DEW Line Passage

Getting and Sharing a Bowhead Whale
with Akootchook's Crew in Barrow

We made it back to Barrow in time for whaling season, which we had witnessed with amazement the year before. This was what we saw a few times out by our Pignik cabin - front end loaders hauling bowheads down the road from the boat launch area to the airstrip where they butcher them, past the Eskimo palm trees made out of whale baleen and driftwood.
   

This year, however, the crew (Akootchook Crew) of our adoptive family had started fall whaling. Previously they have focused solely on spring whaling, which is done with umiaqs from the ice edge and is different in many ways. (Visit this site for a very beautiful photographic documentation of the spring whale hunt).

Flossie Nageak mixed the powder for the crew's harpoon and shoulder gun bombs and other crew members put the bombs together. This whaling season was very significant for the family and everything was done in the memory of Captain Roy Nageak's sister, Martha Aiken, and in the memory of Perry Nageak, Roy Ernest Nageak Jr.'s cousin and son of Ben Nageak, both of whom passed away in recent months.

Ryan was psyched to help the crew fix their harpoon and sharpen their big knives. Flossie is on the couch on the phone and her granddaughter Alana (daughter of Vincent and Lilibeth Nageak) is on the floor in red next to her brother Amary Roy.

 

Roy Maloney Akootchook Nageak, John William Kignak, and
Ryan Tinsley working on the harpoon head.
Crew co-captain Joe Sage, Ernest Nageak, and Ryan working on the harpoon.

 

When we awoke in our Pignik cabin on September 28th, our VHF could only pick up whatever search and rescue was saying. We heard them trying to get the coordinates of Akootchook crew and we worried that something had happened, but when we called the Nageaks we learned that the crew had struck a whale. We thought that was great, but they were not celebrating.

We rushed into town, by which time many members of the extended family were gathering at the house. The tension was a little thick - striking a whale is a long, hard way from actually getting it and towing it in. No one celebrates or gets anything ready while they wait to hear the final report. Striking a whale and losing it, which is fairly common, counts against the entire community's quota.

Finally, the crew reported back that they were towing the whale in. The entire house exploded with "Yay hey hey"s, various joyful ululations, and many happy tears. Everybody hugged everybody else. It was the first whale the Akootchook crew had landed since 2001 and this whale was Ernest Nageak's first.

 

After erupting in celebration, the house exploded into activity. Everything that could be hauled out of the main rooms was moved into back bedrooms, and the entire floor was covered with cardboard so that scores of people and hours of work could go on without trashing the floor. More and more family members started showing up and the amazing coordinated event that is processing a bowhead whale began.

Preparations included setting up a large staging area for the meat outside.

Soon we all went down to the beach near Pignik to watch the crew and other boats haul the whale in. Everyone was yelling 'Yay Hey Hey HEY!!' Before they had VHF radios and CBs (and cell phones), the whaling camps were spread out along the ice edge, so far that they couldn't see eachother. When one crew got a whale they would notify the other crews by all yelling "Yay Hey Hey!!" at the same time as loudly as they could. The other crews could hear this from quite far away, they would know that a whale had been struck, and they would join the successful crew to help.

 

Photo by Flossie Nageak

 
The Akootchook Crew flag is flying on the boat, the sign that the hunt was successful. The Akootchook Crew family mark is on the flag and has been the family mark passed on for many, many generations. The mark is and has long been on all the family's tools, oars, boats, guns, grub boxes, cooking pots etc.

 

Ernest Nageak (left near flag) struck the whale with the harpoon. Co-captain Joe Sage (middle) drove the boat. The crew was using James Aiken's boat for fall whaling, but James was not with them the day they got the whale. On the left is Ben Roy Sage, who threw the float into the water after they struck the whale. Crewmember Harry Aiken, who along with Ernest shot the whale with the shoulder gun after Ernest harpooned it, had already jumped out to deliver the smaller Akootchook Crew flag, which Flossie took back to the house to raise. The crew flag will fly at the house of the whaling captain during the entire processing period and will be taken down after serving.

 

 

Roy (Maloney, Akootchook) Nageak is the whaling captain,
who oversees the fall whaling operation from land.

Flossie Nageak, as a whaling captain's wife, does more work than would seem humanly possible. In the lilac parka is Flossie's sister-in-law Katie Kignak and in the flowered parka is Flossie's sister Lucy with Kaden Ernest on her back.
Darlene Kagak, cousin to Flossie and beachcomber extraordinaire.
Roy's whaling and other photos have been in newspapers statewide.

The whale was a 33'6" female (an Ingutuq), which is perfect. Not too huge, very tender. The crew struck the whale at 9:15 am...

 

 

and landed it at 3:15 that afternoon.
Afther the whale was hauled to the butchering site, the crew got the boat out of the water and were towed in it to the the butchering site with the flag still waving.

 

 

Family members posing in front of the whale once it has been hauled up onto the old DEW Line airstrip.


From left: James Aiken, Ben Roy Sage, Harry Aiken, Mae Ahgeak, Ernest Nageak, Flossie Nageak, Co-captain Joe Sage, & Captain Roy Nageak.

James Aiken & daughter, John Kignak, Flossie Nageak, Roy Nageak, Lilibeth Nageak & daughter Alana, Vincent Nageak with son Amary Roy Nageak, Clara Sage, Salomi Nageak, and Mary Sage.

 

Ben Nageak scores the whale.
Paul Kignak Jr, Michelle Weyiouanna, Katie Kignak, and Auntie Lilian Nageak admiring their crew's whale.
Ernest Nageak, Harry Aiken, Roy Nageak, and James Aiken discussing details of the hunt.
Ryan was getting warmed up for a long day of butchering.

 

Crew Co-captain Joe Sage cutting the muktuk and blubber.
Hundreds of people came to help and watch. Those who helped, including the crews of the other boats who helped tow the whale in, received shares of the whale.
Ernest was interviewed by Channel 2 News.
Flossie filmed Ryan and Ernest.
Vincent Nageak (Roy and Flossie's eldest son) and his wife Lilibeth Nageak.

A few men worked the whole time sharpening knives.
Often elders do this and receive a share.

Other people were busy boiling and serving fresh unalik
(muktuk and blubber) as well as soup, tea, and coffee to the crowd.
Percy Aiken, son of Martha Aiken, found the crew's bomb in the whale.

After several hours, they were getting to the intestines and organs.

 

These bun-buns will never be the same.

As each large strip of muktuk and blubber is cut off, guys throw hooks into and haul it out of the way.This was divided up for shares.
Trailer loads of meat were hauled back home from the cut.

 

 

The hard work of butchering and hauling (and staying warm) had gone on until late in the evening (about midnight) and there was some debate over whether everyone would start cutting then and cut all night. Fatigue won out, everyone went to sleep for a few hours and was back at the house first thing in the morning to begin cutting, cooking, and bagging up servings of food. Several women, like Josie, were busy baking hundreds of fresh dinner rolls that get served with the whale.

Cutting around the table are Bernice, Cathy, Lucy and Ryan.

Darlene Kagak and Paul Kignak Jr. were running the unalik boiling operation.
A very impressive assortment of enormous stock pots and pans had magically emerged from sheds and storage areas.

 

Cutting and cooking in the garage. The extended family of the crew was all there to help, including Darlene Kagak, Rene Johnson, Cathy Rexford, Ellie Ebue, Lucy Ann Pikok, Mae Ahgeak, Josie Kaleak, Susie Oyagak, Kate Kignak, Mary Sage, Lucy Aiken, Edith Nageak, Bernice Nashoalook, Michelle Weyiouanna and many of these women's children.

The beautiful flipper (aqikkaich), which never gets cooked.
After many hours of work, the cutting table evolved into a cooling table. On the right is Rene Johnson from St. Mary's, and Ernest Nageak and Elli Ebue on the left.

Yum.

Intestines, cleaned earlier by a group of women inside and now ready to be boiled.

Meat, by Mary Sage.

Kidney.

Heart.

Bagging meat and unalik in the well-oiled bagging assembly line.

Busy bagging are Susie Oyagak, Michelle Kaleak, Lilibeth Nageak, Fanny Aiken, and Mary Sage.

Each bag gets a dinner roll, some whale meat, unalik, tongue, intestines, and usually some flipper, heart, and kidney.

Although this still does not seem possible, in just over 24 hours after the whale was hauled up on the beach, the extended Akootchook Crew had butchered the whale, cut up huge amounts of it into serving portions, cooked all these different whale parts, and bagged over 600 servings.

Even last year when I was only participating on the receiving end, serving was easily the coolest part of whaling. Roy and Flossie and family would calculate what time other crews would be ready to serve and they would make sure they were able to hear the announcement that would come over the VHF. At this point you throw on your coat, run to the car and race across town to the house of the crew's captain. The elders are always invited in earliest and sit at the table for the feast. Everyone else lines up and passes through the house (floor covered with carboard) to get their bag of food and the accompanying cup of cooked fruit drink.

Auntie Lilian Nageak.

Ben Nageak.

When the Nageaks and extended Akootchook Crew were ready to serve, everyone gathered inside to be together and get on the VHF radio to thank the community for their prayers and to share with the community prayers of gratitude and prayers for family members (Martha Aiken and Perry Nageak) who have passed. Also, the whale was served on the day of Paul Kignak Sr.'s (father of Flossie, Lucy, Mae, Susie, Elizabeth, Paul Jr., and Bradford) wedding anniversary with his second wife. Of course, the fact that it was Ernest's first whale was also auspicious. Ernest was taught hunting and wisdom by his grandfather Paul Sr. and his uncle Kiogak and Mae Ahgeak, which is why he loves to hunt so much and he gives away what ever he can to people that need food.

Akootchook's Crew and extended Nageak and Kignak family then announced to Barrow that they were serving. Once again, hugs and ululations all around.

There were very few dry eyes by this point, it was an extraordinary mixture of intense emotions.

   

By the time we had finished making the announcement, people were lining up outside, and there was so much joy. Joe Sage's truck there says it all: "Inupiaq Pride." It was a most incredible experience. For his work, Ryan got a share and we are enjoying it here in Fairbanks but we miss our Barrow family so much that we will return in hopes of helping out with more whales.

The work of the crew was not over. They had to divide up and haul all the rest of the meat, blubber, etc. over to the family's ice cellar and stack it down in there. The family will bring everything out of the cellar to serve raw muktuk, meat, and flippers and cooked heart and tongue to the community at Thanksgiving and again at Christmas. Next spring at Nalukataq they will serve the tail and flukes after they age them for a few months.

After cleaning the entire house and preparing and storing their own share, Flossie cleaned up the bombs and boiled and bleached the whale's ear drum for her son, Ernest, to commemorate his first whale. Congratulations, Ernest, and

Thank you, Akootchook Crew!

 

 

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