In remote Alaska, subsistence hunting helps villagers survive

Photos from Gambell, Alaska, help illustrate a different way of life.

  • Homes in Gambell, Alaska, at sunset, around 2 a.m. At right, baby walrus hang on a drying rack.

    Ash Adams
  • Children, teens and adults play basketball in Gambell around 1:30 a.m. It's normal to see games being played and people out and about during the wee hours of the morning during the summer months, when the village does not experience true darkness. Twilight falls around 2 a.m. and lingers until sunrise at 5 a.m.

    Ash Adams
  • At 1 a.m. in June, community members ride their four-wheelers to a wooden basketball court near the school to shoot hoops.

    Ash Adams
  • Merle Apassingok watches his grandsons Rider, 5, and Don, 3, play in his home.

    Ash Adams
  • Two girls ride a bicycle together early in the morning in Gambell, Alaska.

    Ash Adams
  • Chase Apassingok, 13, and his sister, Danielle Apassingok, 17, hunt for seals. Children often learn to hunt at a young age in Gambell.

    Ash Adams
  • The freezer in the Apassingok home is filled with mangtak and other meats.

    Ash Adams
  • Whaling captain Daniel Apassingok eats mangtak (whale blubber) and akutaq (berry ice cream) with his family in the kitchen of their home. The mangtak is from a bowhead whale his son, Chris, struck in April.

    Ash Adams
  • Daniel Apassingok and his son, Chris, eat mangtak in their home in Gambell, Alaska.

    Ash Adams
  • Chase Apassingok, 13, hikes through marshy fields just outside of town, looking for birds. Gambell and its neighboring village on St. Lawrence Island, Savoonga, rely on subsistence for survival and as a cultural practice.

    Ash Adams
  • Part of the whale struck by Chris Apassingok in April 2017, sits outside his family home. Shares from a whale like this one are given to other members of the community.

    Ash Adams
  • The cemetery on top of Sivuqaq Mountain in Gambell, Alaska, where the deceased are placed in reinforced coffins but are not buried.

    Ash Adams
  • Whale bones, walrus bones and other hunting mementos are proudly displayed around town.

    Ash Adams

 

It’s 2 a.m. in the morning and a couple of kids rumble by on a 4-wheeler. Their trail of dust on the gravel road leads from a wooden platform where a group is playing basketball to a row of colorful homes just a short walk from the pebble beach. Strips of walrus meat dangle from a rack next to the houses, and the sun has just begun to set. This is Gambell, Alaska.

The town of about 700 residents is perched on the northwestern tip of St. Lawrence Island off the coast of Alaska. But on a map it’s actually closer to Russia than the United States. If a whale swam straight from Gambell to the Chukchi Peninsula in the Russian Far East, they’d make it in just under 40 miles, while the closest spot on Alaska’s mainland is a little less than 200 miles away.

Living in Gambell can be tough, especially when the weather is rough or a flight to complete medical services can cost $500 or more. Packaged food and other supplies have inflated prices since everything arrives by air. So families there have supported themselves through subsistence hunting and gathering for generations. They hunt marine mammals such as walruses, seals and whales; fish such as salmon and halibut; and wild birds to feed their community. In the summer, they supplement their diet with wild greens and berries.

Gambell’s isolation has helped the community hold on to their hunting customs, their language and other aspects of their Yup’ik culture. Children learn to hunt at a young age, stretching their eyes to see seals in the Bering Sea or spotting birds on the tundra to bring home. Hunting is a source of food and a form of recreation for villagers, but they still find entertainment through television and the internet. In fact, the clash between their subsistence lifestyle and the misunderstanding of their practices caught one boy as the target to cyber bullying (Read the feature story here).

And the people playing basketball? They could be there all night. The sun will maintain twilight until 5 a.m. in the summer because the town is so far north. -Brooke Warren

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