I’ve decided to move the Add-on Eskimo series to Wednesday, so here’s the next installment. Hope you enjoy it.
The years passed and Ayit celebrated his 16th birthday in 1906. Having killed his first bearded seal, he was now ready to join his father’s crew for the Spring whale hunt. This was the biggest, most important hunting activity for them. If the villagers could get a whale, they would be well set up for the coming winter. Such a hunt took teamwork, and all the boat crews from the village would go out together so they could all cooperate in pulling the whale home—if they got one.
To ensure a successful whale hunt, on the first full moon in February the boat captains would begin a month-long series of ceremonies which they hoped would influence the spirits to make the hunt successful.
Okfagit led his crew and their families in offering sacrifices to their god, Apa, thanking him for the food he had provided in the year before, and asking him respectfully for provision of good hunting for the coming year. Okfagit also put on the required feast for his family and crew, a kind of thanksgiving meal, celebrating what they had gotten in the previous year. He also visited the graves of his ancestors leaving food for them.
Now for the first time Ayit was allowed on his father’s boat for the whale hunt. The eight boats of the village all shoved off from the beach, launching out into the Bering Sea. The crews paddled in rhythm until they were far enough out to raise their sails. The captains manned their tillers and the strikers sat in the front of each boat with their harpoons at ready, looking for surfacing whales.
The harpoon they used was a wooden shaft tipped with an iron point which swiveled so that when the point entered the whale, it would turn sideways, making it very difficult to it pull out. The men also brought their rifles in case they came across any other game.
Okfagit knew the best places to find whales. As they drew near the area, a whale surfaced and blew, but was too far from them to attack. Then suddenly, a whale surfaced just a few yards from the boat. The man in the bow stood and drew back his harpoon and thrust it with all his might into the back of the whale. It didn’t flinch, just continued swimming on, with its sleek, black, monstrous and magnificent body coming and coming until finally its great tail emerged and splashed down on the water.
Okfagit’s boat was now being pulled by the whale as it swam away. The contest between man and beast had begun. The harpoon stuck fast, and the whale swam on, bleeding as it went.
Other boats threw lines and were tied to Okfagit’s, creating a greater drag. Ayit hung onto the side of his boat as it surged through the sea, eager for the whale to slow down. Even in this tense moment of the hunt he had time to look about and see the beauty of the sea and the distant shore, the surging of the waves, the harpoon line cutting through the water.
The whale surfaced again to breathe and went under, but not before it was struck with a second harpoon. Again, it seemed unperturbed, but the men could see that it was slowing.
Fortunately for the Eskimos, the whale was swimming parallel to the shore, although away from the village, but not directly out to sea. As the whale grew weaker and weaker, they reeled in the line and were able to put another harpoon into it. Finally, it drifted to a halt and floated to the surface, still now in death.
The boats gathered around to reverse the process, pulling the whale instead of being pulled by it. First, they tied floats onto it to keep it from sinking. Then all the boats fastened onto the line of the first harpoon in the whale, ready to take their prize back to the village. It took all of them paddling and pulling to get the whale moving, but once it was gliding through the water it was easier. The boats strung out in an arch and made their way slowly down the coast to their beach.
The whale was far too large to pull up out of the water, being 70 feet long and weighing as many tons, so they dragged it in as far as they could get it to make it easier to butcher the great beast.
The whole village gathered on the shore, excited and glad to see this catch, which would assure them food for a long time. As the men turned to work, the children played and slid down the slopes on baleen sleds, while the older ones watched to learn some of how to harvest whale meat. The women brought tea and food and circulated them among the returned hunters.
In spite of their tiredness after all those miles of paddling, half the boat crews immediately began the process of butchering, as the meat spoiled quickly. The other boat crews went home to rest for three hours, then they would come back and work the rest of the night.
First, using long handled knives, they set about cutting off the skin in long, thick slabs that were laid aside. Ayit was glad to be among them, doing his work as a man.
Next the fat and the whale meat were harvested. These were put in underground food storage rooms, dug down to the permafrost which never melted, a natural freezer to keep the meat from spoiling.
The second group worked at it all night, then another shift of men took over, working the whole day and others worked the whole night again to finish the monumental task.
On the last day they harvested the more durable items: baleen to make sleds, household utensils, combs and other items. The ribs and fin bones were for building houses and boat racks. And if the whale had them, teeth for carving. The remaining unusable parts where dragged to the beach where the dogs could gnaw off whatever scraps were on the bones before they were returned to the sea in respect to the whale. Nothing useable was wasted.
The Eskimos celebrated by eating thin strips of skin with a bit of fat on it. To them it was like candy although it was not sweet but rubbery and tasted like the sea. They immensely enjoyed this delicacy, available usually only once or twice a year. The men then slept for 24 hours or longer after the long hours of paddling and butchering. They had the sense to recover after being over extended.
When Ayit finally woke from his deep sleep, his mother had food for him. She praised him for his good work.
“You are now a man,” she said and patted him on the shoulder. Ayit beamed.
Later in the day, Okfagit and the other men from their boat crew took Ayit to the beach, stood him by the water. Okfagit said, “You have killed your first bearded seal, you have joined in catching a whale. You are now a man,” then he struck Ayit hard on each cheek, welcoming him into village life as an adult.
Picture: whale hunter in skin boat, note the harpoon propped up in the front left. I took this picture when going on such a hunt myself