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Pribilof Island — Limits of Compassion

The Limits of Compassion - a Two-Way Street

Insights from a Pribilof island seal community on tradition, cultural and personal identity

© Ron Levy

(This article was first written in 2005 as part of a grant proposal on the issues and people of St. Paul Island. It was updated in 2019)

Aerial view of St. Paul island, 300 miles west of mainland Alaska

Some events in your life instantly touch you to the core, going beyond the visual or physical impact, and consuming you for years. My first visit to the people and seals of a remote Pribilof island was one such experience.

Located 300 miles off the western coast of Alaska, St. Paul island has been dubbed the “Galapagos of the North”. Famous for its amazing bird life, fur seal colonies, and the world’s largest population of Aleut residents (about 500) on one of the most isolated islands in the world, it is truly a special place.

Fur seals crowd the beach across from the Aleut town of St. Paul Island, Alaska

 

On my first trip to the island in 1992, I went alone with no preconceptions and no contacts on the island. I photographed lots of fur seals sunbathing on the beach, foxes running around, and the incredible birds (puffins, auklets, snowy owls, etc.) from all over the world that make this island famous. I met and photographed many of the Aleut people who were kind enough to let me in their homes, talk about their personal and cultural history, and show me the various ways they utilize the resources on the island.

People from all walks of life are welcomed with grace and warmth into the Aleut community, a quality not always found in close-knit cultures. Fishing and tourism are the two industries that support the St. Paul economy. Like other communities, they are balancing unique traditions with the lures and trappings of increased “wealth”. They acknowledge that the traditions are losing ground. Flat screen TVs and fancy trucks are here; yet the seals, birds, fish, and weather haven’t changed. The new age has led to stress cracks at all levels. The Aleuts are concerned about who they will be in 10-20 years. Will the new generation prefer a more comfortable city life?

One evidence of change is that western Christian beliefs are growing. Lillian Capener, an evangelist woman from the mid-west, lived on the island for 35 years. She owned a B&B and held church in her home until she died in 2000. On my second visit, she told me that “many residents “secretly come to my sermons but don’t want their families or friends to know, risking hard feelings”. Even then, the younger Aleut mindset was questioning whether a “better life” needed to include traditional beliefs.

33 year resident Lillian Capener in 1998.

 

The biological center of the island revolves around the fur seals. Physically, visually, spiritually and socially, their foothold on the island and its people is both undeniable and tenuous. From the center of town, you can hear their calls almost every day. A short walk from town leads you to several beaches where hundreds may be resting, bellowing and reproducing. It is a sight, along with the thousands of colorful seabirds that stop by from Russian and northern Alaska to rest and raise young on the cliffs, that lures thousands of birders, photographers and adventurers each year.

Visitors peer at seals at the main blind on the island

The lure brings biologists too. From catwalks above the seals, they can crawl freely to count, study and record their behaviors. They can also collect specimens (i.e. deceased babies) for study later on in the lab, and, if they want, take a breather and just mingle above their subjects.

I was fortunate enough to be given permission by the lead biologist to accompany them on the planks to get some photos. It’s not as easy as it looks, crawling on all fours on rain-soaked, slippery 2x6s loaded with camera gear. It wasn’t till I was in the middle of a roaring group of bull seals obviously concerned about the stranger above them when i realized that one slip would be the end of it all. But what made it all worth it was to stop at the end and feel engulfed in sight, sound and smell by my new community of wall-to-wall burping, farting seal-mates. I was in heaven.

A young fur seal pup

Fur seal giving birth, St. Paul island.

 

Hauling up a dead seal pup for study

Crawling along on the slippery planks

Then one day, while walking to the seal rookery near town, I heard a lot of commotion in the distance. About 300 yards away in the grass, I saw a group of cars and people surrounding a group of seals. The scene was loud and chaotic, but I soon realized I was witnessing the “harvest” — the euphemistically-worded, federally-authorized subsistence hunt where Aleuts can use boards and clubs to stun and kill the seals.

It is a compromise between ecology, tradition and politics that allows them to preserve the quality of the meat and hide to continue living off the land in such a remote location.

It was difficult to watch, but the chills I was feeling told me this was a decisive moment, a confluence of personal and global issues that forced me to question my values. As a civilized visitor, I was appalled. As a traveler who had already come to know the Aleuts as warm and welcoming fellow humans, I felt accepted, and understood their need for food, warmth and cultural survival. But as a photographer, I instinctively picked up the camera and decided to “photograph first and ask questions later”.

The traditional seal hunt (without firearms) on St. Paul island

After about 20 minutes, two residents drove over from the group and asked me not to shoot. They also asked for my film. We came to an agreement that I could keep my film if I agreed not to send the images to magazines or animal rights groups. I have honored their request all these years, reserving a right to use the images elsewhere if I wanted, but have always felt the unresolved guilt of complacency. I continued to photograph the animals and members of the community I had gotten to know (including formal portraits of the elders) for a week after that encounter.

I left the island with unresolved questions and a gnawing desire to return. I returned again a few years later, mostly to renew an agreement with the visitor center there who had been carrying a line of my postcards. I never saw the harvest again, but felt that my work was still incomplete. My experience with the harvest, and the trust exchanged in that encounter, fueled an obsession to explore more about the crossroads between culture, context and compassion.

Unifying the People – Dividing a Nation

In 1973, the Tanadgusix Corporation was formed and continues to manage fishing operations, power generation, tourism and real estate on the island. In 1980, the Alaska Land Claims Act (ANILCA) made all natives shareholders in their land. Corporate meetings brought a level of politics and complication that forever changed the community.

One of the goals of the new legislation was to clarify and protect the land and resources Alaska natives have depended on for centuries, well before Alaska was part of the U.S. It was a form of “corporate democracy” akin to socialism that acknowledged their legal right to vote directly on the future of their lives.

Tanadgusix Native Corporation shareholders meeting for St. Paul residents

The tremendous changes in growth and technology have tested the pressure points in ANILCA and forced compromises in resource management that respect the needs of both humans and animals. Despite prohibitions against hunting marine mammals in the United States, the Aleuts and other Alaska natives have been allowed to hunt seals via traditional means, i.e. harpoons and poles to immobilize, stun and skin. This form of “harvesting” their resources has been acknowledged as a unifying force in a dwindling culture and community, shaping their identity long before Alaska became part of the United States. It is a practice they are proud of, but do not want publicized, as it is repulsive to most outsiders.

A treaty with the US government recognized the history and cultural significance of this tradition, giving the Aleuts permission to continue. But the size of the fur seal populations have been declining by about 20,000 seals per year. Fishing pressure for pollock and other food sources for the seals, as well as environmental factors (possibly global warming) have been factors in their decline. Similarly, the annual consumption of fur seal meat by the newer generations of Aleuts on the island has also declined, to roughly 40 pounds per person.

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Products made from seal stomach lining

Cutting meat with a native Ulu knife

 

But the cultural-social-ethical issues remain. The limits of compassion collide and apply in both directions. The Aleuts would like the significance of the harvest to be better understood and accepted. The cohesive social bonding and rite of passage associated with this tradition runs deep in the psyche of Aleut people, The intensity of their feelings for preserving their traditional ways is often matched by the intensity of opposition outsiders feel against this practice.

The uproar in the past over this controversial practice has been brutal to deal with. Confronted with accusations of cruelty, some natives counter by saying that it is equally cruel to be racially intolerant, to condemn a culture before fully understanding its history, bonds and interrelationships. The physical and emotional pain inflicted by racial violence in this country and others has been intense and generational.

Comparing the hypocrisy of racial intolerance with the integrity and survival of culture is a leap for many people.The playing field is not level. Legal and moral differences exist in the nooks and crannies between the rights of humans and animals. Biological needs for both forms of life are more tangible to appreciate, and seem to carry more weight than arguments based solely on ethical or religious views.

Native runners in St. Paul Marathon, July 4th

 

Everywhere, there is a fine line between what people care for and what they exclude from their inner circle of concern. It is a personal and a global issue of humanity that includes interpersonal issues, cultural norms, racially integrated communities, eco-travel, wildlife management and animal welfare. For the Aleuts, it is not just an issue of subsistence that drives them to do what they do. It is a choice, with the deep nuances and bonds of tradition.

St. Paul may be isolated physically, but it is still connected directly with two of humanity’s most intimate and globally-relevant issues – our fears/barriers with ethnic cultures, and our ambivalence toward animal rights. Some compelling questions are:

• Are all ethnic beliefs sacred and forever inviolable, regardless of changing social contexts?

• Is a community’s beliefs or partiality towards one animal akin to racism?

• Does freedom of religion extend to ethnic traditions, no matter how controversial?

Tug-of-war on July 4th, St. Paul Island, Alaska

These issues have been debated in various forms for a long time; the tug-of-war has been ongoing for centuries. But most people need to know more about the “other side”. There is a world of understanding and empathy needed to understand the decisions made in ethnic communities. Words can help, but images and visual narrative can have a much greater impact if done with depth and sensitivity. Photographers such as Eugene Richards or Sebastian Salgado have given faces and humanity to difficult issues that challenge uniform agreement. Similarly, Dorothea Lange once said of her migrant farm worker project, “I want to show not their circumstances but the universality of their lives, the larger social ramifications”.

Watermelon contest, July 4th

The hunt begins — looking for the seals

Recently, the Pope related human inequality to global climate change, infusing religion into the mix. He affirmed the injustice to disadvantaged communities, ethnic or otherwise, who bear much of the brunt of their vanishing lands due to rising seas — a visible consequence of intangible first-world practices. Though climate change is new, the connection between land use and ethnic inequality is old. In this country, the quest to conquer new land in the Old West during “Manifest Destiny” in the 19th century led to the destruction and marginalization of Indian cultures throughout the US. Rainforest destruction in Central and South America since the 1960s is tied to our massive, increasing thirst and consumption of oil products (e.g. the fast-food industry). The ethical human and corporate responsibilities continue like a to plague to infect in more dramatic ways.

In these times of heightened political and cultural tensions, there is great rhetoric over immigration and cultural profiling. Arguments over “building walls” reflect unresolved cultural fears from 9-11 and earlier, contrasting sharply with pleas from leaders such as the Dalai Lama for compassion and respect for ethnic and religious diversity. Walls are just physical band-aids covering deeper fears and cultural ignorance that brews within the human psyche. Photographs can build bridges instead of walls that can connect the human roots beneath diverse faces and common motivations.

Our instincts and pluralistic democracy tell us that all persons deserve the freedom to believe and live in a community of like-minded people. The clashing of these freedoms with more dominant moral values cries out for more perspectives. My interest in St. Paul island is not to condemn or pass judgment on the Aleuts, but to illuminate the conflicts in our own minds. We may not agree with everything another culture does. But the fear of tolerance should not preempt the opportunity of appreciating the soul and enduring spirit that underlies an amazing community. This broader sense of compassion may help us move beyond “facial prejudice” and the fears that separate us from other ethnic people as well.

Walking down main street, St. Paul

© Ron Levy

This article was updated with information from an excellent account of the history and issues on St. Paul Island at https://www.kucb.org/post/case-vanishing-seals-alaskan-island-mystery

 
Ron Levy has photographed for commercial and editorial clients worldwide for over 35 years. Images have been exhibited in museums, galleries, murals, billboards and elsewhere throughout the US, Europe and Asia. He has been an adjunct instructor for the University of Alaska, and currently leads photography tours to popular wildlife and scenic destinations in Alaska. Ron also enjoys working with companies, agencies and NGOs involved in health, conservation and humanity-centered projects anywhere in the world.
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