bowhead Whaling in northwest alaska
A way of life
The bowhead whale is one of the most culturally significant subsistence resources harvested by Inupiaq communities in Alaska. Spring and fall whaling parallel whales' seasonal migration. Fall hunt bounties must serve to feed many rural families throughout the upcoming winter. “A single whale can provide food for a family for a year and offset the cost of groceries in a town where a pound of ground beef costs between $7 and $9, as much as three times the average price in a U.S. city” (Hoag 1). Additionally, whale hunting has cultivated a culture in which cooperation and sharing are key. Each whale is hunted by groups of villagers working together, with a whaling captain to harpoon the whale and haul it up onto the ice. Sharing captured whales and other subsistence resources is an important tradition. Practices for butchering and distributing the harvested bowhead whales vary from village to village, but in each, the whole community shares the whale.
Alaska Native whale hunting tradition has been impacted greatly by outside forces. In 1854, the first commercial whaling ships arrived to Utqiagvik (Barrow) on the North Slope. Trade commenced between the Inupiat and European/American whalers. Early European/American whaling expeditions would last about two years; ships would make their way up to Alaska to hunt whale in the Bering Sea and the Arctic Ocean. They exchanged tobacco, liquor, and other items with the Alaska Native communities in exchange for items such as furs. This drastically affected the traditional trade network between Alaska Native tribes. Coastal Alaska Natives could trade with outside whalers for more valued items, and they began to trade less with other Native groups. Whalers would also hire the Inupiat to work aboard their whaling ships. Inupiaq people hunted less for their communities while they worked for cash from the outside commercial whalers, altering the annual subsistence cycle. Today, the U.S. federal government and the International Whaling Commission regulate whale hunting. They allow the indigenous whale hunt to continue, with its status as a tradition of subsistence and culture, but the hunt is under tight regulatory control. Bowhead whales are an endangered species. Inupiaq hunters typically harvest less than 1 percent of the total population each year. The IWC participant countries come together and determine on a quota for how many whales can be killed over a period of time: “The quota was approved for the years 2013 through 2018, allowing Alaskan and [Russian] Chukotkan whalers to land up to 336 whales over the next six years... [Hunters] cannot exceed 67 strikes [or kills] in any one year, although 15 unused strikes can be transferred from previous years.” ("Bowhead Quota" 1).
The annual hunt
In early October, Inupiaq communities set out for their annual fall whale hunt. Traditional gear such as umiaq boats are used--small canoe-like boats covered in seal or walrus skin. Contemporary tools are used as well, such as powerboats and forklifts. New York Times writer William Yardley reported on a whale hunt in Utqiagvik (Barrow) in 2011, in order to witness the changes to tradition that have evolved. “Eventually the heavy equipment gets the job done," Yardley writes, "and the whale is lowered onto the snow — and the shared joy is obvious. Big blades emerge and the carving commences. Steam rises when the innards meet the Arctic cold. Within an hour, nice women are offering strangers boiled muktuk — whale meat. People mingle. 'Congratulations,' they tell the family of the crew. A young man bends over the liver and peels off the membrane so he can take it home to make a traditional drum. A row of Eskimo children slide on the slippery skull bone. A biologist reaches into the whale’s eye sockets, making sure someone remembered to cut out its eyeballs so the lenses could be used to determine its age…[The captain] raises his arms to the people who are sending celebratory text messages and shining the headlights of their extended-cab trucks on the scene, and says ‘Aarigaa!’ The cry is an Inupiaq word meaning ‘very good.’ The crowd repeats this back to him: ‘Aarigaa!’” (Yardley and Olsen 1).
"Alaska History And Cultural Studies." Northwest and Arctic | Alaska History and Cultural Studies. N.p., n.d. Web. 06 Mar. 2017.
"Bowhead Quota." Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission. N.p., n.d. Web. 06 Mar. 2017.
Hoag, Hannah. "Breaking News and Opinion on The Huffington Post." The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 8 Apr. 2016. Web. 27 Feb. 2017.
Parsons, Sarah. "To Feed A Village." When Whaling Defines a Culture, What Happens When the Hunting Ground Starts to Melt? N.p., 29 July 2015. Web. 27 Feb. 2017.
"The Iñupiaq People of Barrow, Alaska." Ice Stories Dispatches From Polar Scientists RSS. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Feb. 2017.
Yardley, William, and Erik Olsen. "With Powerboat and Forklift, a Sacred Whale Hunt Endures." The New York Times. The New York Times, 16 Oct. 2011. Web. 27 Feb. 2017.