Alaskan Aleut Whale Hunting and Folklore
The Aleutian people live amongst several islands that lie between Alaska and Siberia. The Aleutian Islands are very rocky with many mountains, and most days of the year the sun is blocked by a constant fog, preventing the growth of trees. Although the islands do not receive much sun the constant moisture in the air causes small vegetation such as grass and berry bushes to grow. The Aleuts rely on marine life for much of their food source, hunting for whales, seals, walruses, and fish among other things. As most native tribes do, they utilize all of their resources around them, not wasting anything, including all parts of the animals they kill.
An indication of prestige among the tribe was being a member of the whale-hunting cult. The Aleut had a very unique way of whaling different from many other tribes. Their secret was the use of poison on the end of their spears. “The poison was made by pounding and grating dried aconite root, which was then steeped in water and kept in a warm place until it fermented” (Quimby, 1944, p. 13). The Aleut people hunted for whales in special kayaks called baidarkas. Each baidarka carried two men, the man in the back was the person who rowed and steered and the man in the front was the one with the spear. Once the spear struck the whale the poison killed the whale allowing the current to wash the body to shore. Each hunter made unique markers on the end of their spears to indicate who had killed the whale, claiming it when it washed ashore.
The process of making the poison and this way of hunting was a tradition passed down from generation to generation. Not all Aleutian people knew how to hunt this way, it was a privilege of the whaling cult, members were carefully chosen, mostly based on the men’s strength and hunting abilities, these men had to go through a long process of initiation. To be the person who actually speared the whales was even more prestigious, often these people were chiefs or brothers of the chiefs. The whaling cult held several traditional ceremonies and practiced may rituals that were sacred and very secretive.
Preparation for the whale hunt consisted of the whale hunters taking the mummified bodies of former dead whale hunters who were successful and bringing them into a body of water. The whale hunters would then drink or bathe in the water that was now tainted from the dead bodies. They kept the mummified bodied in caves high in the mountains and it was thought that they did this ritual to give them the luck and strength of the former hunters.
The former hunter’s body fat was sometimes boiled down and the hunter’s spear end was dipped in it, it was believed that this would cause the whale to die sooner. The Aleut people have a folklore story that is told where a man used to take the brains of dead men and smear them on spearheads before killing the whales. When he died his daughter became ill and the shaman of the tribe explained that she was being punished for her father’s wrongdoing because what he had done offended the spirits.
The Aleutians place a lot of importance on women, especially the whale hunter’s wives. Actions of the women of the tribe were often seen as the turning point of the hunters killing a whale or not. For example, it was thought that if the hunter has touched a body that had been bleeding the whales would not come around them, particularly a woman who was menstruating or had just given birth to a child. The men of the tribe avoid the women during these events at all costs in fear that it would ruin the luck of their hunt. In contrast to this, I will compare it to the people of the Apache tribe that we studied in class, who worship a women’s menstrual cycle and see it as a good thing.
The Apache hold special celebratory ceremonies for girls who have their first menstrual cycle. In conclusion to this thought, it seems as if the Aleut hold women to a much lower standard than the men of the tribe, unlike the Apache who give women power and say amongst the tribe. The Aleut also believed that during a whale hunt the wives of the hunters were to remain in the house for the duration of the hunt lying down, and were not allowed to drink food or water. When the wives heard the news that their husbands had successfully killed a whale they must remain in their houses until their husbands return, but begin to undress taking one shoe off which was supposed to invite the whale into their home and get the carcass ashore faster.
After a whale was dragged up on land and the hunter was indicated by the marker on the spear he was then escorted to the carcass. At this time the hunter was to cut out and eat a small part of the whale’s flesh that had been penetrated by the poison, if he did not become sick or die the rest of the whale’s meat was distributed amongst the tribe. It is believed that hunters became immune to small amounts of the poison after consuming it multiple times. After the whale’s distribution among the tribe the whale hunter went into a ritual seclusion where he worshiped the whale’s life for three days. During this three-day period the hunter laid flat on his stomach and at the end of the third day, he rolled over on his back. The hunter did this to signify that the whale he struck had died. It was said that if the whale was speared correctly on its fin it would lose motion control and after three days it would roll over and float on its back when deceased.
After this three-day period, the tribe holds a festival where they offer thanks to their gods for the luck of killing the whale. It is here that they worship with song, dance, and drumming. Similarly, to the Cree people in the book “Telling Our Stories” that we have studied in class the Aleut people highly respect their elders as well as worship the spirits of loved ones who have passed. In Aleut tradition, during the whale ceremony, they throw small pieces of the whale’s flesh into the fire as an offering to their dead peoples. When tribe members pass away they often bury them with household items such as wooden idols, believing they may need them in the afterlife. During the whale ceremony members of the tribe smear blood and fat from the whale on these wooden idols with the belief that they are fed by this act. After this is done the tribe’s shamans lead them in special prayers.
Masks are also a major part of Aleutian traditional ceremonies. The masks are often made from whalebone or wood and painted with different colors of ocher. The masks are made to represent things such as mythological beings, gods, and different spirits of animals and inanimate objects. “They have been an integral element of religion and society, inseparable from the overall complex story, song, and dance…” (Rogers & Anichtchenko, 2011, p. 68). Sadly, much is left unknown about the purpose of different masks in ceremonies of the Aleutians, but people such as researcher and author Lydia Black have made some interpretations. Black suggests that the masks were worn to transform the wearer into the being of the mask and into a different realm. It is believed that specifically whalebone masks were used during burial ceremonies and placed on the chest of the deceased, based on the fact that these ancient masks have been found amongst human remains.
The most important ceremony of the Aleut tribe is their winter festival, which they believe ensures that they will have a good hunting season in the spring. The festival lasts several days and is celebrated by dancing and a feast. During the dances tribe members wear masks that represent animals of the ocean, earth, and sky. There is a particular sacred dance that only the women of the tribe participate in. During this dance, they are completely naked under the moonlight. Men are not permitted to participate or even attend this dance, and if a man is found not obeying this rule he is punished by death.
Some dances are almost like a play where they act out the hunting chase of an animal, in the end, a bird turns into a woman and the woman falls into the arms of the hunter. From what I have researched about the women of the Aleut tribe I have created an analysis of this dance production. According to Katherine Reedy-Maschener, who interviewed several fishermen from the Aleut tribe, it is extremely hard to impress Aleut women. In order to impress the women, the men had to be skilled hunters and fishers in order to provide, and it is mentioned in her book “Limited Entry Systems in an Eastern Aleut Community” that men sometimes would travel very long distances just to acquire a wife.
I believe that the dance where the bird becomes a woman falling into the hunter’s arms is to symbolize the superiority that is placed on men who can provide in the tribe. The man who provides always gets the woman. I would say that this is very comparative to most American relationship seekers. Most American women want a man who has enough money to provide for a future family. I believe that in most cultures this is a similar occurrence.
In the Aleut tribe, bumble bees are seen as a symbol of power, the power to kill. The men of the tribe make children figurine toys that represent giant bumblebees. They make the figurines out of sea mammal bones and give them fangs from the canine teeth of the sea animals, also painting their mouths red. There is a tale told that an Aleut hunter was transformed into a killer whale so that he could kill whales. During the process of his transformation bumblebees come out of his eyes giving him the power to kill. Aleutians also believe that during the initiation process of becoming a shaman a bee flies up their sleeve sucking everything from them, after this, they become a angakkuq or shaman. A third tale is told about a ferocious bee that punished two wives when they refused to switch husbands for the night. The spirit of Ivigtarssuaq “the big bee” overcomes them taking life from their bodies. Bee amulets are often worn out to sea during whale hunts in order to bring the hunters the power to kill.
The difference between the Aleut tribe and most American families is that the Aleut practice polygamy meaning that men are married to multiple wives. A man is allowed to marry as many wives that he is able to provide for. The number of wives a man has is also seen as a ranking of social status among the tribe. A very common thing among most Eskimo, including the Aleut, is the swapping of wives. However, wives were forbidden to sleep with other men unless told so by their husbands. It is also very common that to welcome company the men would lend their wives to visitors of the tribe.
There is an Aleut folklore story that has many variations, but essentially has the same plot. In the story a husband becomes ill he tells his wife that when he dies she must lay him outside above the ground. Following his orders after he died the wife did so, and the body remained there for three days. On the third day the wife noticed that her husbands body had disappeared. Later that day a bird came to the wife and told her that her husband was not dead, but he was living with another woman at the mouth of the river.
The woman, who was furious now headed to the mouth of the river. When she got there she saw a younger woman who invited her inside her house. The younger lady asked the wife how she got her cheeks so red, saying that maybe if her cheeks were that red her husband would love her more. The wife told her that she boils a big pot of water and puts her face over it to make her cheeks look red. The younger woman decided she would try this and when she did the wife of the man pushed her face into the boiling hot water killing her. The husband how had returned from a long day of hunting came home to find his mistress dead. He knew at that moment it was his wife who had killed her.
Like I mentioned before there are several different variations of this story, in some versions of the story the wife kills the mistress in other ways, or the animal that tells the wife about her husband’s unfaithfulness is a different animal than a bird. It is interesting to think about the passing down of oral stories and how throughout several generations they may end up becoming a completely different story than the original. This concept also made me think about the book we read in class “Native Oral Traditions” and how in the book it showed that many things can be lost in translation from one language to another. This is a very important concept to remember when doing research of folklore.
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