Science Are Starting to Care About Cultures That Talk to Whales

April 21, 2019

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

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.

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