The spirit of the whale: Utqiaġvik celebrates Nalukataq with feast and dancing

After a successful spring whaling season, residents celebrated with a festival that included community meals, the blanket toss and late-night traditional dancing.

UTQIAĠVIK — Whaler Kunneak Nageak stood tall in the middle of Simmonds Field next to the long wooden tables loaded with whale meat. Dozens of servers were ready to pass the bounty to the crowd in Utqiaġvik.

“I think we’re all ready for the muktuk,” Nageak shouted into the microphone to the hundreds of people surrounding him on all sides. “I think everybody’s ready for the muktuk!”

The second day of Nalukataq, the celebration of a successful bowhead whaling season, was in full force on June 24. After raising their flags in the early morning, five whaling crews served food to the community throughout the day. Then the strongest tossed a sealskin blanket to give everyone a chance to jump on it, and people continued traditional dancing after midnight to the sounds of Iñupiaq drumming.

“Spring whaling is very special for everyone because it brings a lot of celebration like this,” whaler Billy Adams said. “We celebrate the life of that whale, and the spirit lives amongst us.”

The season brought 16 bowhead whales to the northernmost community in the U.S. Three whales were struck but lost in the sea and not landed, but the harvest was still a bounty: Utqiaġvik has a quota of 25 whales for the year that includes both spring and fall hunts. In spring, the crews are “at the mercy of the ice,” as Nageak put it, and if the ice is thin and unstable, it’s hard for crews to launch their boats and drag the whales to the shore. In bad years, they struggle to catch even a few bowheads, but this season, the conditions favored the whalers.

Utqiaġvik whalers braved the ice and began hunting at the end of April, when the days were still dark. The ocean began to open up, and bowheads started their northbound migration along the coast, from the Bering Sea all the way to Canada, to the Beaufort Sea.

“The season was early because the ocean was telling us to be early,” Adams said. “We had some darkness but the whales were right there.”

Adams’ crew went out on a foggy and chilly morning around April 18 and saw so many whales that they were picky about which one they were going to harvest. They landed three bowheads that day, each of them 25 to 30 feet long — the perfect size, making the whale easier to handle and tender to eat.

“We don’t get tired of that kind of stuff,” Adams said about the long day of catching three whales, dragging them to the shore and butchering them on ice. “That joy of landing a whale to feed the people, it’s worth staying up for days.”

The work would go on for weeks. After the hunts, 15 successful crews stayed busy, cutting up the whale and processing and portioning the meat; cooking dishes before the festival; and making new festive parkas for the occasion.

“The day that you land the whale, every day is a working day after that,” Adams said. “And then the process starts all over again. It’s a year thing for us. We never stop thinking of whales.”

Whaling captain Bernadette Adams agreed: “We haven’t gotten on a family vacation because we eat, sleep, breathe whaling.”

With the end of the whaling season, the celebrations began and took place on four separate days in Utqiaġvik. On the second day of Nalukataq, five of the successful crews emptied their ice cellars and freezers to host a feast from noon to 6 p.m. First, they served caribou and goose soup with fresh bread and doughnuts, then shared boiled whale meat. The next course was fermented meat and blubber, or mikigaq, and large pieces of muktuk, which consists of whale skin and blubber. Hundreds of people filled storage bags and coolers to bring the food home. Fruits, desserts and Eskimo ice cream, or akutaq, came after that.

Tradition holds that the more the crew shares, the bigger the upcoming harvests will be, but the feast is also a way for the community to make sure everyone has food to eat.

“Not everybody’s a whaler, not everybody’s a hunter,” said Roxanna Oyagak from the Olemaun crew. “That’s who we hunt for, that’s who we provide for, the ones that can’t go up themselves — the widows, the elders, the children.”

Among the myriad dishes served that day, a crowd favorite was the mikigaq, which tastes tangy and almost sweet. The dish is served mostly after spring whaling, Oyagak said.

“It’s a specialty, but you have to have a taste for it, and you have to know how to make it,” Oyagak said.

To make mikigaq, the whale meat and muktuk are cut in thin slices and mixed together with the tongue. The meat lingers in its blood from 10 days to two weeks, and the cook stirs it several times a day. That’s what the whaling captain Herman Ahsoak was doing the day before his crew celebrated Nalukataq.

“The more tangier it is, that’s how people like it. The tongue is what makes it get tangy, I believe,” Ahsoak said as he walked from bucket to bucket in his family’s garage and stirred the meat by hand with rubber gloves.

“I don’t know of anything else that tastes like it — it’s one of a kind,” elder Leona Okakok said during Nalukataq. “I love being Iñupiaq just because of mikigaq.”

[Above video: Delores Burnell celebrated whaling crews of Utqiagvik by making a cake from three cases of cake mix and ten gallons of homemade frosting. (Marc Lester / ADN)]

Besides the joy of the feast, the Nalukataq celebration also means gathering and being able to finally see friends and family, Okakok said. This year’s event brought together Utqiaġvik residents, a few tourists, as well as relatives and visitors from other Alaska villages like Wainwright, Noatak and Kotzebue.

“They come for the muktuk,” elder Martha Stackhouse laughed.

After the feast, the crowd left the field for a short break, and when they returned, many of the successful whalers were wearing parkas made for the occasion. Blue, green, black and brown, the parkas were trimmed with wolverine, wolf and fox fur, and some of them were adorned with unique patterns — in the case of Ahsoak’s family, embroidered whales and boats to commemorate the family’s harvests and skin boats.

The excitement among the younger crowd grew as they awaited the event the festival was named for — Nalukataq, or blanket toss. In the center of Simmonds Field, crews stretched a big blanket made from sealskins previously used on whaling boats. People held a rope on the perimeter of the blanket to help bounce it while children and adults alike climbed onto the blanket to jump.

“When I was a little girl, I read a book that said we jumped because our land is so flat, and we jumped to see if there’s any animals,” Stackhouse said. “But I knew that was wrong — it was completely wrong. It’s always been just a celebration. It’s time to just be happy.”

At first, jumpers got up on the blanket cautiously, one by one, but as the evening went on, everyone moved faster. The jumpers soared, made backflips, danced, shouted, fell, laughed and did it all over again. As soon as one jumper missed a beat, several would climb up to claim the spot. Children ran amok, picking up the candy that jumpers tossed down from above.

[Above: Watch participants soar during the blanket toss portion of Utqiagvik’s Nalukataq celebration on June 24 and 27, 2022. (Marc Lester / ADN).]

Hours into the jumping, it was still light outside, but the evening ocean air was getting crisper. The crowd moved to Fred Ipalook Elementary School’s gym for the last part of the celebration — tuktitiq, or traditional Iñupiaq dancing.

The sealskin blanket was placed In the center of a brightly lit room, and 20 musicians sat with hand drums called qilauns, facing the crowd. When the aisles of the gym filled up, drummers started playing traditional songs, praising the good season, their families and community. One by one, they invited the whaling crews to the center of the room to, according to Nageak, “dance oil out of the sealskin.”

First, the successful crews were called to dance, then the visitors. By the time the clock read 1 a.m., everyone seemed to be standing up, making the ground of the school shake from stomping.

“This ends the season of the whale,” Nageak said. “But once this is done, we go back home and start again.”

Two days later, the community was ready to do it all again. George Ahmaogak Jr. woke up on a rainy morning and raised his crew’s flag for the very first time. Although he has been whaling since he was a boy, this year, Ahmaogak became the whaling captain and led a successful hunt.

“Today, I thought would never come,” he said. “It’s one of those landmark things in your life that you go through. This is one thing we’ll always remember — your first.”

Being a captain means months of work, the responsibility of making decisions and spending tens of thousands of dollars on tools and provisions for the crew. But for Ahmaogak, like for many others, whaling also means continuing the family legacy and finding purpose, and a sense of identity.

“This is who we are,” he said. “And it’s the best part about it, is that you get to be who you are.”

[Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that the whaling festival in Utqiaġvik was held on four separate days, not five.]

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Alena Naiden

Alena Naiden writes about communities in the North Slope and Northwest Arctic regions for the Arctic Sounder and ADN. Previously, she worked at the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.