Alaska Native Collections – Sharing Knowledge


Harpoon head

tuugkaq “harpoon head”
Language: St. Lawrence Island Yupik

Also called:
aghveghqutaq “harpoon head”
Language: St. Lawrence Island Yupik

We consider the month of April to be the whaling season, because the migration goes through both Gambell and Savoonga first, then to the [Iñupiaq] whaling villages. We call it aghveghniiq (“whale hunting”), and our people have been whaling since time immemorial. There used to be quite a celebration when a whale was struck and each clan used to have its special ceremonies for the boat captain and the boat that got the whale...

—Branson Tungiyan, 2001

Bowhead whales migrate past St. Lawrence Island in the spring as the melting sea ice retreats northward toward Bering Strait. Boat crews from the villages of Gambell and Savoonga hunt bowheads every year using skin-covered boats and explosive-packed darting guns. Until the 1880s, Yupik whalers employed traditional harpoons tipped with bone or ivory heads like this example. Occasionally one of these old-style harpoon heads will be found inside the body of a fresh-killed whale, indicating that the animal survived being struck by ancestral hunters more than a century ago.

Culture: St. Lawrence Island Yupik
Region: St. Lawrence Island, Alaska
Object Category: Hunting
Dimensions: Length 24.6cm
Accession Date: 1924
Source: A. E. Thompson (collector)
Museum: National Museum of the American Indian
Museum ID Number: 133481.000