Two for Each Whale – A View from Point Hope

A bitter westerly lashes off the Chukchi Sea, hurling skeins of sleet, fog and snow – typical early June weather for Point Hope, Alaska. This Inupiaq Eskimo village of roughly 700 perches on a weather-raked gravel spit a hundred-some miles north of the Arctic Circle, on the state’s northwest coast. Photographer Clark Mishler, Mayor Steve Oomituk and I jounce along over the sparse tundra in Steve’s well-used SUV, past rows of oblong mounds, many of them ringed by strange, curving shapes taller than a man, some standing erect, others splayed on the ground. There are hundreds more ahead.

“Lower jaw bones from the bowhead whale,” Oomituk gestures. “Two for each whale.” We pause before one mound and step out into the relentless wind. Mayor Steve sweeps his hand in a broad arc. “This is the old village,” he says. “When I was a boy, we lived here. That was my grandfa- ther’s house.” Each one of the mounds marks a traditional ivrulik: a house dug into the tundra, shaped by piled blocks of sod, built on frames of bowhead whale ribs. As recently as two generations ago, the Point Hope people, the Tikiraqmiut, lived within the bellies of the beasts they hunted.

“Two jawbones for each whale,” Mayor Steve intones. The lens of 20-some years of living among the Inupiat reminds me that repetition by a storyteller is always for a reason. He wants to impress upon us the essence of what it is to be a Point Hoper. It’s all about the whale.

Whatever else it might lack, this bleak finger of gravel jutting into the Chukchi Sea (tikiraq, in fact, means forefinger) offers a superb hunting platform marine mammals during the brief season of mixed ice and open water, from May into mid-October. No wonder Point Hope ranks as one of the oldest continually inhabited sites in all of North America, at 2,500 years and counting.

A single 40-ton bowhead provides staggering riches; and in a good year, the Tikiraqmiut might take a god-sized handful: enough to feed the village, share across the region and state, and cement the greatness of the people who have carved out a life here for generations. The hunting crews camp out on the ice each spring, watching the open leads day and night (by May, even midnight is suffused by magical glow) for passing whales. Once one is sighted within range, they paddle traditional umiaq—wood-framed, flexible skiffs covered with the tough hides of walrus or bearded seal—after their quarry. Brass shoulder guns, the tools of 19th-century Yankee whalers, fire an exploding charge; expertly wielded lances complete the kill. The whale is butchered according to ancient protocols; the cuts must be precise, as they determine the shares of each crew member.

Clark’s and my visit has coincided with Nalukatuk, the village’s annual whaling festival. This has been a banner whaling season for Point Hope. Six bowhead have been taken since early May, all the more to celebrate, and most important of all, to share. Regardless of weather, most of the central events are invariably held outside in two traditional gathering areas, one for each of the two large clans. There’s the for ceremonial beaching of the boats; speeches and prayers of thanks; drumming, singing, and dancing; division of the catch; feasting on delicacies including mikiuk (raw fermented whale meat) and maktak (black whale skin and fat); and the iconic blanket toss. The weeklong festivities are spread over several days, with time for personal visiting and resting in between.

Nalukutuk is not a tourist event, but a tight-knit, culture-affirming celebration. At the chosen ground, marked by a scattering of jawbones, the only shelter from the biting wind is provided by a row of umiaq tilted on their sides. Though the trappings of the modern age are evident, the essence of these ceremonies have altered little over centuries. The people of Point Hope abide, their tradition not only alive, but flourishing. This spring a dozen more jawbones have been added to the tally, stretching back across the frame of time. As any Point Hoper will remind you, it’s all about the whale.