A bit more about Iñupiat subsistence whaling

My post on the Anagi crew’s whale has gotten a number of comments from people who are interested, one way or another, in whales.  Some of them are genuinely interested in learning more about whales & Iñupiat whaling; others appear not to be.  I’m going to try to answer some of the questions, and provide links to sites that can give even more information.

But first,  see this Public Service Announcement.

OK, now a bit of history.  Alaska Natives (and in fact many other Native Americans and Canadian First Nations people) have been whaling for 2000 years or more, since before the Thule culture developed, based on archaeology.  Aboriginal whaling did not damage the whale stocks in any way that can be detected.  What damaged whale stocks was European (and later Euro-American) commercial whaling.  The bowhead was popular with commercial whalers because it was non-agressive and had a lot of blubber for whale oil, plus long baleen.  Most Eastern Arctic stocks were decimated by the early 19th century.

In the western North American Arctic, commercial whaler Thomas Welcome Roys first cruised north of the Bering Strait in 1848, starting a rush to catch the plentiful and naive Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort stock of bowheads on which so many coastal Alaska natives and their inland trading partners depended.  The whales soon became skittish and scarce and many Alaska Natives died of starvation.

Once oil was struck in Pennsylvania, one of the big reasons for hunting whales diminished.  But the baleen, the plates in a whale’s mouth that they use to filter-feed, was still valuable for buggy whips and corset and collar stays.  Bowheads have by far the longest baleen of any whale (15 feet or more from a big whale), so they were still hunted until those items were no longer in fashion or needed.

Many coastal Alaska Natives had become involved in commercial whaling, including shore-based commercial whaling carried out with traditional Iñupiat techniques with Yankee style harpoons, to support their families.  After commercial whaling ended, coastal whaling communities continued these hunts, combining traditional techniques and traditional and modern technology.

In the late 1970’s, some Western biologists, who were not experienced in the Arctic and knew little about bowhead whales (biologists didn’t back then) tried to count bowheads.  They believed that the whales were scared of ice!  They thought the bowheads had to travel in a lead and would come up to breathe in the lead so they could be counted.  Even if that were true, they didn’t account for the fact that there are multiple leads, and that the whales only have to breathe every so often and that wouldn’t necessarily be where the observation post was.  They came up with a count of several hundred whales, and of course, sounded the alarm.  A moratorium was declared on Alaska Native whaling in 1977 (years before the moratorium on commercial whaling, I might add).

Since many families got (and still do get today) a significant portion of their meat from whales, this was a huge problem.  Although wages may look high in places like Alaska’s North Slope, costs are high too, and many families do not have someone who is working in the cash economy and can afford to feed a family on store food and whatever else they can hunt (and of course full-time work does interfere with hunting, which was traditionally a full-time occupation itself).  Most Iñupiat had never heard of the International Whaling commission, and couldn’t understand why they felt it appropriate to starve human beings by forbidding them to feed themselves.

They were particularly puzzled because senior whaling captains and hunters who had spent many decades on the ice had observed that the bowhead population appeared to be growing from the depths it had sunk to by the end of commercial whaling.  They knew that bowheads are not scared of ice.  In fact they can breathe under quite thick ice (they become positively buoyant and use the bow on their head where their nostrils are to push up the ice, cracking enough to let air into the little tented space formed under the ice and breathe there, and then submerge and go on about their business), and that they would not restrict travel to the near shore lead, so they knew the count was wrong.

The North Slope Borough Department of Wildlife Management, with many cooperating researchers over the years, has been studying bowhead whales ever since.  They soon developed a much better way to count them, which is continually refined.  Counts now show an annual rate of increase of 3.2%, which is really high for such long-lived animals.

The Alaska Native Bowhead hunt is highly regulated.   The Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission (AEWC) manages the hunt under authority from the US government.  There is a quota of strikes (not whales taken, but whales struck so there is an incentive to land every whale struck if humanly possible), which is established based on document subsistence needs of each whaling community, in light of the population estimates. This quota is set so that communities get what they need and no more.  The harvest is considerably below what population biologists would consider a sustainable harvest if they were talking about elk, or caribou, or mule deer.  As long as something else, like marine noise or a massive oil spill in Arctic waters, doesn’t come along and decimate the population the way commercial whaling did, this is absolutely a sustainable harvest, carried out by people who entire culture is centered around that harvest.

The AEWC divides the quota between communities, based on active crews and population, and approves the transfer of strikes between communities (if, say, the ice is bad in one place and they can’t catch whales, they may transfer their strikes to a place with better conditions) since the maktak and meat is shared and everyone on the North Slope and beyond benefits if whales are taken.  Only captains and crews registered with the AEWC are allowed to take whales, and violations of rules, ceasefires, etc can and has led to punishment or suspension of the offending captain.

When a whale is taken there are traditional rules for sharing which vary by community.  In general, specific shares go the captain, the boat (itself–although obviously the boat owner disposes of the boat’s share), the harpooner, the other crew members, and the other boats which helped tow the whale back to be cut up.  Anyone who shows up to help with the butchering (even a little) gets a share.  My daughter helped a very little once when she was about 8, and she came home with a small share.  The captain’s wife and her helpers cook round the clock after the whale is ashore, and when they are ready, the captain’s flag is hoisted and anyone who wants can go and get fed (they will usually send to-go plates to house-bound Elders).

After that, the captain and crew get ready for a celebration where a great deal more of the whale is shared with whomever shows up.  People get whale meat, maktak, kidney, intestine, tail, flipper, gums, plus goose soup, mikiaq (whale blubber, meat & blood, fermented–and before you say gross, when was the last time you ate curdled drained milk with mold on it–AKA a nice Stilton or Brie?), rolls, cakes, fruit, etc.  Most families in the community go to at least one of these every year.  Many go to all of them.  The amount given to each person depends on how many in the family (and the servers pretty much know or the people sitting around do, so no one fibs).  Captains also give out meat & maktak at Thanksgiving and Christmas feasts to whomever shows up (usually much of the community), and usually will provide some for potluck and other festivities as well.  They also share with Elders & folks who need it during the year.  Most of the folks with whom it is shared share it farther.  Shares travel to Anchorage and even to the Lower 48.  Some of the people who get shares send back things like berries or smoked salmon from their area, or caribou from the interior.

None of the whale, or any other marine mammal for that matter, can be sold, with the exception that Alaska coastal Natives can use baleen or bone or ivory to make handicrafts, which they then may sell.  They are not allowed to waste the rest of the animal just to get these products.

There is a great list of links to good solid information on the bowhead whale and bowhead hunt here.

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Sustainability, Ipiutak and Graceland!

I’ve been in Memphis for the 77th annual meeting of the Society for American Archaeology.  It’s been pretty busy, so I’m having to do a couple of recap posts.  WordPress just dumped a post of over 1000 words with no trace, despite lots of prior saving, so this is going to be a 2-parter.

I left Barrow on Monday night, PowerPoints mostly done, and arrived in Memphis early the next evening.  I spent the morning putting the final touches on the presentations, and after grabbing a bite to eat, I headed over to the Comfort Inn to the steering committee meeting for the new Long-term Human Ecodynamics RCN of which I am part. Since a number of us haven’t worked together before (RCNs are for building networks, in part), along with the updates on how sessions which had gotten RCN support had gone, the status of some upcoming meetings and budget situation that are usual for such things, a number of us did presentations on what we did/are doing to wind up as participants.  The RCN is working on 3 fronts: systematic comparisons of archaeological cases which can be considered as completed “experiments” in long-term human ecodynamics, development of cyberinfrastructure to make such comparisons more feasible, and sustainability education and community involvement.

I’m primarily part of Focus 3.  I talked about Nuvuk, and hope I made the points that students are more engaged if they can work on a site which is actually scientifically important rather than one which is of a type that is so well understood that it can be “sacrificed” for training.  I also hit the destruction of sites in the North, since that will undercut our ability to do the sort of archaeology necessary to really understand the ecodynamics of a situation well enough to make policy-relevant contributions.

Afterwards, we adjourned to Papa Pia’s for pizzas & more discussion.  The pizzas were good, although I generally don’t expect eight (!) slices in a personal pizza.

The next day was a long one.  The Arctic/Subarctic session started at 8AM.  The room was rather noisy, with a pile driver working outside that was literally shaking the building!  Despite that, there were some interesting papers.  Bryan Wygal led off with a paper on the Nenana and Denali complexes (stone tool groups in Alaska).  Nenana, which is earlier, does not have microblades and Denali does.  There are various theories about this, including climate change.  I don’t think Bryan had a final answer, but he did have some data to bear on the question.  He was followed by Risa Carlson talking about some recently discovered early sites in the Alexander Archipelago in SE Alaska.  There were very few early sites found until geologists figured out that the continental glaciers had actually pushed the land on the unglaciated edge like the islands up (called a “forebulge”), so that old shorelines were at a different elevation (taking into account the forebulge relaxing and sea level changes) than people had thought.  With the new model, archaeologists have been finding old sites.   Then Leslie Howse talked about the archaeofaunas (animal bones) from two sites on Grinnell Peninsula in the Eastern Arctic.  One is a site from the Late Dorset culture and the other is an Early Thule site.  They are very close to each other in both time and space, so she was investigating if the known differences in technology (the Dorset didn’t have bows, floats, whaling gear or dog teams, for starters) and probably in social organization were reflected in the animals they were catching. Indeed, that seems to be the case.

I followed with my paper on Ipiutak hearths.  I talked about the hearths at the type site, which are often described as being annular (like a bull’s-eye).  I believe that the testing technique in use, which consisted of people digging in the middle of any depression suspected of being an Ipiutak house, resulted in the hearths having their tops cut off by the time the archaeologists got there to draw them, leaving a bull’s-eye effect instead of a mound.  I also talked about the box hearth at Nuvuk.

After that, we moved to the Aleutians, with Caroline Funk giving a paper on bird use on the Rat Islands.  The Rats got their name from rats introduce from ships, which pretty much wiped out the birds.  They have been eradicated, and biologists would like species lists of what was there.  She was pointing out that cultural factors are involved in bird use, and that they must be considered in interpretation.  She is still working on this, but is finding references including  symbolic and spiritual uses, as well as the obvious uses for food and raw material.  Diane Hanson gave a nice talk about an upland house on Adak that her crew excavated.  It was interesting, not the least because the received wisdom is that there were no inland sites in the Aleutians.  They were trying to identify activity areas in the house, but unfortunately this particular house seems to have been abandoned on purpose, so it had been cleaned very carefully.  However, it did have some neat floor and chimney features similar to those seen at Amaknak Bridge and Margaret Bay.  Roberta Gordaoff gave a talk comparing lithic (stone) tools from upland and coastal sites on Adak.  After that Joseph Wilson talked about advanced archery technology (mostly Athabaskan) from an ethnohistorical perspective, and Tiffany Curtis finished up with a talk on building a dendrochronology (tree-ring dates) for the Forty-Mile River area in Alaska, in part to help data all the prospectors’ cabins there.

After that, we went to Graceland!  Matt Betts, Karen Ryan, and several of their Canadian colleagues made the pilgrimage.  The last time Matt & I went to a tourist attraction at a conference, it was the Louvre, so from the sublime to the ridiculous perhaps, but still, I was in Memphis, it was close, so I had to go.