Willard Neakok

Resident of Point Lay, Alaska


On Belugas…

What is the history of the subsistence hunting of belugas in the Point Lay region?
Beluga subsistence hunting has been going on in Point Lay since our ancestors first moved here, maybe centuries ago. We have no record other than what has been learned from traditional knowledge passed on from our elders.

What do beluga whales mean to the community of Point Lay and to you personally?
Beluga harvesting every spring brings our community together by cooperation, sharing, and learning to harvest in a safe and responsible manner. This is when we also pass on our tradition on to the younger generation. Personally, I enjoy the fact that we can do what most other villages along Alaska’s coast could not—pulling together as a community to have a successful hunt.

How does knowledge about belugas get passed from generation to generation?
Traditional knowledge passed on by our elders is not written on paper. Instead it is passed on by word of mouth and by the elders showing the younger generation how things can be done in a safe and effective way.

How would your community be affected if belugas stopped coming to Point Lay?
We live off of our ocean and depend on it. To lose any mammals that we have lived off of for generations would be devastating.

What kind of collaborations with beluga researchers have you participated in?
We are willing to help any entities that might want to do research with any animals we harvest, provided that they are willing to agree to our terms. We might want them to come and teach us what they want to do for research. We expect them to respect our way of living and to understand how we live off of the land and sea.

What have you learned so far from the research?
I have learned what belugas eat, but most of all, where they go once they have passed our village. I have always wondered where they go on their migration route.

What would you still like to know about belugas?
I would like to know more about their eating habits and where they give birth to their young.

Why is it important to do research in the Arctic in general and about belugas specifically?
I am all for research. I want to know if research can tell us whether belugas might have any illnesses and/or if their numbers are being depleted. We want to make sure we do not make belugas become a protected species by our harvesting of them. We are careful not to overharvest and do not waste any mammals, especially belugas.

On Life in the Arctic…

In what ways do you feel that humans affect the Arctic environment (positively and/or negatively)?
I see the effects of what is going on in the world today, especially the so-called “greenhouse effect.” Our permafrost is melting; there are thinner ice sheets on the oceans; migrations of birds and animals are coming earlier; and plant life is growing two to three weeks earlier than usual. If we do not show others what is happening today to the Arctic Circle, the whole world may be in jeopardy. The recession of polar ice, flooding, a rise in water levels, and the depletion of the ozone layer will affect everyone. I keep watching news on what is going on around our world and what can happen if we do not control emissions. Because of our dependence on fossil fuels, we need to look into alternative ways to generate energy and to harness natural resources other than oil.

What is the most common misconception that people have about living in the Arctic?
Despite commercials shown around the world, we do not have penguins in the Arctic!

What do you like the best about living in Point Lay?
For me, I love to travel year-round and see why our ancestors wanted to settle here. Now I can see why. We have a wide variety of animals: caribou, wolves, wolverine, ducks, geese, moose, brown bears, polar bears, seals, and fish that we can harvest year-round. We can also travel to the foothills of Brooks Range that extend from the border of Canada all the way to the Arctic Ocean.

What do you like the least about living in Point Lay?
There is nothing that I can think of that I dislike other than hordes of mosquitoes during late spring to early fall, but we just have to live with them.

What changes—if any—have you noticed in the Point Lay region over the past few decades?
The only thing that I see is river erosion during spring ice break-up. It is minimal, but I see it happen by traveling by boat.

What one thing would you most like kids to learn from studying the Arctic?
I would like them to learn about the damage from the “greenhouse effect” that is happening today in the Arctic.

What advice would you give to kids who are interested in protecting the Arctic?
Show the world what is happening from emissions from industries—permafrost damage, ice recession, ice thinning, and evaporating ponds. Show kids what they can do (if possible) to reverse what is happening because of people’s dependence on fossil fuels.

On Being a Kid…

What kinds of books did you like to read when you were a kid? Why?
As a kid, I was into all kinds of books, but most of them were fiction. I liked reading about how cavemen lived or how people lived in the Arctic a long time ago.

What was your favorite subject when you were in middle school?
I liked math. I also liked shop class because I love to work with my hands.

What did you think you were going to be when you grew up?
I never gave it much thought. I was just enjoying everyday life!

What advice do you wish that someone had given you when you were a kid?
Stay away from alcohol and drugs.

On the Rest of Life…

Who are some of the people you look up to or admire?
I hope I would be the one children would be looking up to. This might sound conceited, but I would like to show others what I want to do in life by helping our village grow in a safe and meaningful way. Children need someone like that in their life. I want to give back to our children what I observed while I was growing up and let them see what one person or a group of individuals can do to enhance our way of living. I want the children to enjoy the things I have been able to do while living in a small community such as ours.

What do you like to do for fun?
I like to travel by boat, snow machine, or ATV (all-terrain vehicle). Plus I like to go out during the summer and beach-comb with my family. Winter months are also fun, and I enjoy different parts of our little corner of the world—seeing wildlife and being out there alone. Ice fishing is also fun to do—actually, it is not only fun but also feeds my family and relatives who are unable to go fishing (mostly elders). And, most of all, I enjoy hunting the different animals we have in our area.

What is the most incredible thing that has ever happened to you?
There have been a lot of things during my life time that were incredible—some good and some bad. But I can say that the most incredible thing has been to have five beautiful children and four grandchildren to whom I can pass on what I have learned in life.

Do you have any final thoughts or words of advice that you would like to share?
Enjoy everyday living and learn from others. They have so much knowledge we can use in our daily life and also to pass on to others. Others are listening to what we say and learning from what we do. I hope industries and the people of the world can see the things that I have seen happening to our ecosystem here above the Arctic Circle. I hope that all I have written can influence others to learn what we can do to save the wildlife we have left and to learn from past mistakes we have made.

JASON Learning: A Partnership of Sea Research Foundation and National Geographic