En route to Jackson, Mississippi, I began a conversation with the man sitting next to me. I had noticed he was reading a gun magazine when the flight left Seattle. “A hunter,” I said to myself, thinking “trophy hunter” and “How does anyone take pleasure in killing wild creatures?” But I was curious. What kind of person reads about the Ruger SR-22 rifle and various new sighting devices? It turned out he was a Native Alaskan, Inupiaq Eskimo, on his way to Oklahoma City for a training course.
He is glad to be going there in October, he tells me, ‘cause he doesn’t like the heat. In the summertime in Alaska he gets in his truck and goes for a drive just so he can have the air-conditioning on. The ground may be cool, he explains, the air temperature may only be seventy degrees, but it feels like much more. One time he was in the South in July. It was over ninety degrees with a hundred percent humidity. He couldn’t wait to get home to the cooler weather.
He puts down his gun magazine and tells me about the hunting and fishing he does near Kotzebue, his family’s traditional territory, 33 miles north of the Arctic Circle, on Alaska’s Western Coast. He takes three or four moose a year, twenty or thirty caribou in the fall, and brings in at least sixty salmon for the freezer. He is just one of many harvesting the natural resources of the land. Every year in Alaska, hunters kill 22,000 caribou for food. “Food is expensive in the North,” my neighbour says. “We get our own, as much as we can.” But he isn’t just feeding his wife and sons; he has an extended family to take care of as well, including elderly widows. One son comes up from Anchorage for the month of September, and the other takes a break from his work on the pipeline. They set up tents with tables in each one. Every day they bring down one of the caribou, well fattened by a summer of grazing on flowering tundra plants, willow leaves and mushrooms. An adult bull weighs on average between 160 and 180 kilograms. Some can weigh closer to 300 kg. That makes for a lot of skinning, followed by cutting up the meat to dry or freeze. The gnats are bad in September, he tells me. You wear long sleeves and hope for a wind. If there’s no breeze at all, you’re breathing them in every time you open your mouth.
Fall is his favourite season in Alaska. When the first frost comes and the caribou run. The tundra, I learn, is all hummocks and hills from the permafrost, never easy to walk on, but the caribou with their large, concave hooves, move easily across the land, their hooves spreading to give them support.
In the old days the men hunted for the larger game and the women trapped and fished. “Talk about hunting and gathering,” he says. “The women did both.” He laughs as he describes how his mom-in-law and the other women her age raise a fuss when he wants to go berry-picking or help lay traps for the ptarmigan or even go out fishing. It isn’t men’s work. Men bring in the big game. But women also have a traditional role when it comes to hunting. The men may bring the meat in, but it isn’t theirs to give away. When they have skinned it and cut it up, the women decide how it will be shared out: “This is for Auntie. This will be for Cousin...”. The women know the needs of all the family members.
Just a couple of weeks ago, when the hunting was done, he took a chair out on his porch near Kotzebue and watched three thousand caribou go by, following a migration route thousands of years old. Yes, he is a hunter, but one who feeds his family, and takes that responsibility very seriously. And when he has what he needs to survive, he is able to pause and appreciate the beauty of the herd that sustains him.
Surrounded by abundance, generosity means taking only what you need.