Herman Ahsoak, a 57-year-old Inupiaq whaling captain on the northernmost tip of Alaska, is anticipating a hunting season he has known for decades—one his ancestors have been engaged in for untold generations.
“Spring is coming up so I’m preparing my ice cellar,” said Ahsoak. “I’ll be cleaning my whaling equipment; my harpoons and guns.”
Forty-five to 50 Bowhead and beluga whales will feed Ahsoak’s community in Utqiagvik (population 4,927) for nearly the whole year. When whales are hunted and brought in, the community works together to break down the massive animals. Multiple generations gather out on the ice, speaking their language, nibbling on raw bits of muktuk (skin and blubber), and then hauling large pieces of meat back home.
In the scope of Indigenous food sovereignty, this is a rare scenario where traditional foodways are still the norm despite—and in spite of—the encroachment of contemporary foods. But, whaling in Indigenous communities is not untouched. In fact, it’s heavily controlled by Western policies.
Indigenous people have watched one of their most precious resources disappear—not by their hands—over a short number of years, and face regulations, permits, and bans on this important practice.
Ahsoak, and other Indigenous whalers, must abide by rules set for them and are allowed to hunt a limited number of whales every year. One Washington tribe is waiting for permission to resume this part of their culinary culture. All Indigenous whalers, and their communities, also face criticism—as well as hate and violence—from animal-rights activists and conservationists who often lump traditional Indigenous subsistence whaling together with the commercial whaling practiced in Japan, Norway, and Iceland.
Indigenous people have watched one of their most precious resources disappear (not by their hands) over a short number of years—and find themselves slapped with regulations, permits, and bans on this important practice. And yet, even in the face of all this, whaling continues in some Indigenous communities not only as a traditional food source but also as an important part of culture and community.
A Tradition Hangs in the Balance
The Makah Tribe of Washington have always been a whaling community, but the practice largely stopped in the 1920s as commercial hunting depleted whale populations.
The tribe’s reservation juts out into the Salish Sea at the northwest corner of the state. It’s a perfect location to bring in gray whales, which migrate 10,000 miles north from Mexico to Alaska at this time (January to June).
Hunting this species takes a lot of work. Gray whales are 40 to 50 feet long and can weigh as much as 40 tons. Even when they’re up against wooden canoes filled with dozens of Indigenous hunters, these whales still have tons of advantage.
The last whale hunt for the Makah took place in May 1999. Before that, the tribe hadn’t hunted a whale since the 1920s. Articles on the 1999 event describe Neah Bay dotted with Makah cedar dugout canoes and canoes from other supporting, neighboring tribes. Makah hunters harpooned, shot, and hauled a 30-foot whale to shore, where the community celebrated and held ceremonies.
“The hunt itself was beautiful and it was amazing when we were successful,” Makah Tribe vice chairman Patrick Depoe said in an interview in an October episode of the radio show Native America Calling.
“That was just a really joyful occasion, to see that deep spiritual practice of ours be successful,” said Timothy Greene, Makah Tribe chairman, in the same interview. “To hunt whales, we believe, was gifted to us by the Creator. And with that comes a responsibility to honor that life in everything that we do; from preparation to hunting to what we do with a whale after a successful hunt and making sure that every part is utilized and has its place in spiritual activities.”
Greene explained that all edible parts are consumed and the rest are used to make tools. In the past, hooks for fishing all types of sea animals came from whale bones. But certain details are kept secret within whaling families, he added.
For Greene and Depoe, that day in 1999 will also always include a darker memory.
Animal-rights activists had spent days following hunters on speedboats on previous attempted hunts. This hunt was controversial and it pitted activists against the tribe and their treaty rights—dating back to 1855—to hunt gray whales.
“Protesters were wearing shirts that said ‘Save a Whale, Kill a Makah,’” Depoe said. “I was in high school at the time. Our high school was receiving bomb threats.”
In the two decades since then, a whole generation of young Makah members have never been hunting. But that may soon change.
“There are people that took part in the ‘99 [hunt] that are here, that are ready. They’re just waiting to go,” said Depoe. Those hunters are trained the traditional Makah way and they’re prepared to help train a new generation if and when the tribe is allowed to hunt gray whales again.
“That [hunt] was a really joyful occasion, to see that deep spiritual practice of ours be successful. To hunt whales, we believe, was gifted to us by the Creator. And with that comes a responsibility to honor that life in everything that we do.”
The tribe is waiting for one person, Janet Coit, assistant administrator for fisheries at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), to make a decision. In October a federal judge recommended granting a waiver for the Makah Tribe to get around the Marine Mammal Protection Act, a law that currently prevents the tribe from resuming hunting.
Some animal-rights groups have objected, but the judge looked at expert testimony from multiple biologists and ruled that the hunts would have a “negligible impact on the population,” which is estimated at between 21,000 to 25,000.
From Boom to Recovery
Many cultures across the globe have ancient connections to whaling. But the practice took on a commercial purpose in Europe as lamp oil made from whale blubber and baleen became popular about a thousand years ago.
By the time North America was colonized around the 1800s, American whalers led the way in the multi-million dollar whaling industry by taking whales from the Pacific and Atlantic.
As commercial whaling became a lucrative occupation in the mid-1800s, Wampanoag whalers seized the opportunity to get back in the ocean and use their knowledge and skills on U.S. whaling ships to make a living as whalers. Despite a culture of discrimination, some Native whalers rose in the ranks and a handful even became captains of whaling ships.
By the 1920s, the rise of electricity made whale oil obsolete. Commercial whaling completely stopped in the U.S. with the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972.
In 1942, the International Whaling Commission was formed to regulate subsistence whaling and study and preserve whaling species across the globe. The Commission, made up of dozens of countries, helps come up with permits and numbers of whales that can be hunted by aboriginal groups in member countries.