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.

"The spirit of the whale lives two lifetimes of men or more, and never forgets its benefactor," said Brower. "If it is treated well, the spirit of the whale will tell others of the kind treatment it received."

This will lead to successful future harvests, the Inuit believe.

Hunting and Celebrating Bowheads

The hunting season for bowhead whales extends from about April 15 to June 15 as the animals migrate down the coast to their summer feeding grounds. Bowheads can grow to be about 60 feet long and weigh about one ton per foot (18 meters long, 3.3 tons per meter).

"In our family, we never hunt beyond the end of May, because that's when calving females are passing through," said Brower. "The young whales are passing through in April, and like the young of any animal, they're a feisty little bunch of non-breeding youngsters."

In mid-June, the first celebration, "Naluqatak," takes place. Naluqatak is sponsored by the whaling captain and crew that caught the whale. It is a time of thanksgiving when the successful crew shares a portion of the catch with the community. The community feast extends throughout the day, and features a blanket toss, dancing, and many whale delicacies such as mikigaq, (fermented whale meat), in addition to fish or caribou soup, geese, ducks—whatever is available, said Brower.

"We start the day with prayer of thanks for the bounty we've been provided. It is a celebration of life and a celebration of giving," he said.

A second celebration takes place in November.

"In the old days it was a sort of solstice celebration," said Brower. "Now, with the introduction of the Christian era, it is combined with Thanksgiving." Portions of the whale are reserved for Thanksgiving. The celebrations are hosted in churches, and feature an all-day feast, normally followed by an Eskimo dance.

"The whaling captains, wives, and crew members all dance to express the joy of the bounty they've been given," said Brower.

"Around Christmas the third part of the celebration takes place, and the remainder of the whale is distributed," said Brower.

The first Christmas celebration among the Inuit of northern Alaska took place in 1871, introduced by whalers. Today Christmas and the Messenger Feast Dance have been combined.

"This is when we pay homage to all of our animals," said Brower. "It used to take a week to complete the whole sequence of prayer and dance and feasts."

"All the activities are tied to preparation for whaling, giving thanks for a good harvest, and all lead toward sharing of our bounty with the community," said Brower.

Impact of Whaling Ban

The International Whaling Commission imposed a quota on the harvest of bowhead whales in the mid-1990s that affected ten whaling communities in northern Alaska. In response to what the Inuits considered to be an attack on their traditions, life and culture, Alaska whalers formed the Alaskan Eskimo Whaling Commission to represent themselves and negotiate for a higher quota.

"The intent to ban traditional whaling has had a significant impact on our community," said Brower. "It's now become a little bit more competitive. In Barrow we have over 40 whaling crews, and have been allocated a quota of 22 whales, so there's anxiety among our whalers.

"It's challenging to the younger generations to remember where you came from, and to maintain the traditions that keep everyone in the community working harmoniously and joyously together," he said.

"But a Festival for the Souls of Dead Whales? In our case, we celebrate life."

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