Indigenous Whaling Traditions: Northern Whaling Traditions
Bowhead whales spend their lives near the southern edge of arctic ice pack in the Bering Sea, using baleen mouth plates to strain tons of zooplankton (tiny crustaceans) from the water. In winter, the ice pack extends to the central Bering Sea. In spring, the ice begins melting and the whales follow its retreat to the north, migrating past St. Lawrence Island and through Bering Strait into the Arctic Ocean. Gray whales migrate to the Arctic during February to June, traveling to St. Lawrence Island and the Siberian coast from their calving grounds in Baja California.
For 2000 years, spring has signaled the beginning of whaling season for coastal Yupik, Chukchi, and Iñupiaq communities that lie along these migration routes. Months of preparation and long days of waiting at the edge of open water lead to the moment when migrating bowheads or gray whales are sighted and skin-covered boats are launched to intercept the animals. Whaling boats―called umiat in Iñupiaq communities and angyat in the Yupik villages of St. Lawrence Island and the Siberian coast―are manned by crews of seven to nine men, including a captain and harpooner. Whole communities, both men and women, participate in every phase of the whaling season, from preparing boats and clothing to the cutting up of a whale and the celebrations that follow.
In Alaska, there are two Yupik whaling villages on St. Lawrence Island (Gambell and Savoonga) where both bowhead and gray whales are taken. There are eight Iñupiaq villages along the mainland coast (Wales, Little Diomede, Kivalina, Point Hope, Wainwright, Barrow, Nuiqsut, and Kaktovik) where bowheads are hunted. On the Russian side of Bering Strait, hunters from a dozen Chukchi and Siberian Yupik settlements take both gray and bowhead whales.