Inside the Life-and-Death Hunts of a Mysterious Tribe of Hunter-Gatherers

Unlike the hostile reception an American missionary received from the remote Sentinelese people last year, Doug Bock Clark was brought along on spiritual whale hunts for a view inside a fading culture.
January 4, 2019, 6:24pm
Left photo by Doug Bock Clark. Right photo by by Ardiles Rante / Barcroft Media / Getty Images

Doug Bock Clark first heard about the Lamalerans when he was living in Indonesia for two years on a Fulbright Scholarship. The American journalist didn't actually believe the stories at first because the same people telling him about the mysterious tribe, one they said hunted whales off primitive vessels with ancient weapons, also insisted on recounting taller tales about dinosaur-like creatures and magic in the jungle.


But when Clark finally looked up the Lamalerans, he was stunned to learn they were very real. Enjoying a certain amount of special status from the Indonesian government, the Lamalerans subsist largely by harpooning sperm whales, bartering with neighboring communities, and mostly (they have taken to limited use of motorboats) maintaining ancient practices. He grew determined to visit them for an extended period of time, intrigued by the idea of a relatively isolated community, albeit not one known for violent hostility to outsiders, like the endangered Sentinelese people of India who made headlines last year after the death of an American missionary.

In the forthcoming book The Last Whalers: Three Years in the Far Pacific with a Courageous Tribe and a Vanishing Way of Life, Clark tells the tale of one of the last tribes of its kind on Earth—people who live by the whaling traditions handed down by their ancestors, even as everyone from environmentalists to curious Westerners like him may threaten to disrupt their culture. VICE talked to Clark to find out how he would compare the Lamalerans to the Sentinelese, what it was like going along on whaling hunts, how globalization is leading to the erosion of the Lamalerans' culture, and how the tribe has resisted change over the years.

VICE: For starters, just because I think Westerners often don't have a sense of diversity among "hunter-gatherer" or "primitive" tribes, how would you compare the Lamalerans to the Sentinelese, who are perhaps best known for violent suspicion of outsiders?
Doug Bock Clark: They're completely different. The Sentinelese have purposefully rejected all contact. They've made it very, very clear that they do not want anyone to have any contact with the outside world whatsoever. [They] violently threaten and/or kill anyone who steps onto their island. The Lamalerans have had extended contact with both Westerners and other Indonesians since the late 1800s. It's a very remote place, so there's a limited number of people who go there. But the Lamalerans are interested in the outside world.

How would you appraise their ability to resist change and maintain their traditional ways over the years?
Every year they get together at what's called "the council on the beach." At that gathering of all the eligible whalers, all the adult men who are participating in the hunt, they basically talk about what the rules for the year are going to be, rather than letting change happen to them. They, in a very conscious way, think: What are we going to allow into our community, and what aren't we going to allow into our community?


And so they've resisted change in some places, but also been very flexible in others. And a great example of that is in their slow adoption of outboard motors, in which they've slowly gotten more and more comfortable and figured out ways to understand them within the context of their special religious beliefs. In that, they can use them for certain kinds of hunting, but not for hunting the sperm whale which are the most spiritually important type of prey.

This was a long process that took decades right?
There was this slow but steady creep until around 2001. The tribe had to decide: Are we going to let people use these motors to hunt whales, which are the most sacred animal? They're the ones that are sent to us by the ancestors, and they're the incarnation of the ancestors. Are we going to let people use these modern machines to do that? Or are we going to keep using paddles and palm leaf sails as we always have?

They decided, basically, no. Only the ancient boats are going to be able to attack the whales. But then, over the next several years, some very clever, younger members of the tribe, basically came up with the idea, "Well, what if we attach tow rope from a motor boat to one of the ancient rowing-only boats, and then use that to drag the big, ancient boat close to the whale, and then we'll untie it. Does that violate the rules of the ancestors?”

After a great deal of debate, it was decided that, no, this was a legal loophole that younger members of the tribe could exploit. Now that has become the method for hunting whales. They employ the motors to a certain point to get the bigger, slower boats to within striking distance of the whales, and then they cut loose and it's exactly following the ways of the ancestors.


Can this process—and other ways they've moved toward so-called modernity in commerce for instance—ever be stopped or reversed? How much is being lost?
There's so much pressure on the tribe from the outside world, not only from the Indonesian government or foreigners who visit, [but also] their own, many of whom leave and see the outside world and come back with new ideas. [This is] undermining what we might think of as their traditional culture. [But] their conscious attempts to try and navigate that are really laudable and really impressive. Most groups don't really think about how they are going to engage the outside world. Anthropologists were predicting in the late 80s that the tribe would have stopped practicing its traditions by the early 2000s, and the Lamalerans are not alone.

The UN estimates that there's, give or take, 300 million traditional people whose situation is not exactly the same to the Lamalerans, but whose experience as an indigenous people is fairly similar in the sense that the outside world is overwhelming them a bit. This is really a bigger story about what's happening to humanity. If there are, give or take, 7000 cultures left in the world, and we lose two to three every month, that's an incredible diminishment of the possible ways to be human. And when one of these groups vanishes, it's an incredible loss of thousands of years worth of cultural richness and practice that vanishes with them.


You hunted with the tribe—do you mind recalling for our readers what it was like being on the whaling boats in the thick of it?
Hunting is an incredibly exciting thing. You use a row or sail or a small motor to bring yourself out to the middle of what's called the Savu Sea, this gorgeous expanse of crystalline, blue water surrounded by maybe five or six huge volcanoes [on] the horizon. And then you go out there and what you're looking for is whale spouts. When you see them, it becomes this pall-mall chase to try and catch them. It's a truly life or death experience.

I've witnessed multiple boats destroyed. I've witnessed some people get into some serious accidents. Tragically, one of my close friends from the book actually was killed in a hunt. Your adrenaline is pumping. There is basically a diving platform that goes off the front of the boat, and a guy runs down the platform, jumps off, and then uses his body weight to push a 15-foot, 16-foot bamboo spear into the whale. Then, a harpoon rope from the tip of the harpoon to the boat is attached to the whale. And then it's just hours worth of battle between the whales and the men.

Sounds awesome, but this is a religious or spiritual activity for the Lamalerans, and not a sport or even just a job, right? How does that color the process?
It's an awesome thing to witness in the old sense of the word. Sperm whales are the largest toothed predators on Earth right now. A big male can be 70 feet long, probably weigh about 70 tons. And they do not like getting attacked, so they will do their utmost to destroy the Lamaleran ships. They might have a foot or two of blubber, so they basically have to bleed it to death. You can't look away from the actual battle when you're on the boat yourself. You're constantly scrambling to make sure that you don't get hit by the whale's tail or that you don’t [get] in the way of the hunters.

It's a holy act for these people. They believe the whales are reincarnations from the ancestors, or gifts from their ancestors sent to feed them. They look at capturing the whales as a spiritual practice, and pray and thank the whales both before and after. It's also something of a complicated, emotional thing to watch a very large, intelligent creature like a whale be killed. There's so many emotional things at play when being on and watching one of these hunts, they're really unforgettable experiences. I've been on dozens of them, and I feel like I can remember almost all of them with extreme clarity just because they are such powerful events.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. Learn more about Clark's book here.

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