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A whale hunt that saved an Alaska Native tradition

Editor's Note: This story was originally published in Alaska Magazine in April 2006.

On April 14, 1970, the whaling crew set out from Wales, a Bering Strait village straddling the westernmost tip of the North American continent. The tiny Inupiat Eskimo village—a smattering of tin roofs in an unforgiving landscape of jagged rock and moving ice—huddled beneath 2,290-foot Cape Mountain. Siberia lay 56 miles to the west, its shores shrouded by fog. The skies overhead were clear, the temperature around minus 30 and the wind, as usual on the Bering Strait, blew relentlessly. The hunters shivered on the shore ice for most of the day as they scanned for signs of a bowhead whale.

In late afternoon, a spout blew through a nearby open lead, and the hunters silently launched their skin boat. Their hearts beat fast and their hands shook slightly, but the only sound was the faint swishing of paddles as the hunters closed on the whale. An 8-year-old boy hunkering down in the back of the boat wondered what would unfold when they finally encountered the 26-ton beast. Paddling behind the boy was an Inupiat man who had recently returned from the Vietnam War. The boat captain, originally from Little Diomede Island, was the only one who had ever been on a successful bowhead hunt. Five other men were on the boat, including a white teacher towering over the bow with a harpoon.

More was at stake than landing a whale that afternoon in 1970. The hunters were about to restore an ancient tradition, one that had been lost decades earlier during the 1918 flu pandemic when many of the best hunters had died.

As Native villages across Alaska struggle to rediscover traditions lost to time, death and colonialism, this little-known 1970 whale hunt proves it is possible to bring back the past and hold on to it for the future.

Whaling Tradition Fades

Wales was once one of the world's greatest whaling villages. At its peak, as many as 750 people lived in two settlements, hunting thousands of seals and hundreds of walruses every year. In a good year, they landed more than a dozen bowhead whales, and on such occasions, people from across northwestern Alaska and Siberia came to swap caribou skins and sealskins, iron and copper, jade and flint, ivory and beads. There were big dancing and drumming festivals.

That all began to change in the mid-1800s, when New Englanders and Europeans invaded the Bering Strait, seeking the world's last untouched whaling grounds. More than 50 whaling ships per year passed through the channel, each taking 10 to 15 whales. Eskimos across arctic Alaska began to starve. Still, the people in Wales kept whaling well into the new century and, in spring 1901, crews took eight bowhead whales in a single week.

Their success might have continued had not a strange disease shown up in the village in 1918. That year the Spanish influenza circled the globe, traveling to Alaska aboard steamships. Mail carriers on dog sleds unwittingly spread the virus across the Seward Peninsula, striking Wales and killing at least 170 people—more than half the village's population at the time. Many of Wales' finest hunters died, taking with them centuries-old knowledge and traditions. Elders, the walking encyclopedias of the past, vanished. The village population dropped to 130 people.

By most accounts, the village's crews were unsuccessful at landing a bowhead whale in the years after the pandemic, although they continued to hunt smaller species like beluga and gray whales. Then, in 1944, another flu outbreak overcame Wales, killing a dozen people. Some surviving families moved to Nome and other towns to be closer to hospitals. "The hunting crews got very small, and the people didn't have the equipment for whaling," said Winton Weyapuk Jr. of Wales. "People thought it was easier to harvest walrus, so they concentrated on that."

Teacher With a Dream

In 1968, during his first spring in Wales, Charles Christensen stood at the edge of the Bering Strait watching bowhead whales pass through the ice-choked channel. He wondered why nobody was hunting. Christensen is most remembered in Wales as the outside teacher who harpooned the village's first bowhead in decades; "The Christensen Whale," the people call it today.

He was a charismatic leader, a family man who loved to hunt. In the 1960s, he and his wife, Sarah, were teachers living a life of adventure, from the far reaches of the South Pacific to the frosted fringes of Alaska. They taught in Samoa before moving to the Alaska village of Shaktoolik. In 1967 they arrived in Wales, where they were the only teachers in the village. Before he died in April 2005 at the age of 73, Christensen said that his time in Wales was one of the most exhilarating periods of his life. It was a place where he forged friendships and studied the ways of the Inupiat people. "Mr. Christensen learned how to live like the Eskimos," said Raymond Seetook, a whaling captain and lifelong resident of Wales.

Leland Christensen, son of the late teacher, said that by late 1968 his father was determined to hunt the bowhead whale. His motive was twofold. He wanted to help Wales revive whaling, but he was also driven by the challenge. "My dad was a very busy hunter," Christensen said. "He was the kind of guy who would ask you if you wanted to go hunting, and if you didn't, he'd go out anyway and have a good time." But when it came to an animal weighing more than 25 tons, he would need a crew of hunters. His aspirations to kill a bowhead became the goal of the entire village. Any success would ultimately depend on scores of people, from Wales to Gambell to Barrow. For the people of Wales, it became a quest to reaffirm their roots as great whalers.

Christensen interviewed Wales elders who taught him how to build walrus-skin boats and offered hunting tips, and he got used to being out on the icy Bering Strait with the younger men, shooting walruses and seals. He was good with a rifle, but he had never fired a whaling harpoon. Leland Christensen remembers one winter day when he and his father tested the harpoon. "He strapped the harpoon to a snowmachine sled and hooked it up with a long cord," Christensen said. "When he jerked the cord, it pulled the trigger and shot the round out across the tundra."

Charles Christensen kept meticulous files of his research, which he gave to Silas Komonaseak, a Wales villager who was on the 1970 crew. Komonaseak's son Luther, a whaling captain in the village today, inherited the files. Paging through the reams of notes, letters and diagrams, it's clear that Christensen was obsessed with reviving whaling. On the back of a student's homework assignment, the teacher drew pictures of a bowhead and where the best spots were to strike the whale. He wrote letters to famous whalers from Gambell to Barrow. Eben Hopson Sr., an influential Alaska Native leader from Barrow, wrote to Christensen in 1969, explaining how to divide the bowhead for the community, telling him to pay close attention to which portions go to the elders and the boat captain.

There was another 1969 letter, this one from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, in which state biologist John J. Burns warned Christensen, "It is most desirable if you proceed with your plans without letting too many people learn of them." An international fight was brewing to protect the bowhead, with some activists calling for a ban on whale hunts in Alaska. Meanwhile, the U.S. government was on the verge of listing the bowhead as endangered. "If it was known that a non-Native man was trying to revive whaling in a historic whaling site, when the outside world was trying to eliminate whaling in these places, there would have been an uproar," recalled Burns. "There was a sense of secrecy to get it done and worry about the consequences later."

And so a whaling crew soon formed. They were unsuccessful their first year, but the following spring, on April 14, 1970, they landed a bowhead. Thirty-six years later, some of the crewmembers remember it as one of the easiest whale hunts ever.

Landing a Whale

Roy Okpealuk grew up on Little Diomede Island, 26 miles west of Wales in the Bering Strait, where whaling had never ceased. He was the only member of the eight-man crew who had been on a successful bowhead hunt. Okpealuk had moved to Wales and taken a keen interest in helping the village revive the hunt. He captained the 23-foot-long skin boat built by Christensen. The teacher, who had bought and tested the harpoon gun, was assigned the job of striking the whale.

Six other men were on the boat, including Weyapuk, who had just graduated from high school, and his brother Amos. Herb Anungazuk had returned to Wales six months earlier after serving in Vietnam. All three men were paddlers. Silas Komonaseak, another paddler, sat in the middle of the boat. Jerry Fuller, who was in Wales as part of a volunteer program, also helped paddle. Christensen brought along 8-year-old Leland.

By 5:30 p.m., the crew had been on the ice about eight hours. They'd seen many whales pass by, but none close enough to chase. The younger men were eager for the hunt to begin; Okpealuk reminded everybody to stay quiet. Then a bowhead, roughly 26 feet long, emerged less than 200 yards away. The crew silently launched the boat and Okpealuk quickly guided them next to the whale. Christensen struck it with his harpoon and the whale disappeared momentarily. The teacher reloaded the darting gun and, when the whale came back up, he tried to strike it again but the bomb didn't explode. A few minutes later, Christensen delivered the fatal strike, harpooning the whale near its flipper. It took about 10 minutes to tow the whale to the edge of the shore ice.

Anungazuk went back to the village to let people know the crew had gotten a whale. "I told this older lady we landed the whale and she said, 'You lie,'" recalled Anungazuk.

Traditionally, the bearer of good news would have brought a slab of muktuk as proof. But this was the first bowhead the village had taken in decades. It was a learning experience for everybody, especially the younger generation. "One thing that just amazed me was that the elders completely took over after we landed the whale," Anungazuk said. "The older people divided the whale, keeping with tradition."

People from Shishmaref and other villages traveled to Wales to help. The carving went on through the night and into morning until the ice started to crack. By then the village had harvested most of the whale and everyone was smiling. People ate muktuk. Children interviewed the crew for the school newspaper. Young men talked about forming their own crews.

The hunt got little attention beyond the Bering Strait region, and that might have been a good thing for Native whaling villages at the time. On the same day Wales got its whale, the federal government proposed adding the bowhead on the nation's endangered species list. The order was approved six weeks later. Today, bowhead whales remain endangered, but their numbers are on the rise. A federal exemption allows 10 Alaska villages to hunt the bowhead, including Wales, where crews venture onto the Bering Strait each spring. They haven't always been successful, but they have landed at least 10 whales since 1970, including two bowheads in the past five years, as well as gray and beluga whales.

"People in Wales have come to expect the whaling crews to go out every year," said Weyapuk, now a whaling captain himself. "It helps remind us why we live here, that we're still alive and must go on."

This article originally appeared in Alaska Magazine. Contact Tony Hopfinger at tony(at)alaskadispatch.com