Sunday, February 26, 2012

Learning about the Iñupiat Whaling Tradition

Thursday night UMIAQ called a meeting of the Barrow Whaling Captains’ Association to discuss and ask for permission for the upcoming scientific research projects near Barrow.  Whaling season starts in early April, so cooperation between scientists on the sea ice and the native community is of utmost importance.  Kyle and I were honored to attend this meeting and excited to learn about Iñupiat whaling, which is endangered due to loss of Arctic sea ice.  At the meeting we met a humble whaling captain Herman Ahsoak who invited us into his home to learn about whaling.  To start learning about Iñupiat whaling, we first visited the Iñupiat Heritage Center, a U.S. National Park Service site in Barrow.  
Iñupiat Heritage Center
Painting at the Iñupiat Heritage Center
Friday night Kyle and I visited Herman Ahsoak’s home, where he explained how his family and community hunts for whales and how this way of life is in danger due to thinning sea ice.  Subsistence hunting for bowhead whales is a tradition in the Iñupiat Eskimo community.  Herman explained to us that the International Whaling Commission allows Barrow Iñupiat to strike and harvest ~21 whales per year.  There are ~57 whaling captains in Barrow, with whaling crews consisting of families with children getting involved young to pass along the cultural traditions.
Whaling crew preparing an umiaq (Photograph, Iñupiat Heritage Center)
For the spring whaling season, whaling crews break several miles of trail manually using picks.  The trails are for snowmobiles from the coast to the lead (open “river” of water) over the course of several weeks leading up to whaling season (April-May), which is gradually getting earlier due to the loss of sea ice.  The thinning sea ice is also making this process even more dangerous for the whaling crews.  The whalers then camp on the sea ice and watch the water waiting for bowhead whales to surface.  When a whale is spotted, the whalers climb into an umiaq (seal-skin boat) and paddle quietly to approach the whale.  These boats are made from bearded seal skins and sew together in the weeks approaching whaling season using caribou sinew.

Herman shows us his umiaq, made from 5 bearded seal skins
Once close to the whale, the harpooner throws a harpoon, aiming just behind the blowhole.  Herman showed us his harpoon that was made of driftwood (see below).  An anchor hook penetrates into the whale is connected by line to a float for tracking the whale once struck.  Upon striking the whale, a penetration trigger is pushed backward so that a bomb (black powder encased in a brass shell) enters the whale, breaking a matchstick and causing a weight to hit a pin on a 6 second fuse, igniting the black powder.  Following this initial hit, a brass whaling gun can be used to shoot additional bombs if needed for a quick kill.

Herman shows us his whaling gear
Kyle holding an empty whaling bomb
Kyle holding a brass whaling gun
Whaling anchor hook, harpoon, & bomb
Kyle holding Herman's harpoon

Before celebrating, the crew first says a solemn prayer of thanks for the whale, which will feed the community.  Motorboats from several whaling crews then tow the whale to ice.  Herman explained to us that most harvested whales weigh ~40 tons and are ~40 ft in length (~1 ton per foot of whale).  The community then pulls the whale up onto the ice and butchers it.  Afterward, the head is pushed into the sea to feed life in the ocean.  The whale skin and blubber, known as maktak, is most liked by Herman’s family after fermenting for several days.
Sketch, Iñupiat Heritage Center

Photograph of butchering a whale (Iñupiat Heritage Center)

“Sharing: Aviktuaqatigiigñiq
Don’t hold back when it comes to sharing.  It is important to make sure everyone in the community has a bit of the whale.  None is saved for the captain and crew when it is your first whale. – Jane Brower, Barrow, 2002” (Iñupiat Heritage Center)
Blanket toss (Photograph, Iñupiat Heritage Center


The community again celebrates the whaling harvest in June during the blanket toss, when the sealskin from the successful whaling crews’ boats is used to make something like a trampoline.  If the Barrow Iñupiat do not fill their quota in the springtime, then motorboats can be used to hunt whales in the fall during their second migration.  Leftover whale following initial celebrations is served in community churches at Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Whale ear drum at Herman's house
Walrus tusks at Herman's house

While at Herman’s house, he showed us a National Geographic video about the Iñupiat’s hunt for whales and this way of life is in danger due to the changing climate.  A clip of this video can be seen at:

Thank you Kyle for helping write this!

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