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Know the West

Gift and theft in the far North

“Floating Coast,” the first comprehensive history of the Bering Strait, offers a lesson in ecological economics.

 

A bowhead whale may live 200 years. Dark and rotund, it can live across multiple human generations, time enough for nations to rise and fall, for worlds to end and begin. Time enough for the whale to witness the transformation of its endemic Beringia — the region of land and water centered on the ragged mitts of Alaska’s Seward Peninsula, Russia’s Chukchi Peninsula and the sea passage between them.

It’s fitting, then, that Floating Coast: An Environmental History of the Bering Strait, by historian Bathsheba Demuth, begins and ends with whales. “A bowhead makes many things in its marine world,” Demuth writes: songs among its own kind, sharks and other creatures on the seafloor with its fallen body, and, with the gift of its living flesh, people. In the cosmology of Beringia’s whaling cultures — Iñupiat and Yupik in northwestern Alaska, and Yupik and coastal Chukchi in northeastern Russia — whales offer themselves to hunters who demonstrate proper moral character and ceremonial observance, helping assemble society and stability in one of the harshest, most mercurial places on Earth.

On its face, Demuth’s intricately researched book explores how these people and their place experienced American capitalism and Russian communism, as the two industrial powers attempted to dominate parts of the region from the 19th century onwards. But it’s also a lesson for the future on ecological economics. It takes a long time to build a whale. And when the first New England whaling ships began passing through the Bering Strait in 1848, they made clear the difference between a world balanced on the gifts of carefully paced reciprocity, and one thrown into chaos by systems built on theft.

The bowhead whale is just one piece of Beringia's complex web of creatures, including humans. Despite the region being ravaged by whaling, mining and other extractive industries, ecosystems have forged techniques of survival.

By 1875, foreign whaling ships had slaughtered more than 13,000 bowheads. Then they turned to walrus, spilling so much blood that sea ice melted to slush. Starvation haunted Beringia’s coastal people as the creatures that fed them dwindled, leaving them more vulnerable to diseases brought by the outsiders. More than half died. In the wake of these atrocities, foreign powers worked at other ways to “enclose” Beringia and its resources within state control. They instilled foreign religion and education; they pushed farming reindeer for meat and Arctic fox for fur; they mined; and, finally, Russia and some other nations returned to commercial whale slaughter. More than 2 million died worldwide by the end of the 1960s. “There is not a history yet that puts in human terms the cetacean experience of the 19th and 20th centuries,” Demuth writes. “This great annihilation of generations of whale minds: minds that listened as their seas grew quiet, watched as their clans shrank.”

Demuth, perhaps, comes close. Floating Coast might best be classified as natural history, taking the perspective that humans are not the only, or even always primary, agents of change. Climate cycles, population cycles and other creatures shape the flow of events. Wolves frustrate attempts to cultivate reindeer, wild caribou draw domestic stocks away, and bowheads learn to hide from ships among ice floes — while continuing to give themselves to Native whalers.

Kingikmiut men paddle a boat in Cape Prince of Wales, Alaska, near the Bering Strait, during a whale hunt between 1901 and 1906..

As with whales, each animal is introduced as a creature of its own industry — its desirable coat or fat or meat, a thing made from its labor, part of a web of relationships. A fox, for example, is made of its long days pouncing on lemmings. It also becomes crucial currency for Yupik, Chukchi and Iñupiat trappers, who used pelts to buy flour and other staples to help replace the calories stolen from their seas. As hunting demanded new tools like outboard motors and connections with the outside world increased, Beringians participated more and more in the cash economy; some Iñupiat sold ptarmigan, parkas, wild meat. Some staked mining claims or worked in the mines of others. Some became instrumental activists, securing, for example, land claims in Alaska. But Beringians’ interdependence with each other and with other beings survived. Meanwhile, industrial abstraction meant that many outsiders experienced animals like whales and walruses first as products like oil and buttons, and later, as spiritual avatars with no direct connection to life or sustenance.

As with whales, each animal is introduced as a creature of its own industry — its desirable coat or fat or meat, a thing made from its labor, part of a web of relationships. 

Floating Coast is polyvocal, often centering Indigenous accounts, alongside those of Scandinavian immigrants, Russians, Americans and others. These sometimes conflicting voices fill the pages like bowheads might fill the sea with song. In this, the book is less a melody of single thread than a set of building chords, the many weaving into a complex and unsettling sound that carries forward with surprising momentum in prose spare, lyrical and sharply insightful.

Some reviewers have billed Floating Coast as a eulogy. As Demuth writes, “The inaugural experience of industrial modernity in Beringia was one of profound loss,” and anthropogenic climate change will bring myriad griefs. But this work is also a subtly crafted portrait of resistance — that of Beringia’s people, in their ability to maintain their cultural identities as they adapt, despite persecution, and of Beringia itself.

[RELATED:https://www.hcn.org/issues/49.12/tribal-affairs-a-teenage-whaler-pride-of-his-alaska-village-is-haunted-by-trolls]

Even now, Beringia’s land and seascapes, caught in the grip of industrial modernity in some ways, stubbornly refuse to be controlled in others. It remains a wild and wildly changeable place, home to violent storms, difficult terrain and powerful creatures. A place that can so easily kill you demands an interconnected wisdom from its occupants — and from the rest of us as well, if we want a habitable Earth for generations to come. “You live here by not offending the beings that make your life possible,” Demuth writes. “You live here because other lives give themselves to you … a whale or caribou giving itself holds open a future where today’s recipient — the killer — would be called upon to give.”

Sarah Gilman is a Washington-based freelance writer, illustrator and editor. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.