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Yupik Hunter

Yupik Hunter


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A Yupik hunter about to launch a harpoon at a seal

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The Yukon River is known by many names: Gwich'inŲųg Han or Yuk HanYup'ikKuigpakInupiaqKuukpak, and it has a long history with the many indigenous peoples who live one of the longest rivers in the world. I photographed a National Geograhic story on the Yukon River, who are the people who subsist on this 1,980-mile-long river.  From the headwaters, formed by Llewelyn Glacier, the river eventually feeds into the Bering Sea at the Yukon–Kuskokwim Delta.  I was photographing the different peoples who live on the river, from top to bottom.  Towards the end of my assignment, I knew I needed to photograph those indigenous peoples, the Yupik, who live at the mouth,. I gave myself a few days to get a feel for the environment: who were these long-time residents of the area, how did they blend the river into their daily lives. I went out hunting for seals and beluga whales with a group of hunters, working with traditional atlatls and harpoons. This is a continuance of a centuries-old process that I felt was extremely important to include in my coverage. I ended up spending 9 days looking for 1 photo to illustrate this. Day after day of hunting would produce incredible memories, but not the photo I was looking for.  I was starting to sweat bullets by day 7, knowing I was already pushing the limits of my contract.  I decided firmly that day 9 would be my last, regardless. And, I guess the Photo Gods were looking out for me, as the day opened with heavy fog in which the hunting boats were gathered, breaking as the morning progressed. Then, it all came together. The boats were motoring madly about, chasing a poor seal who happened into the wrong place at the wrong time. The hunters use spears from the hand-launcher (the atlatl is that launch tool, an ancient device) to actually harass and tire the seal out.  This was in one of the three mouths of the Yukon, so large one cannot see either boundary shore of the river-many, many miles wide.  Due to the huge amount of glacial silt outpouring from the river, the middle mouth (the one we were in) is only a few feet deep after centuries of silt building up. This seal was pretty wiped out and surfaced just by the boat in front of me, I photographed the hunter as he was putting the finishing touches on this hunt. Every bit of the seal was utilized, either as food or as material for clothing or other use.  As I said, I was sweating bullets, but the moment was there, and we used this image as part of a gatefold opening spread for my story. 

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