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Spring's here -- time to celebrate at Barrow's whaling festival

Alex DeMarban

A batch of activities is on tap for the spring festival that officially launches whaling in Alaska's northernmost community.

Designed to help whaling crews prepare for the hunt, Piuraagiaqta offers up fun contests rooted in old skills required to erect camps on the ice, harpoon bowhead whales and muscle in the big mammals for eating.

The city of Barrow organizes the event -- with much help from sponsors -- and expects to provide a confirmed agenda later this week, said Bob Thomas, the city's recreation director.

Highlighting the entertainment will be the whaling-crew competitions, with crewmembers vying for drums of gas, whaling bombs, shoulder guns and other whaling paraphernalia.

Those matches include the harpoon throw (a test of accuracy and strength), the umiaq race (featuring crews heaving skin boats and sleds across the ice), the tea race (with crews chipping ice and boiling it into tea), and tandem stud-skiing (where groups of four strap shoes into a long 2x4 in a team-building race).

It's lighthearted, but the activities naturally help highlight crewmembers' strengths.

"I don't know if this is the best comparison, but it's really like pit crew evaluations in the Indy 500 where they see how fast the pit crews can get the cars in and out," said Thomas.

A scavenger hunt will launch the fun starting Friday, April 8, at noon. The festivities will end April 11.

Piuraagiaqta was revived in the 1980s, with long-ago missionaries getting the blame for stamping it out for generations, according to a past news account.

It's held annually now, with many events not just for whaling crews, such as the duct-tape costume contest that's increasingly popular, Thomas said.

There'll be a chess tournament at the library and several cook-offs, including one involving Pilot Bread. In the past, that's featured creations such as microwaved pizzas made on the popular cracker wheel and Dutch apple pies created from the cracker crust.

Other activities include Nerts card-playing at the senior center, a parade with state 3A champs Barrow girls basketball team as grand marshal, ice-carving by Point Hope artist Art Oomituk and movies at the Heritage Center.

Spillover events considered part of this year's festival will take place outside the April 8-11 dates, such as hockey games this weekend between local youth and teams visiting from an orphanage in the Eastern Europe republic of Moldova, in what's like an exchange program.

The Lil Dribblers basketball tournament should include teams from Wainwright, Nuiqsut and Barrow and begins April 7, one day before Piuraagiaqta, officially begins.

Another extra: A national curling champ plans to be in town next week giving clinics.

The festival's gotten so big that some have complained there's too much going on, Thomas said. Many of the activities detract from the event's whaling spirit, they've said.

But the contests involving whaling crews, usually held at the frozen middle lagoon, are still the most popular.

One thing will likely have to change for future festivals. Because of warming temperatures, the festivities already take place a week earlier than in the past. It may have to move yet again, because whaling crews continue to head onto the ice earlier to set up camp.

Preparations for whaling have already begun this year. Like last year, crews will likely send teams of whalers back to Barrow for the events.

Ancient roots

Here's more from the Arctic Sounder archives:

Iñupiat History, Language, and Culture Commission division manager Kathy Ahgeak said that the festival has its roots that go back much further, in traditional celebrations of spring.

"In our January calendar it says they would replace the old year with the new and 'when the days became longer, and they had finished cleaning everything, they would put on their new clothing and play outside, playing games of skill and endurance. This they'd say was 'ayalik' -- a time when they would shout 'hii'hii' as they entered house after house,'" said Ahgeak.

While ayalik was celebrated earlier in the year, around the time of the winter solstice, "I know that Piuraagiaqta is fashioned after the same concept -- of people putting on new clothes and playing games of skill," Ahgeak said.

Ahgeak said that festivals like Piuraagiaqta or Kivgiq, the Messenger Feast, were lost when they were largely suppressed by the presence of missionaries in the Arctic. It was only much later, when people started researching traditional celebrations that they discovered and reinstated it.

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