Columns 2015

Traditional whaling

I read with interest the recent article about the whale taken in Kaktovik that was found to have an old projectile embedded in its body. But even as I read it I could feel my stomach tightening. Discussion of traditional whaling often gets caught up in the question of how anyone could kill these noble creatures.

Sure enough, last week’s Letters to the Editor contained a letter questioning how subsistence whaling can still be allowed and why those darn Natives don’t just hop into the modern world and leave that barbaric killing behind. I have to assume the letter writer is a vegan or vegetarian because otherwise I’d question her concern for whales but not her concern for pigs, cows, chickens and little baby lambs. So I’m going to proceed on the theory that the writer is opposed to the killing of any animals for meat and not just the bowhead whale. I’m also going to assume she wasn’t suggesting the Inupiat go to their local store to buy the meat they need for winter because that cost would be prohibitive. And despite their love of fried chicken, the Inupiat mostly crave the foods that have sustained their culture for thousands of years.

I once testified at a hearing in which the feds were debating the International Whaling Commission ban on all whaling, commercial or traditional. The hearing was held in Barrow way back in the seventies. In my testimony I addressed the health issues of traditional foods versus bought foods. I also spoke about the connection people have to the foods on which they were raised. I suggested if they were so sure one food could easily be substituted for another, I’d be happy to drop them off in Kaktovik for the winter where they would only have Native foods to eat. Then I’d be back in the spring to talk to them about the amazing emotional connection they’d discovered with cheeseburgers. People attach symbolism and emotions to foods. For the Inupiat people, whale is a food that simply cannot be replaced. It is their (healthy) comfort food of choice.

Coming from the East Coast where subsistence hunting means finding the best hoagie shop in the neighborhood, I was not quite prepared to live in a culture in which such an intimate relationship existed between food and people. For me, meat came wrapped in a package with nary a face or moo in evidence. After I figured out what it would cost to buy all my food at the local store, I quickly grew to appreciate the hunters who brought me caribou, ptarmigan, geese and yes, whale.

As anyone who has studied the Inupiat culture knows, the relationship between the people, their culture and the bowhead whale is deep, sacred and full of respect for a bounty that continues to feed the heart, soul and stomach of the Inupiat people. You never hear a whaler saying he is going to catch a whale. That would be presumptuous. What you will hear is whalers speaking about the whale giving himself to them so that they can feed their community. Prayers are said and the whale is thanked for his sacrifice before it is divided up to provide sustenance to the village.

Given how important the whale is to the Inupiat, it should come as no surprise to anyone that they are some of the strongest advocates for the protection of this resource through careful science coupled with their traditional knowledge. As whale expert Dr. Tom Albert said so often, if your survival depends on knowing these whales and your culture has survived thousands of years, then your knowledge should be respected. The Inupiat did not hunt whales almost to extinction. Westerners did.

Back in the seventies when the feds were about to prohibit traditional whaling, the whalers of the North Slope partnered with scientists to provide accurate information about the health and number of the bowhead population. Their work proved to be groundbreaking in our knowledge of this species.

Traditional whalers are the poster people for wise conservation of a resource. We should respect them, their knowledge and their care for the bowhead. Looking back at how Western society’s version of whaling almost eliminated all whales from our oceans, we are hardly in a position to criticize the people who nurtured them through the millennia.