Cut, cut and nibble. Cut, cut and nibble.
Whaling crews and helpers took turns cutting up muktuk into bite-sized pieces Monday afternoon in Barrow and inevitably, after a couple of slices with the ulu, a chunk would get gobbled up by the slicer. The salty, fatty goodness drew people from the crowd up to the tables where crews were preparing huge chunks to hand out to everyone in the community. Chitchat would pause as a few small pieces were devoured, and then the cutting and chatting would resume.
The thing about Nalukataq is that, yes, it's a celebration after a successful whaling season, but it really is for everyone. Natives and non-Natives, locals and visitors alike are given pieces of whale and made to feel at home.
"Anybody is welcome," said Michael Donovan, who is a member of Oliver Leavitt's whaling crew. "You don't have to be Alaska Native. The whole community is welcome, whoever you are. That's the great thing about our community -- we're always willing to share with just about anybody."
People come from all over the world to experience Nalukataq, and if you're a visitor, you can usually score an extra piece of whale, said Lucinda Stackhouse on Monday, who was serving for Jacob Adam's crew.
Donovan added that he was happy with the successful season and was having mixed feelings about the final day of Nalukataq, which is spread over several days each June.
"It's been a couple months leading up to this so it's happy-sad, you know, we're sad that it's ending today, but in a way we're happy that it's done," he said.
As for what part of the whale he likes best, his answer wasn't uncommon.
"All of it," he said.
Stella Scott, who was at Nalukataq with her mother Clara, said she likes the muktuk best.
"I just love muktuk," she laughed.
On Monday, four captains -- Charles Hopson, Oliver Leavitt, Jacob Adams and Roxy Oyagak -- shared their bounty with the daylong feast starting with goose and caribou soup, bread and donuts, and then whale; first the intestines, heart and tongue, then the fermented meat, or mikiuk, in the afternoon and muktuk at dinnertime. The last dish served was the flipper.
As for the part of the celebration she likes best, Scott said she holds out for the Eskimo dancing, which is the last event of the evening and usually doesn't start until close to midnight.
In total, 16 crews landed whales this spring, with celebrations spanning the month of June.
In Barrow, Percy Nusunginya, Quiluq Pebley, Ned Arey, Gordon Brower, Eugene Brower, Charles Hopson, Oliver Leavitt, Jacob Adams and Roxy Oyagak captained the successful crews. In Nuiqsut, Thomas Napageak, Herbert Ipalook and Isaac Nukapigak led the crews that landed whales. Clark Lane and Rex Rock were the captains in Point Hope while Walter Nayakik, Jr. brought home a whale with his team in Wainwright and Julius Rexford was successful in Point Lay.
"Today is about the successful whale hunt and we are here to serve the community," Stackhouse said. "It's really exciting and people are excited right from when the whaling season starts until now."
Later in the evening, after the whale meat had been doled out and everyone had their fill, the blanket toss and traditional dancing took place.
Even the light rain and a broken post that supports the blanket -- a group volunteered to work the blanket manually, without the help of ropes and beams -- couldn't stop dozens of locals and visitors alike from being flung high into the air, most tossing candy to kids as they soared overhead.
"It's extremely scary, but I watched so many people do it successfully, I didn't think I was going to get hurt, said Coast Guard Cmdr. Andy Joca, who was visiting Barrow from Kodiak for work. "I got a little gravel in my mouth, but other than that it was good."
As a visitor, Joca said he just happened upon Nalukataq and was overwhelmed with the hospitality.
"I've been in the Coast Guard for 20 years and traveled all over the world … and of all the places I've gone, this is the most welcoming and warm community I've seen," Joca said.
Bernice Oyheak flew high above the crowd with a GoPro camera fastened on her hat, capturing the crowd from a bird's-eye view. This was about her third time taking part in the blanket toss and, she said, the trick is to stay strong and confident. Also, don't try to psych yourself up.
"That might ruin it," she laughed. "You can't think about it too much, you just have to do it."
And while the blanket toss is fun, her favorite part of Nalukataq is just being with family.
"It's all about unity," she said.
This story first appeared in The Arctic Sounder and is republished here with permission.