Alaskans unite to help Eskimo whaler from Russia regain his eyesight

Posted: Friday, March 24, 2000

BARROW (AP) -- For more than a half-century, Peter Typykhkak's eyes have searched the waters of the Bering Sea for whales, walrus and other marine mammals.

They have helped provide the people of his Russian village with food, clothing and shelter.

Now those eyes are failing him.

But this month, thanks to some Alaska generosity, those eyes will be repaired and soon will be scanning the horizon again for food.

Typykhkak is a Russian Yup'ik Eskimo from the village of Sirinki. He is one of the few hunters there who remembers how to hunt the bowhead whale. But cataracts and glaucoma have clouded his vision to the point that his eyes are only about 10 percent effective.

Typykhkak is president of the Union of Marine Mammal Hunters in Russia, which is the equivalent of the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission.

He was part of a group from the Chukotka Region of Russia who visited Barrow recently to sign an agreement with the state, borough and federal governments to study bowhead migrations along the Russian coast.

Typykhkak had asked to see an opthamologist during the course of several visits to Barrow. The North Slope Department of Wildlife Management paid the airfare earlier this month to send him and translator Igor Zagrebin to Fairbanks for a diagnosis.

Dr. Ronald Zambler made the diagnosis and said glaucoma would cause Typykhkak to lose his sight completely if his eyes weren't repaired within the year. Zambler then agreed to perform the necessary surgery without charge.

''If Peter is to continue to hunt whales and pass his knowledge on to the younger whalers, he needs his eyes,'' said Dr. Tom Albert, senior scientist for the North Slope Borough Department of Wildlife Management. ''He is the most respected hunter in his village, and was elected president of the Union of Marine Mammal Hunters in Chukotka.

This gives you some idea of the respect his people have for his hunting skills,'' Albert told The Arctic Sounder.

The hospital stay for Typykhkak's surgery is expected to run about $7,500, and Dr. John Tichotsky and his wife, Mary Core, of Fairbanks, guaranteed the bill so the surgery could proceed.

Requests, however, were made of the North Slope Borough to cover the hospital stay and Mayor George Ahmaogak said he would do what he could to find the money.

''The first bowhead whale in many years was harvested by the crew his sons run,'' said Yup'ik leader Ludmila Ainana. ''He is a very important man in our village and he feels, and we feel, that it is important that he pass this knowledge on to our future generations. We hope soon he will again be looking far out to sea to hunt marine mammals.''

Two operations will be done, with the second scheduled for Tuesday. Typykhkak will be staying with a Fairbanks family while he recovers. The borough will pay his air fare back to Russia.

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