Inupiat residents giving thanks for the whale at Nalukataq, Barrow, Alaska, June, 2008
Every June, spirits run pretty high in Barrow. After a long winter, these Inupiats are ready to party.
Though the sun shines high in the sky till well after midnight in this northern-most city of the United States, the north wind still blows a chill through the 35 degree air. For two months after the whale hunt in April, hundreds of Barrow’s 5000 residents help organize, cook, prepare whale meat, soups, vegetables and other food for the festival known as Nalukataq (Na lu’ ka tak).
The word technically means “blanket toss”, but it commonly refers to the general Inupiat celebration of a successful bowhead whale hunting season. It is a time to honor not only the whales, but also families, friends and the land for providing the bounty that allows them to enjoy the life they cherish. Nowhere in Alaska is this time of grace and giving more heartfelt than in Barrow.
Some years are more special than others, depending on the number of whales and other mammals caught. Year 2008 included other mammals from Juneau — all the state representatives flew up to discuss the hotly debated offshore drilling proposals for the Chukchi Sea. Ex-governor Sarah Palin also visited with her newborn son Trig.
But whether you are a native Alaskan, regular visitor, politicians, or tourist, if you are in Barrow during Nalukataq, you are accepted as family. Though Barrow may be as isolated as a South Pacific island, its sense of community extends well beyond its boundaries. You are made welcome and offered any of the food that has been pre-pared for this special day.
“Do ya like my legs?”
Ex-governor Sarah Palin with her newborn son Trig visited in 2009.
Before the banquet begins, anyone can walk up and cut off a piece of blubber from the raw hunks sitting in the middle of the festival. Around 20 bowhead whales are caught each Spring. Weighing 1 ton per foot, and averaging 25-50 feet per whale, there is usually plenty for anyone to get as much as they want.
Just before the food is distributed, everyone joins hands and sings the blessing to the whale, celebrating the circle of life, uniting elder and young in this meeting of land, culture and tradition.
Usually there are several feasts during Nalukataq, scheduled about 2-3 days apart. Each feast is sponsored by one of the 50+ whaling crews. Over 30 tons of whale meat are prepared in various forms, often combined with caribou or chicken to make soups and stews.
The entire whale is used, including the tongue, kidney, heart, tail, muktuk, and intestines. Excess blubber feeds the dogs in winter; flippers are cut into small pieces and given to babies for teething, and the liver membrane is made into traditional drums. Nothing is wasted.
One of the specialties served at every meal is a cooked form of whale meat called Mikigaq (“mee’-kee-yuk”). Made simply with raw strips of whale meat left in a 5 gallon bucket to ferment for a week, and mixed with muktuk that has similarly been fermented, it is an “acquired” taste. No spices are added to the meat. To those of us unaccustomed to traditional preparations, it looks more like raw sewage (tastes a bit sweeter…) than the nutritious food it is.
Fresh oranges, apples, bread rolls, cake, and other goodies are also given to all. Another Inupiat dish called Siignaq — a mixture of fruit pieces cooked for about an hour, and sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar.
After an hour or two to digest, it’s time for the blanket toss. Made traditionally from heavy walrus skins, the blankets are tied to posts with thick commercial rope. Many people assume that the original purpose of the toss was so that natives could search for whales. But the truth is more spiritual – it was supposedly done so the “whales can see them”, and decide whether to “give themselves to the people.”
Pryce Levitt backflips on the blanket toss, Nalukataq festival, Barrow, Alaska, June 2008
The blanket toss lasts for hours, off and on all day and into the “night”. Anyone can step up and be tossed in the air. Sometimes they are thrown up so high, and so far off-center, that they fly over the crowd and have to be cushioned by several warm bodies.
Just before the children get their turn, a few residents bring bags of candy with them. As they get tossed in the air, the candy is thrown into the crowd, and the young ones scramble to pick them off the ground.
These are the people and events that make Alaska unique, not only in our country, but in the world as well. It seems that the colder the winter, the more passionately it ignites the warmth and community these people share at this time of year.
Nalukataq is a time when everyone seems to relish the earth and its cycles. A time to appreciate the common needs of all people – food, family, friends — and, most importantly, that your life has meaning for yourself and others.
© Ron Levy
Ron Levy has photographed for commercial and editorial clients worldwide for over 35 years. Images have been exhibited in museums, galleries, murals, billboards and elsewhere throughout the US, Europe and Asia. He has been an adjunct instructor for the University of Alaska, and currently leads photography tours to popular wildlife and scenic destinations in Alaska. Ron also enjoys working with companies, agencies and NGOs involved in health, conservation and humanity-centered projects anywhere in the world.