Flora Aiken gives a silent blessing to the first bowhead whale of the spring season. The Iñupiaq have a rich spiritual life centered around the gift of the whale to the community.

Gift of the Whale

It’s a sacred tradition, one in danger of being wiped out in the modern world.
Flora Aiken gives a silent blessing to the first bowhead whale of the spring season. The Iñupiaq have a rich spiritual life centered around the gift of the whale to the community.

Every spring for the last 2000 years, the Iñupiaq people have stood on the tuvaq, the edge of the shorefast ice, waiting for the annual migration of bowhead whales. The whaling season has begun. 

The Iñupiaq are the indigenous people of the North Slope of Alaska, whose culture developed around the practice of whaling. For over 2,000 years they have patiently hunted bowhead whales from sealskin boats called umiaqs. Kanisan Ningeok explains, “We sit on the ice and hope the whale gives itself.”

Bowhead whaling is a cultural cornerstone of Iñupiat identity and a primary source of food on the Arctic Slope, where the cost of living is nearly three times that of mainland U.S. For the past three springs, I have stood on the sea ice as a guest of a whaling crew. As an indigenous person, I wanted to understand and document their subsistence life in the Arctic, where the danger of cultural death is just as imminent as an attack from a polar bear.

This camp, erected miles out on the sea ice, is the Iñupiaq home away from home. Despite spending months living in cramped and frozen quarters, the captain of Yugu crew prefers it. "It is quiet here."
Kanisan Ningeok, a 50-something whaler and former co-captain of the Yugu crew, scans the horizon for the telltale spouts of bowhead whales while drinking prodigious amounts of soda. Although traditional foods are widely known to be healthier to Iñupiaq, Western commodities like soda and crackers have become popular, leading to high rates of diet-related diseases in the Arctic.
Whaling requires an around-the-clock watch. Aside from the threat of polar bears, there is the everpresent danger of an ivu, or collision of the pack ice into the shore. Much like sped-up plate tectonics, a destructive crash is often preceded only by a moment’s notice and a vigilant crewmember waking up his sleeping colleagues.
Waiting for the whale.
Beluga whales are trapped by sea ice as shifting winds create unstable conditions. Though some western villages hunt belugas, Iñupiat who hunt bowhead whales prefer to simply watch the Belugas as they migrate in the spring. Yugu Ningeok remembers touching one when he was young: “I lay quiet on the ice and hundreds passed by."

For the Iñupiaq, the harvest of the bowhead whale is considered a gift. When standing on the sea ice watching for potential whales to pursue by skinboat, an Iñupiaq whaling crew will let many pass by. When that happens, explains whaler Tad Reich, “That one is not for us. The whale chooses us. We wait for the right one to choose us.”

A whaling captain spends upwards of $10,000 to feed his crew and provide fuel for snowmobiles during the whaling season. It is the highest honor to catch a whale for the community, whose parts are used in their entirety. (The baleen and bones go to Iñupiaq artisans and carvers; the meat and blubber go to the whaling crew and the rest of the community.) After a whale has been successfully pulled onto the ice and butchered, crew members then hold a “serving” where they cook and provide a portion for every single person, young and old, in the village of Utqiagviq. After that, the rest of the blubber, known as maktak, and meat, are apportioned to every whaling crew by a traditional system of division, ensuring that each family will get a share of the choicest pieces.

Foods from the whale include unalliq, or cooked whale blubber, misigaq, or fermented whale blood, and quok, which is frozen raw meat. The enormous portions are stored underground in ice cellars that are frozen year-round in the permafrost, although the warming climate is wrecking havoc with this millennia-old system.

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Iñupiat elder Foster Simmonds has been a whaler since he was a child. “Hide something for me,” he asks, in a verbal prayer. “Look at the food, the whales. Look at the sea, the whalers. A blessing for them. Take that and hide it in your heart.”
The cure for feeling cold while out on the ice is to eat quok, the Iñupiaq word for frozen raw meat and fish. When desired, one simply slices off a piece. Here are whitefish, caught by fishing under inland lake ice.
Six-year old Steven Reich examines his father’s umiaq, or skinboat, used for whaling. His father Tad, captain of Yugu crew, expresses nervous excitement about bringing Steven out whaling on the ice for the first time: “I am proud of my son; he’s here to learn to be a hunter.”
Speeding up to a bearded seal moments after a successful rifle shot, Gilford Mongoyak prepares to harpoon it before sinking into the sea. A precise harpoon hit is important to preserve the seal’s skin without holes; the skins are later collected and sewn together to cover an umiaq for spring whaling.
After a whale is harpooned from a skinboat, it is then towed to the edge of the ice floe, which can take hours.
At the core of Iñupiaq values is the importance of codependence. “Whaling is community. It takes a village to pull up a whale,” says whaling captain Ned Arey. For a subsistence people, helping the community is a virtue, and everyone has an important role to play. This bowhead is being pulled onto the ice by dozens of Iñupiat, who will work tirelessly for 8 hours or more.
Division of whale meat and blubber is governed by tradition and followed strictly by whaling crews. Here, the niñit, or community shares, are equally apportioned. The successful crew's share will be given away at Nalukataq, the summer whaling festival.
A young polar bear stares wistfully at the recently butchered carcass of a bowhead. While spring and fall whale hunts provide a source of food for the bears, the fall hunt is especially critical for bears on the verge of starvation caused by reduced pack ice in the summer months. Many Iñupiat prefer to let the bears feed provided they maintain a safe distance from people.
Bears searching for food
At Nalukataq, the summer whaling festival, the village comes out to celebrate a successful whaling season and to give thanks to the whale for its gift. Here, successful crewmembers do the blanket toss. They are thrown up to thirty feet in the air, and depend on everyone's hands to land safely.
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