Teenage Gambell whaler under social media fire from noted environmentalist

This spring, a controversy erupted when an extreme environmentalist launched an online attack on a teenage whaler from St. Lawrence Island. Anchorage-based writer Julia O’Malley went to the community of Gambell to hear about what happened afterwards, and wrote an article about it for the magazine High Country News. The story is about 16-year-old Chris Apasingok. His bowhead whale strike was celebrated by the community but O’Malley said when the story was reported, it generated unexpected attention online.

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JULIA O’MALLEY: But what that did is took that story which meant one thing in Gambell and broadcast it to a wider world that didn’t have the same cultural understanding of whaling. And so Paul Watson who is a really kind of extreme environmentalist — also reality television figure — came across that story and went off to his personal social network, talking about how no one should take a whale, and in profane terms. And really personally attacking Chris, the 16 year old who got the whale.

LORI TOWNSEND: If you would, I’d like you to read a segment from your story that captures the difference in messaging from decades ago to today.

O’MALLEY: 100 years ago — even 20 years ago — when Gambell was an isolated point on the map, protected part of the year by a wall of sea ice, catching the whale would have been a dream accomplishment for a teenage hunter. A sign of Chris’ passage into adulthood and a story people would tell about him until he was old. But today, in a world shrunk by social media, where fragments of story travel like light and there is no protection from anonymous outrage, his achievement has been eclipsed by an endless wave of online harassment.

TOWNSEND: What do you think people in the lower 48 and even along the road system misunderstand about hunting in a place like Gambell?

O’MALLEY: I think people don’t have the best understanding of food insecurity and how that is also a significant driver. In rural communities you have to get wild food. In a place with a very weak cash economy you cannot just rely on going to the grocery store. So I think there is some misunderstanding there. In Alaska Native communities that I have visited I have found that hunting is an expression of culture. It is a conduit for the transmitting of values from one generation to another. The subsistence hunt is absolutely central to how people view themselves in relation to nature and how children are taught to understand nature. Food and economics are a factor, but it’s so much larger than that.

TOWNSEND: Chris’ family worries about him. He’s a young person at that age when your emotions can be kind of hard to control — when you’re a teenager. They’re worried about him being a young person and being able to handle all of this negative attention that has come his way. Even though he is quite quiet, what sense did you get from him in this regard about how he is able to process or not process what’s happening?

O’MALLEY: I’m a mother of two boy children. It is my feeling that sometimes they process things in a way that is different than I do as a woman. So I can imagine as a teenage boy — overlay adolescence on all of that and it’s kind of its own thing. My feeling is that he feels best when he is outside of the village. And he’s spoke about that. He has said, “I just try to forget about it. I try to go with my one friend and we go out and we go boating. Or we go out and look for birds.” Who knows how things will turn out for him, but I think the positive healing influence for him is to be out in nature where things make sense, and to be performing the hunt and feeding his people in his village, his family. I had at the end some misgivings about doing the story. It felt important at a wider level to tell this other side, but at the same time I don’t know that it helps Chris to rehash it. I think it helps him more to be quiet and return to things that he is used to and accustomed to.

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Lori Townsend is the News Director for the Alaska Public Radio Network. She got her start in broadcasting at the age of 11 as the park announcer of the fast pitch baseball games in Deer Park, Wisconsin. She has worked in print and broadcast journalism for more than 24 years. She was the co-founder and former Editor of Northern Aspects, a magazine featuring northern Wisconsin writers and artists. She worked for 7 years at tribal station WOJB on the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibway Reservation in Wisconsin, first as an on-air programmer and special projects producer and eventually News Director. In 1997 she co-hosted a continuing Saturday afternoon public affairs talk program on station KSTP in St. Paul, Minnesota. Radio brought her to Alaska where she worked as a broadcast trainer for Native fellowship students at Koahnic Broadcasting. Following her work there, she helped co-found the non-profit broadcast company Native Voice Communications. NVC created the award-winning Independent Native News as well as producing many other documentaries and productions. Townsend was NVC’s technical trainer and assistant producer of INN. Through her freelance work, she has produced news and feature stories nationally and internationally for Independent Native News, National Native News, NPR , Pacifica, Monitor Radio, Radio Netherlands and AIROS. Her print work and interviews have been published in News from Indian Country, Yakama Nation Review and other publications. Ms. Townsend has also worked as a broadcast trainer for the Native American Journalist’s Association and with NPR’s Doug Mitchell and as a freelance editor. Townsend is the recipient of numerous awards for her work from the Alaska Press Club, the Native American Journalists Association and a gold and a silver reel award from the National Federation of Community Broadcasters. Townsend was the recipient of a Fellowship at the Metcalf Institute for Marine and Environmental Reporting in Rhode Island as well as a fellowship at the Knight Digital Media Center in Berkeley. She is an avid reader, a rabid gardener and counts water skiing, training horses, diving and a welding certification among her past and current interests. ltownsend (at) alaskapublic (dot) org  |  907.550.8452 | About Lori