OPINION: AFN kicks off week of celebrating, supporting Alaska Native culture
October 20th | Carey Restino
On Monday, a young hunter got the support of hundreds. He earned it the hard way.
Chris Agragiiq Apassingok was 16 when he helped catch a massive bowhead whale passing by his home of Gambell on St. Lawrence Island. In a keynote address at the Elders and Youth Conference in Anchorage, Apassingok told how he had hunted virtually all his life, working his way up from mice and birds to seals and eventually hunting whales as a striker — the one who throws the bomb-rigged harpoon, at age 15.
The whale he and others brought in last April was almost 58 feet long — and some said it could have been 200 years old. When news of the landing made it beyond the shores of Gambell, the reaction was not what many in the subsistence-dependent community would have expected.
An anti-whaling activist saw the story and took to Facebook, posting negative comments to the young man's page. Apassingok's family said they were deeply saddened by the negative response, which even took on threatening tones at times. His mother said people told her the family should become vegans. They don't understand what life in the small village is like, she said, what it costs to eat "store food."
If ever there was an antidote to the negative response this brave young hunter received in the national spotlight, it was found this week in Anchorage. The crowd rose to its feet for him, clapping and cheering and supporting his connection to the land and sea around him and the animals that support his community's existence.
Apassingok asked the crowd if they would stand with him as he continued subsistence activities, and stand they did, from inspired teenagers to the governor of Alaska Bill Walker and Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott.
Support like that is why the Alaska Federation of Natives conference is so critically important for Alaska Natives from around the state. Even with today's technological advances, Alaska is a massive place. And while each tribe and region and community have unique qualities, there are more commonalities among Alaska Natives than differences. Most remain connected to the land for subsistence food that also represents a deep connection to cultural identity. And most struggle with challenges that most Americans, even Alaskans, can't imagine, like the high cost of food. At the same time, there are social challenges connected with the fast pace of change and the limitations of living in such remote locations. Just getting a good education, basic health care and nutrition and providing a safe home for families can be daunting at times in rural Alaska.
But at AFN, participants can feel for a moment the power of coming together. They feel the impact they can have when they identify common goals and challenges and ways to meet those challenges. Most of all, they feel a sense of pride about who they are and where they come from, something that can be drowned out by the constant pull to be like other Americans.
For Apassingok and his family, this gathering of like-minded people was just what they needed. This young man, who, at such a young age, speaks knowledgeably about the changing environment and the impacts it has on his community, deserves the respect he received at this conference. Without it, he might have carried with him the pain of being judged by those who cannot understand your way of life, a pain that might have eroded the pride and purpose he has as a hunter, a provider for his community.
But at this gathering, he felt the support of people he didn't even know, people who perhaps had never hunted a whale in their lives or even tasted its meat, but who understood the honor of receiving an animal's life.
If Apassingok's speech Monday was any indication, this young man may well go on to be a strong leader in his community and beyond. And that may well be in part because of the support and validation he felt at this gathering of Alaska Natives. That's the power of AFN, the power of coming together.