PANGNIRTUNG, CANADA - NOVEMBER 14 During a hunting trip, Paul Ishlutak, 12, stays warm in the underside of a boat in Pangnirtung, Canada on Nov. 14, 2013. He and his brother Damien tag along with their father, who teaches them how to hunt. With so many children to feed and support, his father Levi often struggles to put food on the table, living day to day, and pay check to pay check. As communities in Nunavut are completely cut off from the rest of Canada by road, food and supplies are shipped at an extremely high cost by boat and plane, leading to exorbitant prices at the grocery stores. The Inuit have traditionally depended on hunting to provide food, shelter, and warmth for their families in the harsh arctic environment. Hunting provides much-needed sustenance for families. However, environmental groups often criticize the Inuit for hunting species claimed to have dwindling populations such as narwhal, belugas, seals, and polar bears. The current debate highlights the clash between traditional hunting practices and modern conservation science. (Ed Ou/Reportage by Getty Images)***EDITORS NOTE***The photographer contributed money for food, equipment, and gas for the hunting trip, as his presence took up the limited space and supplies on the boat.
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Pangnirtung, Canada, Nov. 14, 2013. During a hunting trip, Paul Ishlutak, 12, stays warm in the underside of a boat. He and his brother Damien tag along with their father, who teaches them how to hunt. With so many children to feed and support, his father Levi often struggles to put food on the table.Ed Ou—Reportage by Getty Images
PANGNIRTUNG, CANADA - NOVEMBER 14 During a hunting trip, Paul Ishlutak, 12, stays warm in the underside of a boat in Pangnirtung, Canada on Nov. 14, 2013. He and his brother Damien tag along with their father, who teaches them how to hunt. With so many children to feed and support, his father Levi often struggles to put food on the table, living day to day, and pay check to pay check. As communities in Nunavut are completely cut off from the rest of Canada by road, food and supplies are shipped at an extremely high cost by boat and plane, leading to exorbitant prices at the grocery stores. The Inuit have traditionally depended on hunting to provide food, shelter, and warmth for their families in the harsh arctic environment. Hunting provides much-needed sustenance for families. However, environmental groups often criticize the Inuit for hunting species claimed to have dwindling populations such as narwhal, belugas, seals, and polar bears. The current debate highlights the clash between traditional hunting practices and modern conservation science. (Ed Ou/Reportage by Getty Images)***EDITORS NOTE***The photographer contributed money for food, equipment, and gas for the hunting trip, as his presence took up the limited space and supplies on the boat.
Inuit Life in Nunavut Canada
Inuit Life in Nunavut Canada
RANKIN INLET, CANADA - OCTOBER 12 Brian Tagalik, 28, visits the grave of his friend Dunigan Kolit, who killed himself when he was 15-years-old, in Rankin Inlet, Canada on Oct. 12, 2013. The two played hockey together as teenagers. Brian says that he “truly believes Dunigan is one of those guys who doesn’t know he’s dead yet, because he was so full of life.” According to Brian, Dunigan’s grandparents raised him because his mother was an alcoholic. As Brian walks throughout the cemetery, he points out the graves of almost a dozen of his friends who died of suicide. According to Health Canada, the incidences of suicide in Inuit youth are among the highest in the world, 11 times the national average. Brian grew up with many of his friends taking their lives. He says, “if I get a phone call at any point in the morning before eleven, I know it’s someone telling me another friend has died. I got rid of my phone, because I just don’t want to know anymore.” At points in time, Brian has considered taking his own life. Since then, Brian has become an activist, trying to break the silence and speak out about taboo topics that Inuit youth face. He tries to share his own story, and counsel people at risk of suicide. Earlier this year, he recorded a song called “The Struggle” with fellow musician Kelly Fraser, which speaks to their shared experience with suicide and the harsh social realities of living in the arctic. The song, released on local radio stations and online, resonates with many Inuit youth. (Ed Ou/Reportage by Getty Images)https://soundcloud.com/user248977338/the-struggle-feat-kelly-fraser
Inuit Life in Nunavut Canada
Inuit Life in Nunavut Canada
Inuit Life in Nunavut Canada
BAFFIN ISLAND, CANADA - SEPTEMBER 5  A polar bear collapses on the ground after being shot by Inuit hunters in Baffin Island, Canada on Sept. 5, 2013. The Inuit in Canada have traditionally hunted polar bears for subsistence and income to provide for their families, given the high cost of living in isolated regions of northern Canada, and continue to do so to this day with the blessing of the government. To them, the polar bear hunt provides a much needed lifeline to impoverished Inuit families, many of whom face a wide range of social issues stemming from the forced removal from their traditional way of life and systematic assimilation into sedentary communities. However, the United States and many environmental groups list the polar bear as a threatened species, and have pushed for a global ban on the commercial trade of their fur, meat, and body parts. Canada, which is host to roughly 80% of the world's global polar bear population, insists that there has been no noticeable decline.  (Ed Ou/Reportage by Getty Images)
Inuit Life in Nunavut Canada
Inuit Life in Nunavut Canada
Inuit Life in Nunavut Canada
Inuit Life in Nunavut Canada
ARVIAT, CANADA - OCTOBER 16  William Tiktaq (left), 28, and Brian Tagalik (right), 28, compete with each other in an Inuit head pull competition inside their home in Arviat, Canada on Oct. 16, 2013. Inuit games are played as a way to pass the time while stuck indoors during the cold arctic winters and to test and develop the skills required for hunting and arctic survival, including strength, agility, and tolerance to pain. They require very little equipment and can be played in tight spaces.  (Ed Ou/Reportage by Getty Images)
ARVIAT, CANADA - OCTOBER 19  Kristy Cablutsiak, Sharon Aulatjut, and Katelyn Tiktaq gather to play 'Frankies', a dice game, in Arviat, Canada on Oct. 19, 2013. Everyone puts money into a pool at the beginning of each game, and players must roll a consecutive combination of matching dice to win the pot. The game is played all night until the money runs out. In many small hamlets in the arctic, games like Nevada, Patik, and Bingo are considered a weekly recreational hobby to pass the time. Many Inuit have become addicted to gambling, oftentimes spending hundreds of dollars in one sitting, taking a high financial toll on already impoverished families.  (Ed Ou/Reportage by Getty Images)
IQALUIT, CANADA - SEPTEMBER 17  Kelly Amaujaq Fraser (left) dances with friends at a bar in Iqaluit, Canada on Sept. 17, 2013. Growing up in a small Inuit hamlet of Sanikiluaq near northern Quebec, Kelly was raised in the shadow of repeated sexual abuse by a close family member when she was a little girl. When she was a teenager, her father killed himself. Now as an adult, she struggles to reconcile the wounds of her past, oftentimes drinking to excess and sleeping around as a way to blunt the pain she carries with her. These are the living scars of colonial Canada, when the government moved the Inuit off the land and forced children into twentieth century residential schools in an attempt to ‘civilize’ and strip them of their native culture and language. Many Inuit children were beaten and sexually abused at the hands of white teachers. The Inuit attribute the current cycle of violence, alcoholism, crime, sexual abuse, and high rate of suicide to their traumatic past at the hands of 'white colonials'. The Canadian government has only recently officially apologized for these abuses. (Ed Ou/Reportage by Getty Images)
Inuit Life in Nunavut Canada
Inuit Life in Nunavut Canada
Pangnirtung, Canada, Nov. 14, 2013. During a hunting trip, Paul Ishlutak, 12, stays warm in the underside of a boat. He and his brother Damien tag along with their father, who teac
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Ed Ou—Reportage by Getty Images
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Crimson on White: Hunting the Polar Bear

Jun 19, 2014

Ed Ou spent four months in 2013 photographing Inuit communities in Nunavut, the northernmost territory of Canada. Here, many are cut off from the rest of the country -- and food and supplies are brought in at an extremely high cost by land and sea. Because of this, the Inuit often depend on hunting for food. Environmental groups regularly criticize them for hunting species claimed to have dwindling populations such as narwhal, belugas, seals and polar bears. In the U.S., Washington has pushed for a global ban on the commercial trade of polar-bear fur, meat and body parts. But the Canadian government opposes this on behalf of the Inuit.

Editor's note: Given the isolation of the communities in the north of Canada, Ou helped offset the high costs of embedding himself with the Inuit community and contributed money for gas, groceries, heating, Internet and other expenses.

Ed Ou’s pictures are hard to look at. A polar bear emerges from the water, drenched in blood, turning its white fur crimson. Then the dead bear sprawled on the rocks, legs spread and jaw open, as if it were simply caught by surprise, even while the hunters begin the process of butchering the carcass. Finally the bear’s pelt, cleansed of blood, drying in a bathtub.

Polar bears have become the living symbols of climate change, with reason — as the planet warms, the sea ice that the bears use as hunting platforms is melting, putting the animals at risk. The idea of hunting and killing an animal that is listed as an endangered species, one that’s already under pressure from climate change, seems wrong on its face, like crimson blood on white fur.

But look closer at those pictures. Ou, a Canadian, traveled to the Inuit homeland of Nunavut in the far north not to document a polar-bear hunt, but to explore a part of his own country that had always seemed foreign. In remote towns like Pangnirtung and Iqaluit, Ou found a culture grappling with extreme poverty, substance abuse and a legacy of mistreatment from the Canadian government, which for decades all but stole Inuit children from their parents, sending them to residential schools where they were forbidden to speak their own language or practice their own culture. The last residential schools were only shut down in 1996, but the effects are still being felt among the Canadian Inuit whom Ou went to document, compounded by the extreme isolation of the Arctic and the painful transition from a traditional subsistence-hunting culture to a sedentary way of life. “Trauma has been passed down from one generation to the next,” says Ou. “Alcoholism is high, drug abuse is high, suicide rates are high. It’s a very traumatized place.”

In his photos, Ou shows Inuit like Kelly Amaujaq Fraser, a young woman who was sexually abused as a young girl, and whose father killed himself when she was just a teenager. Ou shows a near-empty refrigerator, the product of a place where unemployment is in the double digits, and where a simple carton of milk can cost more than $10. Given those bleak conditions, it’s not surprising that the Inuit would hunt polar bears, as their ancestors did before them — albeit not with high-powered rifles. A single polar-bear pelt can fetch more than $10,000 on the open market, and the meat can feed dozens of hungry people. As distasteful as the sight of a butchered polar bear might be to outsiders, to the Inuit, it’s a matter of survival — and of culture. “They feel their ability to hunt is one of their last sources of subsistence,” says Ou. “Before you judge them, you have to understand the socioeconomic factors driving this.”

That doesn’t mean it’s right to allow polar-bear hunts to continue. It’s unclear just how many polar bears are left, and the continued effects of climate change will almost certainly drive the species closer to extinction if nothing is done to save them. But it doesn’t seem that the burden should fall on the Inuit, who’ve already paid such a high price. “They ask, ‘Why do we have to pay the highest price for global warming when we contribute the least?’” says Ou. Justice is something else that’s endangered in the Arctic.

Ed Ou is a photographer with Reportage by Getty Images

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