Premiere of ‘One with the Whale’ highlights Indigenous subsistence hunting

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After the Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2023 premiere of “One with the Whale” at the Alaska Federation of Natives Convention, the Apassingok family received a standing ovation from the crowd. (Ava White/KNOM)

Hundreds of people gathered for the premiere of the documentary “One with the Whale,” hosted by the Alaska Federation of Natives at the Dena’ina Center in Anchorage on Wednesday.

The story follows the then 16-year-old Chris Apassingok, who became the youngest person in his home village of Gambell (or Sivuquq) to harpoon a whale in 2017. The 200-year-old, 57-foot bowhead whale fed the village of nearly 700 people for several months.

Apassingok said he felt anxious about how many people would see the film, but hopes they learn about his way of life.

“And I really hope everybody loves the show and realizes how everybody lives, and that there are different people around the world,” he said.

But when Apassingok’s mother, Susan Apassingok, posted photos of his accomplishment on Facebook, the family began receiving thousands of negative comments, messages, and even death threats from anti-poaching activist Paul Watson and his supporters. Apassingok addressed the controversy as a keynote speaker alongside then-governor Bill Walker at the 2017 Elders and Youth Conference, preceding that year’s AFN convention.

According to the film, Watson told Apassingok he “hoped he choked on blubber.” For those living in Arctic communities in Alaska, hunting marine mammals including whales, walruses, and seals for subsistence has been a way of life for thousands of years and is necessary for survival.

Mo Spooner (Ciinlaq) is also 16, and from Kodiak. She arrived in Anchorage on Sunday for the Elders and Youth Conference, and reserved a ticket for the film.

“It’s a huge deal,” she said. “If you’re feeding your people, when you hunt something, such a big creature, that’s survival. That’s persistence.”

She said it’s especially important for young people to engage in subsistence activities to keep Alaska Native traditions alive.

“For so long, we weren’t allowed to do all these things, our dances, our singing, our language, our traditions, our spirituality and us doing that now is so healing,” she said.

Co-director Jim Wickens said the media commonly portrays hunting and conservation issues in a racist narrative.

“And so often, it’s marginalized communities, people of color, Indigenous communities who are attacked, whilst carrying out subsistence traditional hunting activities,” he said.

Wickens said he hopes the film can be used to educate audiences on ways people survive in rural Alaska.

The AFN convention started Thursday morning and continues through Saturday.

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