Arts, Culture & Media

Arctic cultures could be under threat as mining and oil come to their lands

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A handmade walrus skin boats lies along the shore of the Bering Sea. These boats, also known as bidarkas, are used for hunting marine mammals. In the summer, teams of men and women race them.

Credit:

Emily Schwing

Chukotka is the most northeasterly region of Russia. It's so far east, in fact, that it's actually the only part of Russia that crosses the International Date Line into the Western Hemisphere. It may be remote, but it's a perfect place for a test of traditional hunting and survival skills among Artic peoples.

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“When we start competing, it’s just the same as competing at home,” said Johnny Issaluk, who came from Canada's Baffin Island this summer to compete in the first ever Beringia Arctic Games. “There’s nothing different. I am playing with my homeboys."

The games brought athletes from seven Arctic nations — including Canada, Norway, the United States, Iceland and Greenland — to Russia for events like boat races, wrestling and local events that the competitors taught each other. The Russian government is hoping to make it an annual event that will draw tourists to the area.

A Russian man competes in the one arm reach in the village of Novo Chaplino, where the games were hosted. This game is meant to mimic the motion one might make gathering bird eggs from a rocky cliff.

A Russian man competes in the one arm reach in the village of Novo Chaplino, where the games were hosted. This game is meant to mimic the motion one might make gathering bird eggs from a rocky cliff.

Credit:

Emily Schwing

But even if some do come, it's unclear whether the attraction will last. “Fewer and fewer young people really see living on the land as a viable way of life,” says Alexander King, a linguistic anthropologist at Scotland’s University of Aberdeen. His research focuses on the native people of Russia’s Far East.

​The disconnect isn’t just about kids growing up and moving away: There’s big money to be made here in mining valuable metals and exploring for oil and gas. 

“A lot of that kind of information about subsurface resources — oil, minerals and whatnot — can sometimes be classified as state secrets in Russia,” King said. “People are less able to know their landscape in an intimate way than their grandparents knew it, and those are skills that either take a lifetime to recover — or may be unrecoverable."

A village elder enjoys some of the singing and drumming during a break from the athletic events.

A village elder enjoys some of the singing and drumming during a break from the athletic events.

Credit:

Emily Schwing

No one know this better than Olga Letykai, who works as a liaison between the Russian government and local marine mammal hunters. She's also a traditional throat singer, and came to the games to perform.

“Of course the society of Chukotka is changing, like all over the world, it’s changing,” Letykai says. “I think the most important things is to take a balance between tradition and modern life.” She does see dialogue on all sides as more attention is paid to Chukotkan's natural resources.

But at the games, no one was really looking to the future. As they closed with a ceremony and awards, participants weren’t quite ready to quit.

A Russian competitor pins his American counterpart during a wrestling match as part of the games.

A Russian competitor pins his American counterpart during a wrestling match as part of the games.

Credit:

Emily Schwing

A group of teenage girls from Greenland sang around a bonfire as a local man showed the crowd another traditional game. In this one, men carried a giant rock around in a circle until their arms were exhausted. The winner was the one who held the rock the longest.

These kinds of games have been around for generations in the Arctic, but it may not be long before few people remember how they're played.

A local boy takes part in the games after dark on the final night of the gathering and celebration.

A local boy takes part in the games after dark on the final night of the gathering and celebration.

Credit:

Emily Schwing