‘Aġvagpaŋuu!’: 3 first-time whaling captains in Point Hope landed their first whale this season

The whaling captain’s role comes with the responsibility of a community leader: They feed their crew, keep them safe and take on the decisions and expenses of whaling.

Second of two parts.

POINT HOPE — Jacob and Molly Lane snowmachined along the icy beach out of Point Hope toward the Chukchi Sea. Near the westernmost reach of the land where their boats were parked, they saw where the deep blue ice met the sky, telling them whether there was enough open water to go whaling.

“Look at the clouds,” Jacob Lane III pointed to the horizon. “You see that dark line there? … That’s the reflection from the water. It’s opening up right now.”

Looking at the reflection and feeling the north wind against his skin, Jacob Lane decided that the next day was the time to drag the boats closer to the ice edge and look for bowheads. This is the first year he’s the one making this decision for his crew.

Jacob Lane is among three first-time whaling captains in Point Hope, each of whom landed their first bowhead this season. The captain’s role comes with the responsibility of a community leader: They feed their crew, keep them safe and take on the decisions and expenses of whaling. They are also in charge of carrying on whaling traditions, fundamental to Alaska’s Iñupiat people.

“This year, we have three new captains, and there is a lot more joy,” Jacob Lane said. “Everyone is so happy for them, excited for them — for us.”

“I’m really proud of them,” said Rex Rock Sr., an experienced Tikiġaq whaling captain and president of the Arctic Slope Regional Corp. ”It’s a lot of work, and they bless the community with food that we need. They’ve taken that step, and I just pray that they’ll stay humble. Because that’s what it’s about — you stay humble, true to who we are. It’s not about you. It’s about the people.”

“Whaling to me teaches ‘we,’ ” Rock said.

[Read part 1: ‘You can never give up’: A longtime Point Hope whaling captain lands his first bowhead]

Newfound responsibility

Jacob and Molly Lane always knew they would need to step up as captains for their extended family. But the moment came sooner than they expected: Jacob Lane’s father, Jacob Lane Jr., announced his desire to pass the job to his son during the 2022 Thanksgiving feast.

“Wait, now?” Jacob Lane remembered saying. “It was unexpected.”

Before taking charge, Jacob Lane had been a co-captain for his father’s crew. From childhood, he had learned how to lead a crew, harpoon a whale and process all parts of the harvest, from intestines to heart, from tongue to kidneys.

“They taught us all we know about whaling,” he said. “They taught us right.”

But it still felt different when he landed his first bowhead as the sole captain of the crew. It was a warm, sunny day, he said. The moment came after just 3 1/2 hours of sleep.

“When we came back with the whale to the ice, it was really emotional,” Jacob Lane said. “It’s a huge blessing and an honor for us to catch our own whale now — our whale, not my parents’.”

Hours of work followed, with men pulling it out to the shore and processing the meat and maktak. As captain, Jacob Lane had to oversee dividing eight shares between the helping crews.

The first-year captain gives away most of his share. What he does get, he distributes from house to house in the village.

Now that the whaling is done, captains need to prepare for Qagruq, the three-day, highly regimented whaling feast, by making mikigaq, or fermented whale meat and blubber, sewing clothes and thinking of what they will say when they address the community. They also need to put away their share for Thanksgiving and Christmas feasts.

“The majority of the whale is given away, it’s all about sharing,” Point Hope elder Steve Oomittuk said. “The respect you get as a whaling captain is for feeding the people.”

The two Point Hope clans — Qaġmaqtuuq and Uŋasiksikaaq — have Qagruq on the same day, but the celebrations happen on opposite edges of town.

“It’s more responsibility, but I can handle it,” Jacob Lane said about being a captain. “We know that our ancestors have done it for thousands of years. And now we are here to do it.”

Growing confidence

For Michael Tuzroyluk, who at 27 is the youngest captain in Point Hope, the role comes naturally. Whaling since he was 4 and harpooning his first whale at 13, Tuzroyluk started leading his father’s crew after he passed away two years ago. This year, together with his wife, Nichole Tuzroyluk, he started his own.

“I’ve caught many whales so I’m not new to this,” he said. “I just always knew I was going to be a captain.”

At 22, Nichole Tuzroyluk is soft-spoken. She said coming into the role of captain’s wife means trying hard to follow the whaling traditions correctly and learn from experienced captain families.

“I was really, really nervous because I’m so young,” Nichole Tuzroyluk said. “A lot of other whaling captains and a lot of family and friends gave me encouragement and it helped a lot.”

The whaling season is a busy time for women on the crew, who traditionally support the whalers from the village. Nichole Tuzroyluk spent weeks this spring cooking and cleaning from dawn to dusk. Chicken soup and coffee are popular on cold days. Doughnuts and stir fry are also a hit. Supplies like paper plates, forks and bowls are always in need, and Nichole Tuzroyluk needs to make sure there is always enough of everything.

The day when Michael Tuzroyluk’s crew caught their whale, Nichole Tuzroyluk was tired but ready.

“It felt like forever until we caught the whale,” she said. “I was really questioning myself, am I ready for this? Can I do this? So I said, ‘God, I’m ready. I could do this. But I can’t — we can’t — do it without you.’ And about an hour later, Michael called me and said, ‘Aġvagpaŋuu!’” which means, “We caught a whale!”

Excitement took over as she called others with the news. Then she remembered that she was supposed to hold her emotions.

“We’re not supposed to get excited until they bring the flippers to town. You have to stay calm because anything can happen,” she said. “So I calmed down and waited patiently.”

With her husband landing a whale, the hardest part of the work began: processing the meat.

“I just wanted to make sure I did everything right,” she said. “I got over that nervousness and now I’m worried about Qagruq and making mikigaq.”

“Worried too much!” Michael Tuzroyluk said.

Later, Michael and Nichole Tuzroyluk sat in their living room watching a basketball game. They were still tired, still resting, but getting ready to go out on the ice again. Walking outside their house, Michael Tuzroyluk pointed out a big whale jawbone lying on the ground. While most of the jawbones go to the pile at the ceremonial sites, the first-year captain keeps one from their first harvest.

“When a captain dies, their first jawbone is put to their grave,” Nichole Tuzroyluk said. “That one back there will be for him.”

“I ain’t gonna die,” the young captain said, laughing.

Finding healing

Chris Nashookpuk’s new role as captain helped him heal after the death of his father.

When he landed his first whale as a captain in April, the bowhead was black, but with a white spot shaped like the letter T.

“My crew pointed that out to me, and I just smiled. They said that it stands for my dad who passed away,” Nashookpuk said. “The moment we cut off them flippers, I felt that my dad was at peace. I felt that he was resting and he was happy.”

Nashookpuk’s father, Willie Tingook Nashookpuk Sr., died last July. Chris then took over his captainship. This spring, the new captain caught a bowhead measuring 49 feet, 1 inch, on his seventh day of the hunt. Then he and his crew spent three days processing, sharing and putting away the meat for Qagruq.

Nashookpuk said lessons from his father taught him why he did this hard work.

“We don’t go out whaling for ourselves,” Chris Nashookpuk said. “We’re going to feed the community and carry on the tradition of feeding.”

As a new captain, Chris Nashookpuk gave away most of his share to others this year. Following another tradition, he also had to let any elder come to his house and request any item as a gift — as small as a cup or as valuable as a boat.

Chris had to part with his snowmachine.

“One of the elders already came and got my good one,” he said. “He knocked at my door, he came over, he smiled. And I was like, ‘Oh, all right ...’ ”

“We are looking at it as a blessing too,” said his wife, Kate Nashookpuk, “blessing us with another successful season.”

Chris Nashookpuk was 5 when he went out in a skin boat with his father’s whaling crew for the first time.

“I remember them harpooning, and the boat shaking — everything going at a fast pace,” he said. “I didn’t know what to feel, I was so small, and everybody was just happy.”

At 10, Chris Nashookpuk had a less joyful experience. Together with his dad and other relatives, they were chasing a wounded whale struck by another captain. After the crew harpooned it, the 55-foot animal flipped their boat.

Chris Nashookpuk and his cousin were trapped under the boat in the air pocket. They managed to get out from under the boat and were picked up by other whaling crews who took them to the tent to warm up. Everyone survived, but for Chris Nashookpuk, it left a lasting mark.

“I’ll never forget that moment because that water was cold and I was a little boy. And that’s one of the things I don’t want my men to face — being flipped over by a whale,” he said. “I always keep in my heart that anything could happen. ... I need to do my best to try not to let my guys get hurt.”

When his father was sick, Chris Nashookpuk went whaling under his flag and crew name. But after Nashookpuk Sr. passed away, Chris Nashookpuk had a feeling — he wanted to let his father’s and his grandfather’s name rest, so he named the crew Availuk, after his third daughter, who is now 4 years old. His wife made a new flag for the crew.

For Chris Nashookpuk, carrying on the tradition of whaling means honoring and remembering his father and grandfather and everything they taught him, he said.

“Some days, you gotta be tough. Some days are hard. Nothing’s going your way,” he said.

But Nashookpuk said his motivation to continue is much greater than the obstacles he faces.

“It’s something from the heart, you know?” he said. “You gotta do it with heart.”

The Daily News’ Marc Lester contributed to this story.

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

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.