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Field tales from the end of the world – pt. 1

By Wiebe de Jong –

How I ended up here

I finished my masters in anthropology back in 2008 at Radboud University Nijmegen, and after at about five years of seeking for a PhD position, I decided to take another turn. First as teacher within secondary education, and subsequently into journalism, with a focus on radio and podcasting. After working for a couple of years at Radio 1, I was asked to give a workshop on podcasting at my former journalism studies institution.

One day, the coordinator of this course gets approached by Silja Zimmermann, a researcher from the Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development at Utrecht University. Whether she knew anyone who could accompany her to St. Paul, to make a podcast about an Arctic community who seeks to preserve the food security on their island? Climate change, overfishing, rising food prices makes living on this island fierce.

A couple of months later, and here I am. In the next two weeks or so I will share my impressions as both an anthropologist and podcast creator.

About the research

Like many Arctic, indigenous communities, St. Paul Island is facing many problems concerning food availability. Rising prices due to inflation, overfishing, climate change and the remnants of colonization by Russia and the US are one of the manifold causes.

To give an example: crab fishing used to be one of the major income sources for the islanders. The well-known Deadliest catch series were recorded here in the Bering Sea. However, since the ocean temperature warms up and large fishing companies use trawler techniques (this is a method wherein fishing nets scrape the ocean surface where these crabs try to survive), the current crab fishing industry on the island has collapsed. For over more than two years, no ship has left the St. Paul harbor to go out for crab fishing, whilst it took care of 90% of the Island’s income.

In the meantime, prices in the store – the only one on the island – are crazy high.

Arriving on St. Paul Island

This is perhaps the first location ever where I witnessed no single tree at all. Grass only. Yet no farms, no cows, sheep, or chicken either (Except for our neighbor who has three of them). However, one can witness reindeer, halibut, crabs, and seals. At least the few that are left.

Flying out to St. Paul Island is no easy trip. From Amsterdam one travels to Alaska’s largest city Anchorage. From there, Ravn Alaska Air flies three times a week to St. Paul. But only when the weather conditions are fine, which is usually not the case. Heavy fog prevents airplanes from arriving safely.

In the coming twelve days me and Silja Zimmermann from the Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development at Utrecht University will make recordings for a podcast on food security on St. Paul Island. Silja’s PhD project aims to identify positive seeds of a good Anthropocene.

The idea behind is that we usually watch, read and listen to negative stories of climate change only. However, these depressive facts often do not make people change their behavior. Some people either shrug their shoulders, others get into an apathic state of mind and feel that we are doomed anyway. In other words, disseminating negative stories only, might rather put off people than stimulate them to live a more a sustainable live.

According to the advocates of the Good Anthropocene movement, what we need are positive stories that change is indeed possible. As such, within the coming twelve days we will identify hopeful examples of St. Paul’s resilience, and pathways to more sustainable development. 

The fur rush

St. Paul is often portrayed as the island with the largest seal population. Something that is known for centuries and what was at the basis of its colonization in the eighteenth century by the Russian empire.

Although St. Paul Island was known by the Aleuts, the indigenous community of the Western Alaska islands, it was claimed to be ‘discovered’ by the Russian Gavriil Pribylov in 1786. Soon after, he named the islands surrounding St. Paul to himself, which they are up to today: the Pribylov Islands. Something Cecile Rhodes, British business tycoon avant la lettre, did with North Rhodesia (today Zambia) and South Rhodesia (today Zimbabwe) in the nineteenth century during the British colonization of Southern Africa. 

The legacy of the Russian influence can still be found today on the island. For instance, many people still have a Russian surname and are members of the Russian Orthodox Church.

The colonization of St. Paul and the Priblylov Islands were predominantly inspired by the conquest for seal furs. From 1786 on it is believed that at about 2.5 million seals have been killed for the commercial fur trade. These were used for, among others, luxury clothing for the bourgeoisie. It seems that tsarina Catherine the Great was so impressed by the furs, that she ordained to intensify the fur rush.

In the meantime, Aleut men were enslaved by the Russians to harvest these seals. Their women and children were taken hostage and, if they would not provide them with enough furs, these hostages would be executed.

During the bachelor 1 course History & Theory, the account of the fur rush is being discussed when we read Eric Wolf’s classic The People without History. The title of the book is somewhat ironic, for it is often thought that the history of former colonies only began when the Europeans ‘discovered’ them. Eric Wolf tried to point out that there was already contact between peoples well before European colonization. As such, they did not live in full isolation at all.

Around 1911, the Russians sold Alaska to the US. That did, however, not mean that enslaved labor was over. Quite ironically, since at that time, the US government did efforts to eradicate enslaved labor in the South.

On the contrary, the Aleut community still had to hunt for seals in devastating conditions to boost the fur economy. Up until far into the 1950s, Aleut hunters were given corned beef in return for seals. Allegedly, the Aleuts were governed by the US Commerical Bureau of Fisheries that did not grant them with civil rights ‘as they were perceived as non-citizens’ (Cascada Times, 2005).

Only in 1984 the US stopped the commercial fur trade as populations decreased and wildlife organizations objected its continuation.

Today, the elder Aleuts still alive, hold some kind of animosity towards the colonizers. Or, as one of the elders told us today: ‘Never trust the white man’.

Internal struggles

Whenever you talk with someone on the island about seals, they immediately start to smile. In particular, when one discusses the event of hunting. Nineteen-year old Destiny (“I turn twenty next week”), for instance, was taken to the harvest for the first time when she was nine years old. She now knows how to cut, bag and cook seal. The only thing she is still somewhat reluctant of, is clubbing it.

“It is so nice to do this as a community. Everyone is there. But you need to pay attention because the seals can bite pretty bad.”

Killing the seal is done the traditional way, that is, clubbing it. Destiny shows me a picture on her phone where she is portrayed with a large stick of about 1,5 meters. “I tend to watch the other way when they hit a baby seal, it is not the nicest thing to see. Sometimes the eyeballs fall out.”

It reminds of my fieldwork in South Africa back in 2008 when I was researching traditional healing practices. I was invited by a female spiritual healer in her early twenties for ‘a cultural celebration’ at their backyard. Not knowing what to expect, I entered the yard and – quite astonished – encountered a goat tied up to a clothesline. Oh boy, I thought back then, I am going to experience a sacrifice today.

I will never forget how the goat was overpowered by four men, it’s screaming sound while put on the grass and its throat cut by one of the men. A true anthropological experience to say the least, but also one that horrified me in a way.

These memories are coming back now that we are producing a podcast on the island, among others about the seal hunt for subsistence food. Would I join one of the hunters on the island with my microphone as they are about to kill a seal, catching the soundbite of ‘clubbing’? To be honest, I do not know. Professionally speaking, I think I should do so, as clubbing is a traditional practice being conducted for over centuries. Who am I to judge about indigenous practices? Personally, however, I feel a lot of resistance against the practice of clubbing.

This is a classic example of what Franz Boas – one of the founding fathers of cultural anthropology – has coined the dilemma of ‘cultural relativism’. Boas, a German with Jewish roots, escaped Germany around the end of the 1900s and developed his career in the US. Cultural relativism according to Boas meant that one cannot judge distinct, cultural practices within other societies as better or worse. One should try to understand cultural practices from the local and historical perspective.

When conducting his research among the Inuit in 1883 – in a time when native people were seen as backward, primitive and savage, he explained cultural relativism in the following way:

Is it not a beautiful custom that these “savages” suffer all deprivation in common, but in happy times when someone has brought back booty from the hunt, all join in eating and drinking? I often ask myself what advantages our “good society” possesses over that of the “savages.” The more I see of their customs, the more I realize that we have no right to look down on them. Where amongst our people would you find such true hospitality?

Trying to understand local customs is one thing, but accepting them as righteous, moral behavior is another thing. I do think, as researcher or podcast producer, one should feel free to abstain from researching or recording particular subjects, no matter how interesting they are in an anthropological sense.

On the other hand, we might often be too aware of the public opinion. In our current academic teaching, for instance – which is society on a small scale – I often feel that cultural relativism is under pressure. When discussing phenomena like, in the case described above, animal rights, people demand that the researcher or journalist immediately condemns the practice. It seems like there is little room for nuance.

I would say this is a pretty worrisome development within anthropology. I often teach my students that telling stories is our core business, and a good story shouldn’t be spoiled immediately with a disclaimer. For if a story does what it should do, it creates some kind of desire: you want to know why people do the things they do, which is often very rational or not at all.

Or, as Michel Foucault once said: ‘People know what they do; frequently they know why they do what they do; but what they don’t know is what what they do does.’

Wiebe de Jong is a podcaster and a teacher at the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology of Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.

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