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Gift of the Whale: The I'upiat Bowhead Hunt, A Sacred Tradition by Bill Hess

1999; 224 pp. $40. Sasquatch Books.

Can one both love the whale and kill it? Can one respect the whale and hunt it? The I'upiat Eskimos of Alaska's Arctic region have, for 5,000 years.

In much of the world, whales have become not just symbols, but mascots of an environmental movement and an ethic bonded with spiritualism, romance, and transcendentalism. For many of us, there is the aura around them of angels wrapped in blubber. Whaling by Native Alaskan hunters, distant, unknown, or obscure, became a firestorm in the 1970s, when a preliminary, tenuous?and, in retrospect, terribly wrong?estimate of the whale population convinced the International Whaling Commission that the bowhead whale was on the brink of extinction.

Many of the arguments raised then against hunting by Native Alaskans are the same as they are today: that the I'upiat are no longer primitive; that they eat and can buy the same foods as other North Americans; that they are modern-day people with modern technology and communications who hunt whales while on vacation from good, cash-paying jobs. In fact, all of these statements are true...and beside the point. As Hess's photographs and stories suggest, these Native peoples are still, thousands of years into their heritage, a people of the whale.

In a whale's capture there is blood and gore, there are the throes of death that are a natural, inevitable part of the hunt; and Hess does not shy away. But after a whale's death, there is also the celebration and remarkable communion-like sharing of its meat and muktuk, in traditional rituals that affirm the central values of I'upiat culture. In Hess's pictures, I experienced again the awe and respect those moments commanded when I took part in the hunt, the capture of bowheads, and the rites of thanksgiving and butchering some twenty years ago.

Gift of the Whale makes clear that to the Eskimo whalers of Alaska, the whales are sacred?and, moreover, fundamental to their existence. Hess's stark black-and-white photographs show the prayers of thanks from a successful whaling crew before villagers haul the giant bowhead onto spring ice for butchering. They show the drama of the hunt, which until surprisingly recent times was a struggle of life and death not just for the whale but for the hunters and villages whose survival over the course of some two thousand years depended upon the capture of bowheads.

Hess mentions only in passing the social upheaval manifested in alcoholism, drug dependency, and suicide that have accompanied assimilation, change to a modern economy, and the sudden appearance of wealth from Prudhoe Bay oil and corporate and government investments. Against this, as his beautiful photographs and stories make clear, it is the whale, the gift of the whale, that even today gives identity and sustenance to the people of northern Alaska.

"In front of me, slowly taking hazy shape like something from science fiction, the great white globe of the Distant Early Warning [DEW] Line station appeared as a giant golf ball. The station, built to detect incoming Soviet, then Russian, missiles and aircraft, had brought great change to the people of Kali, or in I'upiaq, the Kalimiut....

Following construction and manning of the DEW Line in the mid-1950s, life at Kali slipped into decline. "It was the alcohol," village Mayor Amos Agnassaga told me. "The DEW Line brought alcohol into the village. It really hurt the people." The military bar was open to a community that had never before had a convenient source of liquor. DEW Line personnel used drink as barter in the village.

" 'Let's get the wounded,' Charlie commanded. As did the hunters in the other boats, we tracked down belugas that were still moving, however weakly, and ended their suffering. Robert spotted a slightly wounded beluga. It swam quietly, keeping its profile low, past two freshly killed whales. Charlie guided the boat. Bob fired. Simultaneously, the beluga lifted both head and flukes out of the water, arching its body in a graceful curve. It looked straight at us, then died. I was not unmoved by the death of this beluga, or of the others. My heart felt each bullet; I felt the life as it left these beautiful, graceful creatures, and it was a humbling thing to feel.

The hunters felt it as well. All action in the boat stopped. All voices fell silent."

David Boeri is author of People of the Ice Whale: Eskimos, White Men, and the Whale .

 

ISBN: 1570613826

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