Traditional Whale Hunting in Native Cultures

Traditional Whale Hunting in Native Cultures

Though whaling today is commonly associated with industrial hunting in the name of profit and condemned in general, there was a time when things were different.  Traditional whale hunting was one way that people survived in areas where other sources of food were scarce.  These old methods are mostly gone now, though still survive among a few groups of people, scattered across the globe.

Traditional whale hunts were not something that was done for the sport of it or for any sort of profit.  These events were usually spiritual in nature.  Ceremonies, songs, prayers, fasting and other rituals accompanied the hunt.  Some cultures would prepare for hunts weeks or months ahead of time, gaining strength for the upcoming trials.  Whales were sometimes seen as gifts from spiritual powers, being sent to the whalers’ boats as offerings to keep their villages fed.

Hunting a whale without the benefits of modern technologies was a complicated and dangerous process.  Boats were usually wood and skin constructs, subject to the whims of the sea or an angry whale.  The weapons of the hunters consisted of spears, harpoons and knives, wielded by individuals up-close-and-personal.

Generally, spears were thrown at or stabbed into the whale first.  These often had break-away heads attached to lines which were connected to floats or bladders which would not only slow the wounded whale down as they tried to escape, but also indicate its location if it submerged.  Hitting the whales with these spears was a risky venture, as a wounded whale would often thrash about, knocking hunters unconscious, sending them flying from their boats, or capsizing boats filled with men.  After a long fight, eventually a killing blow would be dealt to the whale and it would be tied up and dragged back to shore where it would be dismembered by the entire village.

These whales provided small communities with food enough to feed the entire village for a long time.  They also made oil from the whales and used their bones and sinew to craft tools.  The whale’s guts could be treated and turned into storage containers.

Most of these traditions are gone as modern conveniences make the dangerous act unnecessary for survival.  Some people still follow the old ways, though have adapted innovations into their hunts such as motorboats and exploding harpoon heads.  Many may look down upon these traditional hunters, but at one time the hunt of a whale was something that formed an important part of their world.