Those designs, those are big birds that hunt those whales out there, way out there in the seas.
—Jacob Ahwinona, 2001
Images of legendary tiŋmiaqpait [big birds (giant eagles)], each with a whale in its talons, appear on this harpoon rest from the bow of a whaling boat. The birds are remembered for teaching people to practice the Messenger Feast and the Eagle-Wolf Dance. The spiritual aspects of whaling inspire both Iñupiaq art and oral tradition.
Region: Cape Prince of Wales, Alaska
Object Category: Boats
Dimensions: Length 15cm
Museum: National Museum of Natural History
Museum ID Number: E048169
Identifying & explaining
Marie Saclamana: Harpoon rest.
Aron Crowell: Would that be used on the bow?
Branson Tungiyan: Yes, to me if it has a whale design, it has to do with whaling, I’m sure it was used up in the bow to rest their harpoons.
Aron Crowell: Or for the lines?
Bill Fitzhugh: When you hit the whale with the harpoon, the line runs out through that space.
Branson Tungiyan: Oh, right through.
Estelle Oozevaseuk: It seems to me that they used this as a charm. I think it was given to them with a promise to succeed.
Estelle Oozevaseuk: What do you think about those [carved] figures are?
Branson Tungiyan: Polar bears or what?
Jacob Ahwinona: It looks like taqiaq [weasel]to me.
Marie Saclamana: Yes, taqiaq. Weasel.
Branson Tungiyan: Yes, they have their [claws].
Branson Tungiyan: Looks like a whale [in talons].
Jacob Ahwinona: Mm-hmm.
Branson Tungiyan: Weni esgha qawaaget, sangwaat quulvanlenguut—aghveghneng. Aneghneghit esgha aghveghet nalluniitaqelghiit. Amani itegaastaghmigumaa. Qawaagpagunghita, sangaawa.
(Some birds, some things are above the whales. The breath of the whales is easier to recognize. On the other side something being taken with the talons. Picked up by an eagle or something.)
Jacob Ahwinona: Tiŋmiaqpaiq [big bird (usually identified as a giant eagle)].
Marie Saclamana: Oh, tiŋmiaqpaiq.
Jacob Ahwinona: Those designs are big birds that hunt those whales out there, way out there in the seas. Those big birds, they can grab their head just like small eagles pick up salmon [with their talons]. It’s the same way those big birds go out there and pick up those whales out there. Yes, that’s what they mean by those etchings right there.
Aron Crowell: Have you heard traditional stories about those birds?
Jacob Ahwinona: Yes, traditional stories. My grandpa used to tell me about those.
According to my grandpa, these birds, they’re up in the big mountains back there, way up high. When they go from there, they go out to the sea and pick those whales up, just like these eagles in the rivers pick those salmon up like that [with their talons]. That’s right here, see? That bird is picking up that whale there, and then they bring them back to those high mountains. That’s where they nest. And when they bring those back, those bugs that grow there eat some of the leftovers from the birds nest. Those bugs that crawl there, my grandma said they’re big as young seal.
Aron Crowell: Has anyone ever found one of the places where the birds live?
Jacob Ahwinona: No, no one.
Marie Saclamana: One time my auntie, Ursula Ellanna—she lived at Pilgrim Springs—she was telling us some stories, and she pointed exactly where those were. But I didn’t pay attention to exactly where she was pointing.
Jacob Ahwinona: Last spring, when my sister-in-law went over to Nome, we went squirrel hunting up toward Penny River. The day was like not a cloud in the sky, and we were all by ourselves in the truck. She was having coffee, and I was having lunch. A big shadow went over us. We could see the wing spread from inside the truck. My window was open. Hers was open. When that shadow went over, it was heading down towards the Bering Sea, from the north. I said to my sister-in-law, “Hey, that’s not an airplane.” “No, that’s not,” she said, “That’s a big bird.” We looked but we didn’t see anything, just a great big shadow just covered our area right there heading in that direction down towards Bering Sea.
Marie Saclamana: Few years ago, my auntie and them at King Island, they said they saw big footprints of tiŋmiaqpaiq. Maybe that’s where it was heading.
Jacob Ahwinona: So those aren’t just a fake, they’re the original—what Eskimos know—those markings on those.
[From discussion with Jacob Ahwinona, Estelle Oozevaseuk, Marie Saclamana and Branson Tungiyan (Kawerak, Inc.) at the National Museum of Natural History and National Museum of the American Indian, 5/07/2001-5/11/2001. Also participating: Aron Crowell and Bill Fitzhugh (NMNH) and Suzi Jones (AMHA).]
As 19th century Iñupiaq hunters watched and waited for bowhead whales, they kept a large whaling harpoon ready in the bow of the umiaq [open skin boat]. There it rested in a U-shaped holder made of wood, bone, or walrus ivory.(1) When close to a bowhead, the harpooner lifted the heavy weapon from its resting place and threw with all his strength. Harpoon rests, which were decorated with symbols of animal spirits, are not used on modern whaling boats.
This harpoon rest from the village of Wales on the northwest Alaska coast is made out of two pieces of walrus ivory, pinned together with ivory pegs. Drawings of eagles catching whales appear on the front and back, and animals with lifted paws—polar bears according to Edward Nelson—are carved on each side. The holes are for leather lashings that tied the harpoon rest to the frame of the boat.(2)
Stories about tiŋmiaqpait [big birds (usually identified as giant eagles)] were told by many peoples of the North Pacific region.
There are Inupiaq, Yup’ik, Chukchi, Koryak, St. Lawrence Island Yupik, and Alutiiq traditions about these birds.(3) In villages along the Alaska coast, the birds were said to hunt whales; in inland areas, they preyed on caribou and even people.(4) At Sabotnisky, a village on the lower Yukon River, a legendary pair of giant eagles nested in an old volcano. They fed their young with people they snatched from the village, until at last a hunter killed them to revenge the death of his wife. The eagles’ mountaintop nest was littered with human bones, shreds of clothing and even kayaks that had been plucked from the Yukon River with hunters inside.(5) In other stories, however, giant eagles help people by teaching them the songs and dances of the Messenger Feast.
1. Brower 47Murdoch 1892:341-43; Nelson 1899:226; Spencer 1969:342-43
2. Nelson 1899:226
3. Black 1991:36-41; Bogoras 1904-09:328; Curtis 1930:168-77; Golder 1903:90-95; Ivanov 1930:500-02; Jacobsen 1977:110; Jochelson 1908:661; Nelson 1899:445-46, 486-87
4. Curtis 1930:168-77; Nelson 1899:445-46
5. Nelson 1899:486-87