In the last blog we discussed the energy and excitement of watching whales from the National Geographic Explorer. It was also frustrating to be so far away from these amazing creatures. Jan and I have had a continuing interest in whales and other sea and land mammals since we lived for several years in Anchorage. We became quite involved in getting to know the natives (the Inipiat) and the objects they produced with the byproducts of these fascinating animals.
In the spring of 1970 Jan and I and another couple visited Point Hope which is a subsistence village on the northwest coast of Alaska. The village is dependent on fishing, gathering and hunting of marine mammals for food. The village is on a spit of land that juts out into the Chukchi Sea on the northwest coast of Alaska. It is reportedly the oldest continuously inhabited village on the North American continent with over 2,500 years of recorded history. The bowhead whale is at the center of the Inupiat culture. It is also called the Greenland right whale and is an arctic baleen whale. Eskimos have hunted whales for more than 2,000 years. Currently the bowhead whale can be legally hunted by Alaska Native whalers from 10 villages only. Point Hope is one of these ten. A strictly allocated number can be hunted for food, oils and Native craft materials.
The word baleen derives from the Latinbalaena related to the Greek phalaina both of which mean whale. In the development stage modern mysticetes (baleen whales) have teeth initially and then develop baleen plates in utero. They lose their dentition and have only baleen plates as juveniles and adults. Below is a photo of two keratinous plates of baleen that we acquired from Point Hope. Bowhead baleen can reach 13 feet in length. These plates are 5 feet in length. A bowhead whale has up to 360 overlapping baleen plates hanging from each side of the upper jaw. After the water and its krill are taken in, the water is forced out of the mouth through the baleen strainer and the remaining food is swallowed. Bowheads consume about 2 tons of plankton (krill) each day.
The leading edges of the baleen have a fine hairy fringe.
Native artists have been making baleen baskets since early in the 20th century. Thin strips of baleen are cut and soaked and attached to
ivory discs at the start. A coiling method is used to sew the baleen bands together ending in a carved ivory knob on the handle. Point Hope is one of the most active places where these baskets are made. We purchased this baleen basket in Anchorage in 1969. That is a bowhead whale on the top.
The artists initials are under the carving and there is a number on the bottom.
When we bought this piece of carved baleen we were told that by grasping the small tip and twirling it around on the string as fast as possible that a sound would be produced which would "scare away wolves." It does make an eerie sound and so far it has worked.
This is an ossified intervertebral disc from a whale.
This carving from a whale vertebra shows how ingenious and artistic the Inupiat Natives are. They have a great sense of humor.
This blog has shown a different look at whales than we had on the ship. All of the artistic pieces shown here were purchased legally between 1968 and 1970.