One of the strangest December animal “holidays” found in some calendars has to be the Festival for the Souls of Dead Whales. Supposedly based on an Inuit tradition, this made up holiday actually has some basis in truth.
Whales have been hunted throughout history, and by necessity the indigenous Inuit people of Northern Alaska eat a diet that consists primarily of whale meat, fish, seals, and walrus. In harsh climates, fruits and vegetables are not readily available. Meat from caribou, along with bowhead whales and other mammals from the Arctic Ocean provides the nutrition and sustenance people need to survive in the brutally cold climate.
According to National Geographic:
“Between 60 to 70 percent of the northern Inuit diet consists of whale meat. The Inuit people believe that the animals they hunt have spirits. There are many rituals associated with the hunt itself and three celebrations each year designed to show respect for the souls of the animals, bring luck to the hunt, and to give thanks to the spirits of the animals that have been killed for food.”
The Inuit hunt for bowhead whales during the spring migration, when ice begins to break, and again during the fall as the whales return to their winter grounds. The custom of whaling is a foundation part of the Inuit heritage, one that is based around centuries of knowledge and skills passed down through generations of whalers.
Historically, the whales were typically hunted close to shore from sealskin boats called umiaks. When whales surfaced, the hunters would strike with hand held harpoons. The wounded creatures were then towed to shore, where they were butchered to the bone, with every member of the community sharing in the bounty. Virtually every part of the whale is used, even the bones.
While today’s Inuit take advantage of some modern technologies like GPS and motorboats, they still use the handheld harpoon, albeit with exploding darts. Whaling in Alaska is regulated by the Federal government and overseen by the International Whaling Commission. It is allowed to continue as a subsistence tradition and there are strict quotas. While bowhead whales are an endangered species, their numbers are increasing and the Inuit peoples harvest less than one percent of them each year.