Western scholarship has largely functioned with a neo colonial mindset when
it comes to non Western cultures.

Glad to see it changing slowly.

It'd be a pity to know the price of everything and the value of nothing.


Why Scientists Are Starting to Care About Cultures That Talk to Whales

Arctic people have been communicating with cetaceans for centuries. The
rest of the world is finally listening in

This article is from Hakai Magazine, an online publication about science
and society in coastal ecosystems. Read more stories like this at
Harry Brower Sr. was lying in a hospital bed in Anchorage, Alaska, close to
death, when he was visited by a baby whale.

Although Brower’s body remained in Anchorage, the young bowhead took him
more than 1,000 kilometers north to Barrow (now Utqiaġvik), where Brower’s
family lived. They traveled together through the town and past the
indistinct edge where the tundra gives way to the Arctic Ocean. There, in
the ice-blue underwater world, Brower saw Iñupiat hunters in a sealskin
boat closing in on the calf’s mother.

Brower felt the shuddering harpoon enter the whale’s body. He looked at the
faces of the men in the umiak, including those of his own sons. When he
awoke in his hospital bed as if from a trance, he knew precisely which man
had made the kill, how the whale had died, and whose ice cellar the meat
was stored in. He turned out to be right on all three counts.

Brower lived six years after the episode, dying in 1992 at the age of 67.
In his final years, he discussed what he had witnessed with Christian
ministers and Utqiaġvik’s whaling captains. The conversations ultimately
led him to hand down new rules to govern hunting female whales with
offspring, meant to communicate respect to whales and signal that people
were aware of their feelings and needs. “[The whale] talked to me,” Brower
recalls in a collection of his stories, The Whales, They Give Themselves.
“He told me all the stories about where they had all this trouble out there
on the ice.”

Not long ago, non-Indigenous scientists might have dismissed Brower’s
experience as a dream or the incoherent ramblings of a sick man. But he and
other Iñupiat are part of a deep history of Arctic and subarctic peoples
who believe humans and whales can talk and share a reciprocal relationship
that goes far beyond that of predator and prey. Today, as Western
scientists try to better understand Indigenous peoples’ relationships with
animals—as well as animals’ own capacity for thoughts and feelings—such
beliefs are gaining wider recognition, giving archaeologists a better
understanding of ancient northern cultures.

“If you start looking at the relationship between humans and animals from
the perspective that Indigenous people themselves may have had, it reveals
a rich new universe,” says Matthew Betts, an archaeologist with the
Canadian Museum of History who studies Paleo-Eskimo cultures in the
Canadian Arctic. “What a beautiful way to view the world.”

It’s not clear exactly when people developed the technology that allowed
them to begin hunting whales, but scholars generally believe Arctic whaling
developed off the coast of Alaska sometime between 600 and 800 CE. For
thousands of years before then, Arctic people survived by hunting seals,
caribou, and walruses at the edge of the sea ice.

One such group, the Dorset—known in Inuit oral tradition as the Tunit—were
rumored to have been so strong the men could outrun caribou and drag a
1,700-kilogram walrus across the ice. The women were said to have fermented
raw seal meat against the warmth of their skin, leaving it in their pants
for days at a time. But despite their legendary survival skills, the Tunit
died out 1,000 years ago.

One theory for their mysterious disappearance is that they were outcompeted
by people who had begun to move east into the Canadian Arctic—migrants from
Alaska who brought sealskin boats allowing them to push off from shore and
hunt whales. Each spring, bowhead whales weighing up to 54,000 kilograms
pass through the leads of water that open into the sea ice, and with skill
and luck, the ancestors of today’s Inuit and Iñupiat people could spear a
cetacean as it surfaced to breathe.

The advent of whaling changed the North. For the first time, hunters could
bring in enough meat to feed an entire village. Permanent settlements began
springing up in places like Utqiaġvik that were reliably visited by
bowheads—places still inhabited today. Social organizations shifted as
successful whale hunters amassed wealth, became captains, and positioned
themselves at the top of a developing social hierarchy. Before long, the
whale hunt became the center of cultural, spiritual, and day-to-day life,
and whales the cornerstone of many Arctic and subarctic cosmologies.

When agricultural Europeans began visiting and writing about the North in
the 10th century, they were mesmerized by Aboriginal peoples’ relationships
with whales. Medieval literature depicted the Arctic as a land of
malevolent “monstrous fishes” and people who could summon them to shore
through magical powers and mumbled spells. Even as explorers and
missionaries brought back straightforward accounts of how individual
whaling cultures went about hunting, butchering, and sharing a whale, it
was hard to shake the sense of mysticism. In 1938, American anthropologist
Margaret Lantis analyzed these scattered ethnographic accounts and
concluded that Iñupiat, Inuit, and other northern peoples belonged to a
circumpolar “whale cult.”

Lantis found evidence of this in widespread taboos and rituals meant to
cement the relationship between people and whales. In many places, a
recently killed whale was given a drink of fresh water, a meal, and even
traveling bags to ensure a safe journey back to its spiritual home.
Individual whalers had their own songs to call the whales to them.
Sometimes shamans performed religious ceremonies inside circles made of
whale bones. Stashes of whaling amulets—an ambiguous word used to describe
everything from carved, jewelry-like charms to feathers or skulls—were
passed from father to son in whaling families.

To non-Indigenous observers, it was all so mysterious. So unknowable. And
for archaeologists and biologists especially, it was at odds with Western
scientific values, which prohibited anything that smacked of

In archaeology, such attitudes have limited our understanding of Arctic
prehistory, says Erica Hill, a zooarchaeologist with the University of
Alaska Southeast. Whaling amulets and bone circles were written off as
ritualistic or supernatural with little exploration of what they actually
meant to the people who created them. Instead, archaeologists who studied
animal artifacts often focused on the tangible information they revealed
about what ancient people ate, how many calories they consumed, and how
they survived.

Hill is part of a burgeoning branch of archaeology that uses ethnographic
accounts and oral histories to re-examine animal artifacts with fresh
eyes—and interpret the past in new, non-Western ways. “I’m interested in
this as part of our prehistory as humans,” Hill says, “but also in what it
tells us about alternative ways of being.”

The idea that Indigenous people have spiritual relationships with animals
is so well established in popular culture it’s cliché. Yet constricted by
Western science and culture, few archaeologists have examined the record of
human history with the perspective that animals feel emotions and can
express those emotions to humans.

Hill’s interest in doing so was piqued in 2007, when she was excavating in
Chukotka, Russia, just across the Bering Strait from Alaska. The site was
estimated to be 1,000 to 2,000 years old, predating the dawn of whaling in
the region, and was situated at the top of a large hill. As her team dug
through the tundra, they uncovered six or seven intact walrus skulls
deliberately arranged in a circle.

Like many archaeologists, Hill had been taught that ancient humans in harsh
northern climates conserved calories and rarely expended energy doing
things with no direct physical benefit. That people were hauling walrus
skulls to a hilltop where there were plenty of similar-sized rocks for
building seemed strange. “If you’ve ever picked up a walrus skull, they’re
really, really heavy,” Hill says. So she started wondering: did the skulls
serve a purpose that wasn’t strictly practical that justified the effort of
carrying them uphill?

When Hill returned home, she began looking for other cases of “people doing
funky stuff” with animal remains. There was no shortage of examples:
shrines packed with sheep skulls, ceremonial burials of wolves and dogs,
walrus-skull rings on both sides of the Bering Strait. To Hill, though,
some of the most compelling artifacts came from whaling cultures.

Museum collections across North America, for instance, include a dazzling
array of objects categorized as whaling amulets. From this grab bag, Hill
identified 20 carved wooden objects that served as the seats of whaling
boats. In the Iñupiaq language, they’re called either iktuġat or aqutim
aksivautana, depending on dialect.

One in particular stands out. Hill was looking for Alaskan artifacts in a
massive climate-controlled warehouse belonging to Smithsonian’s National
Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC. The artifacts were housed in
hundreds of floor-to-ceiling drawers, row after row of them, with little
indication of what was inside. She pulled open one drawer and there it
was—the perfect likeness of a bowhead whale staring back at her.

The seat, likely from the late 19th century, was hewn from a hunk of
driftwood into a crescent shape, just large enough for a grown man to sit
on. Carved on one side was a bowhead, looking as it would look if you were
gazing down on a whale from above, perhaps from a raven’s-eye perspective.
A precious bead of obsidian was embedded in the blowhole. “It’s so elegant
and simple but so completely whale,” Hill says. “It’s this perfect balance
of minimalism and form.”

Using Iñupiat oral histories and ethnographies recorded in the 19th and
20th centuries, Hill now knows that this and other iktuġat were meant to be
placed in a boat with the likeness of the whale facing down, toward the
ocean. The meticulously rendered art was thus meant not for humans, but for
whales—to flatter them, Hill says, and call them to the hunters. “The idea
is that the whale will be attracted to its own likeness, so obviously you
want to depict the whale in the most positive way possible,” she explains.

Yupik stories from St. Lawrence Island tell of whales who might spend an
hour swimming directly under an umiak, positioning themselves so they could
check out the seats and the men occupying them. If the boat was clean, the
carvings beautiful, and the men respectful, the whale might reposition
itself to be harpooned. If the art portrayed the whale in an unflattering
light or the boat was dirty, it indicated that the hunters were lazy and
wouldn’t treat the whale’s body properly. Then the whale might swim away.

In “Sounding a Sea-Change: Acoustic Ecology and Arctic Ocean Governance”
published in Thinking with Water, Shirley Roburn quotes Point Hope, Alaska,
resident Kirk Oviok: “Like my aunt said, the whales have ears and are more
like people,” he says. “The first batch of whales seen would show up to
check which ones in the whaling crew would be more hospitable. … Then the
whales would come back to their pack and tell them about the situation.”

The belief that whales have agency and can communicate their needs to
people isn’t unique to the Arctic. Farther south, on Washington’s Olympic
Peninsula and British Columbia’s Vancouver Island, Makah and Nuu-chah-nulth
whalers observed eight months of rituals meant to communicate respect in
the mysterious language of whales. They bathed in special pools, prayed,
spoke quietly, and avoided startling movements that might offend whales.
Right before the hunt, the whalers sang a song asking the whale to give

In Makah and Nuu-chah-nulth belief, as in many Arctic cultures, whales
weren’t just taken—they willingly gave themselves to human communities. A
whale that offered its body wasn’t sentencing itself to death. It was
choosing to be killed by hunters who had demonstrated, through good
behavior and careful adherence to rituals, that they would treat its
remains in a way that would allow it to be reborn. Yupik tradition, for
example, holds that beluga whales once lived on land and long to return to
terra firma. In exchange for offering itself to a Yupik community, a beluga
expected to have its bones given the ritualistic treatment that would allow
it to complete this transition and return to land, perhaps as one of the
wolves that would gnaw on the whale’s bones.

According to Hill, many of the objects aiding this reciprocity—vessels used
to offer whales a drink of fresh water, amulets that hunters used to
negotiate relationships with animal spirits—weren’t just reserved for
shamanistic ceremonies. They were part of everyday life; the physical
manifestation of an ongoing, daily dialogue between the human and animal

While Westerners domesticated and eventually industrialized the animals we
eat—and thus came to view them as dumb and inferior—Arctic cultures saw
whale hunting as a match between equals. Bipedal humans with rudimentary
technology faced off against animals as much as 1,000 times their size that
were emotional, thoughtful, and influenced by the same social expectations
that governed human communities. In fact, whales were thought to live in an
underwater society paralleling that above the sea.

Throughout history, similar beliefs have guided other human-animal
relationships, especially in hunter-gatherer cultures that shared their
environment with big, potentially dangerous animals. Carvings left behind
by the Tunit, for example, suggest a belief that polar bears possessed a
kind of personhood allowing them to communicate with humans; while some
Inuit believed walruses could listen to humans talking about them and react

Whether or not those beliefs are demonstrably true, says Hill, they “make
room for animal intelligence and feelings and agency in ways that our
traditional scientific thinking has not.”

Today, as archaeologists like Hill and Matthew Betts shift their
interpretation of the past to better reflect Indigenous worldviews,
biologists too are shedding new light on whale behavior and biology that
seems to confirm the traits Indigenous people have attributed to whales for
more than 1,000 years. Among them is Hal Whitehead, a professor at
Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia who argues that cetaceans have their
own culture—a word typically reserved for human societies.

By this definition, culture is social learning that’s passed down from one
generation to the next. Whitehead finds evidence for his theory in numerous
recent studies, including one that shows bowhead whales in the North
Pacific, off the Alaskan coast, and in the Atlantic Ocean near Greenland
sing different songs, the way human groups might have different styles of
music or linguistic dialects. Similarly, pods of resident killer whales
living in the waters off south Vancouver Island greet each other with
different behaviors than killer whales living off north Vancouver Island,
despite the fact that the groups are genetically almost identical and have
overlapping territories.

Plus, calves spend years with their mothers, developing the strong
mother-offspring bonds that serve to transfer cultural information, and
bowhead whales live long enough to accumulate the kind of environmental
knowledge that would be beneficial to pass on to younger generations. We
know this largely because of a harpoon tip that was found embedded in a
bowhead in northern Alaska in 2007. This particular harpoon was only
manufactured between 1879 and 1885 and wasn’t used for long after, meaning
that the whale had sustained its injury at least 117 years before it
finally died.

Other beliefs, too, are proving less farfetched than they once sounded. For
years, scientists believed whales couldn’t smell, despite the fact that
Iñupiat hunters claimed the smell of woodsmoke would drive a whale away
from their camp. Eventually, a Dutch scientist dissecting whale skulls
proved the animals did, indeed, have the capacity to smell. Even the Yupik
belief that beluga whales were once land-dwelling creatures is rooted in
reality: some 50 million years ago, the ancestor of modern-day whales
walked on land. As if recalling this, whale fetuses briefly develop legs
before losing them again.

None of this suggests that whales freely give themselves to humans. But
once you understand the biological and intellectual capabilities of
whales—as whaling cultures surely did—it’s less of a leap to conclude that
cetaceans live in their own underwater society, and can communicate their
needs and wishes to humans willing to listen.

With the dawn of the 20th century and the encroachment of Euro-Americans
into the North, Indigenous whaling changed drastically. Whaling in the
Makah and Nuu-chah-nulth Nations essentially ended in the 1920s after
commercial whalers hunted the gray whale to near extinction. In Chukotka,
Russian authorities in the 1950s replaced community-based whaling with
state-run whaling.

Even the whaling strongholds of Alaska’s Iñupiat villages weren’t immune.
In the 1970s, the International Whaling Commission ordered a halt to
subsistence bowhead whaling because US government scientists feared there
were just 1,300 of the animals left. Harry Brower Sr. and other whaling
captains who’d amassed lifetimes of knowledge knew that figure was wrong.

But unlike other whaling cultures, Iñupiat whalers had the means to fight
back, thanks to taxes they had collected from a nearby oil boom. With the
money, communities hired Western-trained scientists to corroborate
traditional knowledge. The scientists developed a new methodology that used
hydrophones to count bowhead whales beneath the ice, rather than
extrapolating the population based on a count of the visible bowheads
passing by a single, ice-free locale. Their findings proved bowheads were
far more numerous than the government had previously thought, and
subsistence whaling was allowed to continue.

Elsewhere, too, whaling traditions have slowly come back to life. In 1999,
the Makah harvested their first whale in over 70 years. The Chukchi were
allowed to hunt again in the 1990s.

Yet few modern men knew whales as intimately as Brower. Although he
eschewed some traditions—he said he never wanted his own whaling song to
call a harpooned whale to the umiak, for example—Brower had other ways of
communicating with whales. He believed that whales listened, and that if a
whaler was selfish or disrespectful, whales would avoid him. He believed
that the natural world was alive with animals’ spirits, and that the
inexplicable connection he’d felt with whales could only be explained by
the presence of such spirits.

And he believed that in 1986, a baby whale visited him in an Anchorage
hospital to show him how future generations could maintain the
centuries-long relationship between humans and whales. Before he died, he
told his biographer Karen Brewster that although he believed in a Christian
heaven, he personally thought he would go elsewhere. “I’m going to go join
the whales,” he said. “That’s the best place, I think. … You could feed all
the people for the last time.”

Perhaps Brower did become a whale and feed his people one last time. Or
perhaps, through his deep understanding of whale biology and behavior, he
passed down the knowledge that enabled his people to feed themselves for
generations to come. Today, the spring whaling deadline he proposed based
on his conversation with the baby whale is still largely observed, and
bowhead whales continue to sustain Iñupiat communities, both physically and

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