Land is life

Kiliii Yuyan

2015 - Ongoing

Alaska, United States

The most prized National Parks in the world were carved out of highly-managed territories protected by indigenous peoples for millennia. Today, we don’t see the legacy of this colonization, believing instead in the myth of pristine wilderness without human inhabitation.

This is a savage falsehood. Indigenous people managed these lands and ecosystems long before conservation was a concept. Instead of respecting their ecological knowledge, Natives have been evicted from their homelands and their subsistence rights taken away.

Conservationists are increasingly aware of the contribution indigenous communities have to biodiversity. In regions such as Alaska’s North Slope, the government allows co-management of wildlife with Native communities. In 1977, the Alaskan Iñupiaq won the right to maintain their traditional hunt of bowhead whales and manage the population. By 2011, the Iñupiaq had quadrupled the population of the bowhead, while hunting them!

However, indigenous land management is far from universal. In 2011, the Tengis-Shished National Park was established in Mongolia in the territories of the Dukha, who are reindeer herders. Inside the National Park, hunting and reindeer herding are prohibited. Without reindeer, hunting, or legal recourse, the Dukha community are increasingly forced into settlements and driven to alcoholism.

Approaches that have trusted indigenous peoples with land management have seen benefits. In 1991, in the Brazilian Amazon, the Ka’apor Indians were given the legal rights to the enormous Alto Tuiracu Indigenous Land. Today, after 25 years of massive deforestation of the Amazon, deforestation has slowed dramatically as loggers reach the borders of indigenous land. The Ka’apor take defense of their lands seriously, and are known to aggressively confront illegal loggers, even beating repeat offenders.


Project and Creative Approach

I spent three years living on the Arctic sea ice with Iñupiaq whalers, sharing the watch for polar bears and eating fermented walrus. My series, People of the Whale, was born from the experience of being part of the crew with a shared Native ancestry. I began to understand the complex Iñupiaq relationship with the whales they sustainably hunt. The story of the Iñupiaq is a vision of successful conservation using indigenous knowledge, but many communities that have not been as fortunate.

In Western Mongolia, conservationists have evicted the Dukha from their traditional lands. My colleague Gleb Raygorodetsky is from the nearby Altai and will introduce me to local residents. The Dukha have become increasingly dependent on tourism, making access easier. I believe the best way to learn the story is to live with the Dukha for six weeks, and accompany the National Park rangers over time.

In the Brazilian Amazon, the Ka’apor are at war with illegal loggers and ranchers. My friend Miguel Iglesia, living in the Amazon and married to an indigenous Achuar woman for a decade, has helped me to understand that the Ka’apor believe they will lose everything if they lose their forest, because their way of life depends upon it. I plan to embed with one of the Ka’apor patrols for a month, who work in concert with the regional police. The Ka’apor have currently extended an open invitation for foreign journalists to report on indigenous issues.

The answers I seek from the Ka’apor and Dukha: How do you see the natural world and the place of people within it? How do you manage the ecosystem even while gathering its resources?

Engaging Audiences

The most important result of this project is putting the photographs in front of the youth of these communities and give them pride in their indigenous identities. My interactions with Iñupiaq youth have resulted in some seeing the subsistence life as positive for the first time. I return to my communities over the years, and speak to youth about tradition, identity, and relationship to the land.

This project will result in a photo story for National Geographic Traveler China, and I am in conversation with my editors at National Geographic Magazine as well.

Finally, I will engage online platforms with video. I created a short film of the Iñupiaq relationship to the whale and sea, and intend to do the same for the Ka’apor and Dukha. I envision a multimedia story on and a series on Instagram.

Octavio Paz, Nobel Prize Laureate, wrote: “Every culture that disappears diminishes a possibility of life.”

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  • On the Arctic Ocean, Iñupiat paddle their umiaq skinboat. A mirage known as the fata morgana makes their umiaq appear to float over the sea. Spring whaling by umiaq is made possible by the shorefast sea ice. As the sea ice gets thinner each spring from a warming climate, traditional whaling becomes increasingly challenging, and has caused many Iñupiat to whale by motorboat.

  • A recently harvested bowhead whale rests along the edge of the ice. The last census in 2011 showed an incredible 17,000 bowhead whales in the Beaufort sea population with a healthy rate of growth. Iñupiaq knowledge of whale population and biology proved far more accurate than Western science in the 1980s and has since led to the recognition of traditional ecological knowledge.

  • Iñupiaq elder Foster Simmonds was taught to whale when he as a child, but was placed in an Indian boarding school in Oregon for much of his youth. He returned with a fierce dedication to revitalize the traditions of his grandparents' generation, especially whaling.

  • Bernadette Adams was the first Iñupiaq woman to harpoon a whale. “I happen to have no brothers, so I had to find some way to help the family out,” says Bernadette.

  • Six-year old Steven Reich examines his father’s umiaq, or skinboat used for whaling. His father Tad, captain of Yugu crew, expresses nervous excitement to bring Steven out whaling on the ice for the first time: “I am proud of my son; he’s here to learn to be a hunter.” Most whalers begin when they are children-- acquiring the skills from a young age.

  • Seals are a basic source of food for the Iñupiaq. Misigaq, or seal oil, is a liquid made from the blubber of the bearded seal. Left to ferment for a few days at refrigerator temperatures, it is eaten together with many traditional foods. Marine mammal blubber contains vitamins that are normally only found in plant foods, keeping the Iñupiat free of the scurvy that plagued early foreigners to the Arctic.

  • For young people everywhere, cultural skills take learning and practice. Iñupiaq children play on the beach during the summer and dart away happily to retrieve fallen eider ducks that have been shot by their relatives, distributing the workload in this arctic environment.

  • Polar bear skulls and seal harpoons rest against the wall in an Iñupiaq home. Native life in the Arctic is lived with little separation between indoors and out. Time spent indoors is often just preparation for days away on the sea ice.

  • Cathy Peacock hangs seal meat to dry and professes that there’s much to learn, though she is "proud to keep [her] culture's traditions strong." For young people everywhere, cultural skills are not inborn-- they take learning and practice.

  • High above the Arctic Circle on sea ice a mile from shore, an Iñupiaq whaling crew watches from a blind for a passing bowhead whale by the light of the moon. The Iñupiat have hunted whales here for at least 2,000 years, but the forces of climate change and globalization are rapidly altering the culture of this remote region.

  • Makalik Wilhelm and Billy Ray Okpeaha drag the skin of a polar bear to the edge for cleaning in icy arctic waters. Shot in self-defense, Iñupiaq nevertheless immediately work to utilize as much of the animal as possible, despite the distance from village support.

  • This camp, erected miles out on the sea ice, is the Iñupiaq home away from home. Despite spending months living in cramped and frozen quarters, the captain of Yugu crew prefers it. "It is quiet here." This setup is typical of spring whalers, who spend months on the sea ice waiting for whales by their skinboat.

  • Members of Yugu crew clean the hide of an eight foot nanuq, or polar bear, shot while defending camp. Starving and desperate, it stalked into the whaling camp, 15 yards away from members of the crew and photographer. Some Iñupiat believe declining sea ice is responsible for starving bears and their increased desperation in recent years. The North Slope Borough's Wildlife Department reports increasing conflicts with polar bears in the past decade.

  • Kanisan Ningeok scans the horizon for the telltale spouts of bowhead whales while drinking imported soda. Although traditional foods are widely known to be healthier to Iñupiat, Western commodities like soda and crackers have become popular, leading to high rates of diet-related diseases in the Arctic.

  • Flora Aiken gives a silent blessing to the first bowhead whale of the spring season. The Iñupiaq have a rich spiritual life which centers around the gift of the whale to the community. Foster Simmonds offers a prayer, saying, "Hide something for me. Look at the food, the whales. Look at the sea, the whalers. A blessing for them. Take that and hide it in your heart.” The whale here is tied up after being towed to the ice's edge and is awaiting the village to come and help haul it onto the ice.

  • As a baby whale is discovered in the process of butchering, the whalers have a moment of silence. For scientists studying bowhead whales, the baby is a unexpected gift, as hunted whales afford the only opportunity for researchers to take direct samples and measurements. Much of what is known about the bowhead has come from the traditional ecological knowledge of Iñupiaq whalers.

  • Division of whale meat and blubber is governed by Iñupiaq tradition and followed strictly by whaling crews. Here, the niñit, or community shares, are equally apportioned, and even the whaler's share will be given away at Nalukataq, the summer whaling festival. The tradition of gifting ensures that less-fortunate members of the community benefit from the bounty of successful whalers.

  • “Whaling is community. It takes a village to pull up a whale,” says whaling captain Ned Arey. This bowhead is being pulled onto the ice by dozens of Iñupiat, who work tirelessly for 8 hours or more. This whale took broke through the thin sea ice several times before being abandoned due to the danger-- a major symptom of the warming Arctic Ocean.

  • At Nalukataq, the summer whaling festival, the village comes out to celebrate a successful whaling season and to give thanks to the whale for its gift. Here, successful whalers must do the blanket toss. They are thrown up to thirty feet in the air, and depend on everyone's hands to land safely. This trust goes back millennia, and ensures intimacy among the growing population in Iñupiaq villages.

  • This newly-built umiaq belongs to Quuniq crew, the youngest in Utqiagviq. Whaling tradition is passed on with intention to younger generations, as Iñupiat increasingly understand the importance of cultural identity. “Everyone gets excited by the outboards but as I’ve gotten older I prefer the [traditional] umiaq. It’s the patience and it’s more challenging,” says captain Tad Reich. “When I was younger I’d get excited to chase whales around [by motorized boat] but there’s challenge and balance and beauty to this.”