A 16-year old Alaskan boy has been traumatized after receiving death threats and condemnation from ignorant activists for killing a whale to help feed his community.
When 16-year-old Chris Apassingok harpooned a 57-foot bowhead whale back in April to help feed his village, he was roundly praised and hailed as a "provider" and, now, a man, for succeeding in this rite of passage. It was a proud and glorious moment for the young Alaskan native.
Then, unfortunately, the animal rights crowd got wind of Apassingok's achievement and made his life a living hell.
These ignorant activists bombarded Chris on social media with hate mail, condemnations, abuse and even death threats to the point that it deeply affected the young man.
According to his mother, Susan Apassingok, "He's not the same anymore."
This could be the story of a young man who proudly and honorably provided for his family and community, or a story of noble subsistence traditions being carried on in a modern world where more and more people are disconnected from nature and their food sources.
Instead, it has become a story about the dangers associated with social media, where every fool with a keyboard can spout their ignorance and hate behind the shield of anonymity and global distance.
It has also become a tale about overcoming a kind of adversity different from the adversity of having to provide food for your family and community. It's about psychological assault at the hands of droves of stupid, disconnected and virtue-signaling people who think that they somehow have the moral high ground.
Well, they don't. Chris Apassingok and people like him stand on a much higher moral plane than the keyboard wannabe warriors who attack them.
But let's back up a little first. There's an important truth to mention here:
Bowhead whales are not endangered.
Apassingok lives in the small Siberian Yupik village of Gambell on St. Lawrence Island on the northwest edge of Alaska. The village of 700 sends out 30 crews into the sea to search for bowhead whales each year, hoping to find and harvest a few of the massive animals to help feed the entire village.
Chris did just that. He spotted and successfully harpooned a whale, and he did it at a much younger age than most native hunters. He became a provider for his village.
The big sea mammals can weigh over 50 tons and provide the villagers with thousands of pounds of meat. Harvesting a single whale, as you might imagine, is cause for much celebration and joy in a community where the economy is anything but booming and the price of groceries is cause for some severe budgeting.
"We struggle to buy gas, food, they risk their lives out there to feed us, while this Paul Watson will never have to suffer a day in his life," Susan said emotionally. "Why is he going after a child such as my son?"
Paul Watson can fairly be said to be at the center of Chris' turmoil, as it was he who instigated the barrage of online attacks from his followers. Watson is a former Green Peace member and is the founder of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, an organization that takes a hardline stance against any and all whaling activity and promotes veganism.
Sea Shepherd also strongly criticized Seattle's Makah Indians petition to resume their own tribal tradition of legally hunting grey whales, another non-endangered species, off the Pacific Coast. The Makah too were inundated with ugly, racist and ignorant comments from activists who followed Watson's lead.
Following Chris' successful harvesting of the bowhead whale, the young hunter's community rallied behind him and shared his story on Facebook. It traveled around the world, and Watson, of course, heard of the kill and was compelled to throw in his own nickel's worth of hatred.
He wrote on his own Facebook page:
"WTF, You 16-Year Old Murdering Little Bastard! ... some 16-year old kid is a frigging 'hero' for snuffing out the life of this unique self aware, intelligent, social, sentient being, but hey, it's okay because murdering whales is a part of his culture, part of his tradition. ... I don't give a damn for the bullshit politically correct attitude that certain groups of people have a 'right' to murder a whale."
Watson's post has since been removed, but the damage had already been done. Thousands of whale lovers and animal rights activists saw it and deluged Chris with epithets of their own.
Chris' mother recalled, "He said, 'Mom, come,' and he showed me his messages in his phone, calling him names like, 'You little cunt,' and 'I hope you choke on blubber,' you deserve to die and 'You need to harpoon your mom.'"
It was quite traumatic for Chris, whose online activity until then was pretty modest for a 16-year old boy.
"There was this one message saying that, I read on his phone, that they hope that our whole community dies," his older sister Danielle said.
Watson declined to apologize for his role in starting the firestorm and was self-pitying and belligerent in his response:
"There will be no apology. Not now, not ever," the activist wrote on his Facebook page.
And in a prepared statement he declared:
"Paul Watson did not encourage nor request anyone to threaten anyone. Paul Watson also received numerous death threats and hate messages. It is our position that the killing of any intelligent, self-aware, sentient cetacean is the equivalent of murder."
As though Watson's receiving hate mail somehow justifies his directing his own hateful and ego-driven message to a young boy. What a despicable, arrogant human being. Watson clearly has no understanding or empathy for the conditions that other people or cultures live under, and in his twisted mind an animal's life is worth more than a human's life, or even that of a village.
The village and other supporters, however, tried to fight back and bolster Chris' achievement.
Tatiana Ticknor, a teenager from Anchorage, was just one person who expressed her support for Chris and her opposition to the haters.
"When I see this happen it makes me feel sad and angry," she said. "Yet it makes me think on how uneducated people are on our First Nations peoples. That is the sad part. We are a culture still living and breathing today. What Chris did was an amazing accomplishment to him and his community."
Chris' grandfather Mike Apatiki weighed in as well:
"These people do not understand and know our need for food over here," he said. "Like the rest of Americans need to have a chicken and a cow to eat out there from a farm, we need our whale and seal and walrus. Makes us healthy and live long."
But under the onslaught of hateful messages that Chris received he retreated into a shell, so to speak. He became quiet and taciturn. He quit going to school.
Susan reflected, "My son has been hunting since he was in diapers and drinking from the bottle, he's been whaling. His life has been nothing but hunting."
Chris' uncle Merle also reinforced the importance of subsistence hunting to his people:
"Hunting is more than getting a permit and fulfilling that permit with a grizzly bear or a Dall sheep or whatever," he said. "There is happiness when a boy gets his first seal, there is joy."
"As far as day-to-day dinner on the table, hunters are everything in the village."
There can be no greater honor or more noble deed than to sacrifice and provide for your community.
Chris did that, and he should stand proud and not allow the stupidity and ignorance of the haters to impact his life. Of course, that is easier said than done, especially for a 16-year-old. Words can hurt, no doubt about it.
Mike Aak'wtaatseen Hoyt, an educator and a member of the Juneau Tlingit and Haida Community Council, said:
"As an educator, I see the struggle of indigenous youth trying to navigate a world that doesn't always recognize the importance of culture in their lives, or celebrate their accomplishments in the culture. When I saw the original article highlighting this, I was ecstatic. I thought, 'This is what it's all about, teaching youth and giving them the opportunity to put the knowledge, skills and values into practice.'"
"Then, to follow that up with seeing the ignorance and hate. ... I've seen kids start to internalize that ignorance and hate and I just hope he internalizes the support and love he is getting for living his culture instead of the hatred and anger of people who have no idea what they are talking about."
Here's a message of encouragement for young Chris Apassingok: Embrace the love and praise of your friends and family who truly know you and what your life is about. Accept and cherish their gratitude and approval for helping to sustain them and the community.
Relegate the ill-informed opinions of the mob to the trash bin of your psyche, and grow a thicker skin so that the barbs of their ridiculous comments cannot penetrate.
From myself and everyone, I know who knows your story, I would also say thank you for holding onto your community's traditions and for living a life deeply connected to the natural world. You are an inspiration.
To read more of Chris Appasingok's story, please go to High Country News.
Like what you see here? You can read more great articles by David Smith at his facebook page, Stumpjack Outdoors.