Who Wants to Kill a Caribou? Not Me. Never Again.

Philip Smith mountains of the Brooks range, arctic, Alaska.
Patrick J. Endres / Getty Images

Before I explain how I came to be charged with three counts of illegal hunting in the state of Alaska, I should make one thing clear: I’m not a hunter. Until recently, the only animals I’d killed were the kind that live behind stoves in New York apartments — and that was before I switched to a non-lethal “mouse house” with a door that gently slides behind visitors. But when you’re writing about Inupiaq Eskimo hunters, and when one of those hunters sees a caribou skipping off into the twilight and hands you his rifle and tells you to shoot, you pull the trigger. At least I did. It seemed like the right thing to do at the time.

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I was sitting on the back of a snowmobile bouncing over a stretch of frozen tundra near the Eskimo village of Kivalina, miles above the Arctic circle on the northwest coast of Alaska. I’d spent the better part of a month living with the locals, learning about the importance of hunting in their lives. For as long as people have inhabited that corner of the world, they’ve hunted. Ducks, ptarmigans, wolves, and caribou. Seals and walruses. Massive bowhead whales. Their social lives revolve around hunting. Their traditions, their ethics, their sense of identity and purpose. Boys learn how to hunt from their dads. Girls learn how to butcher the meat from their moms. (Increasingly, the girls hunt, too.) Once, they hunted with dog teams. Now they rely on snowmobiles, and when they come home empty handed, they survive: the town store carries frozen pizzas and instant ramen. Still, there’s no substitute for “native food.” Some of the villagers called it medicine. It nourished them in a way nothing else did, or could.

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When I pulled the trigger that day, somehow my shot hit the target. The caribou stumbled and fell in the snow, and my companion let out a cry of surprise. He gutted the animal right there in the cold, and we brought it back to the village and gave it to an elder in accordance with the ancient moral code. Later, when it came time to publish my story about the village, I thought about including a few paragraphs about the experience, but first I called my friends in the Kivalina to double-check that we hadn’t broken any rules. They told me not to worry: I’d been their guest, we’d been hunting on their traditional lands, and I’d given the meat to a villager who needed it. I hadn’t profited from the hunt, and I hadn’t taken any of the bounty for myself. We’d be fine. So it came as a surprise when a pair of cops arrived at my door in Brooklyn bearing a message from their counterparts in Alaska. I’d been charged with hunting without a license and a handful of related offenses.

Porcupine caribou (Rangifer tarandus), Denali National Park, Alaska, USA, August
Johnny Johnson / Getty Images

I needed a lawyer, someone who knew the hunting laws in Alaska. Asking around, I heard that Myron Angstman was the guy. One look at the photo on his website seemed to confirm this. He stood in the woods with a rifle strapped to his back. He was wearing shades and a baseball cap, and he had a slash of a mustache that evoked the manly confidence of Burt Reynolds. Beneath the photo, a warning: “If you are looking for a slickly dressed attorney who speaks in a language few can understand, look elsewhere.”

On the phone, Angstman informed that the prosecutor probably saw me as “a celebrity.” This wasn’t something to be excited about. There’s a long tradition of famous and semi-famous and wanna-be famous people coming to Alaska to kill majestic animals on camera. Angstman had represented a guide who had been hired by one of them—a former Miss Kansas and the host of a show on the Outdoor Channel. The beauty queen had been charged with killing two grizzly bears with a single tag and trying to cover up the violation. Her penalty included a year of probation and a $750 fine. Sounded like a pretty good outcome to me. In 2012, rocker and right-wing commentator Ted Nugent was fined $10,000 after illegally killing a black bear while filming his own Outdoor Channel show, “Spirit of the Wild.”

I could understand why the authorities didn’t appreciate these TV personalities romping through the Alaskan wilderness shooting animals without permission. But it seemed strange that they considered me one of them. Angstman advised me to make it clear to the judge that I’d gone on the hunt to deepen my understanding of native culture. And so when it came time for my arraignment, I called into a conference line from New York and read a statement to the judge explaining my circumstances. I pictured him sitting in his courtroom in Kotzebue, snow piled up outside the windows. With a population of about 3,000, Kotzebue is by far the largest community in the Northwest Arctic Borough, a region comprising 40,000 square miles of rugged mountains and coastline and tundra. I figured the judge heard a lot of hunting cases, though probably not a lot like mine.

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To my great relief, the judge took my statement into account and sentenced me to a fairly modest fine. But before I got off the call, he said something that made me really wish I hadn’t pulled that trigger. Apparently the caribou that I’d killed belonged to a herd that had been in trouble for a while. Government biologists looking at aerial photos of the Western Arctic Herd had estimated that its population had declined from nearly half a million in 2003 to less than half that in 2016. They seemed to have no idea why.  “We don’t have data to completely answer that question,” Jim Dau, a scientist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said in a department newsletter in 2013. Life in the Arctic is hard for all beings, including caribou, and their numbers fluctuate naturally over time. The scientists didn’t think hunting caused the crash, but they reasoned that if it continued apace, it would make the problem worse. So in 2015, the state tightened its caribou hunting regulations. I shot my caribou the following spring.

Why, I wondered, hadn’t my friends in the village mentioned that the state has toughened its stance on caribou hunting? I had a hunch, but I didn’t want to make assumptions. So I called Reppi Swan.

Reppi is one of Kivalina’s nine whaling captains. Each spring, he leads a crew of about a dozen men and women on a quest to capture a bowhead whale. They hitch up their boats to snowmobiles and drag them across the sea ice until they arrive at a crack in the frozen crust. There they set up tents and wait for days, hoping that a whale will come up for air in the seam. When a whale breaks the surface, they jump in their boats, race after it and, with luck, harpoon it. Then they drag it back to the village, where three days of feasting, singing and praying commence. Or at least that’s what they used to do. Although Reppi’s crew still goes out every year, it’s been more than two decades since the villagers caught a whale. As the climate has warmed, the sea ice in the Arctic has dramatically receded, widening the channels that their fathers and grandfathers relied on for whaling. This past spring, Reppi told me on the phone that the ice had completely vanished by May—by far the earliest that had ever happened, he said. The crew camped on the beach, hoping against all odds that they might somehow catch a whale in the open sea. They didn’t. “But we won’t quit whaling,” Reppi said. In Kivalina, whaling is sacrosanct. If hunting is like the frame of a house, giving society its support and structure, whaling is the main beam on which the whole thing rests.

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When I asked Reppi if he knew about the government’s new hunting regulations, he acknowledged that he did, and then he laughed in a way that indicated what he thought of them. “The government can’t stop me from putting food on my table,” he said. In Kivalina, caribou makes up about twenty percent of the typical diet. I’d seen Reppi and his wife Dolly roast it, stew it, boil it, mix it with mayo and spread it on Nabisco crackers; I’d seen their kids clamor over the patiq — the nutritious bone marrow. I asked if he believed that the herd’s numbers had really fallen as far as the government biologists said. There was a silence as he considered his words. “For them to tell us if the herd is declining,” he said, “they should stay out in the country for weeks like us, instead of looking at a picture.”

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Brooks Range, Alaska, USA, Novemeber.
Johnny Johnson / Getty Images

Reppi’s distrust of the government was rooted in history. From the moment Westerners arrived in the Alaskan Arctic more than a century ago, they began subjecting Inupiaq people to all kinds of rules and restrictions. First, they required them to enroll their kids in missionary schools, forcing them to give up many of the cultural practices and nomadic traditions that had sustained them for generations. Then they pressured them to sign away most of their land, placing it under the control of a state government backed by oil and mining companies. In 1959, the new state of Alaska established its Department of Fish and Game, which began regulating the harvesting of animals. Meanwhile, the mining companies leeched poison into the rivers, and the oil companies pumped carbon up from beneath the sea and turned it into planet-warming gas. Before Westerners arrived, the sea remained crusted with ice deep into the summer. Now the ice was melting away in May. If something was destroying Alaska’s natural resources, it wasn’t the Inupiaq.

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Soon, the environmental changes that have befallen the Arctic may destroy the village of Kivalina itself. As the seas have grown warmer, storms have been flinging big waves onto the little island where the village precariously rests, causing chunks of land to wash away. The villagers have been trying to relocate for years, but a succession of government agencies has balked at footing the estimated $400 million bill such a move would require. The Army Corps of Engineers has predicted that the village could disappear within the next decade. Given the gravity of this situation, it would be understandable if the villagers were to fall into a state of despair. Instead, Reppi and many of his neighbors have learned that survival depends on finding reasons to feel hope, especially in times of danger and hardship. In that spirit, I’m happy to report one piece of good news. In January, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game announced that the Western Arctic Herd was showing signs of growth after years of decline. In part, the biologists attributed this change to improvements in their aerial photography system. This suggests that Reppi may have been right to express skepticism toward the government’s high-tech methods, and right to feel that he had access to information that the government didn’t share. Every year, Reppi cumulatively spends months in the wilderness, studying the conditions of the snow and ice, observing the behavior of the animals, drawing on reserves of traditional knowledge that have allowed his people to survive in the unforgiving Arctic for millennia. He doesn’t do this out of scientific curiosity, or because he loves the outdoors, though he definitely does. It’s simply part of being a successful hunter. His identity, his culture, and the strength of his community depend on it.

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