Alaska-Chukotka: when cousins reunite

Chukchi eat whale meat.jpg

Soviet times were hard for the indigenous people of the Russian Far East, but perestroika allowed them to reunite with their Alaskan cousins. The ensuing cooperation started with culture, and expanded to scientific research and mapping the bowhead whale. Sarah Hurst tells the story.

Sarah Hurst
15 April 2011

The Chukotka peninsula in the Russian Far East contains the Chukchi Autonomous District, the home of several indigenous peoples - Chukchi, Eskimo, Yupik, Even, Chuvantsi and Yukagir – of which the Chukchi are by far the most populous. Chukchi are traditionally divided into “Maritime Chukchi” who hunt marine mammals (grey and bowhead whale) and “Reindeer Chukchi” (“Chukchi” itself derives from word for “rich in reindeer” in the Chukchi language).


For the Maritime Chukchi, as for other indigenous tribes, the Soviet era was a time of total cultural upheaval. The Soviet system imposed a veneer of uniformity over regions as distant geographically and culturally as St Petersburg and Chukotka – uniformity that encouraged indigenous people to educate themselves through the Soviet system and assimilate into the “progressive” Russian mainstream. Meanwhile their traditional ways of living came under attack in almost every aspect, from religion and language to their subsistence hunting. Whale hunting, which sustained the Maritime Chukchi, was banned by the Soviet Union in the early 1940s and over the following four decades the Chukchi inevitably began to lose the skills and knowledge that had been acquired over thousands of years. In those times, a factory ship called the Zvezdny harvested gray whales for the villages. 

At the peak of the Soviet Union’s powers, the system was able to offer some indigenous people desirable alternatives to traditional ways of life. When it collapsed in 1991, the system of the state as guarantor of cradle-to-grave welfare went with it. In Chukotka, as in the rest of Russia, state farms went bankrupt, major local industries (fox farming and reindeer herding in this instance) were decimated, inflation dissolved people’s purchasing power and rural unemployment rose to nearly 80%. Faced by this failure of their new environment, the Maritime Chukchi were forced to return to their old one and relearn the traditional skills they had lost.

The re-discovery was helped by perestroika reforms, allowing as they did for grassroots social organisations to set up in Chukotka for the first time.  In 1987 the Naukan Native Cooperative was set up at Lavrentiya, on the east coast, to supply residents with their traditional food: walrus and seal meat, fish and other marine products. Cooperative members hoped that their activities would help revive native subsistence use of wildlife resources and the hunting of marine mammals.  The Association of Indigenous People of Chukotka was meanwhile set up in the capital Anadyr to represent the native peoples of the peninsula.  And in 1990 a fragile-looking but determined woman going called Ainana was instrumental in setting up and then running the Yupik Eskimo Society of Chukotka. 

Ainana’s story

Ainana was born in 1934 into a Yupik family, who also knew Chukchi language having lived among them.  Ainana’s childhood was traditional enough. As the family hunted, they always had enough to eat. When she came into the world, there were 13 whale-hunting crews in Old Chaplino, each with about boats with six or seven men on each boat. The earliest memories Ainana has are of 10 crews in the village.


The collapse of the Soviet Union left Chukchi without
the welfare support they had relied upon, and forced
them to return to more traditional ways. Photo Zygmunt

“When the walruses were migrating they hunted all night long,” Ainana told me. “There were special meat-cutters on the shore, where the meat was prepared for winter.  In those days everyone had meat cellars, which went all the way down to the permafrost, so the meat didn’t spoil.  When it’s distributed, it’s boned and then completely dried – ribs, flippers, intestines and lungs”.

Ainana remembers when the last bowhead whale was harvested in 1941, just before whale-hunting was prohibited by the government.  “They were very far out to sea when they killed it... we waited a long time for them. They arrived in the village early in the morning, and the distribution of the whale began.”

As there were no tractors in those days, the whale was cut up in the water, without pulling it out. This caused difficulties, since it used to roll over. On the other hand, the cold water preserved the whale meat well. “Nowadays they pull it out by tractor and if they don’t cut up a bowhead whale quickly enough, the lower part will always spoil. Back then nothing was wasted, nothing was thrown away. One bowhead would feed 400 people. They even kept the sinews and the baleen. They made special nets and fishing lines for their rods out of the baleen. Then they made all kinds of domestic utensils.”

Before the Soviet government took charge in the Russian Far East, Ainana’s grandfather was often hired by American whalers. He was supposed to go out just for the season, but one year he didn’t come back. The ice had closed in too quickly and the captain of the ship couldn’t land at Old Chaplino. Instead, he was forced to take Ainana’s grandfather with him to Nome, then on to San Francisco. Ainana’s grandfather lived with the captain for the rest of the year and learned to speak English fluently. When he came home to Chukotka, he brought back flour, sugar, Ceylon tea, tobacco and crackers. 

Ainana’s father also went out on American whaling ships and learned how to captain a boat, as well as how to speak English. After the Communists came to power, he began working as a captain on a boat transporting cargo from Provideniya north to Cape Serdtse-Kamen. He was paid a decent salary, and so the family lived well up until World War II. During the war, work was much more difficult: Ainana’s father only had a mechanic on the boat with him, and no sailor to help them. They battled storms and freezing conditions. Some nights he went without any sleep. Exhausted, he died of a heart attack in Old Chaplino shortly after returning from a trip.

Ainana was the only native student to go to school in Provideniya (native students were usually sent to be trained as teachers or collective farm workers). She subsequently went on to study at the prestigious Herzen Teacher Training College in Leningrad.  The change in diet, however. meant that her long hair fell out and her teeth rotted: she had never seen chicken or beef before and it was simply too tender for her.

Ainana learnt to speak good Russian and soon started organising events at the College.  She joined the Komsomol and then the Union, where she was responsible for the food and living conditions of the students. She married a boy from her school in Provideniya, who subsequently became a ship’s captain. He was killed in an accident at the age of 35, but she never married again and is satisfied with her single status and the freedom it affords her to do what she likes.


The native population was forcibly resettled in the 1950s
from Old to New Chaplino. Many found it difficult to
adapt. Photo Viktor Zagumennov

In the early 1950s, the Soviet government relocated all the residents of the small villages around Old Chaplino to Old Chaplino itself. In 1957-8, the whole population was moved from Old Chaplino to New Chaplino, on the pretext that the village was vulnerable to tsunamis. Most knew the real reason was to make way for a military radar facility close to the USA. Ainana witnessed the resettlements during her summer vacations: “The first year was very hard, because people weren’t prepared, there were no meat cellars, there was nowhere to store meat, and they hadn’t had a chance to prepare food for the winter. Many fell ill from hunger.”

The new location of Chaplino, on the sea, was good for the Maritime Chuchki. The Reindeer Chukchi, who also resettled, found it much harder to adapt.

Cousins reunited

In June 1988, following many years of Cold War separation, a group of Alaskan Eskimos flew to Provideniya to meet their cousins in Chukotka. The visit was made possible by the more relaxed atmosphere during the era of glasnost and perestroika, but the Communist Party leaders were still in control. They had decided that the Alaskans should only be greeted by important local dignitaries, even though none of them could speak Yupik. 

Ainana was the only native person allowed to meet the plane. When she said a few words in Yupik, she was surrounded by a group of Alaskans asking about their relatives.  Sadly, many of them had died in the intervening years, but one of the visitors was a cousin of Ainana's. They spoke the same language, of course, but they had had a different upbringing and had a completely different outlook on life. The following year Ainana went to Alaska, with a dance group from New Chaplino. The group travelled to the northernmost settlement in the USA, Barrow, in North Slope Borough, an area with a mainly Eskimo population, heavily reliant, in different ways, on vast oil fields and the adjacent waters of the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas. 

The group discovered that a large number of their dances had, in fact, originated in Alaska. The Alaskans in their turn were amazed to discover that the group sang the same words to the traditional Eskimo dancing songs, with only small differences of dialect. "The closeness of our culture and our dances brought us even closer together", says Ainana. 

Observing the whales

Scientist Tom Albert worked with the North Slope Borough’s Department of Wildlife Management.  He first visited Chukotka in 1989 with a group of fellow Alaskan scientists, and was responsible, together with Russian colleague Vladimir Melnikov, for initiating the Chukotka whale observation programme.

Ben Nageak was one of the scientists who accompanied Albert on the visit. He recalled the situation they encountered: “Everything was still controlled by the government and nobody could own guns, bullets or boats at that time. The Russian government had all the equipment, so when the people went out to hunt they gave them a certain amount of bullets, a gun, and the boat, of course, which they all had to sign for it. When they came back, the bullets were counted, to see how many they had used.”

The Alaskans wanted to experience a small Chukotka village, meet native people and talk about whales. They chose Lavrentiya, where Albert met Mikhail Zelensky, chairman of the Naukan Cooperative. Then they moved on to New Chaplino.

In August 1991 Albert returned to Chukotka for a meeting organized by the U.S. Park Service to discuss the somewhat utopian dream of creating a Beringia International Heritage Park. This was when he also met Ainana for the first time. The visit coincided with extremely bad local weather and the attempted coup to overthrow Gorbachev. These two factors conspired to make it impossible for the Alaskans to return as planned and as a consequence the groups from Alaska and Chukotka were able to get to know each other better. 

“We sat down with two organizations, the Naukan Cooperative and Yupik Eskimo Society, and basically made little contracts with them. We said that if they could count bowhead whales moving up and down the coast, we’d bring them all to Barrow in six or eight months by Bering Air and we’ll pay you something,” Albert said.

For the first time, Albert was able to ask the people of Chukotka if they were seeing bowhead whales off their coast, and if so, which direction they were moving in and how many there were. Ainana and Zelensky were keen to cooperate, but they needed help – fish nets, outboard motors, knives, clothing – and, of course, cash. Albert decided he could give their organizations small projects, with about $10,000 a year in funding, to start the Chukotka hunters observing bowhead whales. The money would pay several observers $100 a month as well as salaries for Ainana and Zelensky, and in return they would provide a financial report every month and a complete report at the end of the year, as well as detailed information about all the whales they saw.

“It very quickly became obvious that they couldn't do that,” Albert said. “They had never written anything like that in their life and whatever was written always had to have strange stuff in it – the wisdom of our leader Lenin has helped me to be able to see these whales - you know, something like that.  When we first saw these little initial scratchings, we realised that these are good people, but they’ve lived in a society that has depressed them, and they were afraid of writing because something you write down can go out the door, can go anywhere. It could put you in jail”

So the first task for Tom Albert and his interpreter was to teach Ainana and Mikhail Zelensky how to write reports, and make inventories of the equipment they received from Alaska. The Alaskans also taught the Chukotka leaders how to write a proposal so that they could apply for funding officially. “And then we also learned that their two organizations existed almost on paper only, they didn’t have a single pencil!" Albert said. "Each little group was given office equipment and enough money to buy an office.  Today, they have their own apartment, rent and utilities for a year, and enough left over to hire a secretary.”

Within a year or two Naukan and the Yupik Eskimo Society were functioning almost like non-profit organizations in more developed political economies, which was a huge achievement considering that political and social freedoms were completely new in Russia. “All the equipment we gave them — the boat motors and the pencils and the fish nets — was directed at helping them help themselves,” Albert said. “They want to be able to feed their families, not just get government handouts, and they don’t get them any more, of course. They didn’t have any boats, they didn’t have any fish nets, they didn’t have any guns. It’s pretty hard to be a subsistence hunter if the only thing you’ve got is the crummy little apartment you’re living in.” By 2000, North Slope Borough was providing about $160,000 a year to support Naukan, the Yupik Eskimo Society, and the new Union of Marine Mammal Hunters. 

Whale mapping

The Eskimo Society employed 15 Siberian Yupik and Chukchi observers. Some of them were full-time observers, and others were active marine mammal hunters who recorded their observations made in the course of hunting. Skilled observers were recruited from among native people in each village of Providensky District. The selection process was accomplished within a short time in late March. The observers began their work in April, and continued until January 1995.


New Chaplino 2011: resplendent following a facelift  
paid for by Chukotka Governor Roman Abramovich.
Photo Zygmunt Dzieciolowski

The first deliveries of technical supplies for the observers came up against substantial difficulties. It was hard to convince the Chukotka authorities that the equipment was really technical assistance, as required by customs regulations, and not commercial cargo. Little time was allowed to complete the paperwork that had to be received the day the cargo arrived in Russia; otherwise it would be held in customs pending the arrival of the documents, which entailed considerable expense. Negotiations were complicated by an unstable telephone connection.

The observers gathered data every day if the weather permitted. They wrote in notebooks provided by the Eskimo Society of Chukotka, and the data was transcribed afterwards on to the standardized forms issued by the Eskimo Society and the North Slope Borough. Every observer was given a copy of a whale guide written by Vladimir Melnikov so that they could identify different species of marine mammals. They received a monthly salary from the Eskimo Society.  At the end of each month the forms were sent in to the Eskimo Society in Provideniya.

None of the native people in Providensky District returned to their ancestral villages for permanent settlement, partly because of economic difficulties and also because there were no roads to and from the villages. Nevertheless, the project helped the natives to return temporarily to their traditional hunting grounds around the observation posts located on the sites of abandoned Eskimo and Chukchi villages.

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