Whaling in traditional Alaskan villages began thousands of years ago. Whaling songs have been dated as far back as two-thousand years. The whaling delicacy, mikkiyaq, is just as ancient. Whaling is a huge part of Eskimo culture because it has many uses. It's a major food source, with the meat rich in niacin, iron, and protein, and the skin is rich in calcium. Even the tongue and other organs are eaten. Nothing is wasted. The bones were used for housing equipment, and the huge vertebrae were used for seats. Baleen was used for boot insulation. The stomach and bladder were, and still are, used for drums.
Whaling is a huge event every season. Everyone is involved in the whole whaling process. The whole community helped haul in the whale, butcher it, cook it, and distribute it. It was, and is, elaborately celebrated at the beginning and ending of the whaling season. The whaling captain and his family feed the whole community after the first hunt. They play games, dance, and eat for three to five days. Nalukatak is a blanket toss celebration which occurs after the hunting season is over. During this June celebration, captains plan for the next season's harvest. This lasts three to five days also.
During the mid-1970s the International Whaling Committee (IWC), decided that the Eskimos were harvesting too many bowhead whales. IWC scientists knew the Eskimo's hunting statistics for the past forty years. The increased take of whales and numbers hit and lost at sea caused the IWC scientists to call for "drastic measures". Although the scientists did not have a good estimate of the bowhead population, they still called for a complete moratorium. The true news-making controversy began in 1977 when the IWC called for a moratorium on all whaling, commercial and Alaskan subsistence-take alike.
Before the moratorium, the Eskimos had never heard of the IWC. Neither the IWC nor the U.S. Commerce Department had spoken with the Eskimos until a few months before the ban was passed. IWC had been urging the U.S. government to take action for five years before the federal government did anything. The Eskimos seemed to be being punished with a complete ban on whale hunting because of the federal government's negligence. Even after the moratorium passed, and the hunters were informed, the IWC did not even work to lower the unit numbers or improve hunting techniques and instead called for an end to hunting.
The IWC's predecessors first act was to call an end to all commercial bowhead intake. The call was twenty years late. White men had already stopped hunting bowheads. It began with an embarrassing history which escalated when Iceland, Greenland, Norway, and the Faeroe Islands left IWC. They formed their own North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission, complaining that the IWC's restrictions were too severe. IWC almost always regulated to the whaler's advantage and had no profound effect until the moratorium was called. The IWC was also always hindered by the scientists' uncertainty about whale numbers. The IWC began as a "whaler's clubhouse" when commercial whaling in the Arctic Sea was glorified. It was officially formed on December 2, 1946, in Washington, D.C. It became an international organization with meetings in London and Canberra, Australia.
The IWC seemed unpopular, and its goals were unreasonable even before the moratorium was passed. The seventies was the reason that the IWC became so popular. Then the love was in, and hate was out. Loving whales was part of that age. Pain was felt for the whales who were taken by greedy commercial hunters, and IWC seemed to be righting their past wrongs. But another love was felt for the Native Americans. Of Eskimos and Indians, the latter were more glorified. Whales were also more popularized and therefore most of America sided with the whale's rights. There were a few people, though, who also felt bad for the Eskimos and gave alternatives for the hunt.
Saving the whales and/or the Eskimos became a clash of symbols among young and old Americans alike. The seventies was an age where no cause was overlooked. Saving the whales was a "feeding frenzy" for the masses. No one researched the history of Alaskan whaling, and so the public went with their general knowledge about whaling and their emotions for the whales. No one stressed the fact that it was the white men who had brought the bowheads to near extinction in the first place; or that Eskimos knew the whale numbers, respected and cared for the whales better than any scientist could. The moratorium became nothing more than a test of the Eskimo's agility.
The Eskimos pleaded with the government to file an objection against the moratorium. This had worked previously for Japan and the Soviet Union who had thereby avoided the quotas and continued whaling. Since the U.S. agreed to abide by IWC recommendations, these countries followed our lead. Once the Eskimos asked for an objection, the U.S. felt it would be hypocritical to go against our word (Boeri, 1983: 108). However, at a special meeting in December, 1977, the U.S. government asked for a restricted hunt. The IWC agreed and allowed a special, limited hunt in 1978. The Eskimos felt that this quota was not enough for their subsistence need.
Soon the Federal government sent two men to Gamble, Alaska, to oversee the limited whale hunt. They would find themselves isolated in an Eskimo's world, but not without Eskimo hospitality. The two men became great friends with the Eskimos and learned many survival tips from their hosts. Two representatives from the Green Peace Foundation also found themselves changing their pro-whale opinions after living with the villagers. It was hard not to like the Eskimos, and it was a good thing that the Eskimos liked them.
The Eskimos have a history of quietly retaliating. In 1961, a wildlife agent tried to enforce a forty-five year-old Migratory Bird Treaty in Barrow, Alaska. The treaty had never been enforced before because it stopped hunters from catching wild fowl (an important part of their diet) during the only months they were present in the Arctic. The wildlife agent made only two arrests before 138 hunters with 138 pairs of dead ducks turned themselves in. The government gave up after being faced with arresting the whole village. This civil disobedience became known as the Barrow Duck-in.
Soon young Eskimo men traveled to Washington, D.C., lobbying for the subsistence hunt. They raised money for the plane tickets. Again, the whole community contributed their part. People wrote to local newspapers, stressing the cultural, historical, and economic importance of the whale hunt. People even wrote poems expressing their hurt feelings over the stopped whale hunt. Hunters went out in their boats to prove to the IWC scientists that there were more whales than estimated.
The IWC finally recognized the subsistence and cultural importance of the bowhead hunt. "If...native exemption is extended over a long period of time, the action may have an impact on culture, economy, and health of Eskimo whaling communities." Nine rural villages were affected by the moratorium. Gambell, Wales, Barrow, Point Hope, Wainwright, Kaktovik, Point Lay, Atkasuk, Kivalina, and Nuiqsut are among the villages listed. Changes in village names have caused an uncertainty in correct villages. Many more Alaskan villages were affected by the moratorium through relatives who could not send traditional whale foods.
This raised another question among the whale-saving generation. What would the Eskimos eat during the absence of the whale? Conservationists didn't want the natives to go hungry, so they called for alternative food supplies. Many compromises given, although unhelpful, and were full of ignorant sympathy.
One group, named Project Jonah, suggested that rotten, disease-ridden, bug-infested, poisonous walrus carcasses washed up on shores be flown out to the villages. The activist had confused a traditional delicacy of controlled, fermented walrus meat with rotten flesh. Another suggestion that was actually carried out was to give out small, roast-sized portions of beef, mutton or pork to each family. This was not enough for a family dinner, nor a whole winter. An average Eskimo family would have received sixty pounds of whale meat from the season's hunt. When a family of one white man and his Eskimo wife were given two roasts secretly, this showed that even during this cry for justice, racism was still being practiced. Other suggestions were to let the Eskimos keep their whaling traditions by cutting up frozen whole carcasses of cattle or go through a ritual of symbolic killing.
The idea of Food Stamp distribution was a problem. Living in Alaska (in the 1970's) cost about double the cost of living in Seattle. There were not enough or no stores to take the stamps. If Eskimos were to trade whales for "white" food, they would not meet their nutritional needs that were previously met by the whale. The scientist soon realized how nutritious the bowhead whale is. It is rich in niacin, iron, calcium, and vitamin C. In Barrow, Alaska, people complained of being hungry (somehow the U.S. government had broken their promise of feeding them), sick, and losing hair. People couldn't afford to buy other meats or vegetables from the stores.
After the battle between the IWC and the native whalers was "over", Eskimos formed their own IWC. It's called the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission (AEWC), and it's run by the Eskimos, for the Eskimos. The AEWC's purpose of regulating bowhead whales is to insure an efficient subsistence harvest and to prevent the extinction of bowhead whales. The IWC seemed only interested in the latter. The AEWC only affects Eskimo subsistence bowhead take in the state of Alaska. They reserve the powers of denying any person the right to participate in a whale hunt, making civil assessments, and acting as an enforcement agent for any governmental entity with the authority to enforce these regulations. Anyone who violates these regulations will be prohibited from harvesting whales for no less than one season and no more than five whaling seasons. They may also be fined a minimum of one-thousand dollars and a maximum of ten-thousand dollars. While being fined, they cannot continue whale hunting. The AEWC can also make up extra rules.
Duties of the AEWC are to inform the village and whaling captains of the regulations and to improve accuracy and reliability of weapons through research. Captains must register with AEWC through forms. The captain must show qualifications as captain and his crew's willingness to abide by the regulations. The AEWC also takes into account the handicap of language or reading difficulties. The IWC might not have taken into account that elderly Eskimos did not have good English abilities.
Each whaling captain is responsible for keeping a written record of the whales attempted to be harvested but not caught, harvested, and sighted by the crew or captain. When a whale is struck but not caught, the captain must record the size and type of whale, any later harvest of whale, the reason for not harvesting the whale, and the condition of the whale. The reason for the captains writing reports to the AEWC is to advance the scientific knowledge about the bowhead whale. The whale must be caught with only traditional harvesting tools and in a traditional manner. This is still a controversy among other native groups today. The AEWC establishes the whale quotas for each whaling village during each season.
In the IWC's report on the "Depletion of Native Exemption for the Subsistence of Harvest of Bowhead Whales, October 1997, Vol.1: Final Environmental Impact Statement", the IWC gave many reasons for letting the Eskimos continue hunting.
"Whaling is still a central subsistence activity--a medium for weaving modern life and traditional existence...It is most necessary and...an important food source...It determines the social and political organizations." The report also claimed that Eskimos have a "strong resistance to change from subsistence life to a non-native cash economy world."
If the United States did not object to the moratorium, then welfare dependency would have increased among the Eskimos. If the United States did object to the moratorium, then the government could watch the whaling and whale numbers more closely and work to improve hunting tools. This seems to end up being the AEWC's responsibility.
The controversy surrounding the Eskimo whale hunt is still misunderstood among people today. The Eskimos were an innocent people following their ancient tradition of survival. Numbers taken by the whalers show that there are about four-thousand bowhead whales, and that the Eskimos' take would only equal two percent of the population--fifteen whales per year for all nine villages. The IWC whaling moratorium was just another injustice that jumped on the protest bandwagon. nothing was really researched about the whalers' past and whale numbers were not really known. The moratorium turned out to be nothing more than a test of the Eskimos' emotional agility. They passed.