About the www.Alaskool.org project and its developers

Cultural Uses of Alaska Marine Animals
Part I
Ronald Brower, Sr.

Presentation delivered at 29th Alaska Science Conference - "Alaska Fisheries: 200 Years and 200 Miles of Change" at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Campus August 15-17, 1978

Editor's Note: Mr. Brower did not have time to prepare a written paper.
This paper is an edited version of the transcript of his presentation.

I didn't have a change to prepare on the cultural uses of the marine mammals in the Arctic regions. I'm sorry my uncle, Arnold Brower, couldn't be here to give the presentation for you. He's a more avid hunter and has a lot more experience and would be able to transfer a lot more knowledge to you than I am capable of. I was caught off guard when I arrived in Barrow. I'd been spending my the winter season in subsistence living, hunting and enjoying being out in the Arctic regions.

At the present time, we in the Arctic are experiencing a lot of changes which are having quite an effect on the natural environment. These changes are beginning to affect the movement and pattern of animal behaviour within our Arctic regions. In the last several years, with the development of Prudhoe Bay, we're experiencing changes in animal patterns and behaviour patterns. We have also been noticing some ships and small boats.

We're still using a lot of our traditional cultural background and are beginning to bring it more out into the open and release information which we have been holding back for some years.

Going over the traditonal uses of our marine mammals, there are a number on which we particularly survive over the winter, such as spotted seal and the bearded seal. Of course, we have the walrus, too, and the largets part of our diet in the northern hemisphere has been the whale.

We do a lot of spotted seal hunting between July and October. The spotted seal is used for making fur clothing, especially out of the waterproof material which we use in working and traveling on the Arctic ice. We have a lot of by-products from our cultural resources in terms of furs, bones and hoofs and different parts of the bodies of our animals.

Today the cultural uses of many of our marine mammals are not being exercised extensively as they were in the 1950s. We have felt this change with the new development coming into the region. Our feelings of experiencing western culture are quite mixed and many times get quite confusing for the people who try to cope with the transitional period that we're going through.

We have been hunting walrus as long as that particular sea mammal has been in the Arctic regions. We are beginning to feel the growth of the walrus populations and we're experiencing a lot more catches this year. The cultural changes regarding the walrus are taking on a different trend in that we're not traditionally utilizing the walruses in human consumption and various other products. At this time, we apply a lot of art work to the ivory products of the walrus. One of the by-products that many people really get a good laugh from is what we call "oosik," the bone from the reproductive organ of the walrus male.

Following the changes of our walrus, the types and methods of working in the cultural areas have been changing quite rapidly. Walrus, spotted seal, beluga and whale blubber were used for different forms of medication, especially when we were having a large number of diseases like the common colds and infections of different natures. These oils and the minerals we get from these animals are beginning to surface again with the encouragement of the programs dealing with cultural heritage.

In the last several years our biggest game and marine mammal, the baleen whale, has been experiencing a lot of stress coming from different interest groups, different scientists studying the movement of the whale, and people coming up to generally learn about the whale. The whale as our cultural resource, and the traditional use that we have applied to it, varies a great many ways from area to area. In our region we use the whale to supply most of our nutritional needs over the winter period, because up in the Arctic there isn't much of a cash flow. We're finding that the supply of whales is very large but man is growing, and we have a lot of competition growing from the areas of science and against the areas of our traditional needs. While there are a lot of issues to try to get us to give up certain cultural uses of the baleen whales, we have discovered a possible new use from our cemeteries. In addition to using baleen for our art, we are entertaining some new ideas in the use of baleen as a natural plastic which we have been keeping mainly to ourselves.

The blubber of the whale that we have been catching, particularly over the last two years, is being stored and protected from other carnivores because of the limit of catch that we are experiencing. With several thousand people to share only several whales over a year, time gets longer and we experience a feeling of starvation when we are lacking such foods. We have made some studies and have been referring to the early history of our Arctic marine mammals, especially in the North Slope areas. We're also working on time tables - when the traditional Eskimo whaling system was given up and we're getting into some background now on how far back our people have been living in a whaling society. In dealing with cultural uses of the Arctic, we place a lot of consideration on every angle of our food chains because we feel that we are in a very sensitive stage with crude oil development going on in the north. Our traces show that we are experiencing some changes recently where no changes occurred during the past 6,000 years. We are hearing some news in other areas, especially in the Lower 48, about people going back to the traditional and cultural uses.

The marine mammals that we have been utilizing in our art have been the bowhead whale, the giant seal, the spotted seal, walrus, and we consider the polar bear to be one of our more fantastic wild creatures of the sea. The traditional uses of those different marine mammals have allowed us to build up an internal society within our communities, which calls for a lot of cooperation and sharing knowledge that will better enhance the development of our people and for the creature protection of ourselves. I guess we are experiencing a natural reaction to change. The traditional uses that we had in terms of medication and in methodology of hunting are not being exposed too much to publicity.

I've spent five years on the Arctic ice pack, on the Polar Ice Cap, hunting marine mammals and in the basic training of Arctic survival.

The cultural uses that we apply to the different mammals are in forms of clothing, especially from the seal, clothing that is necessary for us to survive on the Arctic Polar Cap and the vicinity. We are reviving a lot of our by-products and material products of the species, from jewelry to clothing, and it's a development of change we're experiencing along with the traditional uses. We're experiencing a great psychological change in the attitude of our traditional and cultural uses in the fact that we are having to protect our human rights in terms of survival along with those species. We don't separate ourselves as a species from our food chain since we are on the top bracket of our predator/prey system of hunting.

In the cultural uses of beluga, we are using the oil of beluga for medication as we have been using it for centuries. We're using some of the oil and mixing it with other oils of common and bearded seals to make medicines that have had a really strong effect in improving the health of a lot of the elders. Some of the medicine uses have been applied to arthritis in some cases, rheumatism in others, and it has been extremely good for curing the common cold. The bones of the beluga are carved into different objects of art in different media, which opens up a whole new group of different arts, it gives you the expression of the villagers' cultural attachment to our animals and how this interrelationship is beginning to work. It's expressed more and more strongly in the dances that we are doing.

The polar bear in traditional use has not changed with time. We are using polar bear in the same fashion as we have been for several thousand years, in clothing, in medicine, and as our food product. The bear, especially the polar bear, is important in the area of religion in the Arctic regions. It has developed its own cult; it's a secret society, a cult which is not openly expressed, and has lead to different forms of traditional cultural relationships. The by-products of the bear, its bones, are still used for making weaponry of different natures. In the past, polar bear ribs were used for making items such as armor for protection as it's a fairly tough material. There has not been too much polar bear hunting taking place during the past several years since the hunting of polar bears as a trophy was slowed down; therefore, we have had a larger ratio of polar bear returning into our area, especially in our community areas. It's having quite an effect within our communities in that it provides us with a larger mass of edible products into our food chain.

At this point I'd like to ask for some audience participation. If you have any questions, I'd like to draw upon some of your questions.

Q. (Inaudible)

A. Our traditional whaling system is enlarging as our population is growing. Very few people have taken to note that our Native population is growing at a very fast rate. In the early 1800s whaling was slowed drastically and from the 1930s up to the 1960s we have maintained an average of about 26 crews every season. We have two basic seasons; one is from May until June, and the other is from September until October, spring and fall. The spring hunt has been a larger part of the activity since it's the beginning of our new season, it's the beginning of our cultural year, so during that time we have experience with growth of our population. This year we had something like a total of 48 whaling crews out of which there were approximately 30 in Barrow.

Q. Has the method of hunting whale changed during the last few years?

A. The method of hunting whale has not changed. The only change that we have had in the method of hunting whale is in our weaponry. We are using the 1850s model whaling guns and dart guns such as were used by the New England whalers during the 1800s, and the only change has been in the use of the harpoon, the attachment line, and the float. We have available to us now these internationally organge-colored floats which are easier to locate than our traditional seal floats.

Both are being utilized at the same time by different crews so over the span of time the method of hunting whale has not really changed. We still maintain crews of six to eight people plus a whaling captain. The whale has had a large tie to and been a large part of our human relationship and unity in the Arctic regions. The whale has been centered as the main species of our food chain. The methodology of bear hunting for Eskimos has not changed all that much, but it is the history of whaling that has undergone changes. In the past we have seen a large group of whalers, especially the New England and Boston whalers for a period of 75 years. Since the loss of commercial whaling for the United States, the whale population has been on an upward-bound growth pattern. With that, our human population has been on the same format of growth. So we see the problems with our whaling as the problems of somebody else. Questions about the whaling industry cause a great big emotional reaction in our Eskimo society and one of the rules of the game when it comes to whales is that hunger knows no law. Survival requires cooperation.