This past spring, Chris Apassingok, a 16 year old in the Siberian Yupik village of Gambell, struck and killed a bowhead whale during a traditional hunt. In his community, Apassingok drew nothing but praise — subsistence hunting is a backbone of the area’s economy and whale meat, along with that of walrus and bearded seal, is an essential source of much-needed nutrients — but as soon as news reached the lower 48, both Apassingok and the practice of hunting whales became subjects of intense vitriol, as Julia O’Malley recently reported for High Country News,
Watson [an activist and founder of Sea Shepherd, an environmental organization based in Washington] posted the story about Chris on his personal Facebook page, accompanied by a long rant. Chris’ mother may have been the first in the family to see it, she said.
“WTF, You 16-Year Old Murdering Little Bastard!,” Watson’s post read. “… some 16-year old kid is a frigging ‘hero’ for snuffing out the life of this unique self aware, intelligent, social, sentient being, but hey, it’s okay because murdering whales is a part of his culture, part of his tradition. … I don’t give a damn for the bullshit politically correct attitude that certain groups of people have a ‘right’ to murder a whale.”
As more remote lives are connected via social media, there are bound to be an increasing number of incidents like what happened to Apassingok, a teenager trolled for honoring an ancestral tradition. But therein lies the rub — how to editorialize practices that are essential to the lifeblood of a community?
At Seattle Met, Allison Williams profiles the “World Famous Suicide Race” an annual horseback race hosted by the Colville Native American tribe in Omak, Washington. The race takes a crowd of horses down a 210-foot hill at dizzying 62 degree angle. Though the race doesn’t have the traditional connotations of Apassingok’s hunt — it was founded in 1935 by a white furniture store owner to draw attendees to a four-day rodeo — it is still central to the tribe’s identity to transform of a man to warrior, and underscore the ancestral connection to horse culture.
I emailed with Williams about the difficulties of reporting her piece. “There is absolutely resistance to coverage of the race, ” she says. “Not that anyone was ever openly hostile—they were simply wary, didn’t answer phone calls, and seemed generally uninterested in media attention.” She also questioned whether she should be the person to highlight the race.
“As a white city girl, I did question whether it was my place to tell this story at all. I quickly realized that the race was deeply tied to tribal identity, tradition, coming of age, self-determination…and I felt intrusive. But in the end I decided that the Colvilles’ story wasn’t being shared at all, at least not to Seattle Met’s audience. If I backed away from the piece, their view of the race wouldn’t be told, and anyone in Seattle who happened to hear about the race would dismiss it as a mere reckless game. And that wouldn’t serve anyone.”
Through the years, various animal rights groups have protested the race, alleging animal cruelty. The horses race at a ferocious speed down the embankment, then wade across a river before emerging on the other side to complete the steeplechase. 22 horses have been mortally wounded in the event’s 82-year history, including one during a race Williams witnessed. “I tried to stress that I wasn’t only approaching it from an animal rights angle but was honest that I would not exclude a major aspect of the race,” says Williams. “I did have to put the animal injuries in the context of a farming and ranching culture, in which horses are still used as everyday tools.”
The piece’s most interesting character is Scott Abrahamson, an 18-year old King of the Hill champion who is arguably one the race’s greatest riders:
Everyone older than Scott calls him Scotty. This year’s printed program, in the roster of winners dating back to 1935, calls him that. After he won in 2015, he became small-town famous, no longer just the good kid who excelled at basketball and wrestling. People holler, “Go Scotty” at him all weekend.
His father was famous too. That’s what happens when you win the Suicide Race; Leroy Abrahamson took the title in 2002, but was best known for his prowess in the Indian Relay, a more widespread style of racing where one jockey hops from horse to horse. Leroy, Scott has heard, would flit from one mount to the next with only a single foot brushing the ground.
Scott doesn’t remember his first time in a saddle but assumes it was before he could walk, though he largely gave it up in elementary school, when his parents split. His father was the horse guy; his mother was all about school. So he became a standout student in Coulee Dam, a reservation town in the shadow of the 50-story hydroelectric giant. When his father died in 2009, he was drawn back to horses.