Iñupiaq Whale Hunt

Background Information

Enduring Understandings

In this Learning Center, will will understand:

  1. The role of the whale hunt in nourishing Inupiat people
  2. The role of the whale hunt in sustaining and building community
  3. The location of Inupiaq territory (the light blue areas in this map)

Background Information

The Iñupiat who live in the city of Barrow along the Chukchi Sea have thrived for thousands of years in the harsh Arctic climate of northern Alaska. Although many aspects of their lives have changed in the modern era, the Iñupiat continue to pursue subsistence hunting and fishing, which means they hunt to obtain the majority of their necessities, such as food and clothing. They do this both because the options for usable food sources in their environment are very limited, and the practices and rituals of hunting are deeply rooted in Iñupiaq culture. One of the most important and complex of these subsistence activities is the hunting of the bowhead whale.

The Iñupiat have hunted bowhead for thousands of years. They hunt during the whales' spring migration from the Bering Strait to the Canadian Beaufort Sea and during their return migration in the fall. The bowhead is a large baleen whale that can measure up to 18 meters (60 feet) in length and weigh between 60 and 100 tons. This enormous size necessitates a collaborative hunt: a group of hunters must work together to harpoon the whale. Once the whale is killed, the entire community hauls the whale onto the ice, cuts it up, and watches as the whaling captain and his wife distribute it to the whaling crew and people of the community. Although the Iñupiat have adapted their hunt over time to include some technological advances, about 90% of whaling is still based on traditional methods that serve them well, such as using an "umiaq," a boat made of a wood frame covered by bearded-seal skins.

Whaling fulfills many essential nutritional, economic, social, and cultural needs of Iñupiaq life. Whale meat and "maktak" (skin and adhering blubber) are highly regarded as a traditional food, and also provide a nutritional value critical to life in the Arctic. Whales also provide food and other materials used in gift-giving and in trade with other communities for items not readily available on the coast. After a successful hunt, the whole village celebrates together, strengthening social ties. The widespread sharing of the whale products with all who helped in the hunt helps to foster a sense of community. Given the enormous cooperation needed for the whaling process, it is not surprising that people in these remote communities describe whaling as central to their sense of solidarity and collective security.

The Iñupiat maintained their whaling practices at sustainable levels for centuries. However, in 1848, commercial whalers from other parts of the world discovered the bowhead whale in the Bering Sea. For the next six decades, hundreds of whales were killed each year for their oil and baleen—the stiff plates that hang down from their upper jaw and allow them to filter zoo- and phytoplankton (tiny plants and animals) from the water—to be used in everything from umbrellas to watch springs. By the early 1900s, commercial whaling had come to an end due to market changes, but the damage had been done. Bowhead populations were drastically reduced. In 1946, 15 whaling nations established the International Whaling Commission (IWC) to help nations regulate the hunting of whales.

Today, concern about the continued survival of the bowhead has become a worldwide issue. The IWC currently bans commercial whaling of the bowhead, but subsistence whaling is permitted within strict limits. Nine Alaska Native communities, which make up the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission (AEWC), are able to pursue subsistence whaling within the agreed-upon limits, which are adjusted as improving census methods provide new estimates of the bowhead population. Because of their respect for and dependence on these creatures for their own survival, the Iñupiat believe strongly in keeping their catches within sustainable limits, and thus keeping their ancient culture of whaling alive for future generations.

To learn more about the history of whaling in the Arctic, particularly the effects of commercial whaling, check out Bowhead Whaling and Its Impact.

To learn about how climate change is affecting the Arctic region, check out Arctic Climate Perspectives.