Point Hope is a subsistence village dependent upon fishing, gathering and hunting of marine mammals for food. The subsistence activities throughout the year revolve around whales, other marine mammals and land mammals. The bowhead whale is at the center of the Inupiat culture; whaling crews hunt the bowhead in the spring and whaling captains hold positions of respect in the village. Subsistence activities vary from preparation for whale hunting, to sharing the whale when caught during Nalukataq (a summer festivity in which successful whaling crews share whale with the community). The residents of Point Hope proudly celebrate their traditional past and embrace their promising future; this is demonstrated through the Tikigaq Mission Statement and overall philosophy of the corporation’s subsidiaries.
Point Hope is located approximately 720 air miles northwest of Anchorage on a spit of land jutting into the Chukchi Sea in Northwest Alaska. It is reportedly the oldest continuously inhabited village on the North American continent with over 2,500 years of recorded history. The spit of land jutting into the Chukchi Sea resembles an index finger and Tikigaq means index finger in the Inupiaq language. Tikigaq subsidiary, Agviq, is named after a culturally significant symbol, the bowhead whale.
Point Hope is accessible only by sea or air, and is modern by rural living standards with utility infrastructure, running water, wastewater and diesel-generated electricity. A water and sewer project was completed in 1997, however, there are still homes that lack running water or sewer connections. These residents haul water to their homes and use honey buckets as toilets. The community strives for a system with household plumbing, flushable toilets, and showers, and has received funds to begin construction of a piped sewer system and treatment plant. Electricity is provided by North Slope Borough Power & Light.
The Point Hope Health Clinic provides local health care services. Auxiliary health care is accessible through the Point Hope Volunteer Fire Department. Any treatment requiring a physician must be provided at Kotzebue, which is located 180 air miles south of Point Hope. Major health care is provided in Anchorage, Alaska at the Alaska Native Medical Center. According to 2010 U.S. Census data, there are approximately 700 residents in Point Hope.
The Inupiat people inhabit the oldest continuously settled Native American site on the continent. Specifically, the Tikigagmuit (Tikigaq people) reside in the village of Point Hope which is located 330 miles southwest of Barrow, above the Arctic Circle. This highly favorable site has abundant resources and has enabled the Tikigagmuit to retain a strong traditional cultural presence after experiencing more than a century of outside influences.
Inupiat is the plural word for Northern Eskimos. Inupiaq is the singular word for an Eskimo person of this region and the name of the language spoken by these people.
For Inupiat , language is intrinsic to their culture and traditions. The Inupiaq language consists of Inuit-Inupiat families of languages spoken from Siberia (Yupik) to Greenland (Inupiaq). Many dialects are understandable to speakers of neighboring dialects. The Inuit language family is a sub-family of the Eskimo-Aleut language family. In Alaska, a linguistic division depends on whether the speakers consider themselves Inuit or Yuit (Inupiat or Yupik). The geographic linguistic and cultural boundary seems to occur close to the Yukon River.
The language, in several dialects, is spoken by 3,500 people out of an ethnic population of 8,000, according to the Stanford University Rosetta Project. Because the Inupiat were literally forced to learn English in Bureau of Indian Affairs schools, most speakers are over 30 years of age. Present day efforts to include linguistic curriculum in schools, however, is gradually increasing the numbers of speakers and refreshing links to cultural traditions.
Bowhead whales (Balaena mysticetus) are found only in the Northern Hemisphere, in Arctic waters. The bowhead whale, also known as Greenland right whale, is an Arctic baleen whale that lives around the pack ice often in shallow waters.
Protected from the icy waters by a two-foot layer of blubber, bowhead whales migrate seasonally between summer feeding areas in Canadian and wintering areas in the Arctic. They travel north through open ice leads in the spring, reaching Point Barrow by early June. In August, they move west toward Wrangell Island and in late fall return south through the Bering Strait. Bowhead whales usually travel alone or in small groups of three to six in the spring, and in pods of about 50 whales in the fall. Beluga whales frequently follow northbound bowheads through the ice leads. Besides man, their only known predator is the killer whale.
The bowhead name comes from its high, arched lower jaw that resembles the shape of an archer’s bow. Its powerful head, which can break through a foot of sea ice, is one-third of the whale’s total body length. The arched mouth reaches up to 10-feet-wide and 20-feet-deep, and contains a series of food-filtering baleen plates.
The large round whales, which have no dorsal fin, are blue-black with white spots on the jaw. Two breathing blowholes on the top of the head send out v-shaped blows 20 feet into the air. The deeply notched fluke of a mature bowhead whale can measure 25 feet from tip to tip, and the paddle-shaped flippers are nearly six feet long.
Adult males reach a maximum of 60 feet in length, and may weigh more than 60 tons. Adult females are slightly larger than males. Although they can stay under water for an hour, bowhead dives usually last from four to 15 minutes, to a depth of up to 500 feet.
Bowhead baleen reaches a maximum length of 13 feet, the longest baleen of all the mysticete whales. With up to 360 fringed overlapping baleen plates hanging from each side of the upper jaw, a bowhead whale skims through the water with its mouth open, scooping water and food. Then the water is forced back out of the mouth through the baleen strainer. Consuming about two tons of food each day, bowheads primarily feed during summer on plankton (krill) less than an inch long. During summer feeding, the whales build up blubber reserves to maintain their body weight during the winter.
Mating occurs during spring migration, between April and early June. Calving intervals are on average every three years, and the period of gestation is 10 months. Most calves are able to swim at birth, and nurse for six months to one year. Closely bonded to the mother, the calf swims in her slipstream. Calves are born with a thick layer of blubber to help them survive in freezing water.
The whales have excellent hearing and eyesight, and are highly vocal, especially during migrations. Their large repertoire of calls and songs cover seven octaves. The whales are thought to use the vocalizations to locate food and communicate with other bowheads to keep the small herds together.
Harsh conditions and the absence of teeth make studying bowhead whales difficult. However, recovered stone harpoon tips indicate that bowhead whales live well past 70 years old, and eye tissue studies indicate life spans up to 100 years.
Bowhead as an Endangered Species
Decades of commercial whaling in the Bering and Beaufort Seas during the 1800s severely reduced the numbers of bowhead whales. At the start of commercial whaling, the population was close to 30,000. Fortunately, market changes brought an end to commercial whaling. Around 1910, Bowheads came under the protection of the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling, and in the 1970s, under the U.S. Marine Mammal and Endangered Species Act, Native-only subsistence harvests were allowed.
Based on numbers showing the bowhead population at only 600 to 2,000, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) moved to end the harvest in 1977. However, traditional knowledge indicated differently and the Eskimos objected. They believed there were more whales. A temporary reduced harvest was negotiated and the U.S. government agreed to expand its bowhead research program. The Northern Eskimos formed the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission (AEWC) to speak for their concerns, assist in research and allocate the quota among villages.
The members of the AEWC are registered whaling captains and their crew members of the 10 whaling communities: Gambell, Savoonga, Wales, Little Diomede, Kivalina, Point Hope, Wainwright, Barrow, Nuiqsut and Kaktovik. There are two classes of members: voting members and non-voting members. Voting members are the registered whaling captains in each community and a non-voting member is a member of a whaling crew. The AEWC is directed by a board of 10 commissioners, one from each whaling village. This Board has complete authority over all of the commission’s affairs. The board elects four officers: a Chairman, a Vice-Chairman, a Secretary and a Treasurer. Staff is hired to oversee the AEWC’s administrative and day-to-day activities.
Eskimos have hunted whales for centuries. For at least 2,000 years, the cultural and social structure of northern whaling villages have centered around the annual hunt. Often times, landing a whale is the most important community event of the year. Many village residents help to hoist the whale up onto the ice and participate in butchering it. A time-honored practice of sharing, celebrating and preparing for the next year’s hunt follows. Whaling captains are highly respected village leaders.
The bowhead whale is hunted exclusively by Alaska Eskimos from the 10 villages extending from St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea, to Barter Island in the Beaufort Sea. Today, in accordance with the International Whaling Commission (IWC) rules, Alaska Native whalers can legally hunt an allocated number of bowhead whales each year for food, oil and Native craft materials. The whaling commission consists of 10 villages including Barrow, Gambell, Kaktovik, Kivalina, Little Diomede, Nuiqsut, Point Hope, Savoonga, Wainwright and Wales.
The hunters honor the animal by utilizing as much of it as possible as a way of giving thanks to the whale for giving itself to the village. In the past, whalebones were used quite extensively in structural and ceremonial use. The baleen was used to make daily-use items. Whalebones continue to mark grave and festival sites in some villages. Whale meat, blubber, skin, and muktuk continue as dietary staples. Oil rendered from the blubber can still be used as fuel when needed.