Point Lay celebrates first whale in 72 years

June 14, 2009 

The Arctic coast village of Point Lay, long denied a subsistence whaling quota and once all but abandoned, is poised to hold its first Nalukataq blanket toss feast in 72 years to celebrate the landing of a spring bowhead.

Julius Rexford, the whaling captain whose crew brought home the bowhead on May 5, said he is dedicating the festival to Dorcas Neakok, a revered elder who died last year at 86. Her oral histories, teaching and grit played a large role in the revival of Point Lay and its resumption of whaling.

The day-long Nalukataq is scheduled for June 26. The village of about 250 expects its population to swell for the event, with friends and relatives coming from across the North Slope and elsewhere and an invitation extended to all.

"Absolutely -- everyone is welcome!" said Julius' brother Delbert, a land policy official at the Ukpeagvik Inupiat Corp., the Barrow village corporation.

While the Eskimo blanket toss has become a fixture at the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics and of tourist activities in the North, the traditional Nalukataq is the thrilling highlight of the Inupiat spring festival in each village that captures a whale.

"It's a symbolic celebration that a whale was taken," Julius Rexford said in a phone interview from Point Lay, where he is the local supervisor of public works for the North Slope Borough. "And it's also just having fun on the blanket, throwing candy to the kids while you're being tossed up in the air, over the windbreaks."

It's been a long time coming to Point Lay.

POINT LAY POPULATION DWINDLES

The village, near the Chukchi Sea about 175 miles southwest of Barrow, wasn't among the original nine villages to receive a quota when the International Whaling Commission formally recognized the Native subsistence bowhead hunt in 1978 and authorized the landing of 12 whales.

Stephen Braund, a consulting anthropologist from Anchorage who has done extensive work in the Arctic communities, said the village had been all but abandoned by the 1960s after steadily losing population through the first half of the 20th Century.

"The Yankee whalers came up (in the 19th century), they decimated the whales, the caribou, the walrus and then the people," Braund said. "You think of the '20s and '30s and '40s of Native people in Alaska, they were pretty well decimated themselves -- 1918, the measles and smallpox, tuberculosis. Economic times weren't the strongest."

As the population dwindled, local whaling stopped -- it took a large number of people not only to conduct the hunt but to land the whale and bring the meat back to the village. By the early 1960s, Point Lay's population was two: Dorcas Neakok and her husband, Warren. "And he went to work out of town in one summer and Dorcas told me years ago that the only people in Point Lay that year were her and her dogs," Braund said.

Delbert Rexford said Dorcas Neakok earned money by sewing traditional garments and selling them to the military and contract crews that staffed the Distant Early Warning Line radar station there.

"They never left their homeland," Delbert Rexford said. "They became the only two residents for many years and maintained their ground that Point Lay would reemerge with the children coming back from high school, from college and from marriages outside the village."

They were right, but it took oil wealth, the creation of the North Slope Borough, the Arctic Slope Regional Corp. and the village corporations to finally reverse the trend in the 1970s, Braund said. Point Lay and another nearly abandoned North Slope village, Nuiqsut, repopulated.

"Many of them are the descendants of the elders that moved away and married into other communities," Rexford said. "Their children and grandchildren came back. It's a very close-knit community. It's small, it's comfortable and you have a lot of wildlife resources -- beluga, geese, polar bear, caribou, wolves, wolverine, all kinds of fish."

TRADITION OF WHALING

The Rexfords were from Barrow but Julius married a woman with Point Lay roots, Marie Lisbourne. After having their first five children in Barrow, they joined the migration back to Point Lay, where they had three more children, Julius Rexford said.

Julius, 49, had been a Barrow whaling captain, the son of the famous captain Atkaan, for whom his crew is named. Every spring, he would drive the 200 miles to Barrow by snowmachine to hunt whales there.

The quota system established in 1978 and administered by the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission was little changed, except that the number of whales that could be taken had grown along with the population estimates of bowheads. While the original 12-whale quota wasn't enough for even the established villages, it would eventually rise to more than 50 whales, Braund said.

In the mid-1990s, Julius Rexford said, Point Lay began campaigning for its own quota. They were spurred by Dorcas and Warren Neakok, who wanted the Point Lay children to understand their roots. The couple often camped with youngsters, teaching them the ways of the tundra, Julius said.

They were emboldened when Little Diomede became Alaska's 10th whaling village around that time. Once thought to not have a whaling tradition, Braund's firm had uncovered decisive evidence that Diomede had hunted whales in the past, and it was awarded its own quota.

Point Lay would have to prove a whaling past too. Delbert traveled to Point Lay and began researching from the archives of its tiny library. And he got the story of Point Lay's last whale hunt from a living witness, Dorcas Neakok.

"When she was alive, she told the story about when the late Tony Joule and Alvy Shagloak landed whales in Point Lay, and the women used the dog teams to deliver the meat and muktuk to the village. It was 25 miles one way by dog sled," Delbert Rexford said.

"First time I seen so much meat," Neakok laughed during an interview with a Daily News reporter in 2004. "I couldn't eat (for) a week."

Those whales were caught in 1937. And it would have been the last time Point Lay held a Nalukataq feast.

SUCCESS STORY

Delbert Rexford dedicated his 2004 report to Dorcas and Warren and delivered it to the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission. But it didn't quite meet the requirements of the larger International Whaling Commission, headquartered in Cambridge, England. Braund & Associates was hired by the North Slope Borough to complete the job.

Braund and his team conducted meetings in Point Lay and uncovered new documents. By closely examining old photographs taken at Point Lay, he found whale bones extending out of the soil there. He found evidence that additional whales were probably taken by Point Lay 1939 and 1940, he said. And he became convinced that some whales taken off Icy Cape, midway between the established whaling village of Wainwright and Point Lay, were likely caught by Point Lay whalers.

He turned in his 61-page report in February 2008. Janice Meadows, executive director of the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission, said the commission responded by assigning an unused quota for one whale to Point Lay.

That year, Julius, Delbert and another Rexford brother, Brenton, brought back the whaling gear from Barrow to Point Lay by snowmachine. The Rexfords dug an ice cellar in the permafrost just outside Julius' home in Point Lay. They built it eight feet in diameter and five feet high, Delbert said. They didn't catch a whale that year.

This spring was different. For three days, Julian Rexford's nine-member Atqaan crew looked for bowheads. They struck the female whale May 5. "When you respect the whale, the whale comes to you in a way you cannot explain -- I don't know how to explain it," he said.

One other crew was nearby, captained by another former Barrow whaler, Thomas Nukapigak. With the help of Nukapigak's crew, they towed the animal, 49 feet, 7 inches long, to shore-fast ice for landing and butchering. The spot was 10 miles from land using GPS coordinates, 14 miles by snowmachine.

"All the young adults and kids came down and helped pull the whale up," Julius Rexford said. "It took us a while, maybe 10, 12 hours. We had some thin ice at the first -- it kept cracking. They finally got it up. They did good, the young kids around here. We're one of the youngest whaling communities now."

The meat and muktuk was shared among the two crews and all the villagers who helped.

Julius' share fills the ice cellar to within six inches of its roof, Delbert said. They'll use some of it for the Nalukataq, and save the rest for feasts at Thanksgiving, Christmas, and other events.

Also on the Nalukataq menu: duck soup and sweet fermented meat, Julius said. While Dorcas Neakok will be there only in memory, Warren still lives in Point Lay, Julius said.

"Everybody will get a chance to get on the blanket," Julius said. "Me, I weigh too much -- I think I'd go only about eight feet," he laughed.


Find Richard Mauer online at adn.com/contact/rmauer or call 257-4345.

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