Tag Archives: subsistence

Inupiat Whaling

Point Barrow, Alaska, watercolor painting by Sophie E. Porter, 1895-1896, from the NBWM's Kendall Collection

New Bedford’s renewed relationship with Barrow, AK, fostered both through the National Park Service and through the ECHO (Education through Cultural and Historical Organizations) program, brought their traditional whale hunts back into our local consciousness. An article in the New York Times from Monday, features a video and a reference to New Bedford whaling tools still being used in Barrow.

The story is also a reminder that effects of climate change are more quickly and easily seen in the planet’s polar regions. Shrinking polar ice caps are changing the way the hunt is conducted. What is not mentioned is that a shorter ice season leads to longer periods of open water that can be pushed by the wind to increase coastal erosion, another issue facing Barrow residents.

Subsistence Hunting Under Review

BALAENA COMUNE lithograph, by Rispoli / Petraroja, from NBWM Kendall Collection


Last Tuesday’s blog began with a reference to the commonly asked question (at least here at the NBWM) “Who’s hunting whales now?”. That blog talked a bit about one country involved in commercial hunting. Today’s answer to that question focuses on subsistence hunting and an article from the Alaska Dispatch.

It’s time for the NOAA/NMFS review of the bowhead whale population in the Bering, Chuckchi and Beaufort Seas (western Arctic). This will determine the maximum number of whales that can be harvested by the Inupiat.

Based on commentary coming out of Iceland, it is likely they will dispute or perhaps vote against the subsistence hunt at the next International Whaling Commission meeting. Japan did this in 2002.

Animal Panegyrics

Civilizations divided by both time and location are united with the mutual connection of the natural world. Animals were praised in folkloric panegyrics that told of both practical and religious significance. Tools fashioned from the bone of an animal will often bear carvings that depict a tale of culture or perhaps the crest of a family name. Such craftsmanship becomes passed down from generation to generation, with origins that become obscured or aggrandized with the passing of time. History is hidden under the recondite veil that is this mythology, yet it is a passageway that can be followed by the attentive eye.


I am pointing to a Finnish "puukko" knife, a versatile tool used by hunters and craftsman alike. The handle is often carved to tell a story.

Our new exhibit, now on display in the east balcony of the Bourne Building’s upper floor, exemplifies such hidden history. The Lapps of Scandinavia, the Chukchi of Siberia, and the Inuit of North America are various cultures indeed, yet they meet at the mutual point of mythology. Although their cultures may seem distanced and different in appearance, in essence they each celebrate the animals that are beloved in their societies.

New Exhibit: From Pursuit to Preservation

The New Bedford Whaling Museum announces the opening of an exciting new permanent exhibition, From Pursuit to Preservation: The History of Human Interaction with Whales, which explains and explores the human fascination with whales and the history of whaling in New Bedford in a global context.

A humpback whale caught at Icy Cape in August 1912 with the crew who made the strike.

A humpback whale caught at Icy Cape in August 1912 with the crew who made the strike.

This comprehensive multimedia presentation, developed with a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, ECHO (Education Through Cultural and Historical Organizations) funding, and the generous contributions of Museum supporters, forms a new focal point for visitors experiencing the Whaling Museum. From Pursuit to Preservation guides visitors through the story of humankind’s evolving relationship with whales, from the whale as a source of survival and symbolic power, through to its exploitation for commercial wealth, to the first gropings toward scientific inquiry and contemporary methods of observation and study.

Whalebone processing in the yard of Pacific Steam Whaling Company

Whalebone processing in the yard of Pacific Steam Whaling Company

From ancient times, people have used the meat, oil, and bone of whales as important resources for their communities. The whale’s importance to humans’ physical well-being often fostered a symbolic cultural connection, a relationship that took many forms throughout the centuries and continues to evolve in contemporary art, literature, and popular culture. In From Pursuit to Preservation, the Whaling Museum takes visitors on a journey across time and around the world, using many items from its vast collection including unique maritime artifacts and art, photographs and whale skeletons as well as a listening station, digital picture frames, and thought-provoking interpretive signs to involve visitors in the discovery of the symbolic, spiritual, and cultural connections we share with these majestic and increasingly endangered animals.


Floating-Factory Ship THORSHAMMER with whales along side, circa 1928

Humans’ complex relationship with whales is told from the early harvesting of beached whales to the development of watercraft and weapons specifically to pursue the animals at sea. Once demand grew, an industry was born to hunt and process whales for the oil that would light the world for three centuries and the baleen that was the plastic of that age. While the Dutch and English led the way in the creation of this industry, by the early 19th century, the United States, led by New Bedford, had the most productive whaling industry in the world. As the success of the industry began to threaten the survival of whales, new technologies made their oil less vital. And while whaling left New Bedford, the pursuit of whales continued in Europe and Asia at new levels of efficient slaughter hunting that enabled the harvest in one year to outstrip that of the previous decade in total. The move toward preserving whales came as humans hunters become so good at killing that international regulation was needed to keep whales from extermination.


National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration off the South Carolina coast working to free a young endangered right whale entangled in ropes and buoys

Visitors to the New Bedford Whaling Museum experience come away with a new concept of the power of the whale in the human imagination — representing nature’s power, the lure of the unknown, a monstrous foe, and a once abundant resource. And the Whaling Museum exhibition also creates a bridge of understanding about how the whale has come now to symbolize our emerging understanding of our place in the natural world and how profound our impact upon it can be. Our hunt now is for knowledge: the better to apply the lessons of the past to the challenges of the future.

The exhibition was designed by The PRD Group, Ltd. of Chantilly, Virginia, and fabricated by Color-Ad, of Manassas, Virginia. The Museum is grateful for their enthusiasm, hard work, and dedication to the quality of the finished product.

Member’s Preview and Curator’s Tour:
Thursday July 2, 2009 6:00 pm – 8:00 pm
Open to NBWM Members only
RSVP to 508-997-0046 ext. 188

To view photos of the installation visit our Flickr site.

Iñupiaq Whale Hunt

This video, adapted from material provided by the ECHO (Education through Cultural & Historical Organizations) partners, provides great insight into the lives of contemporary subsistence whalers.  Check it out.

whale hunt