Dead Whale Day? Behind a Phantom Holiday in Alaska

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"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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