No one told me but
I knew that another crew had struck a whale.
Then the chant
returned from across the ice fields, a primitive chant from what seemed like a
thousand generations away. Our crew began paddling as though a whale had blown
nearby. I paddled, too, unaware of the limitations of my body. We had stopped a
whale. Someone had stopped a whale. What did it look like? What were the
circumstances of its death? Was it dead? We rounded a bend in the ice and saw
far off a cluster of whiter-than-ice skin boats, three or four. Our crew
stopped paddling and chanted again.
The chant was
returned, much louder this time, the chant of victory, of accomplishment, of
We cheered and
dipped our paddles even more than before. The kill was at least a mile away. We
paddled hard and then 500 yards away the people in our crew started shouting,
"More! More! Come on, white man, more!" I glanced aside and saw another
boat racing us to the kill. I willed my arms to keep going and kept the pace,
but without power. I was faking it. We beat the other boat by four lengths.
Willie stood up and jabbed the whale with his paddle and then a crewman in the
other boat did the same a few seconds later. The hunters in the other boats
cheered and laughed and shouted.
Abe explained to
me that because we were the fourth boat to the kill, we got the fourth largest
share. The boat behind us got the fifth share and Abe pointed to two boats that
were racing for the final sixth share. There was more cheering and chanting and
I wanted to join but something held me back; the feeling that I might offend,
that it might seem presumptuous to them, that I had not yet earned the right to
chant the death of a whale.
We towed the whale
across the lead to the camps by lashing 10 boats together and dipping our
paddles. There was chanting from the camps and in a single spontaneous emotion
the crews towing the whale would stop and chant at the people on the shore ice.
We were making our presence finally known in this austere environment. We were
powerful and, after all, we had taken a whale.
That was the only
time I went out in the boat. Because our crew had the fourth share we had to
send at least two men to help with the butchering. I volunteered. I wanted to
witness this enormous process and also I wanted to give my paddling muscles a
rest. We still had crew members in camp who had not yet been in the boat. They
would be fresh and eager.
The atmosphere at
the butchering site was both festive and religious. Well over half the village
gathered there, even the children, since school is traditionally canceled upon
the taking of the first whale. A benediction was offered in Inupiat and then
four older ladies, dressed in their finery, bright colors of orange and blue
and red and green, sang a hymn of thanksgiving, both in Inupiat and English.
Then the work began.