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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Finally, a whale for Barrow! Yay, hey, hey!

Yesterday and today were great days for Barrow.  Last night, showing real persistence in the face of very discouraging conditions this spring, a number of crews went out.  Anagi crew took a 54 footer, the first whale taken in Barrow this spring (or summer, as some of my Facebook friends pointed out).  The whale reached the beach just after midnight, according to Coby, who took a picture of the landing at 12:05 AM.

I had gone to bed early, trying to make up for sleep lost due to something or other wrong with my shoulder, and slept right through it.  None of my co-workers did.  I got a call at 7AM from Trina, who had been helping all night and had realized she couldn’t stay awake for work (or give rides to the others).  I headed for town.  I stopped at the whale first.  As you can see, the weather wasn’t great, as it often isn’t in the morning in summer, and it actually started raining pretty hard while I was there.

Approaching Anagi crew's whale.
Approaching Anagi crew’s whale.
About 9 hours into the butchering.
About 9 hours into the butchering.
Shares of maktak waiting to be put away.
Shares of maktak waiting to be put away.

A bowhead whale weighs roughly a ton a foot, so cutting up a whale this big involves a tremendous amount of labor.  People had been working for about nine hours at this point, and still had a way to go.  The maktak (skin & blubber–very tasty indeed) was mostly off.  There was a bit waiting to be taken either to the captain’s cellar to be put away or divided as shares, but a lot of it had clearly already been taken care of and put away.

I thought a panorama of the scene might be interesting, so–thanks iPhone.

Panorama of Anagi whale being cut up on beach in Browerville, June 27, 2013.
Panorama of Anagi whale being cut up on beach in Browerville, June 27, 2013.

After that, I got Coby, who had apparently only been at the whale until 2:30 AM, & we tried to find RJ, with no luck.  Went back to the BARC to discover a message from my assistant Tammy, who had been at the whale until 4AM, saying she would be late.  Since she is Michael’s ride, he wasn’t there either.  Coby & RJ started working, and I started trying some VZAP troubleshooting, which required running a logger while trying to access the site and then forwarding the logs to the VZAP team at ISU.  I hope it helps, and we don’t discover the problem is just awful connectivity.  Jan, the middle school teacher who is volunteering, wasn’t in, but she rides her ATV to the lab, so we figured she had decided the rain was a bit much.  After I finished with the logging on the computers, I fired up my email, to discover one from Jan saying she had apparently slept right through her alarm, because she’d been at the whale until after 2 AM!  Coby and RJ decided to call it a day around noon, to go back to the whale.

All this made for limited progress in the morning.  A good bit of the afternoon was taken up with things connected with various non-archaeology projects I manage.

The weather warmed up a good bit later, and the south wind was actually ablating the snow in the drifts by the snow fences, making fog billow off them. It was pretty spooky looking.

Fog coming off the snow banks.
Fog coming off the snow banks.
Enhanced by ZemantaADDED  7/1/2013:  If you don’t think people should hunt whales, well, it’s a free country and you are entitled to your opinion.   But before you try to post a rude comment, please check here and here.

Visits to zoological collections

I am in Seattle for the Alaska Anthropological Association meetings.  Today was spent primarily in tours of the Burke Museum’s zoological collections (in the morning) and the marine mammal collections at NMML (in the afternoon).  The Burke has pretty impressive collections, especially when you add in the off-site material, and NMML has a good range as well.  After the tours, Jeff Bradley of the Burke took me to their off-site storage to look at whale mandibles.

I’ve been trying to track down whale mandibles ever since I was sent a picture of one from Cape Krusenstern and I saw one at Cape Espenberg that didn’t look like bowheads.  I didn’t think they were grey whales either, but I’m not as familiar with their skeletons.  There are bowhead skulls in front of every school in Barrow (& my daughter attended all three), the college, the library/heritage center, the city hall and the North Slope Borough building, as well as miscellaneous other sites around town, so I know bowhead jaws when I see them.

I found a couple that looked like possible matches, or at least members of the same family, so that is progress.  The Burke has pretty restrictive photo policies (they hold a lot of art, so the policies are based on that), which means I can’t put any photos up here without permission.  It would take days  & several person-hours of work at both ends, so I’m not going to try for a blog post.

Now off to bed so I can be bright-eyed & bushy-tailed (or at least halfway coherent) for our session tomorrow.  I don’t have to give any papers until afternoon, but still…  The other organizers have papers in the morning, so I’m guessing I’ll be moderating….  We’re only winging it a little 🙂

About those gray whales that got stuck at Barrow a few years back…

I’ve noticed I’ve been getting more hits on search terms relating to those whales, probably since the movie “Big Miracle” just was released.  So, since I’m kinda busy with the Super Bowl, I thought I’d put up a few links to the real story.

1) Bill Hess’s blog, where he is doing a series on the whole event.  Bill took what were probably the first professional pictures of the whales, including some may probably recognize.  This features a lot of Bill’s really fine photographs.

2) An article in the Fairbanks New-Miner which has interviews with many of the folks in Barrow who were involved in the original event, including biologist Geoff Carroll.

3) An article in the Anchorage Daily News by Richard Mauer, who covered the original story and hauled out his notes to write this one.

Occam’s Razor is going to be coming in handy

The fun with radiocarbon dates continues.  I did manage to get a proposal off to a client, make some preparations for the summer field season and take care of the usual admin sorts of things.  Otherwise, I was working on the C14 dates.

It was slow going, in part because I read French much more slowly than I do English, and I was working my way through the Blumer compendium of St. Lawrence dates, which requires looking in at least 3 places to figure out how to evaluate the dates.  In some cases, one also has to go to other books to look at what the original excavator recorded (or didn’t).  Thank goodness for the American Museum of Natural History and their very nice downloadable PDFs (although the link seems troubled at the moment) of their Anthropological Papers.  I had a couple of them on my hard drive, which saved me a trip to get the actual books.

Anyway, St. Lawrence is going to be quite a mess.  There are a lot of whale and walrus dates, and Dumond  has calculated a correction for them by paired dating with terrestrial plants.  The only problem is that the whales in St. Lawrence are the same stock as the whales they catch here, and whalebone C14 doesn’t turn over very fast (a couple of decades at least) so they average the ∂C13 over that period.  That means that the correction factor for those whales should be the same anywhere in their range.  We’ve worked on it here for the Nuvuk graves, and the correction factor that works is much smaller.  I’m guessing walrus ingest relatively huge amounts of old carbon and skewed the calculations…

There was a very nice evening sky on the way home.

Sky from NARL. It was actually brighter, but this exposure shows the colors best.

More Whales! Hey, hey, hey Iceberg 17!

Friday two more whales were taken for Barrow, by Yugu and Arey crews, and another two on Saturday, by Ben Itta’s crew and Herman Ahsoak’s crew.

But the really exciting news comes from Wainwright!  For the first time in many years (Glenn & I both seem to remember hear a story about a fall gray whale from the 1930s), Wainwright, Alaska, took a fall whale!  The successful crew was Iceberg 17.  The news made it to Kaktovik where a North Slope Healthy Communities meeting was going on, and John Hopson Jr., a Wainwright whaling captain, as well as NSB Assemblyman, and a great guy, announced it from the podium.  Bill Hess, who has been taking great photographs of the North Slope for decades, was there, and he took a photo which pretty much sums up what whales mean to people here.  The man in the background is NSB Mayor Edward Itta, also a whaling captain.  Aarigaa Iceberg 17!

Barrow took 3 whales today; a great finish to a series of minor catastrophes

The last couple days have been interesting, in the Chinese curse sense of that word.  I’ve got two reports that the clients need ASAP.  That’s normal for this time of year.  Neither is very complicated, and neither project has anything in the way of what they want to do.

It’s the other stuff that’s been a bit over the top.  For one thing, my admin assistant is on an extended leave, and getting a temporary replacement is proving hard, so I’m having to try to get her work done too.  The person who usually fills in for her had to go out for some medical stuff, and the person who was going to fill in for her had his girlfriend medevaced the evening before he was supposed to start, and the doctors don’t want her flying so close to delivery, so he had to stay with her.  Everyone is OK, thank goodness, which is the main thing, but it doesn’t get the office work done.

On top of that, I’ve had 3 abstracts for meeting papers due, only one of which is in yet, travel to arrange for a meeting in Munich (which the organizers want done ASAP so they know how much they’ve got left after paying for a ticket from Barrow to Munich), vacation travel to arrange to Hawaii and upstate New York (which needs to happen ASAP so we can afford the tickets and don’t have to go by way of Phoenix or Atlanta), two separate people who need the list of UIC Science phones & emails (which I update at least monthly, to no effect, since the updates appear to get lost and ancient lists resurface with phones that have been disconnected for two years), a new company budget process, credit cards to reconcile & approve (and a clunky new system to do it with), some checks to print, possibly a proposal to work on with a colleague in the Lower 48, the DMV had apparently lost paperwork regarding insurance on a company truck that was involved in a fender-bender, and a bunch more stuff I’ve forgotten.

You’ll have noticed most of this needs connectivity. Tuesday evening, in the middle of this I got a call from my staff saying the power was messed up in a building that houses the offices of the ARM project.  The guys got a small generator to provide clean power to the servers, which needed a midnight refueling and we got the landlord to get the power company, but no luck.  The next day they came back out, and decided all power would need to be shut off to change a transformer that feeds all of NARL.  This required shutting down all servers, so no connectivity.  No email, no Web, no Skype, no VOIP phones.  At least the BARC had power from the generator, so I could write.

In the middle of that, a fellow who works with my husband had a propane explosion on his boat while out whaling.  Amazingly, the boat did not sink, only one guy had to go to the hospital in an ambulance (although they all got checked out) and everything went about as well as it could have gone.  The windows were all blown out, some of the guys had glass embedded in their coats, I’ve heard, but no serious cuts.  Pretty much a miracle.

We scrambled around getting our Herman Nelson heater back from a fellow who had borrowed it to deal with the aftermath of a winter house fire, so that we would be able to keep the pipes from freezing if it got really cold.  The power came on at the end of the day, only to find out that the ARM building still had bad power, so into a second night of refueling.  It proved really complicated to take the servers down, and the guy handling the job is really sick at the moment, so it was decided not to bring them back up until we were sure there wouldn’t be an abrupt power cut.  They started this morning, but it took until early afternoon until everything was mostly back to normal.  Then the queued email flood began.  My husband was on the way to Anchorage this evening, and we had to get BASC checks printed so he could sign them (the other check signers are busy with whaling right now) before he left.

The power guys got the ARM building back on-line in the afternoon, the checks got done, and I actually was able to email some of the stuff people needed to them.

But the best thing was after work, after I dropped Glenn off at the airport, I got to go out to the old NARL runway.  Barrow caught three whales today (Savik, Saavgaq and Panigeo crews); one was already butchered when I got there, and many happy people were working on the other two.  I talked to Maasak Brower, who had a huge smile on his face, and the first thing he said to me was it was a good day.  It’s a fine thing to have a whale give itself and help you feed the community.


Savik whale being butchered.



Maktak and flipper from Savik crew's whale.



Baleen from Savik crew's whale



Mandible (jawbone) of Panigeo crew's whale in foreground. Some of the whale still being butchered is in the upper right, and in the background are some of the shares that will go to many people in the community of Barrow and beyond.


The meat and maktak is distributed according to set rules.  Shares go to the captain, to the boat (or its owner, since the boats don’t eat maktak), various crew members, other boats that helped tow the whale in, and to anyone who turned up and helped with the butchering.  In turn, those shares will be passed on to family members and friends across the North Slope and Alaska and down to the Lower 48.  It takes about 3-4 hours to completely cut up a 30 foot (~10 m) whale, which weighs about 30 tons.  Then shares are distributed and people bring them home.  There has been a constant stream of vehicles, some with trailers piled with maktak, past my house, coming back from the runway.  Guys went out in really small boats on a very cold ocean, about 1000 miles from the nearest Coast Guard help, and had leviathans give themselves to them, and towed them home, and got a lot of food for people, as their ancestors have for many centuries.  Tomorrow, weather permitting, people will try again.

Off to a conference of archaeozoologists

… or zooarchaeologists or faunal analysts (people who study animal remains from archaeological sites), in Paris. The trip over was a two-day affair, involving not one, but two red-eyes. We had a good tail wind, so the Salt Lake City flight was about an hour and a half shorter than expected, which made up for a late departure due to bad weather.

The conference is feeding us lunch every day, and it’s pretty impressive for a university cafeteria. One starter, one main course, one cheese, one desert and one drink. The folks I ate with didn’t see it, but there are rumors that wine was available. The coffee breaks have great pastries and fresh fruit.

The opening reception was amazing, and they didn’t run out of food, frequent problem at such events. They held it in the Grande Galerie de l’Evolution (Great Hall of Evolution) of the National Museum of Natural History, which is just amazing. A few pictures from there follow. I took them with my phone, so the quality is not the best.

Skull of Nile crocodile
Blue whale skeleton
Southern right whale skeleton
Arctic or Pacific loon, probably Pacific. They look alike, and the ranges overlap.
A small portion of the assembled multitude.

There are also some neat older mounts.  The one of the tiger on the elephant is because a French duke was hunting on elephant back in India, and a tiger leaped onto his elephant.  He was only saved because she was so heavy she broke the basket he was riding in.  She was shot, and that’s the tiger in the mount, which he had made and donated.  It didn’t say if it’s the same elephant.

A hippopotamus, closer-up than you'd want to get in real life.
Tiger and elephant, with howdah (the basket).