PEOPLE OF THE ICE WHALE: Eskimos, White Men and the Whale by David Boeri

PEOPLE OF THE ICE WHALE: Eskimos, White Men and the Whale

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Not another tribute to the Eskimo Way, as you'd assume from the title and the book's first third--yet not an addition to the annals of disenchantment either: Boeri, conflicted, found a way out. Boeri first came to Gambell, on Alaska's remote St. Lawrence Island, in April 1978--in order (we eventually hear) ""to see a storybook hunt and to defend it from those who wanted to stop it."" To protect the bowhead whale, the International Whaling Commission had set limits to the Eskimos' traditional springtime hunt--to which the US, anti-whaling in principle, had been forced to agree. The Eskimos and their champions, on the other hand, pleaded need. What Boeri discovered, shatteringly, was 1) that the St. Lawrence Eskimos were unskilled hunters, who used modern weapons wantonly and struck-and-lost several whales for each one they captured; and 2) that far from prudently utilizing every part, they only cared about the skin-and-attached-blubber (mungtuk) and let most of the meat go to waste--stood around, in fact, while it putrefied. For Boeri, this was the nadir: ""I was ready to write an obituary for Eskimo culture."" His self-exposure--as a chaser of fantasies, as a white pitifully eager for Eskimo acceptance, as a reporter ""exploiting"" his subjects--gives the book veracity. Even now, he's not quite the ""reformed romantic"" he claims--for he incongruously found, in boozing, booming Barrow, the hunter of his fantasies and the communal butchering-and-sharing of legend. Nonetheless, his conclusion--that the Eskimos should decide about the bowhead (the opportunity for self-government justifies the risk, the hunt is vital to their transitional identity)--is also buttressed by reportorial digging. In Gambell, Boeri shows, the one source of money was carving walrus tusks--""so, at times, many of them became commercial hunters and took little more than heads."" But since this was against the subsistence laws, ""they learned to use imagery that would fulfill the white men's expectations""; and pleaded hunger. He also managed to find out that both the decline in hunting skills and the partial-butchering go way back--and can't just be blamed on whites. It worries Boeri that his disclosures may hurt his Eskimo friends. In lots of ways he's naive, but in lots of ways he's also a stand-in for the rest of us: though the book is no gem of social anthropology, it has hands-on appeal.

Pub Date: March 8th, 1984
Publisher: Dutton