Inupiaq begin preparations for spring whaling season

 by Mary Virginia Anniagruk Lum Sage

Here are some photos of spring whaling season preparations here in Barrow, Alaska, at the Inupiaq Heritage Center.

Ernest Nageak

Barrow High School Homecoming King Ernest Nageak, of the PK13 Whaling Crew, checks the crew’s umiaq frame. The traditional whaling boat will be covered with a bearded seal skin cover. The PK13 Whaling Crew was beginning their preparations at the Inupiat Heritage Center in Barrow, getting ready for the spring whaling season. 

L-R: Emma Neakok, Josie Kaleak, Mary Ahkiviana, Isabel Kanayurak, Priscilla Sage, Flora Brower, Doreen Ahgeak and Margaret Leavitt.

Every February, whaling crews start preparing for the spring whaling season. Some whaling crews replace their bearded seal skin boat covers because of holes or tearing. The ladies in this picture are the usual seamstresses for sewing the skin boat cover, and will sew for 10-15 crews each February. It takes anywhere from 8-20 non-stop hours to sew one skin boat cover, and usually 5-9 bearded seal skins are used. The ladies partner up with each other and begin sewing from the middle, making waterproof stitches and sewing to the outer edge. They check each others' seams for accuracy and work together. The coffee can is filled with seal oil and is used to help make the stitches waterproof.  

Skin boat seamstress Priscilla Sage sews waterproof seams on the bearded seal skins . Five to nine bearded seal skins will be sewn together to make the traditional whaling boat cover used for spring whaling only. This particular boat used five skins, two of which were extra large.

Skin boat seamstress Priscilla Sage threads her needle with sinew. Strands of dried caribou muscle are braided together in a time consuming process to create the traditional thread used for sewing. Sage teaches local workshops and also individuals on the Inupiaq technique of extracting the muscle while butchering the caribou, drying the muscle, pulling strands from the dried muscle and braiding it into thread.  

 Completed Umiaq

Coming up:

In a few weeks, whaling crews will be taking these next steps preparing for the spring whaling hunt on the edge of the shore ice:

The next step in preparing for spring whaling is to prepare all of the gear that will be used in the whaling camp (which is always on the edge of the shore ice). Crew members will be making the bombs that help kill the whale faster (thus preventing harpooned whales from sinking or from being wounded and dying later with no harvest).

Crew members also gather all of their camping gear, work on their snow machines (if needed), prepare their sleds, and buy food and other supplies for the camp.

After preparing the gear, then it’s time to break trail. Breaking trail means clearing a path on the rough ice from the beach to the edge of the shore ice, which right now is about ¾ mile out. Breaking trail is pure hard labor and is usually reserved for the younger members of the whaling crew. Some whaling crews team up with other crews and work together on one main trail and then divert to different directions.

For more information, phone Roy Nageak or his wife, Flossie, at 907-852-7696. Roy is a whaling captain for a different crew, and Flossie’s brother is the captain of the PK13 Whaling Crew and can answer your questions.

Inupiat Heritage Center:

Photos copyright: Mary Anniagruk Sage

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