Project Jukebox

Digital Branch of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Oral History Program

Horace Ahsogeak

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Horace Ahsogeak

No photo of Horace Ahsogeak available

"My name is Horace Ahsogeak. I am now a resident of Utqiaġvik (Barrow), but I was born in the uplands of the Sagvaġniqtuuq River on November 15, 1902. My parents told me that my grandparents died the following spring at this location from starvation, because the caribou harvest was so bad. I never went to school. My parents traveled with our family looking for wildlife for our food. My family traveled all the way from Herschel Island in the Yukon Territory of Canada, to the mouth of the Utuqqaq River on the Chukchi Sea near Point Lay. We would follow the game, and hunt as needed in each season. Caribou, walrus, seals, ducks, fish and foxes were the main kinds of game that we hunted, and we also obtained whale meat and maktak from coastal people. We would not travel in the same places each year, so that we would not harvest the game too much in any one area. We also had to be on watch for warring Indian bands from the Interior. Sometimes the game was so scarce that we would keep away from all other families so that the other people would not scare away the wildlife that we needed to eat. There is more game now for us to eat than in those hard years, but I still remember this lesson that the game can be scared away by too much noise and activity. That is one reason I am worried about this offshore oil exploration in the Beaufort Sea.

I got married in 1924. My wife and I continued to live the life of Iñupiat hunters and fishermen. From 1927 to 1934, we spent most of our time near the Hula Hula River in what is now called the Arctic National Wildlife Range. During this period, I hunted and trapped all along the Beaufort Sea coast. In the winter months, we went along the coast to hunt polar bears and trap foxes. One time in 1938, I got trapped in the spring on Napapqsralik (Cross Island) and was rescued by my friend Jack Smith who came out from Foggy Island to get us. As the World War got closer, my wife and I decided that we should move to a larger town like Utqiaġvik to be with other people and to make sure that our children got the education that I did not have. In those days, we had to go to Utqiaġvik to have a school. We started living in Utqiaġvik in 1940, although we did not like to leave the free, roaming life of the Iñupiat hunter and trapper. I still continued to hunt and trap as much as I could while continuing to have my family live at Utqiaġvik. In the summer I would hunt and fish at a site near Admiralty Bay in what is now called the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. In the fall I would hunt the bowhead whale near Utqiaġvik with a crew, and then go out for ice fishing near the Admiralty Bay site. In the deep winter, I would hunt polar bears along the coast of the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas. In the spring, I joined a crew for hunting the bowhead whale. Although I am older now and my wife has died, I still hunt in each season for these kinds of animals and fish. I have been hunting the bowhead whale both spring and fall every year since 1942. I became the captain of my own crew in 1947. Only really bad weather or bad health could stop me from hunting the whale. In over thirty-six years of whaling I have seen how sensitive the bowhead whale is to noise and pollution. I have seen how the bowhead eats by straining very tiny things out of the water through its baleen plates. I see how the whales find most of their food in places where two currents in the ocean come together. The tiny things that the whales eat are mostly found in such areas. River deltas are one of the best places that the whales can find the food they eat.

Although I do not know the reason, I have noticed this year that the water where I fish is different than I have ever seen it. It is darker, and I have not caught as many fish this year as is usual for me. This spring, I could not hunt as many whales as I could because of the government whale quota. It is harder for me to feed myself this year because of these problems. And I cannot fulfill the role of the Iñupiat hunter that I have been taught to do- that I must always share what I hunt with poor people who cannot hunt. Already the hunting is getting so difficult that it is hard for me to continue the sharing I want and need to do to be a true Iñupiat hunter.

When I oppose the oil company plans to drill for oil the Beaufort Sea, I am thinking of my grandchildren as well as the people of Utqiaġvik and my own need for my Iñupiat diet of fish, whale, ducks, caribou and other animals. I need these animals so that I can hunt them for the food I must eat, and I know that Iñupiat people in Utqiaġvik and other North Slope communities also need such food in order to stay healthy. I knew about the Second World War, and if another great war comes, the food shipments from the other parts of Alaska would stop. I worry about my grandchildren. If I have helped to allow the oil companies to drill offshore, and then the food we need to hunt is destroyed, my grandchildren will starve if food shipments from Outside should ever stop. I know that my stomach just could not digest everything if I had to eat all the white man’s food, even though it is good to buy some things from the store. But, if the store should run out, I always know that as an Iñupiat hunter I can survive, and I can help people who cannot hunt like me to survive too. We Iñupiat always share our hunting catch. The captain’s share of a whale is so special that even he is not allowed to eat it alone. That share must be divided with others, especially at the sharing feasts of Nalukataq, Thanksgiving and Christmas. By hunting, trapping and sharing with each other, we Iñupiat have always survived." (pg. 104-105)