Language: North Slope Iñupiaq
This is a sealing harpoon. Once you harpoon the seal, you can pull it up. This braided sinew line is pretty strong. And the harpoon point, that’s for catching seals. This end is for chopping the ice around the seal hole.
—Ronald Brower Sr., 2002
Ringed seals swim under the sea ice and come up for air at breathing holes. In the past, hunters with harpoons waited at the holes, standing silently on small stools until a feather placed in the hole on an ivory pin revealed the seal’s first breath. Then they struck down through the opening with a harpoon that had a long, thin foreshaft. The pick on the upper end of the weapon was for enlarging the hole so the dead seal could be pulled out.
Region: Northwest Alaska
Village: Point Barrow
Object Category: Hunting
Dimensions: Length 107cm
Source: Lt. P. H. Ray (collector)
Museum: National Museum of Natural History
Museum ID Number: E089910
Kenneth Toovak: Uvvanua natchiqsiunnakkiuvva amii. Natchiqsiunnaq uvva
(This here is one to hunt seals with. This is for seal hunting.)
Ron Brower, Sr.: This is a sealing harpoon.
Kenneth Toovak: Yes, for when there’s a seal coming up to breathe.
Ron Brower, Sr.: And once you harpoon the seal, you can pull it up. This braided sinew [line] is pretty strong. And looking at the harpoon point, that’s for catching seals. This [ice pick] end is for chopping the ice around the seal hole. So this would also have the little stand that goes with it, when they’re seal hunting, the little stool. This [around shaft] is white baleen. It used to be white.
[From discussion with Jane Brower, Ron Brower, Sr. (Iñupiat Heritage Center), Doreen Simmonds (Commission on Iñupiaq History, Language & Culture) and Kenneth Toovak at the National Museum of Natural History and National Museum of the American Indian, 2/04/2002-2/06/2002. Also participating: Karen Brewster, Wanda Chin and Terry Dickey (University of Alaska Museum) and Aron Crowell (NMNH).]
Harpoons, used for hunting seals, walrus, beluga whales, and bowhead whales, were the heaviest traditional Iñupiaq weapons. They have thicker wooden shafts than the lightweight darts that were used for seals, and unlike darts were always thrust or thrown by hand rather than launched with a throwing board.(1) Harpoons, like this 1883 example from Barrow, have “toggling” points (heads) rather than the slender barbed points seen on darts. This short harpoon was specifically designed for killing seals at their breathing holes.
The basic parts of a harpoon are the detachable head, foreshaft, socket piece, wooden shaft, and harpoon line. Toggling heads were made of bone, ivory, or antler, with a slot at the end to hold a thin stone or metal blade. This type is spurred at the base and has a hole for insertion of the slender foreshaft.(2) It was connected to the harpoon line with a short leader, which enabled quick replacement of the head if it broke.(3) The foreshaft—which improved penetration of the harpoon head—fit into the socket piece and was tied to the shaft so that it would not be lost.
The heavy socket piece was made from bone or ivory, and its weight helped the weapon to hit with great force.(4) The length of a harpoon shaft ranged from approximately four to nine feet depending on the size of the prey—shorter ones for small seals and longer, heavier ones for larger sea mammals.(5)
When a harpoon struck an animal the head penetrated well below the skin, came off the foreshaft, and turned sideways under tension from the harpoon line. In open water hunting, the shaft dragged behind the fleeing animal, slowing its escape.(6) Sealskin floats were often tied to the harpoon line for greater drag when hunting whales and other large mammals.(7) When hunting seals at the ice edge or breathing holes the hunter would hold on to the line rather than letting it go.(8) Some harpoons have a finger rest on the side of the shaft to help in making long throws.(9) A tapering ivory or bone point—often referred to as an ice pick—was lashed onto the butt end of some long harpoons and most short seal harpoons like this one.
It was used to test the solidity of sea ice and to chip away ice at a seal’s breathing hole.(10)
Pedestrian hunters harpooned seals when they hauled out on ice, surfaced at their breathing holes or swam along the ice edge.(11) When stalking a seal on the ice, or to lure one to its breathing hole, a hunter used an ice scratcher that imitated the sound that a seal makes when digging.(12) At breathing holes, men hunted ringed seals using a small harpoon like this one, which has a detachable point, long sealskin line, and fixed foreshaft.(13) They hunted bearded seals, walrus and beluga whales by boat using larger harpoons with long foreshafts to penetrate the thicker skin and blubber.(14)
By the turn of the 19th century, the use of harpoons had begun to change. E. W. Nelson noted that by 1881, men in the Bering Strait region still hunted with harpoons but had begun to use firearms to kill sea mammals.(15) By 1905, George Gordon reported that seal, walrus and whale harpoons were still in general use, but the stone harpoon blade was replaced by a metal one.
Gordon noted that overall, firearms had begun to replace many Native-made weapons.(16) Harrison Thornton—who lived in Wales from 1890 to 1893—reported that seal harpoons were used only occasionally to deliver the final blow to a seal after shooting it with a gun.(17) John Murdoch—in the Barrow area from 1881 to 1883—reported that seals and walrus were often shot with rifles, while walrus were killed with a combination of rifle and large harpoon.(18)
Lt. P. H. Ray collected this seal harpoon from the Barrow area in 1883. It was used to hunt seals at their breathing holes. Ray wrote: “Many seals are taken with the hand spear, at the ‘adlu,‘ the breathing-hole of a single seal. It is usually detected by an excessive deposit of hoar-frost on the surface of the snow over the hole; the snow is cleared away down to the solid ice, and in the hole, which is about one inch in diameter at the surface, is placed an ivory needle about one foot long and one-eighth of an inch in diameter; to the upper end a small cross-bar is attached, to prevent it dropping through, and a small feather, and the hunter takes his stand on a three-legged stool, which is always a part of his regular equipment, and patiently awaits the coming of the seal, of which the feathered needle gives warning; after the stroke is delivered, if he succeeds in fastening to the seal, he proceeds to enlarge the hole until it will admit hauling him to the surface; this is usually done with an ivory pick attached to the shaft of his spear; as soon as a seal is taken its mouth is fastened open with a piece of ice, and a slot cut through the lower jaw before it becomes frozen.
Should he be far out in the pack, where the ice is too rough for a sled to be used, the seal is dragged home by a hand drag.”(19)
John Murdoch gave a detailed description of the harpoon collected by Ray: “The total length of this spear when rigged for use is 5 feet 3 inches. The shaft is of spruce, 20½ inches long and 1.1 inches in the middle, tapering to 0.9 at the ends. At the butt is inserted, as before, an ivory ice pick (túu) of the form already described, 13¾ inches long and lashed in with sinew braid. The foreshaft (kátû) is of walrus ivory, nearly cylindrical, 5¾ inches long and 0·9 inch in diameter, shouldered at the butt and fitted into the tip of the shaft with a round tang. The latter is very neatly whipped with a narrow strip of white whalebone, which makes eleven turns and has the end of the last turn forced into a slit in the wood and wedged with a round wooden peg. Under this whipping is the bill of a tern as a charm for good luck. (As the boy who pointed this out to me said, ‘Lots of seals.‘)”
To learn more about the history of this object, read a report by Smithsonian conservators at http://anthropology.si.edu/accessinganthropology/alaska/gallery_harpoon.html (copy and paste this address into your internet browser).
1. Curtis 1930:142; Fitzhugh and Crowell 1988:160-61; Murdoch 1892:214-40; Nelson 1899:135-40; Oquilluk 1973:215; Rainey 1947:264-65; Ray 1966:63; Ray 1885:40; Thornton 137-42, 174
2. Bockstoce 1977:33; Fitzhugh and Crowell:160; Murdoch 1892:218-221, 225-26; Nelson 137-40, 148
3. Murdoch 1892:227
4. Murdoch 1892: 223, 229; Nelson 1899:137, 139, 148
5. Murdoch 1892: 223, 230; Nelson 1899:137-38; Thornton 1931:142
6. Bockstoce 1977:33; Murdoch 1892:218, 223; Nelson 1899:137; Thornton 1931:142-43
7. Bockstoce 1977:33; Murdoch 1892: 223-24, 231, 233; Nelson 1899:137-38, 140
8. Bockstoce 1977:33; Curtis 1930:142; Murdoch 1892: 230, 233-34; Nelson 1899:129, 138; Rainey 1947:264
9. Murdoch 1892:223, 230; Nelson 1899:138, 150
10. Bockstoce 1977:33; Curtis 1930:117; Murdoch 1892:231, 233-34
11. Curtis 1930:142; Murdoch 1892:231, 268-69; Nelson 1899:128, 129; Rainey 1947:263
12. Bruce 1894:101; Nelson 1899:129; Rainey 1947:264
13. Bockstoce 1977:33; Murdoch 1892: 233-34; Nelson 1899:126; Ray 1885:40; Spencer 1959:141-42
14. Curtis 1930:143-44; Murdoch 1892:223, 230-31, 272; Nelson 1899:137-39; Oquilluk 1973:237; Spencer 1959:141
15. Nelson 1899:166
16. Gordon 1906:79
17. Thornton 1931:143
18. Murdoch 1892: 216, 272
19. Ray 1885:40
20. Murdoch 1892:234-35