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.
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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