Meet the bowhead whale hunters of northern Alaska

Each spring, local hunters sit on the edge of the ice and wait for whales—a custom that’s at least 1,000 years old.

This story appears in the December 2018 issue of National Geographic magazine.

On the North Slope of Alaska, the culture of the Inupiat centers on whales. Each spring, men and women spend weeks on the tuvaq—the ice near the water—watching for bowhead whales migrating north from the Bering Sea to the Canadian Arctic. When one is spotted, a team pushes an umiak onto the water. There is typically one chance to harpoon the whale. If the hunt is successful, each person in the village can receive a share of the meat.

View Images
A butchered bowhead whale can yield thousands of pounds of food. The ninit—community shares of meat and blubber—are apportioned equitably to ensure that everyone benefits from a successful hunt. “The highest aspiration you can have is to become a whaling captain,” says photographer Kiliii Yüyan. “It’s a job that provides for the entire community.”
View Images

This story of cultural continuity enthralled photographer Kiliii Yüyan. Yüyan is indigenous himself, a descendant of the Hezhe (Nanai in Russian) hunters and fishermen of northern China and southeast Siberia. Stories portraying indigenous communities as degraded or destitute miss their complexity, says Yüyan. “You have to be with them to see their full hope and their joy.”

For 10 months in a span of five years, Yüyan lived among the Inupiat in Utqiaġvik (formerly known as Barrow). He camped with a crew on the sea ice to watch for whales, often volunteering for the night shift when the darkness and quiet set in. It’s a silence quickly broken, he learned: When a whale comes, a spotter calls out its position, urging the crew to launch. “When they’re close, [the noise] is not faint,” he says. “It’s notable. They sing songs. It’s like a musical.”

Waiting for the whales

The Inupiat of Alaska spend long days on the Arctic ice, watching for the whales they hunt and the polar bears that hunt them.

View Images
A hunter listens to the water for songs of nearby whales.
View Images
“Whaling is community. It takes a village to pull up a whale,” says whaling captain Ned Arey. But this bowhead proved impossible to land, despite more than eight hours of effort by dozens of Inupiat. It was abandoned after it broke through the thin sea ice several times—a likely symptom of the warming Arctic.
View Images
At Nalukataq, the Inupiat whaling festival in Utqiaġvik, people celebrate a productive whaling season and give thanks for the gift of the whale. Successful whalers do the blanket toss, in which they rely on the group to catch them safely. This practice goes back millennia and encourages intimacy among the villagers.
View Images
Members of the Yugu crew clean the hide of a nanuq, or polar bear, that had been shot when it stalked into their camp. Some Inupiat believe declining sea ice is responsible for bears’ increased desperation for food.
View Images
High above the Arctic Circle on sea ice a mile from shore, a blind shelters members of an Inupiat whaling crew as they watch for a passing bowhead whale by the light of the midnight sun. The Inupiat have hunted whales here for at least 1,000 years, but climate change and globalization are rapidly altering their culture.