‘You can never give up’: A longtime Point Hope whaling captain lands his first bowhead

During whaling season, everything else in the community pauses.

First of two parts.

POINT HOPE — The village came to life on a bright May afternoon. Snowmachines, four-wheelers and trucks rushed to the green church in the middle of town.

With children watching from snow banks and everyone cheering, Jan Nashookpuk arrived on a snowmachine. He pulled a sled with two black flippers from a bowhead whale. Then he climbed a tower and rang the bell several times. It’s a traditional way, in the Iñupiat community of around 900 people on the Northwest Alaska coast, for a whaling captain to announce a successful hunt of a bowhead whale.

To Nashookpuk, it was something more. It meant that his crew had landed a whale for the first time — the culmination of years of work.

“I just couldn’t believe it,” said Nashookpuk, 63.

It starts with a whale

He grew up whaling, first, as a boyer on his uncle’s crew as a young boy, bringing food to the ice camps. Then he became a harpooner for his parents, Henry and Emma Nashookpuk. In his late 40s, after his father passed away, Jan Nashookpuk became a captain. He went out on the ice most of the years, helped other crews catch whales and, since participating crews share harvests, provided meat for his own family.

This time was different.

After a sleepless night in a tent on the ice edge of the Chukchi Sea, he and his crew chased at least two whales that morning. All escaped. Then, on their return to camp, the whalers saw the animal that they harpooned, setting off a chain reaction of human activity.

The bell rang, and for several hours, Point Hope buzzed with the sounds of snowmachines heading out to the ice, a few miles away. People were eager to help Nashookpuk’s crew pull their whale, more than 48 feet long, from the water.

Jan’s wife, Tada, and his 25-year-old daughter, Janice Schaeffer, stopped home to calm their feelings and decide what food and kitchenware to pack for a night on the ice.

“We had to sit down for a second because we’re like, ‘Did we really catch a whale?’” Schaeffer said. “It felt like a dream. It was surreal to us.”

In Point Hope, or Tikigaq in Iñupiaq, life has revolved around bowhead whales for thousands of years. The animal provided residents with food, oil for fuel and bones for house frames, tools, grave markers, boats. Today, depictions of whales adorn village buildings, posters on school walls outline subsistence seasons, and baleen and jawbones lie outside the houses.

[Read part 2: ‘Aġvagpaŋuu!’: 3 first-time whaling captains in Point Hope landed their first whale this season]

Subsistence hunters in the village have 12 attempts annually to harpoon the animal — the number set by the International Whaling Commission in accordance with the Point Hope population, as well as with the health and abundance of the whales in the Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort stock.

During the whaling season, everything else in Point Hope comes to a pause. The captains take on a leadership role, deciding when and how to set out on the ice, providing equipment, food and fuel for their crews and keeping them safe on the hunts.

On the ice

On the ice that day in May, dozens of people gathered to begin a long night of hard work.

As the whale floated in the dark water on the edge of an ice shelf, two men carefully stepped on top of it to cut a piece of whale skin with fat — maktak in Iñupiaq. Inside a steamy tent on the ice, women started boiling pieces of maktak and seasoning them with salt to feed the crew.

Outside, the air was salty and cold. Jan Nashookpuk and other Point Hope captains carefully looked over the animal and a strap that had been fastened to its tail to make sure it was ready to be hand-pulled onto the ice with a block and tackle system.

A call from one of the captains — “All hands!” — drew dozens of people to the rope. In a long single-file line, they pulled the whale onto the ice. Stopped. Pulled again. The whale moved inches at a time.

The effort went on for hours, with men eating fresh maktak, doughnuts and soup between exhausting pulling sessions.

As they worked, a polar bear appeared nearby on the ice, sniffing the air and eventually running away. Polar bears are the reason residents travel with rifles across their chests when they leave the village on snowmachines.

Schaeffer, the captain’s daughter, walked around the scene, greeting the growing crowd, hugging people, laughing.

After about 3 1/2 hours of work, the whale was finally out of the water. It towered on the edge of the ice, the bristle of the baleen glistering in the lowering sun, the curves of its huge head and body smooth and round.

Schaeffer walked up to the whale, touched its back and cried.

“So many emotions,” she said.

In the past few years, she said, her father lost his father and mother — her grandparents — both of whom were leaders in the family’s whaling traditions.

“We really, really wanted for our parents to be here and they are gone,” Tada Nashookpuk said. “I know they are watching us somewhere. I think they taught us well.”

The Nashookpuk family and crew members stood for photos next to the whale, and Jan and Tada Nashookpuk gave each other a kiss on the cheek.

As a child, Schaeffer used to imagine herself sitting atop a whale her father had hunted. Now the dream had come true.

“When we first started, I was 11 years old. I was like, ‘OK, you know, I can climb on a whale. That’s easy.’ And then I’m 25 and I’m three kids deep, and I’m like, ‘How am I gonna get on that whale? I’m not a little girl anymore!’” she laughed.

Her father urged Schaeffer to climb on the whale anyway, which she did with a broad smile and giggles.

“Honestly, it made me feel like a little girl again,” she said. “It healed my inner child, you know?”

Soon after the whale was on the ice, the crew began dividing the meat and maktak. People sometimes worked in pairs to drag the heaviest pieces away.

Following tradition, the whale was divided into eight parts, and each crew that participated in the landing received a share.

After the whale was butchered, the last step was to put the whale skull back into the ocean — a ritual to help the animal come back to the captain again as another whale.

It never really got dark in the Arctic night, and around 8:30 the next morning, the crews started drifting away. They were carrying tons of meat and maktak home, and one snowmachine got stuck on the trail, struggling to pull the heavy load over an ice ridge.

“We stayed up all night,” Jan Nashookpuk said. “But we did it.”

Sharing the harvest

When Tada Nashookpuk came home, she barely slept.

“Too excited,” said the retired teacher aide, librarian and home school facilitator.

The next day, the men returned to the ice to finish putting away the meat. Tada Nashookpuk, Schaeffer and other relatives drove around the village that evening, delivering about 225 pieces of whale meat and maktak from house to house.

Schaeffer started on one end of the town and Tada Nashookpuk, together with her daughter Tori Nashookpuk and sister Edna Nashookpuk, on the other. The captain’s wife slowly drove while her helpers ran from the open tailgate toward front doors and porches, sometimes avoiding houses with dogs.

Tada encouraged her team to work quickly.

“One maktak, one meat. Who lives in that blue house?” she said. “Hurry up, we have 200 more houses to go.”

Some people receiving the delivery greeted the group with hugs and congratulations.

“Everybody knows that we’ve been waiting years to catch one,” Schaeffer said.

Jan Nashookpuk stayed hopeful and consistent throughout the years, Schaeffer said, even as other crews have come and gone.

“He’s one of the most quiet and humble people that I know,” Schaeffer said of her father, who works as a carpenter and renovates homes.

But years went by, Schaeffer said, and the family started having doubts. She explained their belief that the whales know who they are giving themselves to.

“It made us question, are we doing something wrong?” Schaeffer said.

The family considered retiring the crew if they came up empty-handed this year, Schaeffer said. Still, Tada Nashookpuk kept praying, and Jan Nashookpuk kept whaling.

Two days after he landed the whale, Jan Nashookpuk was sitting in his living room, where photos of his children and a cross adorned the walls. He said he still couldn’t believe his success. He spoke about the work ahead, preparing for the whaling feast.

“It’s good to feed the people, that’s what it is about,” he said. “My children want us to keep going. You can never give up.”

Anchorage Daily News journalist Marc Lester contributed to this story.

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Next: Three first-time whaling captains in Point Hope landed their first whale this season.

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.