Ethnographic Portraits: Inupiat of Arctic Alaska

Changing Patterns of Subsistence

In Arctic Alaska, barren land and severe climate have always tested the Inupiat's ingenuity and skill at making a living. Even recent migrants to the far north, whose advanced technology has enabled them to erect an artificial environment in which they can spend most of their time, are only partially insulated from the external world around them.On more than a few occasions, these newcomers have relied so heavily on their artificially constructed surroundings that when their technology failed them, they were unable to cope with changing Arctic conditions.

For most of their history, the Inupiat had considerably less control over their environment and were thus were more dependent on it. Increased opportunities for wage labor in the mid-1900s were far from common in most northern villages. Thus, many men and women continued to spend much of their lives engaged in traditional pursuits associated with subsistence hunting and fishing. Since these activities were seasonal in nature, the subsistence cycle of the Inupiat was not unlike like that of earlier times. The aboriginal calendar illustrates the significance of the changing seasons for Inupiat economic and social life:

Inupiat Aboriginal Calendar

January - siqinyasaq tatqiq ------------"moon of the returning sun"

February - izrasugruk tatqiq------------"coldest moon"

March - paniqsiqsiivik tatqiq-----------"moon for bleaching skins"

April - Agaviksiuvik tatqiq------------- "moon for beginning whaling"

May - suvluravik tatqiq-----------------"moon when rivers flow"

June - irniivik tatqiq---------------------"moon when animals give birth"

July - inyukuksaivik tatqiq-------------"moon when birds raise their young"

August - aqavirvik tatqiq---------------"moon when birds molt"

September - tingiivik tatqiq-------------"moon when birds fly south"

October - nuliavik tatqiq----------------"moon when caribou rut"

November - nippivik tatqiq-------------"moon of the setting sun."

December - siqinrilaq tatqiq------------"moon with no sun"

Spring marked the beginning of the whaling season for the whaling communities of Point Hope, Icy Cape, Wainwright and Barrow. In April and May, village boat crews encamped on the edge of the sea ice to hunt the migrating bowhead.

When a bowhead was caught, all available community members gathered to help with the butchering. Following a long tradition, the meat was then distributed to relatives, friends of the crew, and other villagers according to certain rules. However, if the season was unsuccessful, smaller game such as seal, ugruk, duck and ptarmigan were more actively sought.

In June and July when the ice broke up, attention shifted to walrus and seal which were pursued in a powerboat or skin-covered umiaq. During the summer, seal, caribou, and fish provided supplemental sources of food. Immediately after freeze-up in the fall, the villagers actively prepared for winter storms and darkness. At Wainwright, Meade River, and several other locations along the Arctic Slope, veins of coal were mined and sacked for winter fuel. If coal was unavailable and lack of cash limited the purchase of fuel oil, driftwood was gathered and stored.

This was also the time for repairing houses and storing fresh water ice in underground cellars for eventual use as cooking and drinking water.

Winter introduced the trapping season which lasted to the middle of March. In the 1950s and early 60s, trapping was of minor importance due to the low price of furs. Polar bear pelts were more valued, bringing as much as twelve dollars or more a foot. During this period, fish were netted in river inlets and seals hunted at their breathing holes. In maximum darkness or during severe storms, stored meat and canned goods were the prime source of food.

In 1961, an older Barrow Inupiat described this most difficult of seasons:

These are the worst months for the Eskimo. That is when the animals are the hardest to find. These are the coldest days too. We hunt mostly along the coast, hunt seal. We also hunt polar bear once in a while. We hunt seal when there are leads in the ice at their breathing holes. One way is to sit and wait at a hole for them to come by. It is very hard to do this for long periods. Once I had to wait for four hours.

One of the first times I went out hunting, I saw a really large seal put his head up to the hole in the ice to breathe. And I very much wanted to get that seal, so I wait and I wait and I wait for him to come up again. Smaller seals were coming up but not that large one. They would poke their noses in the hole and I let them breathe. Finally, someone shouted that the ice was breaking at this spot and trying to float me out to sea. So I got up and started to run. I finally reached the shore ice but I never got the seal. When I got home, I talked with my old dad and told him I saw a really big seal at the seal hole, and that I saw smaller ones there too and did not take them. I let them breathe. Gee, but my father scolded me. He said, "You went out there to hunt. That's no way to hunt. You are to get all the seals when they are close to you. After that mistake, you won't find any seals in the holes."

Of all the subsistence activities, whaling is certainly the most dramatic. For years, this endeavor has given major support to the Inupiat's image of themselves as a courageous and daring people - and with good reason. Hunting this largest of mammals in a semi-frozen sea is impressive enough with today's efficient technology. Before the innovation of whale bombs and darting guns, it was even more so.

Originally, the harpoon and lance were the essential tools. Attached to the harpoon were two or three inflated sealskin pokes, each with a bouyancy of 200 to 500 pounds. A rawhide line connected the floats to the harpoon head. When a whale was sighted the boat crew launched the umiaq and approached the animal in such a way that the bow of the boat could be placed on its back, or at least close enough for the harpooner to sink one or more of his toggle-headed harpoons into the thick skin. Attached to each harpoon were floats which other crew members quickly cast over side. The purpose of these floats was not only to indicate the location of the whale, but also to slow it down during its attempts to sound or swim away. Once the whale had become exhausted, the crew could safely approach and the lancer begin his work. The aboriginal lance was ten to twelve feet in length and tipped with a razor-sharp flint blade. To prevent the whale from sounding, the lancer severed the tendons controlling the whale's flukes, and then probed deeply into its vital organs. As the wounded animal went into its death flurry, the crew retreated to a safe distance. The dead whale was then hauled onto the sea ice and butchered by the local village members.

With the arrival of commercial whalers to the North Alaskan coast, the darting gun soon replaced the harpoon. Its particular advantage was that it carried a small explosive charge which, if well placed, could kill outright, or at least do enough damage to make unnecessary the long and dangerous chase. The shoulder gun, also introduced at the same time, replaced the lance, for it was highly efficient in ensuring a quick kill. During the height of the commercial whaling activity, the cost of these weapons and ammunition was of little concern since the baleen from a single whale might bring as much as $10,000. After the collapse of the baleen market in the early 1900s, the Inupiat still relied on the whale for subsistence needs; but the cost of guns, ammunition and other supplies effectively limited the number of boat crews that could afford to hunt. Since the Inupiat had little interest in returning to their earlier techniques, the number of boats used in hunting the whale was governed by a potential crew captain's ability to raise the $300 to $400 necessary for outfitting.

Throughout the 1900s, whale hunting continued to be an essential subsistence activity. Each spring, villages along the coast could count on the participation of several boat crews. In Barrow, there were even more. A usual crew was composed of an umialik, the boat captain, a "shoulder-gun man," a harpooner or "striker," and three or more paddlers, although the umialik sometimes fulfilled one of these latter roles as well.

Crews were usually comprised of extended kin, although in recent years this pattern has become increasingly flexible. During the hunt, crews maintained fairly close contact and once a whale was sighted and captured, others nearby assisted in towing it to the edge of the ice. Village members then stripped the blubber, following which the meat was divided equally according to custom, with one portion going to the successful crew, another to the assisting crews, and the third to the village "helpers."

In earlier years, an important set of magical practices and taboos were associated with whale hunting. Members of the crew carried amulets; they abstained from cooking in the ice camp; and the shaman performed drumming rites. Later on, these practices were replaced by Christian prayers which were offered in church at the beginning of the whaling season, and after a whale had been sighted and harpooned.

Other traditional customs associated with whaling continued into the mid-1950s and beyond.Prelimiary feasts for the crew and their families were often held at the home of the umialik. At the conclusion of this event when the crew members were departing for their camps on the edge of the coastal ice, candy was offered to the local children. During the six week whaling season that followed, all the needs of the crew, including food, cigarettes and ammunition, were supplied by the umialik. Then, as previously, only those men who had a sufficient cash income to purchase the required supplies could claim the status of whaling captain.

Following the whaling season, the Inupiat turned their attention to hunting walrus and seal. In June and July these sea mammals could be found on ice flows directly in front of the coastal villages from Point Hope to Barrow. Walrus herds were hunted in boat crews in much the same way as the whale. However, they were rarely were found at Kaktovik due to the village's eastern location far removed from their regular migration path.

Though providing less meat and carrying less prestige than the whale or walrus, seal hunting has always been an important subsistence staple. Fluctuations in whale and walrus populations along the northwest Alaskan coast were a continual source of concern. Seals, on the other hand, provided many of the same products as the former, and were present throughout much of the year.

This dependence on the seal was reflected in the highly developed aboriginal techniques of hunting it. As described by the old Barrow Inupiat, during winter when the sea was completely frozen over, seals maintained a series of breathing holes through the ice covering an area of several acres. A hunter stationed himself near one of these holes and with great patience, waited until the seal surfaced. His harpoon was devised specially so that the head could be detached from the valuable shaft. On sighting a seal, he thrust the harpoon down through the narrow opening at the surface of the ice and into the seal's neck or head. As the animal pulled away, the shaft worked loose from the ivory head. Then, laying the shaft aside, the hunter took hold of the line attached to the harpoon head and pulled the seal to the surface where it was then killed.

During the late spring and summer months when seals lay on top of the ice, surface stalking was undertaken. At this time, the Inupiat ranged over a wide territory frequently obtaining large numbers of seal in a short period of time. Prior to the use of the rifle, a throwing [rather than a thrusting] harpoon was used. But since its effective range was seldom more than twenty-five feet, great skill was needed in stalking. A hunter could approach to within 300 yards of the seal without taking special precautions. Still, he might wear light clothing to camouflage himself against the ice and cloud background; or he might wear dark clothing and try to imitiate another seal by moving closer at a much slower pace. By mimicking the animal's movements and timing his advance to accord with the seal's short "naps," a capable hunter could approach to within a few feet of it.

Due to the time-consuming nature of these aboriginal techniques, the harpoon was replaced by a rifle whenever possible. Not only did it kill the seal more quickly, but the animal did not seem to be apprehensive at the crack of a rifle shot. Thus, the hunter could take several seal from the same location. One drawback of the rifle, however, was that it did not allow the seal to be easily retrieved.

On land, caribou was the most significant animal regularly hunted, although Dall mountain sheep were also highly valued. For centuries caribou provided a variety of food, sinew for sewing, antlers for making implements, and skins for clothing, tents, and bedding. Meat and skin were the most important of these items, with the latter still serving as crucial material for clothing even up to the present day.

In the summer, caribou were hunted near the coast where they were most easily accessable. In the fall, small groups of hunters traveled inland searching for small herds migrating back toward the interior mountains. Following a successful hunt, the meat was distributed by the women among the families of the hunters. Eaten throughout the year, caribou meat was a major nutrient in the Inupiat diet. A full-time hunter with a family of five obtained an average of twenty-four caribou each year. In Wainwright, for example, the average village-wide kill in the mid-1950s totaled 800 caribou a year.

Fish also provided an important food staple. In winter, they were caught through a hole in the ice with a line and lures made of ivory or metal.

However, fishing was a much more important activity in summer and early fall. At that time, Inupiat families not engaged in wage labor left their villages for fish camps along the coast or inland, setting up nets in selected locations at the mouth of a stream or river. In a successful season, as many as fifty to seventy-five whitefish or other species were netted in a single day. Any fish not eaten at the time were dried and stored or frozen in ice cellars for use in winter.

This yearly cycle of Inupiat subsistence activities continued right into the 1960s. To the extent that village residents relied on hunting and fishing for much of their livelihood, the cooperative effort necessary for success in this activity served as a major form of community solidarity. As the desire, opportunity, and need to engage in wage labor became predominant, this integrative feature of village life was proportionately threatened. In the mid-1900s, an ingenious way of resolving this dilemma was followed by Point Hope men who sought summer work in Fairbanks and other urban locations just long enough to qualify for unemployment compensation -- at which point they would quit and go back to the village to engage in hunting and other subsistence activities with other family members.

[Adapted from Norman A. Chance, The Inupiat and Arctic Alaska (1990), Harcourt Brace.]

ArcticCircle Home Page