In hunt for bowhead whale, Alaska Native village preserves its past

by @julia_omalley July 25, 2015 5:00AM ET

In the oldest inhabited place in North America, a 2,000-year-old tradition continues

Indian Country
One of Point Hope's whaling crews pulls a beluga whale killed with a shotgun from the edge of the sea during the 2015 spring whaling season. While the bowhead whales are the prized catch, crews will also harvest the smaller beluga.
Nathaniel Wilder
Point Hope has what is called a "subsistence economy,'' where hunting provides an offset to the high cost of groceries flown in from elsewhere. The beluga harvested here will feed a single family, while the bowhead will feed many families for months.

POINT HOPE, Alaska — At this community’s original town site, abandoned decades ago because of creeping beach erosion, the bleached remains of a few houses still stand on the treeless landscape. In one of them, you can make out “1957” carved into a driftwood corner post. That’s the year this Inupiat village first got electricity. Up until then, light in the winter came from seal oil.

Change has been washing over this ancient place, one of the oldest continuously inhabited town sites in North America, rapidly the last 100 years. Here on this ever-thinning peninsula in the Chukchi Sea, people have gone from existing completely off the land, traveling by dog sled, living in homes built from sod and whalebone, to a world of four wheelers and Facebook, big screen TVs and toaster waffles in the span of two generations. Someday soon, offshore, high-tech Shell platforms will likely begin drilling for oil.

But, the 900 people who live here hold on to a ritual that dates back 2,000 years: the spring hunt for the bowhead whale. This year, the village took three.

Point Hope marks time by the hunting seasons. Seal. Beluga. Bowhead. Walrus. Birds. Caribou. They have what is known in Alaska as a “subsistence economy,” a cash economy supplemented by hunting, which offsets the cost of flown-in groceries that can run more than double what people pay in cities. A single bowhead could weigh 75,000 pounds, providing enough nutrient-dense protein to feed many families over many months.

Point Hope, Alaska, is considered one of the oldest inhabited communities in North America.
Nathaniel Wilder

Beyond being food, though, the bowhead whale is at the center of the village’s cultural life. Hunting, butchering, cooking, sharing and preserving practices have been passed on for generations.

“We been here for thousands of years, hunting and gathering. The animals to us are our identity. Without them we wouldn’t be here,” said Steve Oomittuk, a harpooner and former mayor of the town, who got his first whale in 1989.  

Eleven villages in Alaska hunt bowheads. Whaling is managed by commission, and each community can only take as many animals as are designated by quota. People still talk about the days of commercial whaling in the Arctic, when bowhead whales were taken by the thousands, heavily diminishing the population. Some whaling tools still in use, like harpoon heads, date back close to 100 years.

Point Hope residents, from left, Megan Conley, Bobby Omnik and Megan's husband, Luke Conley, enjoy a ride on an ATV.
Nathaniel Wilder

The town sits on flat, rocky land, surrounded by grassy tundra that rolls to the sea.  Many houses have meat-drying racks outside, and trampolines, a major pastime for village children. There is a school, a few stores, a clinic, a collection of government buildings. The most common mode of summer transportation is ATV; in winter, it is snowmobile. No alcohol is sold in the village. Anywhere you go, you’re never far from the sound of the ocean.

Photographer Nathaniel Wilder has made five extended visits to the community since 2012, documenting life there. He spent two springs photographing the whale hunt, which is difficult to capture because of harsh weather conditions and unpredictable timing. He was eventually asked to join a whaling crew. That allowed him the rare opportunity to go out in the boat.

“There is like this primal reality underlying everything,” he said. “A part of the sense of wealth in their culture comes from what they have around them. There is this also a sense of freedom that I don’t think an outsider can appreciate, of being able to hunt anything you need.”

Whaling crewman Randy Oktollik cleans a harpoon tip in preparation for the 2014 whaling season while watching basketball on cable television, a popular diversion in the community.
Nathaniel Wilder
Joe Towksjhea, a retired whaling captain, loves playing guitar. He was once part of a country and western band called the Tigara Playboys.
Nathaniel Wilder

Preparations for whaling begin early in the spring, when villagers bury the hides of bearded seals in the beach sand, using the salt to soften and bleach them so they will be ready to stretch over wooden frames to make skin boats, or umiaks. As spring light returns, hunters study the sea ice, looking for the right conditions to go out.

“You get everything all ready, get the skin boats ready, sharpen the tools,” said Randy Oktollik, a whaling crewman in his early 30s. “Then we just wait for the open water, the open lead, then start breaking trail.”

Whaling is a rite of passage for men in the village. (Women support men by making food and the helping to care for the meat once it’s harvested.) Each whaling crew in Point Hope has its own captain and flag. A crew might be made up of men in a family and their close friends. It could number 20 people or more. But only eight usually go out in the umiak at one time. Fewer go in a motorized boat.  

“It’s a great honor to be part of that. It’s a great honor to catch a whale,” Oomittuk said.

Often boys will take their first run on the boat as teenagers. Before that they’ll do support work, helping out the crew. Hunters use motorized boats in place of skin boats depending on the ice conditions and the location of the whales.

Dimitri Dirks, 12, waits in a whaling camp while hunting beluga and bowhead whale. Shortly before this photo was taken, he killed his first grizzly bear, dropping the animal in one shot after his dad missed.
Nathaniel Wilder
Floyd Oktollik of the 67 whaling crew harpoons a bowhead whale. It wasn't the first harpoon in the whale, but a necessary step to help kill it and claim a share of the meat.
Nathaniel Wilder

If conditions are right for umiaks, crew members, wearing white canvas jackets, paddle the white skin boats, sometimes breaking through thin ice, looking for bowheads as the animals rise to breathe. Once they see one, they have to move toward it as quietly as they can. They must get within several feet to harpoon. The designated harpooner makes the strike. The whalers usually rely on a harpoon with an explosive core that can kill the whale quickly.

“After that, there’s a lot of shouts of joy in the boat,” said Eddie Lisbourne, who has hunted bowheads for more than 40 years. “There is a lot of hollering. Maybe a few tears on some of the guys. It’s a good feeling.”

Then comes the task of hauling the massive animal in and butchering it. Hunters use the village block and tackle to get the whale out of the water.

“They call all the guys on one rope. Everybody grabs this rope, pulling it,” Lisbourne said. “It’s hard work, but everybody is working together.”

Crew members tie a block and tackle system to a whale's tail to get it ashore.
Nathaniel Wilder
Aaron Oktollik cuts up a share of muktuk and oochik (whale tongue) in his living room.
Nathaniel Wilder

Once the whale is on shore, they go to town to ring the church bell. And everyone comes to see. Then begins the cutting and distribution of meat. Parts of the whale are designated as shares for the families of the whaling captain and crew. Villagers all wait for a mouthful as well. Fresh whale tastes marine and slightly herbal, like dried seaweed. Its texture depends. Many cuts are dense and chewy.

“Everybody will have a taste,” Lisbourne said. Other parts of the whale are fermented, frozen, aged and put into ice cellars, which are carved into the permafrost. Whale is served to the community at Thanksgiving, Christmas, at the end of whaling season feast in the spring and in the fall, when the first ice forms.

“It’s in our tradition, it’s our heritage, it’s the way our forefathers did it to feed the community, to eat,” Oktollik said.