As a native Russian descendent of “the salmon people who live along the Amur river in Siberia”, yet raised in America, Kiliii Yuyan, says the traditions of his grandmother’s people, the Nanai, interested him long before he was a photographer.

An umiaq, or whaling skinboat, waits on the edge of the ice for gathering arctic ice fog to pass. An Iñupiat whaling crew waits patiently on the sea ice for months, enduring subzero temperatures, howling winds, and incessant freezing fog.

“I would say that this is partly because I found myself divorced of my culture, growing up in the United States far away from my ancestral lands,” he says. “There in my imagination the heroes of my grandmother’s stories lived. I found myself drawn to traditional ways of subsistence, particularly with fishing and boats. When I finished my first traditional skin-on-frame qayaq, I was hooked. I wanted to paddle, camp, fish and build boats forever.”

Kunniaq Neakok harpoons an agvik, or bowhead whale, less than 30 yards from the edge of the ice. Despite the use of explosive charges brought to the Arctic by foreign whalers in the 1800s, traditional whaling remains as challenging as ever. Kanisan Ningeok humbly explains, “We sit on the ice and hope the whale gives itself.”

He is now one of the last kayak builders and as such, Yuyan says he finds himself in a position of responsibility— to help keep this important part of Native culture alive, and to be a keeper of what little knowledge remains of qayaq-building.

People of the Whale began because I knew that the Iñupiat of North Alaska still paddled umiaqs, the big brother of the kayak, and hunted from them. That was my entry point, my interest, in learning not just about the craft of the skinboat, but about the last culture that has used skinboats in an unbroken lineage for several thousand years.”

A young polar bear investigates the recently butchered carcass of a bowhead. While spring and fall whale hunts provide a source of food for the bears, the fall hunt is especially critical for bears on the verge of starvation caused by reduced pack ice in the summer months. Many Iñupiat prefer to let the bears feed provided they maintain a safe distance from people.

Yuyan pitched the story to National Geographic, and thus began his three-year immersion in Iñupiaq culture.

“Since then, the Iñupiaq village of Utqiagviq has become a second home, and my Iñupiaq friends a second family.”

In fact, though he is from Seattle, Washington USA, he only spends about two months each year there these days and considers Utqiagviq home.

Speeding up to a bearded seal moments after a successful shot, Gilford Mongoyak prepares to harpoon it before sinking into the sea. Though the traditional skill of using a harpoon remains important, hunting seals now requires the

Reconnecting with his culture dovetails with his other “self” as a photographer, Yuyan says.

“It came right at a time when I had removed myself from the world of commercial photography and was pursuing documentary. In a sense, People of the Whale forced me to step up as a photographer because suddenly I found myself with a subject I cared about deeply, and understood more than an outside journalist could. The real challenges came from learning how to craft the beautiful images I was already known for, from the real-life situations of an Arctic subsistence culture. It is at once far more difficult and infinitely rewarding.”

8 Though the traditional umiaq remains in use for whaling, the Iñupiat adopted motorized boats in favor of traditional kayaks a century ago. Nonetheless, much remains the same, including the need for harpoons and the ecological knowledge required to successfully hunt seals among the ice floes. This ugruq, or bearded seal, will be used to cover an umiaq.

Yet, Yuyan cautions, there remains a sad but important truth.

“Indigenous cultures have little to no voice, yet are affected by the outside world in dramatic ways. It’s my job as a photographer to bring an accurate and empathetic portrayal of the communities I work with to the people whose minor decisions impact them so much.”

He is currently working on a film short of People of the Whale, and is planning his next project with the Nenet community.

“The Nenet are a nomadic reindeer-herding culture, and their environment is quite similar to North Alaska,” he says. “I am hoping to eventually work with the Native cultures across the Arctic to see how they are changing during this critical time of climate change, globalization and oil exploration.”

Today’s Iñupiaq leaders live double lives, treading the fine line between modern concerns for the community and the subsistence lifestyle. Maasak Leavitt, who works for the North Slope Borough, was hurt when his son pronounced on Facebook that his dad was ‘too busy politicking’ to hunt. Maasak hopes one day his son will understand that his work in government helps to protect traditional practices.

About The Author

Kiliii Yuyan

Kiliii Yuyan is an indigenous photographer (Nanai) whose work is dedicated to Native cultures and natural history. He has worked alongside Iñupiat whalers in the Arctic Anangu aboriginal hunters in central Australia and Inari Sami reindeer-herders in Finland. Through photography his work tells the stories of the voiceless - people, wildlife, and the changing land. Kiliii’s work has been awarded by PDN, CommArts, Siena International Photo Awards and Sony World Photo; his clients include National Geographic Traveler, The Nature Conservancy and Outside. Kiliii spends the majority of his time above the Arctic Circle or on the ocean at the wild edges of our world. He is a descendant of the Han Chinese and the indigenous Nanai/Hezhe people of Siberia. He grew up in the US at a distance from his culture’s traditions, but remained connected through his Nanai grandmother.

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