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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Eskimos in Russia

Air Date: Week of May 19, 2000

Alaskan Eskimos are helping the native people in Siberia relearn how to live off the land. Siberian Yupik used to subsist on marine mammal hunting, but during the Soviet era their hunting was restricted, and know-how and traditions were lost. Jody Seitz reports.

Transcript

CURWOOD: There's a Russian-speaking enclave outside of Homer, Alaska, that reminds us that traditional peoples on both sides of the Bering Sea are closely-related. Native folk traveled back and forth for thousands of years and shared a culture based on marine mammal hunting. But during the Soviet era, such hunting was discouraged, and whole Siberian communities were relocated to state-run reindeer and fur farms to obtain their basic needs. The old ways were forgotten, but not completely lost. Today, the people of Russia's Chukotka Peninsula are resuming their ties with their past, through relatives and friends in Alaska. Jody Seitz reports.

(Singing)

SEITZ: In a work room at the cultural center here in Barrow, Alaska, a dozen Inupiat women sit around a large plastic tarp covered in seal skins, stitching the covering for a new whaling oat.

WOMAN: When you're olukutukking the sinew, make sure you go downward, okay?

SEITZ: Revenue from the largest oil field in North America makes the Inupiut [phonetic spelling] people of Barrow rich, compared to their Russian neighbors. But people here still prefer to use traditional skin boats to hunt the bowhead whale. A delegation of Eskimos visiting from Russia have stopped by the center to watch the women work. On the Chukotka Peninsula, where they come from, living conditions are cruel. Food is scarce. Whole villages go without heat or electricity for months. Sometimes the oil from whales and seals is burned for light. In these rough times, skin boats are very practical, says Ludmilla Ainana. She's working to revive subsistence practices in her region of Chukotka.

AINANA: [Speaks in Russian]

TRANSLATOR: It's very difficult to buy a whale boat, or motor boat, aluminum boat for the people in Chukotka. That's why people come back to their traditional boats, like a skin boat. It's easy to find the wood for the frame, and then the skin to cover the boat with the hide. Boar's hide.

SEITZ: Sharing the art of building skin boats is one of many ways Alaskans have been helping Chukotkans get through rough economic times. It all began about ten years ago, when some Alaskan officials and scientists visited Chukotka. Tom Albert heads the North Slope Borough Wildlife Department.

ALBERT: So we pretty soon found out we had a common interest in marine mammals, and they had a desperate need for assistance. So we worked out a program over the years now, whereby we provide them with some funding to pay salaries, and some humanitarian aid like outboard motors. And they in turn provide us with basic information about animals that live there.

SEITZ: The data from the Chukotka coast helps the borough get a better count of the bowhead whales, which is important for managing the traditional hunt by Alaskan natives. But before they could begin counting the whales, Tom Albert says, the Chukotkans needed more basic help.

ALBERT: And it soon dawned on us that these organizations had very, very little, other than a few members. They had no office, they had no typewriters, then had no fax machine, no phone, no secretary, no pencils, no pens, no staplers, no nothing.

SEITZ: The Borough bought them an office and equipment and taught them how to write proposals and reports and keep their finances straight. Now the Chukotkans record their harvests and wildlife sightings for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Park Service.

MAN: Susan, we'll need your help here.

SEITZ: At the Borough’s offices just a few yards from the Arctic Ocean, the Chukotka delegation works on a National Park Service mapping project.

MAN: So what did we decide for puffin?

MAN 2: For puffin.

MAN: And gilmond?

MAN 2: Puffin, they give one icon.

MAN: Which icons did we decide on? That is the swan, so that's out of the question.

SEITZ: The maps show wildlife concentrations, important cultural sites, and the coastal migrations of bowhead whales.

(Voices speak in Russian)

SEITZ: In exchange for their data, the delegation receives hunting supplies for people back home. The most important thing, says Igor Zegrebin of the Russian town of Provideniya, is that the aid goes directly to the people.

ZEGREBIN: People receive personally his outboard motor, his net, his darting gun, his clothes, his own. With all he has just now, he can go to the beach and catch fish, provide food for the family or sell this fish to anybody in the town, and to receive some cash. With outboard motor and with boat, they can go hunting, provide food to their families, and they become independent people.

SEITZ: Even with the training and hunting supplies, it's been another cold, dark, hungry winter on the Chukotka peninsula. The Provideniya mayor wrote the Borough this spring, pleading for an emergency shipment of food, clothing, and medical supplies. The Borough mayor says he's putting together an aid package, and looking for help from other organizations.

(Music up and under)

SEITZ: In Barrow, I'm Jody Seitz.

 

 

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