Sullivan Honors Alaskan of the Week: Chris Apassingok

U.S. Senator Dan Sullivan (R-AK) spoke on the Senate floor this week (Nov. 3rd, 2017) in recognition of Chris Apassingok, a young whaler from Gambell, Alaska who is helping to keep the Alaska Native whaling tradition alive. Chris was recognized as part of Senator Sullivan’s series, “Alaskan of the Week.”

The following is the statement submitted to the Congressional Record:


Mr. President, one of the privileges of being in the Senate is actually being able to preside, as the Presiding Officer is doing right now–to sit at the Chair and listen and watch my colleagues talk about issues that matter to them, and a lot of times issues that matter to their States.

In this amazing country of ours we have so many great States, great stories, and great traditions. When I am presiding, some relate to Texas, where the current Presiding Officer is from, celebrating our unique traditions, while still appreciating that at our best we share values as Americans together–opportunity, liberty, justice, and fairness. It really is one of the things that makes the Senate a great body and what makes us strong as a nation.

One of the things I like to do is to come to the Senate floor and talk about some of the traditions in my State–some of the things that I think make Alaska the greatest State in the Nation. I know some of my colleagues will not fully agree with that, but we all get to brag about our State. When I do that, I like to talk about an individual whom we recognize as the Alaskan of the Week. Often, it is somebody who is doing something in a remote part of Alaska whom not a lot of people know about. It is very important to share that with my colleagues in the Senate and other colleagues watching on TV.

Today, I would like to recognize a young Alaskan from Gambell, AK, named Chris Apassingok, a young whaler who is helping to keep the tradition that we have in Alaska–Native whaling–alive and well. He is our Alaskan of the Week.

This year, Chris was a keynote speaker at the Elders and Youth Conference, which is a precursor to the Alaska Federation of Natives conference held each year in one of our cities. It is the largest annual gathering in the United States of any Native peoples, and there is nothing like it in all the country. AFN, as we call it in Alaska, is certainly a highlight of my year. My wife and I and our kids always try to get there.

Let me spend a few minutes talking about why Chris’s speech about whaling was so important and what happened after he landed a huge bowhead whale in Alaska and why that was so inspiring for so many in my great State and, really, around the country.

Gambell, AK, is where Chris calls home, a Yupik village of about 700 people on St. Lawrence Island, on the northwest edge of Alaska. It is 1 of 11 Alaska communities that participate in two whaling seasons, recognized and authorized by the International Whaling Commission. These are subsistence communities. What does that mean? They are subsistence communities because whale meat is actually a necessity in feeding these communities.

I should point out that we have no road systems at all in Northern Alaska. Most of Alaska has no roads connected from community to community, and certainly not in Gambell. The Presiding Officer and I have had the opportunity to travel around Alaska. He has seen our great State. He knows that many communities are only accessible by air or seasonal barge. Some areas can only be reached at certain times of the year because of the weather. These communities need food. They need whales.

The annual bowhead whale migration provides the largest subsistence resource available in these remote areas of our great State. Even so, when a whale is taken, the sharing does not stop with the residents of the community. Each whale produces between 6 and 25 tons of food, on average. This meat is shared with other subsistence communities in our State and with family members and elders throughout the State. That is a hugely important part of Alaskan Native culture. This is another example of the resourcefulness of the Alaskan Native peoples, which has enabled them to survive in the Arctic–with some of the toughest weather and conditions anywhere in the world for millennia–and which has shaped the culture of Alaska and the character of our State today.

Back to Chris, he is an extraordinary hunter, even by the standards of Gambell, a community of extraordinary hunters. He could aim and shoot a rifle at the age of 5. By 11, he had trained himself to strike whales, as one writer put it, “standing steady in the front of the skiff with the gun, riding Bering Sea swells like a snowboarder.”

This past April, Chris and his father set out on a boat in the Bering Sea to do what their ancestors have been doing for thousands of years.

After they got a bearded seal, they spotted a spouting bowhead. Chris took the first shot, it was accurate, and it was a huge whale, 57 feet 11 inches. It took 2 hours to tow it to shore and 4 days for the community to carve it up. As always, when a whale is landed, it is time for celebration in the community, and this time was no different, but shortly after this, things unfortunately went sour for Chris and the community.

A radical special interest activist, with a large online following, read the story about Chris and the whale and he began to attack Chris and so did many of his followers, from all across the globe–hundreds of people, most of them adults, cyber bullying and attacking a 16-year-old boy from Gambell, AK, who had, at that point, only left his village once in his life.

They were shameful, no respect, no civility, and I mean vicious attacks. I will not repeat them here. It is enough to say they were greatly upset. In the community, Chris, his family, and his mother cried all night. Chris was angry that he and his family were being attacked for partaking in this necessary tradition that his community and his ancestors have been doing for thousands of years–thousands of years.

However, this young man, despite the hateful messages from adults, from adults who live a world away, despite the names they were calling him, Chris, now 17, cut through the noise, stood strong, and gave a great speech at AFN, that he will continue to hunt and feed his family and his community the way his ancestors have done for millennia.

At his speech last week at AFN, he asked: “Will you stand with me as I continue my hunting [traditions of my family]?” The crowd applauded, all of whom rose when he asked this: “Will you stand with me as we continue our subsistence activities that we have undertaken for thousands of years?”

I hope everyone across the country stands with this extraordinary young man–truly brave and courageous–as he continues his tradition and his right to hunt and feed his community.

This afternoon, I will be holding a hearing in the Commerce Committee about whaling in Alaska and how necessary it is for subsistence and the survival of these important cultures. I hope all Americans also stand with so many other proud Alaska whalers, protecting their rights to hunt the way their ancestors have hunted.

Thank you, Chris–a young man in Alaska, 17 years old–for standing tall for your people, for all of Alaska. I also want to thank his parents Susan and Daniel for raising such a fine hunter.

Congratulations, Chris, for being our Alaskan of the Week.