The Revival of Indigenous Subsistence Whaling Hangs in the Balance | Civil Eats

The Revival of Indigenous Subsistence Whaling Hangs in the Balance

Hunting whales is sacred and life-sustaining for Indigenous communities. Despite historic restrictions, bans, and protests, the Makah people in Washington may soon get to lead their first hunt in nearly 25 years.

A bowhead whale caught in September 2021, during the fall whaling season, in Utqiagvik. (Photo courtesy of Mary Lum Patkotak)

A bowhead whale caught in September 2021, during the fall whaling season, in Utqiagvik. (Photo courtesy of Mary Lum Patkotak)

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 only 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 now 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.

An undated photo of a Makah whale hunt at Neah Bay. (Photo credit: Larry Workman, U.S. Forest Service)

An undated photo of a Makah whale hunt at Neah Bay. (Photo credit: Larry Workman, U.S. Forest Service)

“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.

An Utqiagvik whale bone arch. (Photo courtesy of Mary Lum Patkotak)

An Utqiagvik whale bone arch. (Photo courtesy of Mary Lum Patkotak)

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.

Makah whale hunters land a canoe at Neah Bay, circa 1900. (Photo by Anders B. Wilse, courtesy of University of Washington Special Collections)

Makah whale hunters land a canoe at Neah Bay, circa 1900. (Photo by Anders B. Wilse, courtesy of University of Washington Special Collections)

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.

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Japan was once part of the International Whaling Commission but left in 2019; Norway and Iceland have also established their own catch limits and report their catches to the Commission.

According to the Commission, many whale species are recovering. For example, humpback whales in the northern Atlantic and Pacific number 12,000 and 22,000 respectively. Bowhead whale populations are recovering in some seas and “endangered” in other seas. Right whales (which, along with bowhead whales, were hunted mostly for their blubber) are endangered.

Of course, these are statistics without a comparison to the healthy, undisturbed whale populations that existed before commercial whaling, which are notoriously difficult to estimate. One 2010 study estimates that humpback whales in the Atlantic alone numbered in the 20,000 to 30,000 range.

Gifts of the Sea

The tribal seal of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head Aquinnah, who live in the area now referred to at Martha’s Vineyard, depicts a giant, Moshup, holding up his favorite food.

The tribal seal of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head, with Moshup holding a whale.

Although Moshup appears to be holding a fish in his giant hands, it’s actually a whale. The blood red stained cliffs of Aquinnah, the place Moshup kills whales by bashing them along the cliffs, are visible in the background

“He would leave gifts of whale on the beach for his children—us,” said Jonathan James-Perry, Wampanoag chairman, culture bearer, and historian. Like all plants and animals, whales are seen as relatives and celebrated by the Wampanoag.

Mostly known by outsiders for meeting pilgrims in 1620, the Wampanoag hunted whales in dugout canoes called mashoon. According to James-Perry, the mashoons ranged in size from eight to 60 feet. “Upwards of 40 people would paddle in these vessels,” he added. The larger canoes were used for hunting whales, seals, and now-extinct sea minks.

“Large vessels would tire the whales out and then one of our people would jump onto its back and sever its spinal column,” says James-Perry. “That (quick death) was part of the respect that we gave to the whale. Something so large and powerful could easily take your life. You respected the fact that it was offering its life to you, so you were able to take it in a very honorable way.”

Hunters utilized the incoming and outgoing tide, using the water to lift the heavy whale to shore for the people to process.

The flesh was cut into large L-shaped pieces that were easy to smoke over a fire. Some was sliced and diced down for soup, or sapahik. The fat was processed for oil that was used for cooking and lighting lamps. “A whale provides you with a lot of oil,” says James-Perry. “It was used in ceremonies and for sealing our clothing and other items.” It was traded with other tribes, too.

Today, the Wampanoag Tribe retains the right to hunt whale and take injured or beached whales, but they don’t exercise that right. “The overreaching state laws and lack of respect of tribal rights played a major role in removing our people from that common practice,” says James-Perry.

And even if they did decide to take up the practice again, the tribe doesn’t have the infrastructure to process a 30- or 50-ton whale. But James-Perry hopes that changes soon. “It is my hope to establish a much better system in which we can start to reclaim that tradition.”

One, Together

Native communities in the U.S. can learn from those whose cultural and culinary relationship with whale as a food has never been interrupted. Take the Inuit people of Greenland, for example.

“We never ever eat Greenlandic food, like dried fish, when we don’t have any muktuk, whale skin or whale blubber [to accompany it],” said Qupanuk Olsen, a south Greenlander who shares her culture and community on her blog Q’s Greenland. “They are one, together.”

Greenland is mostly populated by its Indigenous Inuit people, so whaling traditions are commonplace there. They have permits and hunting limits set by the International Whaling Commission as Aboriginal subsistence whaling.

Whales—along with polar bears, seals, fish, and other ocean foods—come from what they call the hair of the Mother of the Sea, Olsen said. Greenlandic whalers harvested 131 large mink, humpback, and fin whales in 2018.

Muktuk is commonly eaten with a pinch of Aromat, a spice mix similar to Mrs. Dash but with the addition of MSG. It’s accompanied by dried fish, rugbrød, a Danish rye bread, and some crowberries if they are in season. The flesh is cooked like a steak and served with potatoes and onions, Olsen said.

Muktuk with Aromat. (Photo credit: Qupanuk Olsen)

Muktuk with Aromat. (Photo credit: Qupanuk Olsen)

“It’s actually really, really difficult to describe how muktuk tastes,” Olsen said. “It’s something you don’t want to chew for a long time. There’s a reason you put Aromat on it.”

The fat tends to coat the mouth so it’s something you want to chew a few times and swallow, she said. It’s an acquired taste.

The North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission’s food page includes recipes and beautiful photos for mink whale casserole and whale steak with parmesan served medium rare with mushrooms and garlic butter.

The Commission, which advises the governments of Greenland, Norway, Iceland, and the Faroe Islands on whaling and conservation, looked deeper into the nutritional benefits of consuming whale in a 2017 report. Researchers found the nutritional value of marine mammal meat to be superior to meat from livestock. In addition to being rich in protein, essential amino acids, minerals, and vitamins, the high level of antioxidants found in whale blubber makes it the most important source of vitamin C in the Arctic.

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The report also found that whales farther up in the food chain are most likely to be exposed to contaminants and heavy metals that bioaccumulate from their prey. But whales that subsist on krill, like the ones Greenlanders eat, and are lower on the food chain, and safer to eat. But it also depends on where whales live and eat and Greenland officials recommends that people who want to have children stay away from eating marine mammal meat and fat until they’re done having them.

While Olsen hasn’t experienced conflict with animal rights groups, the capital city of Nuuk, where she lives with her family, recently banned humpback whale hunting near designated watching areas.

Alaska Native Whaling

Back in Alaska, Herman Ahsoak is hoping that, after several upcoming whale hunts, his ice cellar—and the others cellars in his community—will be filled with whale fat, meat, and organs.

“The communities all across the North Slope will come and share the catches. That’s the biggest thing about our community: We share.”

All whale hunts in Utqiagvik, formerly known as Barrow, start with chopping a trail into the ice out to the sea and waiting for a whale to come within range of Ahsoak’s crew’s boats. If that happens, the harpoons and the guns come next.

“When we are blessed with a whale, we offer a prayer and thank the heavenly Father for it,” Ahsoak said.

With Ahsoak and his crew members taking the lead, dozens help bring the whale onto firm ice and break down the animal in strips. The section from the bellybutton to the tail is served at a community celebration; the section from the bellybutton to the nose goes to the whaling crew and their families.

“The communities all across the North Slope will come and share the catches, ” Ahsoak said. “That’s the biggest thing about our community: We share.”

Some muktuk and meat will be eaten raw, right there on the ice. Other portions will be preserved by fermentation or packed in freezers and ice cellars. But almost immediately, the kidney, intestines, some meat from the tongue, the heart, and the muktuk will be boiled and eaten. It’s served with homemade donuts and boiled fruit. The captain serves it to the community from his home. During the pandemic, they’ve had to pick it up in cars and sleds rather than share the feast together.

Then, in early June, nearly 70 gallons of fermented whale will be served at another annual celebration. This one features the blanket toss—an impressive physical feat in which around a dozen community members toss a person 20 feet into the air on a seal skin trampoline. The point, traditionally, is to help hunters to spot prey over the horizon. Now, it’s a sport in the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics.

A Culinary Window onto an Endangered Culture

According to some descriptions from visitors, whale fat can taste like squid and the meat has a surprisingly sweet flavor.

“I thought it was going to be something fishy, something horrid,” said Thomas Andrade (Navajo, Mescalero Apache, and Tseshaht First Nation), a chef and nutrition coordinator for the Cook Inlet Tribal Council recovery services in Anchorage, Alaska. When he tasted it, Andrade says, “It wasn’t fishy, it was fatty, like the smoky fat taste of a grilled pork chop or ribeye. [It’s] very subtle and lends itself well to salty flavors like soy sauce.”

Andrade’s partner is Yupik and has access to whale and muktuk through her family. That’s how he was able to sample and cook with it. He loves the muktuk pickled with kimchi and recently added it to a kimchi ramen soup with a fried egg on top.

Muktuk noodles with kimchi. (Photo credit: Thomas Andrade)

Muktuk noodles with kimchi. (Photo credit: Thomas Andrade)

In his role as a nutritional coordinator, Andrade helps those recovering from addiction connect to traditional foods, which sometimes means introducing muktuk and seal to Alaska Natives who have gone without these foods for a long time or have never had them.

Traditional foods are an important part of recovery because they’re tied so tightly with community, family, and culture. “It’s something to cherish when you do have it. You [are aware of] the hard work and the dangers the [hunters] face,” he said.

“There are many people in this world that would like whaling to stop. I worry. I’ve been eating it my whole life.”

Whale hunting will also likely bring new dangers as the climate warms. In 2020, Arctic sea ice melted to its second-lowest level in 42 years, endangering people and ecosystems in and around the Arctic. In recent years a mixture of “young” and “old” ice has created dangerous hunting for whalers. Once, in 1997, 142 whalers from Ahsoak’s community had to be rescued from a large chunk of ice that broke off and drifted into the Arctic ocean.

“We have to pay more attention to the ice,” said Herman Ahsoak. “If there’s no ice. We can’t hunt like we do now.”

As a commissioner of the International Whaling Commission, Ahsoak has also faced angry protesters at meetings and heard stories of other whalers being physically threatened.

All of this means that he is constantly aware of how tenuous his community’s connection is to an essential part of Inupiaq life. “There are many people in this world that would like whaling to stop,” said Ahsoak. “I worry. I’ve been eating it my whole life.”

Andi Murphy is Civil Eats' Indigenous Foodways fellow for 2021-22; she is multimedia journalist and the creator, host, and producer of the award-winning Toasted Sister Podcast, a show about Indigenous food. Read more >

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  1. Laz
    Many indigenous peoples disagree with these actions. The mere fact that something has been a certain way for a long time says nothing about whether it's good; the same substantiation had been used in favor of slavery, forced marriage, rape and many other injustices. Isn't it ironic to claim that opposing cruelty equates to violence?

    Animal products are carcinogenic and far from civil considering that we live in a time that we now understand the moral and health implications of consuming animal flesh.

    Indigenous wisdom gave rise to principles which offer us a way of living that allows us to bypass the murder of our closest sentient family (ie, foraging, poly culture, etc.). It is no longer be justified.

    Justice for indigenous peoples means the right to well being and that means allowing the appropriate structures for a health promoting food system. There is a legion of indigenous leaders leading this movement for freedom to and justice for our animal family. We will see to the dissolution of speciesism and the aimless cruelty that it breeds.
  2. Sam
    The protesters were targeting the wrong group. Subsistence hunting has been apart of the Eskimo heritage for a millennium. They have not contributed to the existence of species in a negative way. However, the commercial hunters are the ones who have harmed the whale population and should be the the ones who the protesters and environmentalist hold accountable. It is the Eskimo's right to be able to carry out and live their customs if they so wish. Native Americans are more environmentally conscience than the non-native groups. Their existence as a people requires it.

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