I am part land. I am part water. I am always Native.

by Chris Agragiiq Apassingok

Agragiighuunga. Sivuqaghhmiinguunga. Ataka Takeva. Naaka Aakapak. Sivuqami angliinga whangkunneng katam neqennaqmeng. Ayuumighhaaneng tawatelnguq Sivuqaq.
Tamaghhaan neqa tugaaqegkaangat. Aghveq, ayveq, maklak, neghsaq, allanginaq, qawaak allangingaq, iqalluk allanginaq, tepamneg, elqwaaghmeng, nunam nunivagseghaaneng neqekukut, aqavzigmengllu pagunghaghmengllu. Talwa whangkunneng meghtaghaqluta.
Atakallu, angakalluu Aghvighaasi, ama ataatanka maliglluki esghapagluki liitunga neqennaqmeng. Kiigmi camp-eyaghaqukut uughqanunllu Apaka Agigsaghtughhaq maligtaqluku. Amaveklu Qayilleghnun piiqlunga. Qavnganghhaq mangteghiikut ikaani Qenaaghaagni. Taana whaa camp-kesaliitaghput. Samaveklu Sekennaam kenlenganun Invetmun camp-eyaghyuneghtuunga.
Angyaghniighyagulqa ima 3 year-ngulunga mekelghiighhaalunga. Yuput esghapagluki liitunga ayghayaaghtunga piniqsaliitaqa kiyaghtaalleghput.
I am Agragiiq. Chris Apassingok. As you see in the pamphlet, I am the son of Daniel and Susan Apassingok. I grew up on Saint Lawrence Island, both on land and in the sea. That island and the mighty Bering Sea are what we make Native and that makes us Native. We take care of our land and ocean as they take care of us.
The great land and oceans provide us with whales, walrus, a few kinds of seals, all kinds of birds, reindeer that has been on our island for over 100 years; they provide us with all kinds of fish and crab, the sea lives and plants we call tepaq of several kinds, seaweed; they provide us with several kinds of greens and roots; with berries of several kinds. Even water, what we need is provided to us so freely.
I learn by observation and participating in hunts with my father, with my maternal uncle Aghvi Lloyd Apatiki, with my paternal uncles and cousins. I would go camping with my maternal grandpa Agiip Michael Apatiki down south side of the island. I would go camp to the other side of our mountain at Qayilleq. In the past couple years we built a camp at Qenaghaak, so we now camp there regularly. I often go way down south to the end of Sekennaak, at what everyone calls Invet.
I started hunting by going boating when I started remembering things when I was around 3. I learned by watching the men, and I got accustomed to that nature. In those days we used to go whaling by walrus skin boats and sailing. We went whaling in spring by sailing on skin boat. We would be very close to home. We would be sailing all day out there without making any noise. Because if we make any banging noise the bowhead whales having really good keen sense of hearing, they would be spooked and dive away. Luckily by sailing, we would approach right up to them. We used to easily catch whales nearby. The furthest we’d go out in these would be no more than 10 miles. That is what I started whaling in.
Unfortunately its getting hard to use the skin boats due to climate change. It stays cold longer into what’s supposed to be spring. But even when it is cold, the ice starts flowing away. The open water leads freeze into young ice which wears off the skin covering of the boat. Then when the water opens up more, it gets rough. Too windy for sails.
We haven’t been in skin boat sails for 7 and a half years. We have been using aluminum skiffs and motors now for whaling. We used to use those only for walrus hunting and everything else. Its easier to go through young ice in the aluminum boats with higher power motors. In the skin boats we used lower horsepower motors. Now the aluminum boats are noisy, and the motor is constantly running, and we have to go further out to find whales. Only early in the morning, we’d see whales very close to land, but after we head out, the whales go away and find others further out.
I am 17 and the weather and climate is changing right before my own eyes. It’s taking longer for ice to arrive in early winter, and it’s leaving earlier in the spring. We don’t have the tuvaq, the shore fast ice, in Gambell anymore. Slush ice thickens and stays there, but once wind from inland blows, it breaks off land. Thick ice used to stay all winter long all around Gambell and didn’t break off until mid-spring. There is no more thick ice that comes around.
We have a decreasing window of opportunity to hunt migrating animals. Last spring we had to boat 134 miles east of Gambell to get the kind of walrus we seek after. That’s over halfway to mainland Alaska. The good ice remained on the eastern end of Saint Lawrence Island. All ice had gone through north on our end of the island already.
In summer and fall, we are noticing permafrost melting under sea and lake coasts which is causing a lot of erosion and loss of land. Lagoons are becoming easily flooded. It is becoming windier. There aren’t as much calm days anymore. Storms are becoming more intense. I am hoping things will be better.
I was 7 when I first started hunting seals. I first caught a tegak seal that year. Portions of that seal was shared with my apa Iyaaka Anders Apassingok and grandma Iilleq Debbie Apatiki, following Yupik custom to give my first catch to elders.
From that time on I went seal hunting on nengki’s or seal blinds that are all along the coast on Saint Lawrence Island. My favorite nengki is at Amyagaghsik, which is about 12 miles south of Gambell.
I also started hunting birds at that time. My favorite bird to hunt is metghapik, the common eider. In 2012, I caught my first nanuq. That day we were on our way to climb the cliffs to gather murre eggs and we ran into a pair of bears.
In Gambell practicing hunting starts with mice and little birds like snow buntings. Then we get promoted to hunting larger animals like squirrels and shorebirds. As we progress, our rank in a hunting crew grows. The biggest beings to hunt on the island are polar bears and bowhead whales. From there we can become a captain of a boat. This system is like being in school. With the small animals, its like we’re in preschool or kindergarten. Then graduate with bears and whales.
I have learned to survive out in the ocean and wilderness by being stranded. Hunting is never easy and simple. We go through hardships and motor trouble. Once I was boating with my uncle Aghvi in the winter of 2012 and the motor’s clamps came off the boat, but we didn’t lose the motor. My uncle held on to it by the steering shaft. We went to a cake of ice and landed there and two boats came and pulled us back home.
In the winter of 2015, we were among hundreds of walruses on ice and our motor broke down behind our mountain. We told folks back home, and my uncle brought us another motor and we were able to get back home before late.
Another time, in the summer of 2015, we were heading to Punguuk Island with my cousin, Wiyu. Punguuk is just south of the eastern end of the island. We bumped on to a qalmesaq, rocks underwater, and broke the bottom of the motor. We were going right along the coast, so we paddled right to land and camped out there at the eastern end of the island for two days. We had a satellite phone and we called in for search and rescue who brought us a motor from Savoonga.
Another time last year while boating with my dad, sister Nalu, brother Puwiima, and cousin Ala, our motor broke down. We paddled to the nearest cake of ice and went on there. We called in and told of our situation, then a search and rescue volunteer boat came after 2 hours with another motor.
We are taught on the island there are such hardships. And the biggest rule we are taught by the elders is to never become discouraged while hunting in hard situations, even though we almost die, we must never give up. We must be prepared for any situation. We must know how to foretell the weather ourselves as our ancestors did.
I first started being on the front of our boat since I was 8 for walrus and seal hunting. That involved looking out for ice in front of the boat. Looking out for game, shooting game, and harpooning them.
As you can see in the pamphlet, I started using the darting gun for whaling since I was 11. I first started making the bomb when I was 13, which involved adding gun powder and fuses. I started being a striker for whaling when I was 15.
On the 17th of last April we were boating and we caught a bearded seal as evening came. We towed it back to home. While butchering the seal, one of our crew Apaatu saw a whale spouting nearby. So after butchering, we went back out towards the whale. Not long after the chase, I struck the whale. The harpoon didn’t stay on the whale, it mekguut. But fortunately another crew put a harpoon in. It took 5 minutes to finish off the whale.
After getting the whale ready for towing, it took about a couple hours to get back to land on the north beach. We went home and rested, and started butchering the next morning. It took a span of four days to completely finish butchering the 57 feet 11 inch whale.
While we were butchering, our regional radio was doing reporting in Gambell, and included the whale. After the article circulated the press, marine wildlife conservation activist, Paul Watson, read it, and made counter remarks about the whale and about myself. He made me look and sound bad. Eventually he took off a post about it, but he had thousands of followers, and a lot of them commented on his Facebook page post. It was saddening to see a lot of the comments. Even after it was taken down, a lot of that man’s followers sent me messages to my Facebook account. Barely any of them were kind. I was threatened by a lot of them.
This wasn’t the first time Paul Watson attacked our way of whaling. In 2006, he blamed hunters for killing children, which was actually an accident that happened on a whale tow when it got suddenly stormy. In 1997 he threatened to come to the island and disrupt our spring whaling. This was after a Greenpeace zodiac helped tow in a bowhead whale that hunters found out in the ocean during the summer.
Paul Watson stopped by in person on Saint Lawrence Island in the 1980s when he was still with Greenpeace. He cofounded Greenpeace, but the others wouldn’t be in his hysterical ways, so he branched away starting his own organization called Sea Shepherds.
But we all know, we must never be discouraged by any accident or anybody that may threaten us. I am part land. I am part water. I am always Native. Let’s be. Will you stand with me as I continue my hunting. Will you stand with me as we all continue our subsistence activities! Thank you.
This is the speech given by Chris Agragiiq Apassingok during the 2017 First Alaskans Institute Elders & Youth Conference. A copy of his speech was shared online by First Alaskans with permission from his family.