I've been working on a project connected with Aleutian fisheries recently, so I've been thinking about the Aleutians a lot at work. The Aleutians are pretty barren. There are no trees and no wood for construction. The weather is brutal. But the Aleuts, the Unangan, thrived there for thousands of years.
Marine resources, including whales, were very important to them. The native craft was the kayak - but how do you hunt whales from kayaks?
This is taken from the cover of the Aleut Corporation's 2003 Annual Report. This is a colorized version of an original 1883 drawing by Henry W. Elliott, a U.S. Treasury officer and a conservationist, who spent a lot of time out there in the late 19th Century.
Elliott described the hunt:
"The native hunter used, as his sole weapon of destruction, a spear-handle of wood about six feet in length; to the head of this he lashed a neatly-polished socket of walrus ivory, in which he inserted a tip of serrated slate that resembled a gigantic arrow-point, twelve or fourteen inches long and four or five broad at the barbs, and upon the point of which he carved his own mark.
In the months of June and July the whales begin to make their first inshore visits to the Aleutian bays, where they follow up schools of herring and shoals of Amphipoda, or sea-fleas, upon which they love to feed. The bays of Akootan and Akoon were and are always resorted to more freely by those cetaceans than are any others in Alaska, and here the hunt is continued as late as August. When a calm, clear day occurs the natives ascend the bluffs and locate a school of whales; then the best men launch their skin-canoes, or bidarkas, and start for the fields. "Two-holed" bidarkas only are used. The hunter himself sits forward with nothing but whale-spear in his grasp; his companion, in the after hatch, swiftly urges the light boat over the water in obedience to his order.
Carefully looking the whales over, the hunter finally recognizes that yearling, or the calf, which he wishes to strike; for it is not his desire to attack an old bull or angry cow-whale. He calculates to a nice range where the whale will rise again from its last point of disappearance, and directs the course of the bidarka accordingly. If he is fortunate he will be within ten or twenty feet of the calf or yearling, and as it rounds its glistening back slowly and lazily out from its cover of the wavelets the Aleut throws his spear with all his physical power, so as to bury the head of it just under the stubby dorsal fin of that marine monster; the wooden shaft is at once detached, but the contortions of the stricken whale only assist to drive and urge the barbed slate-point deeper and deeper into its vitals. Meanwhile the canoe is paddled away as alertly as possible, before the plunging flukes of the tortured animal can destroy it or drown its human occupants."
Take a look at those kayaks again, and guesstimate from the picture how far these guys are from shore. Imagine how hard it would be to tow the dead weight of the whale through the water with a kayak, or even two or three kayaks together. How do you get the whale to a beach where it can be slaughtered for its various products? Elliott continues:
"As soon as the whale is thus wounded it makes for the open sea, where "it goes to sleep" for three days, as the natives believe; then death intervenes, and the gases of decomposition cause its carcass to float, and, if the waves and currents are favorable, it will be so drifted as to lodge on a beach at some locality not so very remote from the place where it was struck by the hunter. The business of watching for these expected carcasses then became the great object of everyone's life in that hunters' village; dusky sentinels and pickets were ranged over long intervals of coast-line, stationed on the brows of the most prominent headlands, where they commanded an extensive range of watery vision. But the caprices of wind and tides are such in these highways and byways of the Aleutian Islands, that on an average not more than one whale in twenty, struck in this manner by native hunters, was ever secured; nevertheless, that one alone (when cast ashore) amply repaid the labor and the exposure incurred chiefly by watching day after day, in storm and fog, from the bluffs of Akoon and Akootan. The lucky hunter who successfully claimed, by his spear-head mark, the credit of slaying such a stranded calf or yearling, was then an object of the highest respect among his fellow-men, and it was remembered well of him even long after death. Also, the greatest expression of respect for the size and ability of a native village and its people was the statement that it was so populous as to be able to eat all the meat and blubber of a large whale?s carcass in a single day!"
The Arctic Province, by Henry W. Elliott, 1886.
Elliott figures in U.S. environmental history. The website AskArt. com provides a short biography from which the following is extracted:
"Henry Wood Elliott is best known as the savior of Alaska's fur seal population, but he was also one of the finest watercolorists to work in the Territory. A Cleveland native, Elliott first visited Alaska in 1867 with the Western Union Telegraph Survey...
He was sent north again in 1872 as U.S. Treasury Agent supervising the Alaska Commercial Company's management of the fur seal industry in the Pribilof Islands. He visited Alaska regularly thereafter, spending much of the rest of his life fighting in Congress to reverse the practices that had led to disastrous declines in the northern fur seal population."
The full picture, on which the colorized version is based, can be found on a National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) web site: "The Whale Fishery
The Aleut Corporation annual report has several additional pages focusing the Akutan whaling station and Aleut involvement in commercial whaling in the early 20th Century.
Minor revision on 3-22-04