One of the most significant resources harvested in Utqiaġvik (Barrow) is the Bowhead whale. We have been harvesting these amazing animals for thousands of years, and we take great pride in passing on the subsistence traditions on to the next generation. It helps give our Iñupiat culture strength, confidence, and meaning.

The hunt occurs in the fall, and the preparation for it starts in the summer with the preparation for and building of the umiaq or traditional skin boat. First, the bearded seals and caribou are harvested and the skins and sinew prepared. The skins of the seals will be used to cover the boat’s wooden frame and the sinew from the caribou will be made into the thread to sew the skins in place.

Sharing the proceeds of a successful hunt is one of our most important cultural values. In Utqiaġvik (Barrow) the uati and tavsi are given to the whaling captain and are often distributed to the community during various whaling festivals held over the course of the year. We set aside the niniq for the whaling crews that helped with the butchering.

Traditional Bowhead whale distribution. (image courtesy of www.north-slope.org)

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A young boy is holding Bowhead whale eyeball. Photo: Craig George (image courtesy of www.north-slope.com)

On the day following the harvest, the whaling captain will host a feast at his home where fresh uunaalike (an Iñupiat delicacy of boiled skin with some underlying blubber), boiled tongue, heart, and kidney are all served. Other traditional whaling events include the apugauti and the Naluktaq festivals. The apugauti happens at the end of the whaling season and is held on the beach to welcome home the hunters. Iñupiat delicacies like mikigaq (fermented whale meat and maktak) are served with fresh eider duck and white-fronted goose and are typically prepared by the whaling captain’s wife.

Nalukataq occurs in June, and all successful whaling crews participate Our friends and relatives from all over the North Slope join us for a share of the whale. The revelry can last long into the night! Traditional celebrations include the blanket toss where we use a blanket made of seal skins and toss dancers high in the air. Ceremonial dances and songs are also part of the festivities. It is a powerful time of sharing and knitting our communities closer together.

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Whaling captains share the bounty with the community during the Nalukataq feast in June. Prayers are offered in thanks for a successful season. Photo: Bill Hess (image courtesy of www.north-slope.org)

Visiting in early October will give you a chance to see the whaling crews set out in their umiaqs and the butchering of a whale is a once in a lifetime experience that is worth staying for. We also highly recommend visiting in June for the Nalukataq feast. We look forward to seeing you soon!