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Inupiat Alaska villages struggle to share subsistence whale harvest

Jill Burke
Tony Hopfinger photo

Perhaps the Northwest Alaska village of Kivalina should take a cue from Neiman Marcus and offer its holiday feasts as high-priced, fantasy tourist destinations. For less money than the retailer is charging for a single, day-long, meal-inspired field trip for six to a New York farm in its 2011 Christmas catalogue, Kivalina will be able to feed some 374 villagers at its own Christmas feast.

As exclusive shoppers contemplate whether to spend $9,500 on Neiman Marcus' day trip to Stone Barn Farms in Pocantico Hills, N.Y., Kivalina is scrambling to pull together the $6,720 it needs to charter a plane to pick up 1,400 pounds of donated whale blubber.

Though worlds apart, the two endeavors are strikingly similar. Both are centered on eating off the land and celebrating the day's harvest with an inspired multiple-course meal.

Yet for Kivalina, a remote Inupiat village along the Chukchi Sea, setting a dream table of traditional foods will require a neighbor's kindness to help fill the plates. There's plenty of whale to go around, but in northern Alaska it's impossible to load up a truck and send a delivery on its way. With no web of road connections, communities are extremely isolated, accessible only by boat or plane.

It takes a village to feed a village

This year, after several lean seasons, Kivalina's hunters have killed several caribou and a number of bearded seals. But that same good fortune hasn't smiled on the village whalers -- they haven't taken a bowhead whale in 17 years, according to city records.

Nevertheless, Kivalina residents may get a taste of whale blubber this holiday season.

In Inupiaq culture, the whale is sacred. Bowheads feed people who endure some of America's harshest winter weather, and their pursuit sustains a culture thousands of years old. Sharing, it is said, is the Inupiaq version of "paying it forward." Do so, and your future blessings will increase.


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The distance between Nuiqsut and Kivalina

In the small community of Nuiqsut, 377 miles to the northeast along the Arctic Ocean, whaling captain Isaac Nukapigak has offered to donate muktuk to Kivalina and two other villages that would otherwise miss out on this customary food. Nuiqsut killed three whales this fall and there is plenty to share.

He sent whale blubber to Kivalina last year, and one could say he's already reaping the benefits.

Last year the whales landed averaged 25 to 35 feet in length, a prime size. But this year all three were monster-sized.

"We landed three giant fish," Nukapigak said. "We thought they were small when we went after them but as we were towing the whale and landing them at Cross Island they grew."

The big whales, about 50 feet long, were a mixed blessing. Yes, they will feed more people. But they are also difficult to process.

Unlike some whaling communities where whaling crews can go home for breaks or easily call for back up, the Nuiqsut crews must travel 93 miles to reach their hunting grounds. With limited manpower, whales that size can easily take two and a half to three days to butcher -- an exhausting task that comes with a greater risk of spoilage.

On average, bowhead whales are thought to weigh about 1 ton per foot. All of the whalers share their take, and from his cut this year Nukapigak says he has some 4,000 pounds he’d like to pass on to others in the region.

"I came from a big subsistence family, a family that has the heart of sharing of what we receive," he said in an interview Monday from his office at Kuukpik Corp., where he serves as president. "We have more than enough for our community. I would love to donate to another community."

"I love it when we get an offer like that," said Janet Mitchell, Kivalina's city administrator. "I thought if everybody was in a generous mood we would get enough (money) for a whole plane load."

But so far, she's far short of her fundraising goal.

Muktuk shuttle to Kivalina

The oil company ConocoPhilips and the Northwest Arctic Borough have each offered $1,000 to help the village charter a cargo plane from Kotzebue to fly to to Nuiqsut, get the load, and head back down the coast. It's a start, but short of the more than $6,500 they need for a muktuk shuttle to Kivalina.

Last year, another whale Nukapigak donated helped save Kivalina's communitywide Thanksgiving feast, Mitchell said. The village was short on caribou in 2010, with hardly enough to go around, but the donated muktuk was so abundant servers were able to make three passes in the school gymnasium, where everyone ate. Even with seconds and thirds dished out, there was enough to save for Easter.

Mitchell had hoped to have muktuk available again this year at Thanksgiving, but was unable to get donations lined up in time, and now the push is to get a whale landed in Kivalina in time for Christmas.

"A menu of fried caribou steaks and whale blubber called 'qavsiraq' is most appealing," she wrote in an email.

Back in Nuiqsut, Nukapigak hoped peoples' generosity and good will would eventually prevail, and dreamed up a fantasy Christmas gift of his own.

"I am hoping that Obama reads the story and sends me a blank check," he said with a laugh.

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com