Yup'ik hunter shares insights on sea otter hunting in new documentary

Peter Williams understands people think sea otters are cute, but for him, the connection to the animals is much deeper.

Williams, a sea otter hunter and skin-sewing artist, is on a mission to spread understanding of what he does. He's created a short documentary, "Harvest: Quyuriq," that will premiere at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Anchorage Museum.

Williams, who is Yup'ik but lives in Sitka, wants people to know he doesn't hunt the animals simply for sport. The practice is an extension of his Native roots and lifestyle, he says.

"I think (the documentary) is a rather unapologetic look at just Alaska Natives celebrating our culture and celebrating marine mammal hunting and saying, 'This is hunting sea otters and this is why it's important to us,'" he said in a phone interview Thursday. "But it's deeper than that. It really represents having a spiritual and healthy relationship with nature and harvesting and interacting with nature.

"Sea otters just happen to be the main thing that we're harvesting."

His process was first documented in a long-form story in the The Guardian titled "Why Would Anyone Want To Shoot A Sea Otter?"

Williams admits the reasoning behind what he does is complex. He says many in Southeast Alaska consider sea otters, whose populations have exploded in recent years, to be pests. In 2013, a state senator even filed a bill to create a bounty on them, noting the impact they were having on Southeast shellfish. Williams said it's not uncommon to hear a lot of "sea otter hate" in Southeast.


"That's not healthy and that's not what I'm about," he said. "We're not interested in being predator control. We're interested in practicing our way of life and our culture."

That's what compelled AmeriCorps volunteers Andre Lewis and Michael Dempster to collaborate on the documentary with Williams. Hunting sea otters was a foreign topic to both of them, but when they started learning about it, they started to understand the cultural significance of the hunting process.

"There's all this culture he's trying to keep alive," Lewis said in a phone interview Friday. "He's living it himself while being kind of a bridge. He's not an elder, but he's not a young teenager, either."

Williams hopes to secure grant funding to move the documentary into schools and develop a curriculum around it.

Suzanna Caldwell

Suzanna Caldwell is a former reporter for Alaska Dispatch News and Alaska Dispatch. She left the ADN in 2017.