Kiliii Yuyan | People of The Whale
Kiliii Yuyan is a Nanai (Siberian Native) and Chinese-American photographer. His award-winning work spotlights the Arctic, indigenous communities and conservation through photography, filmmaking and public speaking.
Kiliii’s mission is to present the story of relationship between people and the natural world. His long-form projects present an alternative vision of humanity’s true wealth—community, culture and the land.
Decades of wilderness experience have been critical for Kiliii’s projects across extreme and remote environments such as the Arctic. On assignment, he has fled collapsing sea ice, weathered botulism from fermented whale blood, and found kinship at the edges of the world. In addition, Kiliii builds traditional kayaks and contributes to the renewal of northern indigenous culture.
Kiliii contributes features to National Geographic Magazine, CNN, The Guardian, Bloomberg Businessweek, Sierra, and Vogue. His photographs have exhibited in galleries worldwide and won awards from PDN, CommArts, and Px3. Kiliii speaks publicly about photography, indigenous and conservation issues, and has given talks at National Geographic and the George Eastman Museum. He is based out of Seattle, but found in the Arctic nine months a year.
People of the Whale
People of the Whale is the story of an Iñupiaq whaling crew, living where the vast plain of ice meets the waters of the Arctic Ocean. For the last 2000 years, the Iñupiaq have stood on the edge of the sea ice, waiting for the migration of bowhead whales. When a whale passes near the edge of the ice, the crew intercepts it with their umiaq, or skinboat. During whaling, their lives are periods of silent observation, punctuated by moments of intense drama. The ice hides its dangers—desperate polar bears stalking humans, massive icequakes when sheets of ice collide.
Bowhead whaling is a cultural cornerstone of Iñupiaq identity and a primary source of food on Alaska’s North Slope, where the cost of living is nearly three times that of mainland US. In 1977, the Alaskan Iñupiaq fought and won the right from the colonial United States government to manage the bowhead whale population alongside traditional whaling. By 2011, the Iñupiaq had more than doubled the population of the bowhead, all while hunting them for subsistence. The Iñupiaq had become the premiere example of successful conservation through indigenous knowledge and way of life.
I spent four years living on the Arctic sea ice with the members of Yugu crew, sharing the watch for polar bears and eating fermented whale meat. This project was born from the experience of being part of the crew with a shared Native ancestry. I began to understand the complex Iñupiaq relationship with the whales they hunt.
I’m beginning to understand the essence of this Indigenous culture, and by extension, my own. The traditions, the whaling, they bring everyone together. From the moment a whaling crew begins to prepare, half the village finds a way to participate. This is what it means to be a People of the Whale. I started this project searching for the feeling of community I lost when my family was displaced from its homeland. I leave this project with an invisible Iñupiaq sensibility deeply embedded, and a new community to call my home. Kiliii Yuyan