Dead Whale Day? Behind a Phantom Holiday in Alaska

Hillary Mayell
for National Geographic News
December 10, 2002

A lot of "It Happens Today" calendars list December 10 as the day the Inuit people of Alaska celebrate the Festival for the Souls of Dead Whales.

The holiday sounds intriguing, but is not, apparently, well known to the Inuit of northern Alaska.

"The souls of dead whales?," said Ronald H. Brower, Sr., director of the Inuit Heritage Center in Barrow, Alaska. "That's a new one. We do celebrate catching whales, and there are several celebrations throughout the year, but Festival for the Souls of Dead Whales? Never heard of that one."

Of course, that's not completely surprising, since other listings for the month of December include National Noodle Ring Day (December 11), Unmentionable Thoughts Festival (December 12), and, seriously, "Wear a Plunger on your Head Today" Day (December 18).

It's tough to tell who got to name a day "National Chocolate on Everything Day"—Cocoa growers? Chocolate manufacturers? Perpetual dieters?—or even why someone would. But there is some basis, although somewhat tenuous, for the Souls of Dead Whales calendar item.

Souls of Dead Whales

The Inuit people living in northern Alaska have been hunting bowhead whales for several thousand years. Subsistence whaling is central to survival in the harsh Arctic environment, and the culture; community organization, beliefs and ceremonies, all revolve around it.

"To us the Arctic Ocean has always been our garden during good times and hard times; it's where we get our nutritional needs," said Brower. "We don't have fruits and vegetables, but the bowhead has minerals and vitamins that provide the nutritional requirements needed to live in the Arctic environment."

Between 60 to 70 percent of the northern Inuit diet consists of whale meat. The Inuit people believe that the animals they hunt have spirits. There are many rituals associated with the hunt itself and three celebrations each year designed to show respect for the souls of the animals, bring luck to the hunt, and to give thanks to the spirits of the animals that have been killed for food.

"Our traditions tell us that the whale is giving itself to us," said Brower. "Traditions taught us that while man is the hunter, it is the woman who maintains the sanctity of the home, and it is to that woman the spirit of the whale is giving itself to."

The wife of the captain of each whaling crew has special ritual duties to perform to encourage the spirit of the whale to give itself to the hunters. After spending some time in the human community, the spirit of the whale returns to the sea to tell other whales how it was treated.

Continued on Next Page >>


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