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Totems: Walrus, Part 3

by Cie Simurro, a.k.a. Thunderbird Starwoman


The greatest threat to walruses and other marine animals of the Arctic are global warming, atmospheric ozone depletion, and shifting ocean currents – for how will they survive without Arctic waterways, islands, and massive ice floes and land masses to sustain their seasonal wanderings? Walruses have amazing stamina when their lives, families, or habitat are threatened. They will move to find better living conditions. Are you flexible enough to uproot your life and move to another location, or adapt to a different situation if some thing, or some place is not working for you. Perhaps walrus is an emblem of courage for you to emulate.

Even though when necessary – which is a lot of the time now – masses of walruses may travel great distances, over many days in the water in order to reach ice or land masses where they can find refuge and rest. If global warming conditions keep worsening, altering arctic marine ecosystems, they will not continue to survive, because reduced sea ice dramatically affects walruses’ need for resting, socialization, giving birth, and nursing young.

In 2017, the Trump administration denied protection to the Pacific walrus. Fortunately, in 2021 that decision was reversed; they now have a certain amount of protection. Other threats to their lives are military installations and exercises, mining, and human settlements with all their fallout, like heavy metal contamination and pesticide residues, which have been found in walrus organs and fat tissues.

Perhaps the biggest threat of all is oil drilling, and other industrial operations in the Arctic. Even though it is clearly evident to most humans now that we must turn from fossil fuels and cultivate alternatives, the fossil fuel industry holds a death grip on the same way of doing business that they always have, instead of using their resources to switch to green energy. Since the Ukraine crisis, oil and gas prices are at a record high. The fossil fuel infrastructure wants to use this to push for more drilling in the Arctic, but the truth is this wouldn’t save Americans a dime; it would only line oil and gas executive pockets.

Walruses can reach 30 to 40 years of age if allowed to live a normal life cycle. They can often be found on ice floes because they can better flee predators by splashing into the water, where they move more swiftly than on land. A walrus’s predators are first and foremost humans, and then polar bears and killer whales. Attacking a walrus is a risky affair though, because the tusks of adults can reach about three feet long, and they won’t hesitate to use them lethally. That, combined with their huge girth make most predators think twice before attacking an adult.

Exploitation and devastation of huge numbers of walruses began in the 16th century by Europeans. Before that, humans who inhabited the circumpolar Arctic shores lived intimately with marine animals, especially pinnipeds like the walrus, who provided them with things crucial for their survival – like oil for stone lamps and cooking stoves, meat for food, waterproof hides for clothing, shelters, blankets, ropes, drum and boat coverings, as well as tusk ivory which could be carved for useful tools, utensils, weapons, and sacred art objects. But the indigenous people with whom walrus shared life in the frozen recesses of the far North never killed walruses for profit or just because they could. They respected the lives and Medicine of walrus and other marine animals, as well as Mother Earth.

Like whales, walruses have been slaughtered in huge numbers for centuries for oil from blubber. Walrus tusks are also highly prized because of their length, and because they are almost entirely composed of dentine like human teeth, but without the enamel covering. Their tusks are harder and denser than elephant ivory. The 1989 ban on elephant ivory unfortunately, put more pressure on walrus ivory, and walrus numbers declined even more. It is, or at least it was, normal for walrus herds to number in the thousands.

To escape humans, offset human greed for their oil and tusks, and restore their numbers, the Marine Mammal Protection Act was implemented in 1972. Because the Atlantic walrus populations have not yet fully recovered from centuries of overhunting, and their numbers are so much lower than Pacific walruses, the Act has helped them make something of a comeback in recent years; however, this comeback is also contingent on clam fisheries being limited in the numbers of shellfish they can harvest, as this is prime walrus food.

Even Inuits, (often called Eskimos) who can legally hunt them, are only allowed four kills per year for each family. Walruses and their Medicine are inherently entwined with Inuit culture. Inuits call themselves simply, “the people.” Hunting has been at the heart of their culture since they arrived in Greenland from Siberia. On a physical level, even today walruses provide the Inuit people with food, as well as skin and bone for food, clothing, boots, and shelter, and for tools and weapon-making. Inuit hunting has probably not overly caused declines in the walrus populations because, as previously stated, indigenous cultures, even modern ones, usually honor animals as their relations and only take what they need in a sustainable way.

On the other hand, the hunting table sometimes turns. Groups of walruses have been known to attack Inuit boats. The Inuit also claim that walruses will also attack a killer whale, so when such a whale approaches their boat, the Inuit cup their hands, bellowing into the water to imitate the sound of angry bull walruses. Believe it or not, this drives the killer whale away. On a less tangible level, walrus is integral to their myths and stories, which house their moral code.

Inuit Creation legends speak of Sedna, the Old Woman who lives under the Sea, a female deity who is the protectress of sea-mammals. Rules and taboos must be observed while hunting walrus and other sea mammals. The animal’s spirit must always be respected. If it is not, Sedna will withhold her creatures and great storms will result, leading to starvation. It is the responsibility of the Angakok – the village shaman – to visit Sedna ceremonially after first merging with the walrus spirit, and then journeying to her to ask her to release generations of seals, sea lions, and walruses as yet unborn, so that the Inuit people will continue to survive.

In another Inuit legend, Sedna transformed parts of her clothing into the walrus and the caribou. At first the caribou were given tusks, and walruses were given antlers, but the caribou killed the hunters and so the Old Woman switched them. Some of their legends include songs – throat songs like the sounds walrus makes, that show respect for the animals, as well as for Sedna.

In a Celtic legend, a human man fell in love with, and married a female walrus who had shed her hide and become a woman. Unfortunately for him, her love for the sea won out, and so eventually, she put her coat back on and returned to the sea as a walrus once more. Scottish lore calls these selchies. Celtic Druids honor the walrus for deep emotional depth and longing for love. Unfortunately, the story has an unhappy ending, as later, the man went out to hunt, killing the walrus who had been his wife.

Anyone alive in the 1960’s will recall "I Am the Walrus," a song by the Beatles released in November 1967. It was featured in the Beatles' television film Magical Mystery Tour.

I am he as you are he as you are me
And we are all together
See how they run like pigs from a gun
See how they fly—
I'm crying

The extremely arcane lyrics were most likely a result of Lennon’s favorite psychedelic – LSD. In a Playboy interview in 1980, John said he wrote the first line after one acid trip on one weekend, and the second line after the next acid trip on the following weekend, and then he filled the song in after he met Yoko Ono. He writes about walrus as a symbol of the depths of human consciousness. And of course, just for fun, he put in later that Paul was the walrus.

John Muir, who was born in 1838 and died in 1914 was one of the first advocates for the preservation of wilderness. After suffering a blinding eye injury and then unexpectedly regaining his sight, he resolved to spend the rest of his life exploring, traveling through, and advocating for wilderness areas. He was a co-founder and the first president of the Sierra Club, and instrumental in the formation of Yosemite National Park, and Grand Canyon National Park. He took his first trip to Glacier Bay in 1879. A prolific wilderness writer, he penned the following about the killing of walruses, after he observed hundreds of them being shot without even one regret by the shooters: “These magnificent animals are killed oftentimes for their tusks alone … In nothing does man, with his grand notions of heaven and charity, show forth his innate, low-bred, wild animalism more clearly than in his treatment of his brother beasts.” That about says it all.

Walrus Day is celebrated each year on November 22nd.

Cie Simurro ~ Thunderbird Starwoman has been a Healer, Writer, Minister, Advocate and Steward for the natural world for over 45 years; author of this column for 21 years. Send your email address if you wish to be notified with a link to Wisdom when a new Totems article comes out. In-person healing sessions are available once again on an individual basis, as well as long-distance healing. Call or email for more details and to arrange an appointment. Phone: 413 625-0385 or email: cie@ciesimurro.com  For a print version of Totems for Stewards of the Earth,Vol. 1 - delivery U.S., send $22 to P.O. 295, Shelburne Falls MA 01370


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