down, yet.

Ben Pungowiyi, a teacher aide in Savoonga, pulled from his pocket an exquisite ivory walrus that he carved. His work is on the cover of the art book "Savoonga Ivory Carvers."

One accomplished carver, Savoonga's Edwin Noongwook, 41, works in ivory, whale bone and sometimes stone. One recent day, he sat outside the small house he is building in Savoonga, drilling details into a large bone sculpture of a mother holding a baby.

With walrus hunting so challenging, it's hard to get enough ivory, he said. And with restrictions against ivory, it's also hard to find customers.

"People are afraid to buy it," he said.

Wongittilin's carving studio takes up a corner of the front room of his family's small home in the village. Ivory dust covers the floor. His tools and work fill every nook.

Carving is work to Wongittilin, who says he doesn't make much at it. He was running out of heating fuel and didn't have gas for his cooker.

"If I had a permanent job, I would never carve," he said.

‘People of the walrus’

Roy Waghiyi, 60, said his extended family would normally eat 10 walruses a year, but he doesn't expect that many this year.

"Luckily we have other sources of food, not just walrus," Waghiyi said. "Luckily we have reindeer, birds, seals."

His brother gave him some of the first-caught walrus, which he stored in a box in a cold arctic entry. He didn't have a refrigerator or regular stove. As he quick-boiled meat and blubber on his Coleman stove in the entryway, he brought out a piece of fresh whale baleen and sliced off some of the soft, white gum tissue at the base to chew.

Plenty of walruses are on ice floes in the sea, though hard to reach, he said.

"The walrus are resilient," Waghiyi said.

He tore a piece of cardboard for a simple serving tray. The walrus was half-done, still red and tender, the way many like it. It tasted soft, oily and like the sea. With a sprinkle of seasoned salt, the meat was something to savor.

In mid-May, a few hunters were out again. Some were bringing home walrus, Pungowiyi said.

"They had more choice on the mainland," the tribal leader said. "Whereas we are on the island. We are the people of the walrus."

Alaska Dispatch News reporter Lisa Demer and visual journalist Marc Lester recently spent a week on St. Lawrence Island. This is the first in a series of articles about life in Savoonga and Gambell. Next: Pacific walruses were nearly wiped out a century ago. Now they face a new threat. 

Lisa Demer

Lisa Demer was a longtime reporter for the Anchorage Daily News and Alaska Dispatch News. Among her many assignments, she spent three years based in Bethel as the newspaper's western Alaska correspondent. She left the ADN in 2018.