In the far north of Alaska, the ancestral hunting of bowhead whales continues

Raw, the texture is really greasy; in stew, it looks like stew, and marinated, the meat is a little sweet. The whale was tasted in all its states, Friday, June 24, in Utqiagvik, in the extreme north of Alaska, on the shores of the Arctic Ocean, in the Beaufort Sea. The entire population gathered to share the bowhead whales captured by four crews in the spring.

It all started with a prayer, in homage to the whales, a hymn and a Alleluia sung in the Inupiat language, holding hands in an arc. Then the meal was distributed during the afternoon, which ended with aerobatic jumps on huge skins.

All were gathered, also from the surrounding villages for the celebration, at the edge of the pack ice which had not completely melted. “Young, old, women, crews, they are all there. The whale is the foundation of this community,” comments wildlife scientist Geoff Carroll, 71, who landed in the village in the 1970s to count whales.

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Because, in Utqiagvik, the Inupiat continue to practice whaling, like their ancestors for two millennia. The town captured sixteen this year, out of a quota of twenty-five. In total, Alaska had the right to “harvest” – to put it mildly in the US – some 93 bowhead whales in the traditional subsistence fishery.

One of the crew chiefs, Tommy Nageak, 43, defends his way of life: “If the anti-hunters come, I’m ready to defend myself. We hunt to eat. Everyone must eat. Those who cultivate the land also destroy it. Everyone has an impact. » Regulated by the International Whaling Commission, the whale cannot be sold and must be hunted only by Native American populations. It is therefore impossible for others to participate in these ancestral hunts in the spring.

“We’ve been doing this for decades”

Under the foggy northern sun, Carl Nayakik, 47, recounts his whale quest over the past few weeks. The fishing actually begins long before the pack ice begins to open up in April. “We are preparing sleds, traditional sealskin boats, harpoons. It takes six to eight weeks”he explains.

Then, you have to build a route through the pack ice, which is dangerous and fluctuates with opposing currents, which takes two to three additional weeks. This year, the icy track was almost 2.5 kilometers to approach the water. And, finally, you have to camp to wait for the good whale at the edge of the shore. “It lasted four days. »

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