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Arctic

Along Alaska's Arctic coast, female whalers are breaking the 'ice ceiling'

  • Author: Kamala Kelkar
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published October 9, 2015

For thousands of years, when Inupiat whaling crews hunted bowhead whales, the harpooners were traditionally men -- until this generation, which has already seen three strikes by women.

Alaska Natives living along the Arctic coast have historically relied on the whales for food and materials to make tools and equipment. It's a practice essential not just for survival but also for cultural identity.

Roles for the hunt are assigned from a young age. Fathers start taking sons out on the sea ice to teach them to carve trails and build camps about the time they turn 10. Girls at this age are learning to clean the meat and pots, divvy out portions and cook. That means almost all whalers are men.

"It's a man's world out there," said Eugene Brower, president of Barrow's Whaling Captains Association.

It's up to the captain, most often a man, to decide who will be a crew's harpooner, Brower explained. Sometimes a woman becomes a captain if her husband passes away or is too old to do it.

But Barrow's Bernadette Adams remembers, at age 7, wanting to join the men out pursuing whales.

"I cried for my dad to bring me out on the ice," Adams said. And he did.

Adams began hunting at an early age, shooting ducks with a BB gun and eventually moving to caribou and bearded seals, which are killed with a hand-held tool similar to a whale harpoon but much smaller and non-explosive. And she would also go out on whaling boats with other crews to watch and learn.

Then last fall she was out with a crew that included her husband. Halfway through their first day at sea, they spotted a bowhead. The boat closed in, near enough to strike. The captain, a family friend, told Adams' husband to grab the harpoon.

"And my husband said, 'No, you go to the harpoon,' " Adams recounted. "And I said, 'OK, I'll try.' "

The harpoon is long and weighs about 25 pounds. It took her a few precious seconds to find the right grip. Then she aimed at the target -- where skull meets spine -- as the whale dove.

She hit the spot almost dead on.

"As soon as the bomb exploded, it quit moving," she said.

"I was more excited than she was," Adam's husband Quincy Adams said, with smile lines running from ear to chin. They retold the story together in their home as their two sons ate muktuk and cubes of caribou. Adams said she is still unsure how to navigate the attention.

"I've had a few come and say that they look up to me and they want to be like me," she said. "I think it's a little harder for me to understand because most natives, they don't like to boast too much."

Another woman, from the village of Wainwright, is said to have harpooned a whale even earlier than Adams, a feat that might qualify her as the first female harpooner ever on Alaska's North Slope, though it's impossible to say with certainty. She declined to be interviewed for this article.

Male whalers have said they are happy for the women, but that captains are still inclined to choose other men as their harpooner.

"Women are always involved and always in a support position. It's very rare, or extremely rare for somebody like Bernadette to go out," said Barrow's Mayor Bob Harcharek. "It's just not the traditional role of Iñupiat women."

A third woman, Kaktovik's Stephanie Aishanna, struck a whale in September, becoming the first woman from that village known to have done so.

Aishanna agreed with Adams' sentiments.

"We are just trying to provide for our communities. We don't think of ourselves as any different other than our gender," she said.

Aishanna told a similar story to Adams: She remembers running after the boats leaving for the whale hunts and wanting to board, but her father would tell her she had to wait until she was 10.

After more than a decade of learning from elders and hunting smaller animals, she asked her dad, the captain of the family's whaling crew, if she could be this season's harpooner.

"I told him, 'Ok, so now is it my turn? I've been learning for 17 years. I've been going out for so many years. I've been watching.' And he just smiled and he's like, 'You want to be the harpooner?' And I was like, 'Of course!'" she recalled.

And just like Adams, it was the first time she had thrown a harpoon. When they brought the whale back into the community, she said her mom greeted her, crying with happiness.

"It didn't sink in right away and it didn't feel like it was because of me," she said.

"It was just like every other whaling experience."

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