Traditional Eskimo Whaling of the Western Arctic

Traditional Eskimo whaling of the Western Arctic consists of the shore-based pursuit of bowhead whales (and sometimes other species) during the spring migration in shore leads or open water passages as the winter ice begins to break up. A few communities have an opportunity to engage in fall whaling when migrating bowheads are returning to their winter grounds. Hunters in skin boats (umiaks) typically throw hand-held harpoons at surfacing whales, and use inflated bladders or "drags" to slow struck whales. Animals that were struck and killed were then towed to shore ice edges by several boats of paddlers. At the ice edge, the whale carcass was butchered, with the skin and blubber (muktuk or maktak) removed prior to sectioning the carcass and removing large amounts of meat. Meat and blubber were transported to underground ice cellars where permafrost temperatures kept the contents frozen until it was consumed. Baleen or "whalebone" (long sheets of bendable food filters hanging from the upper jaw) and bones were also removed to the hunters' village to be used as raw materials in a number of tools and utensils.

All aspects of whaling fall under the control of ceremonial rituals and belief systems as well as customary patterns having to do with the attraction of whales to the crews, permitting themselves to be taken for food for the village, the hunting and butchering process, and the various uses to which the whale's resources are put.

This shore-based Eskimo whaling stands in contrast to pelagic (or ocean-based) or commercial whaling. Such ship-based whaling flourished during the 17th-19th centuries. Scandinavian, Dutch, English, Scottish, and American whale fleets pursued the circumpolar bowhead stocks, first around Spitsbergen and Greenland, and later (in the 19th century) in the Canadian Arctic and the Bering Sea-Chukchi Sea regions. Oil reduced from blubber and baleen were the primary commodities produced by this worldwide whaling industry.

Unlike commercial ship whalers, Eskimo whalers were limited to taking whales near their villages when the animals migrated past on their annual round and primarily were seeking food through their whaling endeavors. Because of the huge quantity of meat and oil that successful whale hunting provided to a coastal village as well as the danger involved in a whale's pursuit, whaling and whalers had special significance for such communities. The primary food source consisted of whale products, the community's families were organized around whaling crews led by powerful and influential captains, men's and women's roles were defined by the parts they played in the whaling process, pan-community and intercommunity distribution of whale products tied together related and other peoples, and taboos and customary procedures gave structure to village behavior.

The basic pattern of traditional Eskimo whaling continues from the distant past into modern times, based on an unbroken lineage of whaling knowledge and skills that were handed down between the generations. While today's Eskimo whalers have added technological advances such as bomb darts, aluminum boats (in some villages), Global Positioning Systems and two-way radios to the repertoire of whaling apparatus, the basic pattern of pursuing bowheads from shore camps during the migration season with hand-thrown harpoons, with all the accompanying dangers, has not changed. Reading the weather and carefully navigating the offshore waters reflect skills that tie the past with the present.

There is a rich literature about Eskimo traditional whaling for the Western Arctic, including Alaskan as well as Chukchi coastal dwellers. Refer to the following suggested readings for an introduction to this literature.

Suggested Readings:

Blackman, Margaret. 1989. Sadie Brower Neakok: An Inupiaq Woman. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Bockstoce, J.R. 1986. Whales, Ice and Men: The History of Whaling in the Western Arctic. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Bockstoce, J.R. 1988. (ed) The Journal of Rochfort Maguire, 1852-54: Two Years at Point Barrow, Alaska in Search for Sir John Franklin. London: The Haklyut Society.

Bodfish, Waldo; Schneider, William; Okakok, Kisautaq-Leona; & Nageak, James Mumigana. 1991. Kusiq: an Eskimo Life History from the Arctic Coast of Alaska. Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press.

Burch, E. S. 1998. The Iñupiaq Eskimo Nations of Northwest Alaska. Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press.

Burch, E. S. 1998. The Eskimos. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Burns, J. J., Montague, J. J., and Cowles, C. J., eds. 1993. The Bowhead Whale. Society for Marine Mammalogy, Special Publication No. 2.

Damas, D. ed. 1984. Handbook of North American Indians, Vol. 5, Arctic. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution.

Ford, J. A. 1959. Eskimo Prehistory in the Vicinity of Point Barrow, Alaska. Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History 47(1).

Hess, Bill. 1999. Gift of the Whale. Seattle: Sasquatch Books

Lowenstein, Tom. 1981 (reprint 1986) Some Aspects of Sea Ice Subsistence Hunting in Point Hope, Alaska. Barrow: NSB.

McCartney, Allen P. ed. 1995. Hunting the Largest Animals: Native Whaling in the Western Arctic and Subarctic. Canadian Circumpolar Institute, Studies in Whaling No. 3.

McCartney, Allen P., ed. 1979. Thule Eskimo Culture: An Anthropological Retrospective. National Museum of Man Mercury Series, Archaeological Survey of Canada, Paper No. 88.

Rainey, Froelich G. 1947. The Whale Hunters of Tigara. Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History 41(2). New York.

Sheehan, Glenn W. 1997. In the Belly of the Whale: Trade and War in Eskimo Society: An Account of Politics, Ceremonialism, and Survival in Northern Alaska, AD 1200-1900. Aurora Monograph Series, Vol. 5.

Spencer, Robert F. 1900 1983. The North Alaskan Eskimo a Study in Ecology and Society. Washington DC: U.S. G.P.O.

Thornton, Harrison Robertson. 1931. Among the Eskimos of Wales, Alaska 1890-1893. New York: AMS Press.

VanStone, James. 1962. Point Hope: An Eskimo Community in Transition. Seattle: University of Washington Press.