ABRUPTLY we were wide-awake. Running feet were thudding down the hallway. That was no casual visitor — something terrible must have happened! Visions of gunshot wounds, of fatal hemorrhages, flashed through my mind. But Earle had another explanation. ‘ Whale! ’ he cried, sitting straight up in bed.
Three whaling crews were camped out on the ice twelve miles from shore at the edge of open water; at any moment one of them might kill a whale.
The door was flung open and Robert, our interpreter, eyes fairly dancing, burst into our bedroom. His round brown face was beaded with perspiration, his hair clung wetly to his forehead, and his breath came raggedly.
‘James boat kill whale,’ he panted. ‘Just now I come from camp. All the people going on the ice. I go the quickly. You like come?’
Would we come! Before he had left the room we were out of bed and dragging on fur garments with awkward fingers. We snatched sweet chocolate, dried fruit, and hardtack and ran out of the building. Every igloo had disgorged its occupants. Already team after team was pulling out of the village, dashing to the tundra’s edge, and dropping over out of sight. Amazed, I saw sleds slide past bearing shriveled old men and women who had huddled bedridden all winter in their igloos.
Robert dashed up with James’s nine sturdy dogs. Rhoda was already on the sled. We flung ourselves at it as it slipped past and were off down through the igloos and caches of the village, hurtling down the sheer pitch to the beach, and off along the discolored thread that wound into the crushed and high-piled ice of the arctic pack.
Earle and Robert took turns at running alongside, one hand on the sled rail, urging the dogs to greater speed. We jolted over shattered fragments of ice where trail work had been done, slipped between sheer glittering walls, grazed azure boulders. On a wide snow-covered flat we pulled steadily up on the team ahead while our dogs gave excited tongue. When we were alongside, there was a brief tangle, snarl, and snap, and we dodged into the trail ahead of them. Another team and then another we passed in the same fashion.
‘It pays to feed dogs well. Eh, Robert?
Robert grinned at Earle’s praise of his father’s well-fed team. We pushed on until we headed the line. On the summit of a pressure ridge where meeting ice fields had buckled and upheaved twenty feet in air, I looked back. Along the tundra’s edge clustered the village. In between, the trail was animate with moving teams, dark, many-footed reptiles, one behind the other, winding across the whiteness.
Two hours of travel. The dogs were panting in their heavy winter coats.
But the dark water cloud drew steadily nearer. Suddenly Robert cried out, and pointed. From a boat’s mast planted in a heap of high-piled ice a flag was fluttering, broad stripes of black and red calico, James Angashuk’s boat flag. The dogs, scenting fresh blood, uttered harsh cries and broke into a frenzied lope. On one runner we flew about sharp angles, miraculously right side up, and there before us was the scene of the kill: two tents, dull gray against the whiteness; a strip of open water, black between the floes; and, in the water at the floe’s edge, a dark bulk floating. Sealskin lines through the broad flukes of the tail held it securely to the ice; bloated sealskins, air-filled, kept it afloat. Beside it men in oomiaks were busily at work hacking off great chunks of meat and skin and blubber, passing them up to others on the ice. A crimson smear across the snow marked the path from whale to dumping ground.
Swiftly the other teams arrived. The frantic dogs were securely fastened among heaps of broken ice, where they shrieked and lunged until quieted by chunks of whale. All set to work helping to cut and carry great masses of raw flesh and heap it on the ice. James produced a strong hemp line and block and tackle, purchased from some whaling captain. It was fastened about the tail, and the entire population in Wainwright, man, woman, and child, Earle and I among them, leaned and chanted and strained. Slowly the vast bulk rose from the water, moved slowly out upon the floe. A great shout went up.
‘ Adreegah! Ko-yeh-nah! ’
There was no time, however, for idle rejoicing. Every moment was valuable. A gentle west wind was blowing, holding the ice inshore, but at any instant it might veer to the east, break off the field that held the monster’s carcass, and carry it away to sea. Bitter experiences in the past had taught the natives this. The time for feasting and rejoicing was after the harvest had been safely garnered, stored in the cellars of the village. Time enough, then, for the whaling festival — the Nelakatuk.
Everybody set to work swiftly. The women drew their parkas high through tightened belts, blousing them out in incongruous pouches that left exposed long-legged trousers of fur fitting closely to legs like broomsticks, then pushed back their sleeves and waded in, fairly wallowing in the quivering mountain of flesh. I stared amazed. Doing the tasks at which we set them about the village, carrying in coal and ice, washing clothes and dishes, scrubbing floors, they moved with almost unbelievable slowness; but here they were brisk and efficient.
According to time-honored custom, the very old people of the village were given first chance. Shriveled old Shuguk with the red watery eyes, whom I had never seen do anything more strenuous than crouch above a seal-oil lamp tending the moss wick, moved spryly about, slashing with a long butcher knife. Behind each of the withered ancients a chain of daughters and sons, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, seized each piece hacked off and dragged it away to a private heap. At last the old ones drew off and sat huddled up in the warm sunshine on bits of skin spread on the snow. I too sat watching. Reek of warm blood filled my nostrils. The pure white snow was now a shambles. Steam of body warmth still rose from the great carcass, and over it, like bees over a comb, swarmed men, women, and children.
From time to time one of them paused to cut off a bit of pale gray tongue, a piece of gum or tail or thick black hide, and, head cocked on one side, slowly chew it, savoring its distinctive flavor. Again and again I saw a workman pause for breath, straighten bent back, and draw a cautious tongue along his dripping scarlet blade, leaving it clean.
All about me on the ice tiny Primus stoves were burning with kettles bubbling on their clear blue flames. Every little while a woman stopped to pour the contents of a kettle out into a pan upon the snow. A swarm surrounded it, spearing for choice bits. Loud smackings of satisfaction resounded, and presently the pan was empty.
At the edge of the ice a watcher sat alert. Spring whaling time is only six weeks long, and, even though the village is absorbed in the cutting-in of one whale, the hope of getting another is not forgotten.
James did not work. He was the headman, the oomalef, of the killing crew. He it was who was giving all this bounty to the village — everything save the baleen, the black fringed slabs of valuable whalebone eight feet long that filled the mouth. He sat on a thronelike pinnacle of ice, beaming upon the busy scene. Presently he descended, approached a simmering kettle, and with his sheath knife speared a portion from the mess. Carrying it before him, he came grinning to where I sat on a walrus hide in the tent door.
‘Muk-tuk adreegah!’ he said. ‘White man all time eat whale skin.’
Poised on the point of his knife was a slab of thick black skin. At the Barrow trading post we had sampled it, pickled in vinegar, bay leaves, and spices. It had not seemed unpleasant to me then, somewhat resembling the white of hard-boiled egg in flavor. But I had seen what went into that bubbling kettle: indiscriminate chunks from any portion of the whale, sections of gut, contents and all, among them. Its odor contaminated the air. Inwardly I shuddered; outwardly I said, ‘No, thank you, James. I can’t eat a bite. No hungry now.’
He persisted, eager black eyes hopeful. ‘Very fine eating. White man all time eat. You try.’
But I continued to shake my head stoutly. His face clouded and I added quickly, ‘You give me piece to take home. I cook igloo myself.’
The disappointment faded in a satisfied smile, and he shuffled happily back to his seat and fell to eating the rejected portion.
Hour after hour I lay in the bright sunshine inside the open door of the tent, screened from the chill breath of the ice fields. When I grew hungry I nibbled at chocolate and hardtack, and drank from clear pools of sweet cold water cradled on top of azure boulders of old ice.
Suddenly a bated cry went up, ‘ Ahkah-look-whale! ’
Swiftly, and silently, the oomiak that lay ready at the edge of the ice was slipped into the water. Nine men took their places in the boat. The paddles dipped soundlessly.
In the bow old Tamaichuk, veteran of many spring whalings, stood upright, shoulder gun in position to shoot the deadly dart, which, opening inside the victim, cuts and holds. Behind him, Walter held the bomb gun, with its powerful explosive that would tear and mangle. As I watched them, breathless, came visions of former days — these same Eskimos with nothing but crude stone-headed spears, attacking these same monsters of the deep. It seemed incredible. Yet blue lines of tattooing from mouth corners spreading fanwise on the cheek attested the repeated successes of many men in our village — a blue line for each killing.
I stood at the edge of the ice, kodak ready, my eyes on the finder, waiting for the monster to rise to the surface.
‘ Adrah!’ A muted exclamation from the watchers.
Under the very bow of the oomiak a great dark thing up heaved, water streaming off its slippery curve. For a tense second it was visible while Held paddles checked the forward motion of the boat and every man in it stood frozen. Then it was gone — and a babble of excited cries went up.
‘Ah-la-kah! Too bad! What a pity!‘
Why had n’t the gun men struck? Fear or wisdom? Opinions were divided. So close, the whale would surely have shattered the frail boat with his first stricken thrashing.
Once more the oomiak was drawn out upon the ice in readiness and all resumed their tasks to the accompaniment now of much excited chatter, reliving that tense moment, questioning, praising, condemning.
At last the cutting-in was finished. Only a heap of raw red ribs, a huge skeleton, lay where the whale had lain. James rose and spoke, pointing to the numerous heaps of meat and entrails, skin and bones, portioning them among the families. Now the dogs were led close, sleds loaded to capacity, and the procession set out for the village. All except the very old and crippled walked. Here and there a man with but three or four scrawny dogs tied a rope about His own waist and leaned against the load beside the straining dogs.
The way back to the shore was long. Behind the thick black glasses that protected them from the glare of sun on snow, our eyes burned from lack of sleep. Now and then on a down grade I perched briefly on the side rail of a sled piled high with raw, red meat and relaxed aching muscles.
At six o’clock in the morning, twenty hours after we had left home, we stepped once more out of the glaring sun into the cool twilight of our snow hallway. For us there would be sleep now without interruption. But for our people there would be many sleepless hours, back and forth from open water to shore until every vestige of the huge sea mammal had been transported from the floe to the caches and cellars of the village — food and fuel for many weeks to come.
By the middle of June the floes were so widely separated that the pursuit of whales was no longer safe. Boats and gear were moved in from the ice to be stored until another spring. The whaling season was over. Now was the time to celebrate the Whale Dance — the Nelakatuk.
At six o’clock one morning we had just finished a dinner of delicious fried ptarmigan, and were preparing to retire, when we noticed unusual activities taking place on the high ground between the schoolhouse and the edge of the bank. We had not slept in twenty hours, but, if the Nelakatuk was about to begin, this was no time for going to bed. We had fallen into the Eskimo habit of irregular hours, staying up until we grew sleepy and then sleeping the clock around.
We pulled on our parkas and walked out to watch the preparations for the dance. The three whaling boats, Kotook’s, Adam’s, and James Angashuk’s, had been dragged up on to the bank and tipped on edge to form a three-sided shelter. Beneath them, walrus hides were laid upon the ground for seats. Bright-colored calico flags fluttered from the lifted masts of the three boats. A great circle of walrus hide with loops of rope woven into the edges was stretched taut as a drum and held, breast-high, by four driftwood tripods at the corners.
By ten o’clock a crowd had gathered. Grace Azuvik was first to volunteer for the dancing. Eager hands lifted her to the walrus-skin platform. All crowded close about its edges, grasping the loops. With great shouting they snapped the hide, flinging her ten feet into the air. She landed lightly on her feet and rebounded like a released spring. High above the heads of the crowd, she jackknifed, touching her extended toes with her fingertips. She came down sitting and sprang again into the air, with dancing gestures, landing skillfully on her feet.
An unexpected jerk of the hide would fling her, from time to time, head foremost toward the edge of the skin. We all shrieked in alarm, expecting her to catapult headfirst on to the ground, but each time some man quickly intervened his body. Grace was stockily built, and the impact of her weight knocked her rescuer breathless. Kotzebue Dick was oftenest the victim. As she grabbed him violently about the neck to check her fall, his face, startled and lugubrious, sent the crowd into shouts of laughter.
One after another, women and girls took their places on the hide — each with an individual style of dancing. Selameoo’s wife crossed her legs, scissor-fashion, many times in the air; others clapped hands and feet together. The younger girls were generally poor performers. Eunice of Icy Cape sat down with a heavy thud each time she was tossed.
Few of the men attempted the Whale Dance. Those who did were awkward and brought taunts of ridicule from the women. Kotook alone was skillful; he put on a clever caricature of a woman dancing, taking absurd positions as he bounced high in the air, knocking his heels together and whooping, to the delight of his audience.
Earle’s six-feet-four loomed head and shoulders above the others in the circle. Carried away by the hilarity of the crowd, he snapped the hide taut with all his strength. The nervous tension was exhausting. Each time a girl was flung toward the edge of the skin platform we cried out, anticipating a broken neck or shoulder. Our own necks ached from the strain of bending back to watch the performers; our voices were hoarse from shouting.
Against the white of the snow-covered tundra new snow shirts were vivid — bright pink and lavender, scarlet, yellow, and sky blue. Under the translucent oomiaks the old people sat watching, toothless gums showing in delighted grins. The drummers had gathered and sat in a row, their skincovered instruments held ready, awaiting their turn to take part.
At intervals the dancers stopped to feast. The women set huge steaming kettles on the ground, and all gathered round them. Stews of oogrook, walrus, and polar bear quickly disappeared; duck soup, ladled into granite cups, was gulped noisily. Whale, however, formed the pièce de résistance. It appeared in various forms. Sled loads of tail and flippers were brought from ice cellars and eaten, frozen raw; pans of muktuk, the highly prized black whale skin, came smoking from igloos and were received with shouts of delight.
The greatest delicacy was in the sealskin pokes. Long-seasoned and ripened, choice bits of meat, pickled in blood and oil, were now unsealed. Kotook hauled one of the pokes to the centre of the crowed, laid it on a skin, and slit it from end to end. How the fumes rolled out! Earle and I retired to a discreet distance while they pounced upon it.
When the feast was over, the drums struck up a monotonous beat and the mechanical posturing of the regular Eskimo dance began. For hours we had been watching. Our faces and eyes burned from the glare of sun on snow and lack of sleep. We had n’t been to bed in twenty-four hours. Leaving the festivities at their height, we slipped away to the schoolhouse and fell asleep to the thudding of the drums.