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Survival 

When the captain brought the journalist along on the whale hunt, the elders predicted trouble. The elders were right. The whale tried to kill them all.

Wednesday, Oct 17 2001
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Page 8 of 9

One week every August, the reindeer herders come into Yanrakynnot, and one day during that week, the villagers join them at the burial grounds. There they repair the rock mounds of the newly dead as well as the long gone and tell stories as a reindeer is slaughtered, bread is broken, and vodka flows as freely as tears.

That day this August was the day after Tanko made it through a storm in the Mechigmen Bay. He invited his passenger to the feast, where he pointed out the memorials for dozens who weren't so lucky. All across the rugged hilltop, villagers from Yanrakynnot sat in circles with reindeer herders around boards laden with heaps of reindeer meat, bread, hot sauce, piles of salt, pots of steaming tea, and bottles of vodka. Others stood arm in arm over the graves of loved ones, sprinkling candy across the rocks and toasting the dead with capfuls of vodka tossed into the cold breeze. One man with few teeth and thick glasses knelt alone by the tomb of his brother, repeatedly crossing his arms over his chest, as if to comfort himself, and then thrusting them skyward. Two small children listened to their parents tell them stories of grandparents the little boy and girl never knew. Your mother's mother loved beadwork and cloudberry tea, they hear. Your father's father had the keenest eyes in the village and played the drum while his wife danced. They all died in an October storm, returning from a visit with relatives up north, rushing to get home before the winter shore ice came.

Hearing all the stories, it seemed that no one remembered on the hilltop outside Yanrakynnot died peacefully of natural causes. They plunged through holes in the ice. They fell off cliffs while gathering puffin eggs. They were torn apart by bears. They froze to death in blizzards. They vanished by the boatloads in the Mechigmen Bay.

Sitting cross-legged by one mound, Leonard Kutylin, 52, told the story of watching the five men whose pictures fluttered in the wind beside him die when a gray whale turned the tables. It happened two summers ago. The six hunters left Yanrakynnot in two classic, wide-bottomed, wood-plank whaleboats. They harpooned a ferocious gray in the rough waters of the Senyavin Strait and the whale destroyed them. First it flipped over the harpooners' boat, tossing the three men on it overboard, then whipped around and rammed the empty craft, breaking it into two pieces. The three men in the second whaleboat were desperately trying to fish their friends out of the water when the whale struck from behind, taking out their motor and ripping a hole in their boat's bottom. Powerless, they sank. Kutylin was the only man in the water wearing a traditional hunting suit made of a watertight, insular layer of seal skin blanketed beneath pants and a parka made of furry reindeer hide. He clung to wreckage, and watched helplessly while his friends succumbed to the cold and slipped beneath the waves, one by one. Hours later, a search party miraculously found Kutylin, still holding on, blue-lipped and near death. The whale won that day, and Kutylin hasn't been hunting since.

Kutylin finished his story as he scraped the last bits of reindeer meat off a leg bone with his knife. It is bad form in Chukotka to leave meat on a bone. Animals eaten there are eaten totally. Amidst the burial grounds, a huge metal pot hung by its handle from a tripod erected over a roaring fire. Inside the pot, reindeer fat and flesh, boiled off the bone, bobbed in a thick yellowish stew. The reindeer's heart, liver, kidneys, and intestines baked in coals. The eyeballs, tongue, and lips were broiling on hot rocks. One of the herders scraped the felt off its antlers and held it over the blaze to cook the hair into a crispy finger food. The reindeer's penis was speared on a stick and roasted. Like the whale in Lavrentiya, the reindeer was stripped to its skeleton by nightfall.

The abundance of the feast was deceptive. Last winter, the reindeer herders lost 2,000 of their 3,000 reindeer to cold and wolves. The 400 villagers of Yanrakynnot were in even more desperate straits. At a bare minimum, they need to kill four whales a summer to make it through the next winter. Five whales require less strict rationing. Six and they're well off. By mid-August, with less than two months of hunting to go, Yanrakynnot had no whales. The loss of five hunters two summers ago from such a small population -- six, counting Kutylin -- is taking a heavy toll, though the villagers believe the dearth of whales is also because of supernatural forces working against them. Over the winter, one of their whaling captains converted to Christianity. This spring he denounced the village's rock-sculpture shrine to gray whales as pagan and destroyed it. The villagers say they are cursed as a result.

"The whales are angry," says Natasha Ashkamakin, 50, who has lived in Yanrakynnot all her life.

Facing a crisis, the village's elders in August dispatched emissaries to Lorino, Lavrentiya, and Novoe Chaplino to request those villages release a few hunters each to harvest whales for the imperiled village.

About The Author

David Holthouse

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