Editors’ note: The photographs in the story below delve into the practice of whaling as carried out by aboriginal groups in North Alaska. Although whaling continues to be a source of controversy, by the terms of the internationally ratified 1986 moratorium on whaling, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) permits the hunting of whales by aboriginal groups as long as it occurs on a subsistence basis. The IWC objectives ensure that whale populations are maintained at (or brought back to) healthy levels, while native people are allowed to hunt whales at levels that are “appropriate to cultural and nutritional requirements in the long term.”

To learn more about these regulations, please visit the IWC’s website. We encourage you to read more about this topic and look at this carefully researched and executed project for further context on this traditional practice.

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

“Growing up in the United States far away from my ancestral lands, I found myself divorced from my culture,” he says. “The heroes from my grandmother’s stories lived in my imagination. As I grew older, I found myself drawn to traditional ways of subsistence, especially with fishing and boats.” This attraction to his ancestors’ way of living led Yuyan to pursue kayak-building, particularly the traditional method called “skin-on-frame” building. “As soon as I finished my first traditional skin-on-frame kayak, I was hooked. I wanted to paddle, camp, fish and build boats forever.”

Seven-year old Steven Reich examines his father’s umiaq, or skinboat, used for whaling. His father Tad, captain of Yugu crew, expresses nervous excitement about bringing Steven out whaling on the ice for the first time: “I am proud of my son; he’s here to learn how to be a hunter.” © Kiliii Yuyan

Yuyan was not only drawn to practicing the age-old techniques of hunting and fishing—he was also drawn to documenting them. These twinned interests led him to this project on hunting in North Alaska: “‘People of the Whale’ began because I knew that the Iñupiat of North Alaska still paddled umiaqs, the big brother of the kayak. That was my entry point to learning about both the craft of the skinboat and the last culture that has used skinboats in an unbroken lineage for several thousand years.”

By photographing the umiaqs while also carrying on the tradition of kayak building, Yuyan finds himself in a double position of responsibility: he is both telling his subjects’ story and keeping this important part of indigenous culture alive. His images document, while his manual practice of the craft preserves the knowledge that remains.

Yuyan has worked alongside Iñupiat whalers in the Arctic, Anangu aboriginal hunters in central Australia and Inari Sami reindeer-herders in Finland, but it is this story of Iñupiaq culture that has truly taken hold, resulting in Yuyan’s three-year immersion in the community. Ultimately, he said, the decision to become so deeply immersed in Alaska came from within. In his own words, “The Iñupiaq village of Utqiagviq has become a second home, and my Iñupiaq friends a second family.”

For young people everywhere, cultural skills take learning and practice. Cathy Peacock hangs seal meat to dry and professes that there’s much to learn, though she is proud to keep her traditions strong. © Kiliii Yuyan

Reconnecting with the indigenous culture dovetails with his other “self” as a photographer, Yuyan says. “[My trips to Utqiagviq] came right at a time when I had removed myself from the world of commercial photography and was pursuing documentary work. 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 ever could. The real challenge came from learning how to craft beautiful images from the real-life situations of an Arctic subsistence culture. It is at once far more difficult and far more rewarding.”

Yet, he cautions, there remains a sad but important truth buried in these projects: “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.”

Today’s Iñupiaq leaders live double lives, treading a 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. © Kiliii Yuyan

Yuyan is currently working on a film short of People of the Whale. He is also considering a project on the Nepalese in the Himalayas, who are heavily affected by flooding and natural disasters stemming from climate change. He is also thinking about documenting the issue of suicide in the Arctic, where, he says, communities are more affected than anywhere else on the planet. “Right now, the Arctic is at a confluence of both climate change and mental health issues—it strikes deep into the heart of indigenous communities and I feel compelled to understand their stories.”

—Gina Williams

If you’d like to see more work like this, we’d recommend these articles: Tundra Kids, a glimpse inside a boarding school for Nenet children; Cholitas: The Revenge of a Generation, a striking portrait series that celebrates the history and heritage of Bolivia’s native population; and The Good Earth: Inner Mongolia, a project that documents millennia-old ways of life that are under threat by the spread of modernization.