Indigenous Whaling Traditions
“It is such an immense and awesome mammal and we hunt in such small boats out on the deep ocean and wide-open sea. You are under the mercy of the whale itself instead of being a hunter. People always say that the whale gave itself to the hunter. That is the only way you can describe it sometimes.”
— Merlin Koonooka, St. Lawrence Island whaling captain, 2005
Alaska and Siberia are home to several different types of Indigenous whaling. In the northern Bering Sea and Arctic Ocean, a 2000 year history of harpoon whaling from large open boats continues to the present day, with a focus on bowheads (Balaena mysticetus) and gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus). Smaller beluga whales (Delphinapterus leucas) are taken with rifles and nets. Farther south in the Aleutian Islands and Gulf of Alaska, hunters historically pursued humpback (Megaptera novaeangliae) and fin whales (Balaenoptera physalus) using kayaks and poisoned darts, a practice that ended in the early 20th century. Distinctive arts, ceremonies, and spiritual beliefs are associated with each tradition, as illustrated by objects from the Smithsonian collections.