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Rural Alaska

Kivalina enjoys rare beluga whale harvest

  • Author: Shady Grove Oliver, The Arctic Sounder
  • Updated: July 7, 2018
  • Published July 7, 2018

Kivalina residents are in high spirits this summer after a successful beluga harvest. At three animals caught so far, it's not a large harvest by traditional standards, but recently, there have been years with no harvest at all.

"We didn't get any last year. And we barely get every year. The last successful mass hunt I remember was quite a few years back where nine boats or so divided a bunch of belugas caught in one sitting in front of town," said local
resident Fran Douglas. "Nowadays we are lucky to divide one, occasionally."

After an elder spotted the animals near town, one local man was able to catch one adult and two younger belugas in his net. With the help of his friends, they pulled the animals up and volunteers took over the task of butchering them.

"Winter preparation of belugas by my mother, I remember, was done by cutting a long slab into little diamond-shaped sections connected and hung to partially dry," said Douglas.

"After they were dried they were put in rendered bearded seal oil. I prefer to wait a few days to cook the beluga after my mom told me to, when I asked why the white part was so mushy when I cooked it the same day as it was caught. The flippers are distributed to the kids, as well as adults, but more focused on the kids as a delicious treat as well as a tradition passed down in our community."

Kids snapped photos around the village, proudly showing off their sweet treats from the sea. Adults and children alike worked on communal workspaces to cut the animals up and set them up for the preserving process.

The intestines, lungs and meat are distributed to people along with the skin and blubber.

"When we eat the sea animals we actually feed off the rich vitamins and minerals to stay warm and healthy," said Douglas. "Our DNA even reacts to a lack thereof. Triggering a thought and memory, leading to hunger for the specific
food at a specific time in season. I personally get a phantom taste of each specific animal — craving (it) until it is satiated."

Seasonal hungering for specific niqipiaq is common here and across the Arctic, where diets have long been tied to harvests from the land and sea. In some communities, fall brings whaling, winter means trapping and hunting on the
snow-covered tundra and spring and summer are for berries and other plants, along with fish to preserve for the colder months.

"It's all about continuing a diet created and fostered to perfection by each established community — a diet specific to each, preparation included, that is subject to weather and timing," said Douglas.

For that reason, good healthy foods, like the belugas, are distributed around the community, to share the bounty.

"We used to be able to herd the animals into the channel to mass hunt for the winter supply. But that was when the majority of (the) community were mainly extreme hunter-gatherers and worked in unison. We have basic community
unison now, unorganized but occasionally successful, which brings me to traditional practices. Common knowledge, based on past practices, urges the hunter to follow for ensuring a successful future hunt. (It is) derived from trying to keep a village fed."

That has been harder to do without supplementing with store-bought food, especially during times of diminished harvests, which some residents believe have to do with industry construction and climate change, among other factors.

As the Sounder reported last year, Buckland used to rely on a strong beluga hunt every year. Now, that hunt is a shadow of its former self. In some years, Kotzebue residents are lucky to get a taste of beluga, let alone a sizable share.

"Beluga has been around forever, I think, because they've got some archaeological evidence that goes back thousands of years here in Kotzebue Sound over at Cape Krusenstern," said Willie Goodwin, chair of the Alaska
Beluga Whale Committee, speaking to the Sounder last year. "It's been a wild source of food for our people every spring. I grew up hunting them, me and my brothers did, anyway, so it's been an important activity both culturally and
for our food."

He noted at the time that some hunters were reporting more killer whale activity up and down the coast that could be influencing the animals' behavior.

"They travel the coast close to the beach usually," explained Douglas. "Especially as a safety measure on their part. If killer whales are hunting them they will not leave the beach area."

She noted that she's observed them traveling further away from the coastline around the Red Dog port and then coming back closer to shore after they've crossed that area.

While residents across the region, including those in Kivalina, are having to adapt to changing seasons and harvests, it's still a welcome treat to enjoy even a little bit of beluga, as they are this year, once again.

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