Aboriginal Subsistence Hunting: A Voice from the Sea

By Roger Payne

An aboriginal subsistence quota for whaling is only supportable as a category if it is reserved for people who truly do subsist by hunting whales. The trouble is that it is largely used by corrupt claimants in notoriously crooked ways. Most outrageous is the aboriginal subsistence quota that the Russians have gotten in Kamchatka for their “aboriginal subsistence hunt” of gray whales (and that Paul Watson so memorably exposed when he invaded the Soviet Union and filmed frozen whale meat being used to feed mink and sable that were living in captive breeding cages on a soviet fur farm). The catcher boat used by the Soviets to kill those gray whales was a modern vessel and no true aboriginals feasted on the spoils of that hunt.

Another infamous aboriginal subsistence quota is the one the US gave to Makaw Indians in Washington State. They got it after not having whaled for something like 60 years and its real purpose was, and is, the same as the purpose of the machismo hunt for humpback whales by Bequia Islanders of St. Vincent in the Caribbean. The real reward is that if you were on the boat crew that killed the whale this morning you have no trouble getting a date tonight. (Of course the Makaws claimed they dropped out of the IWC—an illegal act given that they are US citizens; the fact that the US is an IWC member obliges all US citizens to abide by IWC laws.)

The only aboriginal hunts that I’m aware of that may actually feed people who otherwise might go without that day’s meal are: 1) the sperm whale hunt in Lamalera on the Indonesian island of Lembata; though insanely cruel, it really does feed humans who really have subsisted on sperm whale meat for several generations; 2) the Bowhead whales that are killed by the Inuits of Alaska. The Inuits do share the meat among their relatives and friends (though distant relatives receive their portion via that famous Inuit invention—the DC-3 aircraft). However, there is nothing else about their hunt that is like the hunts their Inuit ancestors made back when Inuits truly did practice an aboriginal subsistence hunting life-style (before they lived in houses with gas heating, flat-screen TVs and a large freezer holding food bought at the supermarket in a local mall).

I would accept as an “aboriginal subsistence hunter” an Inuit hunter who employed the subsistence hunting techniques his ancestors employed, back when they hunted whales. That means just muscle power to propel a kayak (or umiak in the spring hunt); bone-tipped, hand-thrown harpoons to attach to the whale; inflated sealskin floats to provide the drag against which the whale pulls to exhaustion; a lance with which to kill it from a kayak or umiak; human muscle to man the paddles to drag the whale home; help from locals to pull it up by hand onto the ice or the land for flensing; dog sleds to carry meat back to an igloo; and giant communal feasts in spring and fall when as much as possible is eaten because the weather is too warm to freeze the meat.

That is a true aboriginal subsistence hunt, and it is miles from the modern hunt which uses fiberglass boats powered by outboards; Greener guns with exploding harpoons to shoot the whale; Japanese fishing floats from ghost nets that the locals find on their beaches, against which the whale drags to exhaustion; a gun to kill it; walkie-talkies to summon friends to help drag the corpse ashore (the friends’ boats all have outboards); in fall, a bulldozer to pull the corpse up onto land for flensing; a snowmobile or pickup truck to carry home the meat; and a freezer in which to store it (yes, Inuit families use freezers). And the feast during which it is served?—one of two “traditional” Eskimo feasting days: Christmas and Thanksgiving.

That’s the modern hunt, and if modern hunters don’t conform to modern laws there is no hope for modern wildlife in the Arctic or anywhere.
So… If you are a modern hunter you must admit that you are a modern hunter (first to yourself and then to the world) and you must obey then the laws all modern hunters must obey.

The Inuits have hired diabolically aggressive Washington, DC law firms to help them spin the story of their current ‘aboriginal hunts’ so they would emphasize that the hunt creates uniquely strong bonds between whaling crew members. I am willing to entertain the possibility that there may be just enough of a moiety of truth in that well-spun claim and as a result I have stopped attacking the Inuits and focus instead on attacking the Russian hunt and the Makah and Bequia hunts that are so clearly just machismo bullshit.

Sure, there is bonding between men who participate in a communal hunt, or a machismo spectacle like whaling, but it would be easy for those men to adopt ways of bonding that don’t involve killing, yet achieve bonds of similar or greater strength. How about: sailing races; rowing races; or paddling competitions (let’s see them beat the Polynesians at the latter)? Or how about square dancing, or clog dancing, or chorus lines, or ballet, or modern dance? And how about barn-raisings; or community gardens, or community harvesting of fruit trees? How about team sports like: relay races (on foot or in water), or baseball, or basketball, or football, or rugby, or soccer, or hockey, or cricket; or field polo, horse polo, or water polo? Hell… how about creating an Olympic Games just for team sports? Think of how unbreakable the bonds would be with your teammates as you stood together on a podium to accept gold, silver or bronze for your country. Or how about, singing in a chorus, or playing in a band, an orchestra, or a chamber music group; or group drumming with any percussion instruments (don’t forget that impressive opening ceremony at the Beijing Olympics).  Or how about circus acts with several participants, like flying trapeze, or Russian swing, or human pyramids? Or how about masked players telling mythic stories to inner-city kids, or to prisoners in jail; or giant puppet troupes teaching life-lessons; or groups of sky-divers forming geometrical patterns just by holding hands? Oh Hell, let’s be inventive: choreographed kite-surfing; sky-writing with smoke behind hang-gliders that are flying in close formation; teams of skiers carving artworks in powder snow, and selling aerial photographs of their work to commercialize their new art form.

To the Makah and Bequians I say: give whales a break; throw open the doors of your imagination. There are vastly better ways to create vastly stronger bonds among the young men in your society. Invent a few and master them. Then show us all and let us admire you (and you will still get that date tonight).

Here is, in few, my message to aboriginal subsistence hunters: any group activity you do will have a longer future than whaling, and build stronger bonds, and make your descendants prouder of you. After all; their education is bound to give them a very different perspective from yours. Your life as a whaler will be judged by a very different set of values than the ones by which you currently measure it, and the differences will seem harsh.

Sept 11, 2014

©Roger Payne

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