Alaskan Caribou Massacre Exposes Cultural Divide

Sometimes I use Al’s Morning Meeting to help you find stories you can localize for your audiences. But sometimes I want to explore how newsrooms cover difficult stories. 

Point Hope, Alaska, is 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle. The nearest town of any size is Barrow, more than 300 miles away. Most of the residents are Alaska Natives. The polar bear, the grizzly, whales, seals, and belugas are important to Native survival there.

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That is where Alaska Dispatch reporter Jill Burke found a story that has ignited a statewide conversation about cultural differences, the growing rural and urban divide in the state and Native distrust of the state police.

In July 2008, a herd of thousands of Arctic caribou wandered near Point Hope. For generations, hunters have depended on the caribou migration for food and hides. But this hunt was different. Locals on four-wheelers shot the animals, leaving many to rot on the tundra. To some, it appeared to be a senseless slaughter, not a hunt.

Weeks later, Alaska State Troopers heard about it and arrived at the remote village to investigate. They arrested eight local men who will stand trial Nov. 30. The story takes on even more importance because a cameraman from Animal Planet was traveling along with the state troopers.

This case in Alaska’s Bush region speaks to how hard it can be to tell stories anywhere in rural America. The only way to report this story is to with boots-on-the-ground reporting, which is increasingly difficult as news staffs and budgets shrink.

Alaska Dispatch, a new online newsmagazine, included several video interviews with community elders saying they were upset about the allegations that any Native would waste caribou. Locals showed reporter Jill Burke their freezers, stocked with whale blubber, caribou meat and wild berries that get them through the -50 degree winter days.

Just as important, the story points to a growing generational divide that shows up even in this remote Bush region. The series of stories includes this passage:

“Old rules from long ago, the rules of village elders who lived hard lives close to the land, don’t always translate perfectly to the world in which their children and grandchildren now live. Travel in the Bush enough and you’ll hear elders complaining that young people aren’t eating as much ‘Native food’ as they once did, or observing that many of the youth of today seem to prefer ‘store-bought food.’ If children aren’t taking to traditional foods as much these days, they aren’t hunting as much, either, and when they are hunting the meat of the animals doesn’t carry the same intrinsic value it once did. …

“As a result, you sometimes now hear older people talking about ‘messy hunts.’ They worry that traditional hunting values are not being impressed upon a younger generation sometimes more interested in computers and hip-hop than hunting, an activity that can be both difficult and time consuming. Much goes into planning and orchestrating a hunt to collect dozens of caribou. Decisions must be made on which ones to kill, how many to kill, how and where the animals will be butchered, and how large volumes of meat will be moved back to the village for storage in freezers. Without guidance and know-how, hunts can easily get messy.”

I interviewed reporter Jill Burke via e-mail to learn more. Her answers reminded me how similar rural Alaska is to so many rural and remote parts of America — undercovered and misunderstood, especially by media.

Al Tompkins: Give us some context. How important is the caribou hunt to folks in this area? Is it mostly just for sport or is it really a source of food?

Jill Burke: It’s a vital source of food. Most of the protein in many Alaska villages still comes from wildlife or fish. Salmon is the predominate source, but in a lot of villages along the Arctic coast — where there are no salmon or salmon are in short supply — caribou are vital. Traditionally, way back when, they drove them like the Plains Indians drove buffalo. You can still find old caribou fences that used to funnel the drives into lakes or narrow passes where hunters could kill them with bows and arrows or spears, but now
people just drive out on the tundra to shoot them when they can.

Point Hope is one of those communities where people wait for this opportunity. They are somewhat at the mercy of the caribou to this day. The animals roam a vast area. If they decide not to wander near Point Hope — and there is no one yet who has determined why caribou wander where they do — the villagers are out of luck; they have to make do with other meat — whale, walrus, seal, ducks, geese, char, whitefish, etc. But if the caribou come close, people still do go out to try to kill enough to fill the freezer for an entire winter.

This subsistence-level hunting is both a necessity and a means of cultural preservation. The question of need is, however, a touchy social and political issue in Alaska. Some are pretty much hunting for food because they choose to. Others do it because they have to. Most perhaps sort of fall in the middle; they have a job or some sort of income, but hunts provide a big and economical dietary supplement that ties them back to their culture. …

My only context is in growing up in rural Kentucky, where children are taught that hunting is part of life, but wasteful hunting is morally wrong. Give me some idea of the cultural connection between people and creature in your community.

Burke: It’s pretty much the same in Alaska, only more so. Among elders in rural areas, there is a memory of the time, not all that long ago, when death by starvation happened in Alaska. Because people lived that close to the land, Alaska Native traditions came to be centered hugely on relationships to the animals. Ritual, dance, religion, food, clothing, shelter, survival — all have roots in the use of and respect for animals. That said, waste does occur. Unskilled hunting practices, higher-powered rifles, a devaluing of the animal among some members of the younger generations — these may all be contributing factors. We hear anecdotally over and over about the waste that takes place in rural Alaska, but few people who make these observations will do so on the record because they must live among the communities they are criticizing.

If there had been no police investigation, would this have been a story that you would have gone after?

Burke: We have heard about waste in the Bush for a while, so it’s something we were interested in. But this case allowed us to explore the issue on something tangible, with pictures and eyewitness reports. This case also brought other elements of tension into play that we felt needed exploration.

You mention in your stories that there is a growing rural and urban divide in Alaska. Say more about that.

Burke: It’s somewhat the split between the old and the new. Urban Alaska is very much America, with a few bizarre twists. In urban Alaska, McDonald’s, Burger King, Wal-mart, etc., are everywhere. That doesn’t exist in rural Alaska. People there live close to the land. It’s sometimes hard for the two groups to understand each other. Rural Alaskans wonder why urban Alaskans should even be allowed to go hunting when they have these more convenient food supplies at hand. Urban Alaskans wonder why rural Alaskans seem to have to kill big game animals by the dozens, i.e., do they really need to shoot that many just for food? And then there are racial elements.

Rural Alaska is predominately Native. Urban Alaska is a melting pot. Urban Alaskans think rural Alaskans should be treated like everyone else because Alaska is a pretty accepting, multi-ethnic society. Rural Alaskans think they should be treated differently, and preferentially, when it comes to fish and wildlife because they need wild foods to live. There are few jobs in rural Alaska, and not much economic hope there at the moment.

You didn’t say it in your story, but I wonder: Is this also a Native versus white divide? To what extent did the locals consider the police to be outsiders who didn’t understand their culture?

Burke: The locals very much consider the police outsiders, and the police are outsiders. They don’t live in the community, shift in and out in two-week rotations, and I heard complaints about the police officers not really having longstanding relationships with people. Still, some people do seem to appreciate having law enforcement on hand, especially to help deal with violence, drugs and alcohol.

There is also a Native-white divide out there. No one would say it directly, but you’ll often hear critical outsiders refer to the villagers as “these people” and portray them, as a group, as unmotivated, drug-addled, abusive ne’er-do-wells. The locals claim not to be racist against whites, but they definitely have a clan mentality, and will stick with each other through thick and thin. One person observed to me that this is born out of necessity. If a village family loses a breadwinner or hunter to jail, the same level of support services aren’t as easily available to the family as they would be if they lived in a larger city.
It’s better to keep the provider at home and providing, despite any wrongdoing, than to see them get locked up.

How willing were the townspeople to talk with you, considering that you are an outsider?

Burke: I found people fairly accommodating in Point Hope. Some were leery, but I run into people who are leery of reporters even here in Anchorage. If I know I’m going to a community in which I don’t have established relationships, I try to take time to get to know people and to give them a chance to know me before asking them for information or interviews. It can mean spending a lot of time speaking with people off the record first, but it usually is worth the investment. I think they have a right to get to know me as well, to ask questions of me and get a sense for why we’re there and what we’re doing.

A lot of people asked what our agenda was — what the “angle” of the story would be. In this case, the only agenda was to find out how Point Hope residents were feeling about the caribou allegations, the criminal investigation and the subsequent charges, and to learn as much as we could about what really happened.

I can only imagine how hard it is for your newsroom to try to be thorough and fair in reporting this story. What has the reaction been to your reporting?

Burke: The feedback has been mostly positive, although there has been some criticism that we too heavily favored the village or were skewed to favor the point of view of the defendants. The tipster teacher felt he was being villainized for doing the right thing — reporting a crime. Some rural hunters seem angered that we were misled about the true level of waste and depravity toward animals that really goes on. Yet, saying there will be ramifications if they were to come forward or speak up, none of these individuals will speak on the record. No direct feedback has come in yet from the community.

What’s next with this story?

Burke: We will monitor the trial developments, and hopefully, be able to follow up on more on the  discrepancies in expectations about, and enforcement of, the state’s hunting laws. For example, none of the accused hunters was charged with hunting without a license, even though they were not licensed. Turns out, most of the villagers here and elsewhere are not licensed. This tells you something about regulation and enforcement, and its interface with the reality of rural Alaska.

We will follow potential changes to the state’s law about how edible meat is defined. There are also complex land ownership issues at hand that we may explore further. (Tribal, state, federal and corporation lands — some people have questioned the right of troopers and of the cameraman to be on these lands in the first place.) Finally, we believe there is a larger story to be told about animal waste, and we’d like to see that story told. We see this story as an evolving conversation rather than as a single, isolated project.

CORRECTION: The original version of this post stated that the locals used snowmobiles to hunt the caribou. That has been corrected.

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