Let me be the first to admit that I am a total hypocrite when it comes to hunting and fishing. If I had to do it for myself, I’d be the biggest vegetarian on earth. I just can’t ever imagine killing something. Never have and hope to leave this world in the same condition. On the other hand, let me also state that given a caribou leg, a goose or a salmon, I will be pathetically grateful for the gift and will cook it up without a qualm.
When I first arrived in Barrow, the concept of whaling was something I viewed through the prism of the Bambi ethos. The only whales I’d ever known were Moby Dick and the one that swallowed Geppetto. And cartoon whales are just so darn cute even when they’re swallowing you.
Then I started learning about the Inupiat culture and realized that whaling really wasn’t so much about the killing. It was about the culture’s spirituality and strength. It was about the Inupiat defining themselves in this world. The Inupiat are the people of the whale, the bowhead whale. Their tradition might include killing the whale but it also includes thanking the whale for his sacrifice so their people could live.
When the ban on whaling was first imposed, people in Barrow were bewildered about how a government that barely cared to meet their most basic needs could just cut them off from the heart and soul of who they were. And when that government sent up what seemed like a million different groups to take testimony on the issue, the Elders in the community came out to speak about how important that whale was to them as a people.
I will never forget listening to these Elders argue against agreeing to a quota because to do so would make the assumption that the whalers would actually land some whales. In their culture, the whale gives himself to the Inupiat, they don’t take them. These Elders were horrified at the hubris of accepting a quota as though they could speak for the whales that would make the ultimate sacrifice for their people.
Whaling is not just the spring or fall hunt. It is a year round activity that defines the Inupiat culture more than any other single activity within the culture. Whaling itself is a community event. Women prepare the boats for the hunt. Crewmembers go out on the tundra to get meat to feed the men while they are on the ice. Once the whale has been landed, everyone pitches in to help butcher it. The shares are divided according to a very specific system of parts.
Then there is the feast at the captain’s house after the butchering has been complete. This is not just a meal. It’s a community event, a time of celebration, a time to visit and laugh and be happy. Then again at Nalukataq the whale is shared with the whole community. And again there is joy and laughter and sharing. And at Thanksgiving. And at Christmas. The whale is shared throughout the year.
For friends and family in other villages, the meat and mak tak is packaged and shipped out. To Fairbanks, Anchorage, Nome, Sitka, Kaktovik – there is not a part of this state that doesn’t share in this bounty.
The Japanese are using subsistence whaling as a bargaining chip in their desire to get official recognition of their commercial whaling industry. That is wrong and the United States should do everything in its power to right that wrong. Because you simply cannot use a culture’s heart and soul as a commercial bargaining chip. And you can’t take away from a people that which makes them who they are.
I know that Barrow has changed a lot in recent years. If you go there now, it may not look like such a traditional village. It has TV and computers, and for goodness sakes flush toilets. But for the Inupiat people of the North Slope, one thing hasn’t changed. And that is their knowledge that without the whale they will lose their culture, their spirit, their uniqueness.
The Inupiat are the people of the whale and I really doubt whether they are going to let anyone take that from them.