SHARING, GRIEVINGWhaling captains Vera Frankson
(left), Rex and Ramona Rock share muktuk with
the village and put up a memorial picture of Josie
FACESEsther and Raymond Stone were superb
tour guides through Pt. Hope.
COFFEE POTSJenna Lane saw to it that the
pots were always filled with fresh coffee or tea.
The task of the younger girls was to do the rounds
and bring hot drinks to the elders. They also
served the women cutting the meat, bringing sodas
and oranges. The cook-out was like a perfectly
synchronized orchestra, directed by Emily Lane
and every woman knew exactly what to do.
midnight, the sun is burning in my face. Insomnia sets
in. When the sun rose May 25 it will not set until July
20 here in Point Hope. On this second day/night of the
whaling feast or Qagruk, the wind has shifted and blows
mildly from the south.
is summer, 150 miles above the Arctic Circle. In the
middle of the bright night, children ride their bikes
in shorts and t-shirts on the roads. Curiously they
stop and ask, "What's your name?" tagging along for
a short while before running into friends and taking
are a few suspicious looks, but most of the villagers
driving by on 4-wheelers wave a friendly greeting. With
an annual precipitation of only 10 inches, dust has
many forms here. Long, brownish clouds trail every vehicle
like a flowing scarf, visible for miles. Wind gusts
kick up what resembles miniature tornadoes, chasing
a whirling, spinning vortex of dirt ahead of them like
an invisible broom sweeping over the few paved roads.
miles long, the sandy finger of Point Hope peninsula
is pointing into the Chukchi Sea, creating the perfect
launching pad for hunters in umiaq boats hunting for
whales, walrus and seals. The surrounding land is flat
and vast; the mountains in the distance are like a gigantic
garden fence, separating the remote settlement from
the rest of the world. Although planes arrive daily
with mail and passengers, and satellite phone and TV
connect Point Hope to the outside, it feels very, very
first thing people of Tikigaq will tell a visitor is
that this sandspit has been recognized as the oldest,
continuously inhabited community in all of North America.
of the earliest residents came to the peninsula for
bowhead whaling some 2,000 years ago after crossing
the Siberian land bridge. Because of constant surge-floods,
the old village of sod houses framed by whalebones moved
in the 1970s from their old townsite on the northwestern
tip of the peninsula to the current location and into
western-style houses with power, central heating and
from above, it looks like a giant had played with Lego
building blocks, arranging identical houses neatly in
a square and symmetric fashion. Huge oil and water tanks
are at the periphery, in the middle a large geodesic
dome looking like a gigantic golf ball functions as
city hall. The post office is brand new, the school
building gets a make-over this summer and in between
houses a curious sight: the wreck of a jumbo jet airplane.
Somebody had remodeled the airplane and turned it into
a bar and pool parlor. But that was a long time ago.
Now it just sits there, a dinosaur among houses.
village boasts a 'hotel' called Whaler's Inn
basically a container with plumbing and a restaurant
serving pizza, hamburgers and chow mein run by a Korean
couple. The village store down the road is well stocked
with everything from imported Nutella breadspread to
hip Gap Jeans; fairly fresh looking vegetables to microwave
TV dinners; tanned fox, wolf and wolverine hides to
prepaid phone cards.
the hallway hangs the announcement that the City of
Point Hope will be closed for the Qagruk whaling feast
and congratulates whaling captains Joe and Vera Frankson,
Rex and Ramona Rock, Eunice Lane, Darold and Esther
Frankson on their successful hunting this spring.
year, the ice was bad, instead of open leads, the peninsula
was closed in by soft ice pushing against the beach,
making a safe passage impossible. No whale was caught
last spring and the spirit of the people was down. "It
was like a dark cloud hanging over the whole village,"
says Mayor Martin Oktollik
the store has food, but the dependency on whale meat,
blubber and oil is more than just ensuring physical
well being. In a world of change, people look for signs
of constancy, for a few things that won't change and
that provide a sense of orientation in our fragile human
existence. Some things remain constant. The position
of the North Star won't change in our lifetime. The
whales will always pass by Point Hope. And whaling will
continue. The Qagruk is a collective ritual celebrating
the identity of a people, reinforcing their beliefs
and reminding everybody from toddler to ancient elder
that "We're still here, we know who we are and we will
survive no matter what."\
second day of the whaling feast started with a gathering
of both clans at the westside Qalqi, Eunice Lane's and
Darold Frankson's whaling crews brought in their whales's
flippers to be cut on plywood boards on the ground.
crew's men, dressed in corduroy parkas with fancy embroidery
and magnificent ruffs, cut the flippers into slices
two-fingers wide and then give the muktuk out to the
assembled community, huddled against the windbreakers.
the obligatory blessing and prayer, the whaling captains
stood in front of the crowd, calling out names of their
relatives, first other whaling captains and people of
honor, then city officials and representatives of the
Native corporation to come and get their share. "Uma,
relative, come!" sounded across the camp on the tundra.
Visitors from other villages also were called and handed
a few slices of the precious muktuk.
crew's women dug elbow-deep into wooden barrels with
mikigaq or fermented whale meat, to pass out more meat.
Being the only meat that ferments itself, mikigaq takes
8 to 10 days to ferment and needs to be turned over
every 12 hours. It is dark red, has a soft consistency
and a sweet taste that makes the palates tingle and
fills the stomach with a warm feeling. Hours passed
until muktuk, mikigaq and Eskimo ice-cream (caribou
fat mixed with berries) were given out. Sitting there
on the tundra in their most festive outfits, people
of all ages munched on the delicacies, sipped on cans
of soda pop and what they couldn't eat disappeared in
Ziploc bags, Tupperware containers and coolers.
same procedure was repeated at the other campsite of
whaling Captain Joe Frankson and Rex Rock Sr.
feasting, a blanket toss started. In this ritual the
whalers are tossed high up into the air to cleanse themselves
of the oil and blood from killing and butchering the
whales, shaking off the impurities of bloodshed.
MUKTUKWhaling captain Darold Frankson cuts
the whale's flippers in thin slices, about two
fingers wide, for the give-away.
RUFFSA young mother tossing fur into the
crowd - only elderly ladies were allowed to catch
AT WORKOut on the tundra, the women set
up wood stoves, cut meat all morning and cooked
all day, while the men hung out at their side
of the Qalqi.
ALL DAYErma Hunnicutt and Rosella Stone
cooked the meat on open fire stoves.
SMILESThe elder Daisy from Kotzebue savors
the fresh mikigaq and muktuk.
ON THE TUNDRA Dorcus Rock rocks on.
mothers that gave birth to sons in the past year, do
the blanket toss. They get on the ugruk skins that used
to cover the umiaqs and as they are flung into the air,
they throw candies, material, blankets and even furs.
Only elderly ladies are allowed to catch the goodies.
A group of them, some barely able to walk, scrambled
for the gifts, laughing and giggling like young teenagers.
The young women do this peculiar sort of give-aways
so that their boys will become successful hunters to
provide for the families and the community.
it started? Even the elders don't know. "It' the tradition,"
says Erma Hunnicutt that "has been around forever. When
I was young, I jumped, too."
the same time as Point Hope celebrated the whaling feast,
the International Whaling Commission assembled for their
annual meeting half a world away in Berlin, Germany.
The IWC is an international body of about 50 member
nations, and imposed a moratorium on commercial whaling
IWC allows an exception for subsistence catches of whales
for indigenous peoples in places including Greenland,
Siberia and Alaska.
June 2002, the IWC voted against the renewal of quotas
that allow native subsistence hunting of bowhead whales.
That fall, the body reversed its decision and approved
a five-year extension of subsistence whaling. This summer,
pro-whaling countries like Japan and Norway clashed
again with the anti-whaling majority of countries over
setting up a conservation committee within the IWC.
so-called 'Berlin Initiative' went through despite Japan's
threat to walk out, fearing that the initiative would
shift the focus of the IWC on merely safeguarding whales
from it's original purpose of regulating catches.
the whales" became a favorite slogan among environmentalists,
and emotions run high when it comes to whaling - on
Martin Oktollik remembered the time when Greenpeace
came to Point Hope in the '70s trying to stop their
whaling. "They saw how we do things here, how we share
and in the end they helped us butcher the whale and
all. We've been hunting whales for thousands of years
and we haven't depleted the neither the whale population,
nor the bearded seal population, nor the ducks or seals
or walrus. We never took more than we needed. And we
don't sell it. There's not enough money in the world
to buy just one piece of mikigaq or muktuk. If you want
to buy our meat, nobody will sell it. But if you ask,
we're more than happy to give it away. It's not for
sounds like paradise with neighbors caring for each
other and a whole village sharing the bounty of the
sea, but Point Hope has its problems, too. Drugs and
alcohol somehow make it to the supposedly dry city.
The youth have no place to go and hang out. In the week
before the whaling feast, two separate four-wheeler
accidents claimed the life of a young girl and injured
two others. There is a high unemployment rate and it
is common that those with jobs give money to their unemployed
grown-up children. Life for the younger generation is
a balancing act between Inupiaq tradition and western
Ramona Rock of her four children between age 9 and 23,
"We want them to succeed in both worlds." Oktollik echoes
the sentiment, seeing the solution in the combination
of school education, outside experience and a deeply
rooted cultural identity.
such as the Qagruk helps to instill the sense of who
they are and where they belong. Especially on the third
day the spirit of working together, of functioning as
one unit becomes clear as the feast culminates with
a big cookout. Starting at 5 a.m., the men set up the
windbreakers, separating the women's side from the men's
side. Women fire up woodstoves, cut beluga tails, white
fish, ducks, geese and whale intestines. The women's
camp looks like one big slaughter fest as the men hang
out at their campsite, talking, smoking and waiting
Lane, the widow of a whaling captain explains that when
her husband died, her seven sons went hunting for her
and she inherited the title of whaling captain. Asked
about the strict separation of men and women, she says,
"Today, we feed them. That's the law. Men hunt all year
to get the meat and today is the day for them to relax
lady jokes: "We don't want them in the kitchen anyway."
Emily Lane, Eunices' daughter, is like a commander-in-chief
of cooking. Yelling directions, cutting with mighty
musclepower through tough bones and frozen fish and
keeping an eye on at least ten cooking pots at the same
time. Her tied-up, long hair falls in her face, hands
and clothes are all bloody. She runs from one cooking
pot to the next, directing the young girls to go around
and pass out more coffee or tea to the older ladies
sitting on ground.
a flock of cranes fly in formation above the camp
women look up from their cutting chores, their cooking
pots and all go, "Wuuuyuup, wuuuyuup," imitating the
sound of the cranes. Laughingly they back to work. Sometimes
men come and visit, a few women go over to the men's
camp and bring food. After a few hours, the mountains
of birds, fish, beluga flukes, whale insides, walrus
meat are all cut up and stew in huge pots. All of the
food is cooked today. Again, everybody shows up with
Ziploc bags, Tupperware containers, coffee cup, coolers,
and ulus. Young men and women hold foot races, the blanket
toss is repeated. The whaling crews do a few Eskimo
dances to the sound of the drums.
night the feast concludes with Eskimo dancing in the
geodesic dome, City Hall. Joe Frankson thanked the hunters
for providing food to the village, " All you young men,
all you young hunters, thank you. You did it for your
people and the other villages. That's your ministry,
you did a very good thing."
whole village piled into the dome, Eskimo dancing went
on until midnight. And again, before going home, everybody
busts out Ziploc bags and the last of the muktuk is
brought into the dome and distributed. The feast is
over. Revving engines of 4-wheelers, tires kicking up
the dust as the villagers scatter in all four directions
and go home.
1/5th of the whale meat has been cooked and was distributed
to the villagers and visitors alike. The remainder of
the whales rests in meat caches in the permafrost at
the old townsite. For Thanksgiving and Christmas, more
whale meat will be shared. When the first slush ice
comes in, spotters will run to the whaling captains'
houses, announcing the new ice. That's the time when
the whale's tail gets pulled out of the water, cut up
and shared. It's the tradition, don't ask why.
Hope is the oldest constantly inhabited community in
North America - what does that mean? "Do you know why?"
asks Mayor Oktollik rhetorically back. "Whaling is the
reason for that. As long as the whales come by, we will
be here." He pauses for a while, looks out his window.
Emily and Lilliann, his two 9- and 12-year-old grand-daughters
are still playing outside. It's 1:30 a.m. and it is
as light as mid-day. "They say, the land we live in
is harsh. But, by God, it provides for us and we survive,"
he finally says.
A special Thank you to Martin and Carrie Oktollik for
their generous hospitality and for sharing a wealth
of information that made the writing of the series possible.