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Whole Lotta Muktuk goin on!

Sometimes moving to a new location can change your place in history as much as it does your place on the map. I first noticed this a day or two after arriving in Barrow as I watched a small child drive an ATV down the street. No-one seemed to notice, not that time or the next. I’m pretty sure that it’s as illegal here as it is most places I’ve lived, but law on the books and law in daily life aren’t always the same thing. So, I saw this for the first time, and the word ‘frontier’ came to mind.

…and I smiled.

Of course, the notion of a ‘frontier’ (with all its ideological baggage) would seem to place Barrow on the cutting edge of history. That notion comes up from time to time, especially in the context of oil exploration and drilling, but also with scientific research, and other topics that people like to project onto a scheme of ‘progress’.

At other times, the logic of history places us behind the curve, so to speak. By “behind the curve” I mean that we fall behind someone else’s idea of the direction history is supposed to be going. It might seem more reasonable to think of the issue in terms of straight-forward disagreement, people do things that others don’t approve of, but the point is that people sometimes filter such disagreements through ideas about the general arc of history. It may be a history they urge on the public, or it may be a history they take for granted, but people often plot their values on some sense of an historical timeline. It’s not real history that I’m talking about; it’s an ideological projection of the way history ought to proceed.

I was reminded of this quite clearly the other day when a student of mine recently shared the video below. It starts with some beautiful outdoor shots of Barrow, AK, but (readers be warned) it continues to show the butchering of a Bowhead whale. The video might seem a jarring journey to some, but for most of us (I believe) here on the North Slope, the transition seems quite natural. A whale harvest is a joyous event as it means food for a lot of people. Much as the serene images at the start of the video, a whale harvest is prone to make us want to smile.

I asked what kind of comments, the video had gotten. A moment of scrolling later, I received my answer. The images of whaling had drawn criticism both on the video and on my student’s Facebook account. On the video itself one individual had written; “It’s really strucked up about how cruel people are to animals. It would be great for all animals and humans to go vegan and to respect each other.” I smiled and laughed as I recalled the first time I posted images of a whale harvest to my own Facebook account. I’ve since learned to post warnings and what-not.

Whaling videopdfcroppedagainThis is one of the many ways that life in Barrow (and much of Alaska) differs markedly from that of the lower 48; hunting is a way of life for many people up here. It simply isn’t for the majority of people down there, and at least some of those people imagine all of history moving towards their way of life. The many artifacts of subsistence hunting are bound to rub such folks the wrong way. A friend once commented about the necessity to remove one’s furs before hitting the Seattle airport, and we both laughed. Surrounded by folks in all-manner of furs, I could only imagine the reception some of the day-to-day outfits of the North Slope would get in other places.

I remember once trying to find a gift for a friend who likes Native American art. A vegetarian with significant interest in animal welfare, she would not have appreciated the ivory earrings or baleen etchings locals produced, nor the many varieties of fur. Most of the native artwork here involves dead animals of one form or another, and that really should come as no surprise in a community where hunting is for many people a fundamental part of their way of life.

The issue isn’t simply a question of whether or not to support or oppose hunting, fur, whaling, and so on.; it’s also a question of how you frame the issues. There is a big difference between the commercial fur industry and the hand-made clothes of locals who’ve eaten the meat previously kept warm by that same fur. Likewise, there is a big difference between a whale taken for commercial purposes and those whose blubber will be shared out to the community. Whether or not that settles the issue is another question, but quite often I think people simply fail to notice the difference.

Which brings us back to whaling!

There is a world of difference between the significance of whaling up here and the meaning given to it in other places. This problem was all over a New York Times article on Spring Whaling published a few years back. Its author framed the whole issue in terms of ‘tradition’, then proceeded to worry over the use of technological innovation in pursuit of that tradition. I also recall a discussion of the Makah whale hunt on a random website (I can’t find it now). Participants simply dismissed the idea that native whaling could be anything but a token gesture, a practice akin to preserving a museum exhibit. A similar view can be found in one of the comments to this post, Whaling Camp: Frozen Seas and Ice-scapes at the blog, Cutterlight. In response to this post, a woman named Kirsten Massebeau wrote:

There is no humane way to kill a whale. Today we know whales and dolphins are higher beings. Sometimes these whales suffer for up to 5 hours after being harpooned. Isn’t it time we stop letting the word “tradition” be an excuse for doing something so wrong. Please stop murdering the people of the sea! You are obviously wearing store bought clothes and shoes. Surely you can see your way clear of murdering our ocean friends.

Don’t get me wrong, I think this woman (as with others) raises some legitimate concerns in her comment, but I also think there are legitimate answers to those concerns, and I think the whole thing thrown askew by a certain refusal to take the Native Alaskan population seriously.

What all of these examples have in common is a refusal to allow or even to imagine the practice of whaling in the modern world. They cannot even fathom the possibility that such a thing could occur in the present world. To many of these folks, whaling (or at least the indigenous version of it) is by definition a thing of the past, a mere tradition, and one gathers an empty one at that. This seems to be a common perception of whaling on the North Slope, and that perception injects a great deal of prejudice into any subsequent discussion. It is a prejudice shaped and defined by people’s ideological views about history as much as anything else.

Whaling here on the North Slope is first and foremost a native matter, but it affects us all. The effort to bring in a bowhead is not limited to the crew of a single boat. Extended families and friends all work together to outfit and support a given crew, and the entire community of the North slope accommodates the needs of those involved. Time off from work is granted without question when it’s time to cut a trail through the ice. Homework deadlines are extended when it’s time to butcher and cook the blubber. Blubber and meat are shared throughout the community following a successful whale harvest. Whaling is no quaint tradition on the North Slope; it is one of the most important economic activities taking place up here.

Seeing the importance of whaling to an entire community, the condescension of some of these random comments can be quite maddening. Of course these are merely random comments on social media, but they provide a telling glimpse into the way that the larger public closes itself to local realities. Folks just can’t seem to find room in their view of the present for activities such as whaling and subsistence hunting. Presented with evidence to the contrary, it seems a common response to construe such things in terms of a museum exhibit.

…even when that exhibit is real people going about their daily lives, very much in the present day.


Epilogue: The disconnect between people’s perceptions of whaling works both ways. I recently received a charming example of this when a student of mine who teaches in one of the local villages passed information about the New England whaling fleet of the 19th century onto her own native students. They wanted to know how the meat and blubber would be shared.