The Inuit people of Alaska's west and northwest coasts -- from Nome to Point Barrow -- hunted whales in umiaks from 1,800 BCE to well into the 20th century. Several villages located on prominent points of land along that coast supported large populations by virtue of their whaling economies.
Hunting began each year in early April at the southern end of the range, and late April at the northern, when winds from the land started to open up leads in the ice. Bowheads were the first whale prey each year, although seals would be caught opportunistically during whaling excursions. Whole villages would cooperate by clearing a path through the jumble of grounded sea ice out to the lead. Crews of six men would then haul their umiaks out to the lead, to wait on the ice and watch for a whale. Larger villages might have as many as 15 such crews.
|A six-man Inuit crew hauling their umiak over the ice. (Click any image to enlarge.)|
Harpoons with detachable foreshafts were traditionally tipped with flint heads, iron heads being taboo until the 1880s. The heads were attached by rawhide lines to two or three inflated sealskins, each with a buoyancy of 200-300 pounds. After a successful strike, these floats would slow the whale's escape, restrict its ability to sound, and allow the boat crew to follow its flight.
After a struck whale tired and could again be approached closely, work with a ten- to twelve-foot-long, flint-tipped lance began. The lancer would first sever the tendons of the whale's flukes. This prevented it from sounding again and protected the boat and crew from the dangerous thrashing of the tail. Finally, the lancer would probe deep into the whale to make a killing stroke. The boat would retreat a bit until the final thrashing subsided.
The whale was then towed to shore (or as close as possible, given the landfast ice), with several umiaks assisting in the tow. During butchering, men were often up to their necks in the frigid water, so they wore waterproof, sealskin suits that covered them from the feet to the head (a predecessor to the modern drysuit).
|A snack break while butchering a whale, up to his waist in frigid water and warm whale carnage.|
Following a successful hunt, the community would feast on boiled whale meat, then store the rest in prepared ice cellars. After the initial feast, all parts were normally eaten raw. A 50-foot whale might yield 50 tons of meat which, along with the blubber, was divided equally throughout the community. Bone and baleen, however, were the property of the crews of all the boats within sight of the killing.
|A waterproof sealskin suit for butchering whales. |
The bowhead hunt, like much Inuit hunting behavior, had a strong spiritual component:
"Whaling charms had a compulsive effect, serving to bring the whale close to the boat, to make the animal more tractable and amenable to harpooning, to prevent the lines from slipping and fouling, and the like. The theory with respect to the whale was that the whale soul passed into another animal when the whale was killed. Hence, any irregularity of procedure was offensive to the whale. The animal was thought to be able to see from afar the preparations which were being made, and of course to allow himself to be taken by the men. The associated behavior was therefore both the placate the whale and compel his presence by magical means." ("The North Alaskan Eskimo" Robert Spencer, Bulletin 71 of the Bureau of American Ethnology, 1959)
Amulets were fastened to the boats and to hunters' clothing, and the clothing itself had to be newly-sewn (by the women, of course) and never have been used for hunting other animals. Outer clothing was scraped skin; the inner clothing had the fat still on it, providing extra insulation for the men while they waited on the ice for sight of a whale. Following the whaling season, the clothing could be used for any purpose, but never again for whaling.
During the wait on the ice, no fires could be set, and noise had to be kept to a minimum both on the ice itself and back in the village. (In addition to their spiritual importance, some of the taboos seem to have had entirely practical implications.) The crews also could not set up tents, but could shelter behind windblocks made of ice. During these waits, which might last days or weeks, one man at least was always on watch, while the others could relax or sleep. Taboos also applied to the food that the women would bring to the watchers.
The bowhead run lasted from two to eight weeks each year and was followed by a spring celebration and a shift to other prey.
|A whale hunting camp on the ice. Note the small dogsled at the left. The photo was taken after canvas tents became available and evidently after the taboo on the use of tents was lifted.|
Primary source (text and images): Use of the Sea by Alaska Natives -- A Historical Perspective. Karla Johnson. Arctic Environmental Information and Data Center, Univ. of Alaska, May, 1974. The quotation is taken from the Johnson work.