Cultural Uses of Alaska
Let me begin by explaining an important belief held by the Iñupiat about the spirit of the bowhead whale. The bowhead whale for the Inuit people has been the center of our cultural, nutritional, and spiritual well-being for over 3,800 years. Inuit were the sole hunters of this great sea mammal until the mid-nineteenth century when the American whalers came to our seas and added another chapter to our history.
Our traditions speak of the spirit of the whale as being a flame of light burning in a traditional lamp attended by a young, innocent girl. The two are inseparable. The young girl tends to the flame, and steps away only to breathe when the great whale surfaces. If the flame is extinguished, the spirit of the girl also dies in the same instant.
Among our great whalers, tradition teaches us that while man hunts the whale, it is the woman who maintains the sanctity of her home, feeding the needy, and caring for others with respect-it is to this kind of woman the spirit of the whale gives itself to. The spirit of the whale tells other whales of the kind treatment received and convince other whales to give themselves to men. It is said the spirit of the whale spans two lifetimes of men, and does not forget its benefactors.
For the Inuit of the Chukchi Sea, it is a dismal time when we are unable to capture the bowhead whale. When we cannot capture the bowhead, it is as though we do not participate in celebrating Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays in our communities. Then we are forced to subsist on less central resources to meet our nutritional needs until we can resume the hunt of the great bowhead the following spring.
"Subsistence" means more than mere survival or a minimum standard of living. Subsistence is a way of life that includes vital economic, social, cultural and spiritual dimensions. Harvesting of renewable resources provide the Iñupiat with nutritious food, proper clothing, fuel, shelter, harvesting equipment and an income. It is a way of life that requires learning special skills, knowledge and using one's creative resourcefulness.
In the far north, the arctic ocean is rich with different kinds of sea life -like a tropical paradise. Sea life range from the tiniest krill, to the mammoth bowhead whale. One whale can feed a whole community of families and visiting relatives. There is a developed system of cooperative effort among the Inuit when hunting the bowhead created since time immemorial.
In times of plenty, we celebrate Nalukataq (blanket toss festival) which is a great time of celebration after a whale is caught. There is tremendous joy throughout our communities. People rejoice with hugs, and friendly shaking with one other. Others kiss and shout with much laughter and joy. The successful umialik (whaling captain) though fatigued from the hunt, is often filled with much excitement -eyes shining with a happy glow.
Each whaling crew sends members to help cut up the whale thereby gaining their portion of the great mammal. When the whale butchering is complete, women of the crews prepare to feed the entire community with the choicest meat from the whale. While other crews divide their share among their members, the successful whaling crew begin storing away the community share of whale meat in ice cellars (sigluaq) which will be used at future community celebrations.
Use for the bowhead whale are extensive. I will mention some activities that describe how by-products of the whale are used - often to support other subsistence activities.
Baleen plates (whale's teeth), when attached with thongs, form a useful toboggan similar to a freighter sledge. This sledge is very practical when transporting the whale to the village once it is cut up especially when other materials are difficult to come by to make sledges.
Baleen also can be used as a rib form for a qayaq used during seal hunting. Baleen cut in thin strips is useful for fish line-a strong flexible material for making different sizes of mesh for fishnets. Other uses of baleen include household utensils such as soup bowls, large water buckets, and other storage containers. Many of these items are made with a wooden bottom grooved to make a tight fitting spill-proof container.
Another use for Baleen is as a useful weapon or snare when hunting. A strip of baleen ¼" to 3/8" wide and 12" long is sharpened at both ends, then bent and tied with sinew. This is wrapped with a thin layer of seal blubber, then later frozen. When this weapon is scattered in a small area along an open lead, polar bears often eat these tidbits of food. Stomach acids quickly deteriorate the digested sinew causing the snare to spring open thus piercing the stomach. This ingenious tool makes a lethal death-pill when harvesting the powerful polar bear. This same device wrapped with a thin layer of caribou fat and meat is frequently used for catching wolves. Many other uses for Baleen products are made not mentioned here.
For economic reasons, now-a-days Baleen is used to create a variety of art objects. Baleen baskets remain one of the highest items on demand. Baleen baskets typically sell for $100 per inch. Baleen boats are a common form of tourist art that can sell between $40 to $1,500 depending on the size. Another art product made from baleen include jewelry and ivory which can be sold a variety of prices depending on the marketable skills of the artist.
Sketched Baleen plates are also a popular sale item. Sale of baleen is regulated under federal and other Treaty laws like CITES as well as the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The income from sale of baleen products normally support other subsistence activities and often is used to supplement household expenses.
After a whale is butchered, the bone of the whale is brought back to the sea. This custom sets the spirit of the whale free and done to ensure the whale will come again in the future. This tradition is practiced so that the whale's spirit is free to tell other whales that the community is acceptable to give to.
Whale bones that wash up along the beach are used for carving into many art objects and subsistence equipment. The vertebrate of the whale is often used for making traditional masks. While the masks were customarily used for ritual and ceremonial purposes, today masks are made primarily as a marketable item.
In the old days, jaw bones and skulls from the whale were used for making the sod house (iglu) frame. Whale bone ribs also make for good fishnet sinkers as well as a tool or fore shaft for a seal spear (unaaq) that is attached to a wooden shaft about six feet long. An ivory or bone rod fits into the butt of the fore shaft where the harpoon point is inserted loose enough to slip off when an animal is struck. The harpoon point is tied to a line of seal rope for easy retrieval of the struck animal.
The ring and spotted seal meat have a delicious dark meat when cooked.
The meat is baked, roasted, or boiled and also eaten frozen raw. The
seal blubber makes for fine dipping oil and is very delicious when eaten
with frozen country foods. The seal oil prevented scurvy in the early
days as it is full of vitamins -equivalent to fruits and vegetables.
Seal oil is the preferred coating for sealing off any leaks on skin boat seams, especially during whaling season and when mixed with tallow, makes a nice emergency patch for repairing small holes on boats and waterproof clothing.
Sealskin is used as a covering for the traditional kayak. It is also cut into seal rope for a variety of uses including harpoon line. Seal skin breeches can be worn by both men and women and are quite warm and repel sea water.
Small seals can be used as packs for different purposes. Women's sealskin storage pack, men's seal hunting packsack and seal skin packsacks for dogs were once commonplace. Today, many of these items are no longer used because new products are now readily available.
Sealskin was also used as containers for storing seal oil and dried meats. One of the fore flippers was cut open to serve as a spout and lashed tight when not in use. Today, it is now common to see a man protect his rifle with a sealskin rifle holster.
Sealskin also makes for fine boots (kamik). Waterproof knee-high hunting
boots (ulitchuilaq) with the fur inside were preferred overall for hunting
and doing general outdoor work. Sealskin dress boots (aqaglak) were
used more during celebrations. Knee-high waterproof boots with the same
name without fur, but rubbed with seal oil made for comfortable waterproof
After a successful hunt, tradition calls for the victorious whaling captain to take the skin off of his umiaq to be used later as the blanket during the nuluaqataq (blanket toss festival). Actually, nuluaqataq is a community-wide festivity to celebrate the successful bowhead whale hunt.
Ugruk is also the preferred material for making mukluk bottoms and is prepared in different ways according to the desired color (black, white or dyed). In the old days, rope was made from ugruk as lashing of the umiaq skin on to the boat frame, or for line to attach the seal floats to the whale or other marine mammals being hunted. The method for making ugruk rope is to cut the ugruk into tubular sections with the epidermis and hair removed. Two people seated across from each other worked together. One person stretched and rotated the skin while the other cut the skin, maintaining the stretched skin. By cutting the skin spirally, one could make a length of rope many fathoms long. Today modern rope is widely used while the old way of making rope with ugruk has succumbed to modern technology.
With the advancement of technology and modernization of our culture, many traditions have changed-especially materially. Knives once made with stone are now made with metal. The bow and arrow has been substituted with the rifle as the main hunting tool. Sod homes have been replaced with modern housing. Snowmobiles are now used instead of the dog teams, and the list goes on and on. Fortunately, our core traditions have remained the same since time immemorial.
I hope this information will give additional understanding of the uses
of marine mammals in our Inuit culture-past and present. There is so
much more to tell, as we have just touched the surface of the uses of
marine mammals. My paper discussed only a part of the many other significant
marine species that are used by Inuit people.