Traditions 13 October 2014 22 1240
The Chukchi are an indigenous people living in Russia's far northeast. As the climate is too inhospitable to grow crops, the sea has always been their main source of food. The population of 16,000 subsists primarily on a diet of marine mammals, the meat from which provides locals with enough fat-rich food to see them through the harsh winters. By and large, hunting species such as the grey whale is illegal. However, as the Chukchi's survival and traditional way of life is dependent on this activity, the International Whaling Commission grants them an annual whaling quota. Moreover, the meat from these animals is not sold, but distributed among the local population for free.
In Russia’s far northeast lies an isolated region known as the Chukotka autonomous okrug. The indigenous people there, known at Chukchi, number around 16,000. Due to harsh climate and barren soil, the Chukchi people’s diet and livelihood depends almost entirely on hunting sea creatures such as seals, walruses, and most controversially, whales.
The climate of Chukotka is much too cold to farm, so the Chukchi people depend on whale meat for sustenance. They also occasionally collect seagull eggs from harrowing cliffside nests.
The International Whaling Commission, which regulates whale hunting globally, grants special permissions to indigenous populations who depend on whaling for survival. The IWC grants the Chukchi people an annual quota of 136 gray whales. The whale meat cannot be sold, and is distributed among the Chukchi people for free. Extra meat is stored in underground “ice cellars”, which are situated deep down, where there is permafrost.
Whaling is certainly dangerous, and there have been many injuries and deaths. The Chukchi people regularly perform rituals to honor the whales and walruses on which they depend.
In the Chukotka autonomous okrug, they don’t say that they “kill” whales, but rather they “take” them from nature, and they are always grateful for what it provides.
We meet a bone carver, who draws on and carves whale and walrus bones. Also, we meet a traditional guttural folk singer.