Whaling Tales

by Shirley Tagalik

Comer Collection: Schooner Era leaving New Bedford 63.1767.68 Mystic Seaport Museum Inc, Mystic, Connecticut 06355.

There are still a very few Inuit elders who remember stories from the days when the whalers were visiting Inuit shores. Although the stories of whalers are well documented in journals, letters and ship’s logs, Inuit stories were all passed down in oral histories. Collecting Inuit stories has only been undertaken recently but the stories which we have access to give us a picture of what life must have been like for those Inuit who chose to share their fates with the whalers.

It should be noted that the whalers began to appear near Inuit camps just at a time when there were problems with access to a stable food supply. Much of this had to do with the changes in climate that took place at this time. The Arctic regions experienced extremely unstable and variable weather—often very cold with strange ice conditions. In the southern Kivalliq the vast caribou herds had failed to appear and people were facing hardship. It may be that the arrival of the whalers presented a new economic opportunity for some Inuit groups who needed stable sources of food and goods in the changing climatic times.

Inuit recall the early arrival of whalers. Some of the first signs were the huge sails on the horizons and fleets of ships travelled into Arctic waters together. The initial reactions by Inuit at meeting these strangers has been said to have been one of terror, both at the numbers and appearance of the strangers. Eventually, trading opened up relationships and at some point Inuit began to gather at places they expected the ships to pass by in order to seek out both trade and eventually employment.

When the Whalers Were Up North, pp.8-9

In the summertime, when the Inuit were expecting the ship to come in, they would wait and wait on their island. They would wait for a south wind and then they would walk zigzag over the land, sniffing the wind. If they smelled smoke, they’d say, ‘The ship is on its way! It will be here tomorrow.’ Then before the next day came, they’d have a big celebration… At first we’d see only smoke out on the horizon; then after a long while under the smoke you’d see the ship. I remember how excited the adults would be—because now they would get tobacco, they would get tea, they would get bannock, all the good things they’d been missing all winter. (Leah Nutaraq, Iqaluit)

It was the Scottish whaling fleet that arrived under the black smoke of steam, while the American whaling fleets continued to use sail until the end of the whaling era. Although both fleets were whaling in the same waters, they made distinctions between the Inuit crews they took on board as helpers. Initially the Inuit were asked to provide warm clothing and fresh meat for the ships, but soon enough whalers came to appreciate that Inuit were already accomplished whalers and had significant information about whale behaviours in Arctic waters. Once this was known, and especially once wintering over and whaling stations were established, the Inuit crews had semi-permanent employment in the whaling industry, taking over many of the jobs which would have been carried on by sailors.

When the Whalers Were Up North, p.28

They say some of those Inuit whalers were really good….In the whaleboats they used to have an Inuk captain. The tradition was, you’d take the man who had the most experience and let him be the leader. (Bernadette Patterk, Rankin Inlet)

When the Whalers Were Up North, pp.31-2

Before the whalers came, the Inuit people already knew how to hunt bowhead whales. I never knew Seegak; he was my grandfather’s companion, but he was a very, very successful hunter who caught whales in the old way, probably before the whalers came. I think he got his other name, Tapatai, from the white people1 …He used to go whale hunting just in a small kayak [qajaq]. If you harpoon bowheads, they think they are attacked by sharks and automatically they go towards the shore. There in the old days the hunters would harpoon the creature constantly with weapons made form tusks. They’d use a narwhal tusk with a sharpened flint stone and it would make an incredible wound in the creature. They had no modern weapons then, so that is the way they had to catch whales. (Joe Curley, Arviat)

When the Whalers Were Up North, pp.36-7

When a hunter in a kayak [qajaq] speared a whale, other kayakers would be nearby. They’d begin to chant—so the whale would not try to get away from the hunter. People would chant in order that the whale would stay on one place—to make it easier to kill—and while they chanted, they took out the laces from their kamiit. They would take out the laces so the muscles of the whale would be loose.

The people watching on the land would do the same thing. Whenever there were hunters trying to kill a whale, the people on the shore would get together… They would do something almost like a drum dance. To get the whales to come to them.

When hunters killed whales, they would try to spear the whale so it would die quickly. But sometimes the whale would try to get away and swim under water, pulling the hunter on the kayak.

When the whale goes under the water carrying the float, that’s when people would take out their laces. From the top of the kamik. …That is the way they would wait for the whale to die. (Pitaloosie Saila, Cape Dorset)

When the Whalers Were Up North, p.90

They used to go down past lake Harbour and wait for the ship. Even before the ship showed up they would see the smoke and everyone would start rushing, getting the kayaks [qajait] ready because they were going on the ship. They would make a lot of noise getting on the kayaks. Rushing, hurrying. The ship would blow its horn and maybe the hunters would start shooting. They used to get excited when they were going to the ship.

…I was born on the Active. When I was a little girl we were on the Active every year and all summer because my father was hunting bowhead whales in Arvilik—the land of big whales….The ship’s people were Siikatsi—Scots. (Anitnik Oshuitoq, Cape Dorset)

When the Whalers Were Up North, p.110

BThe Scots and the Americans made their arrangements through their Inuit chiefs. My father had his own whaleboat, which he’d been given with all the equipment inside so he could catch whales for them. He would be giving out orders to the Inuit helping the whalers and also to his own men. They’d hunt whales and walrus. In April and May, at the start of the whaling season, they’d get prepared to go down to where the whales might be. They would be at the floe edge, near where they were camping. There’d be six whaleboats with Inuit and qallunaat whalers. Sometimes they’d go out together, sometimes in separate boats. They would sing when they were towing a whale ashore—while we on the shore were dancing! (Joe Curley, Arviat)

When the Whalers Were Up North, pp.146-7

Yes, the Inuit enjoyed the whaling; they even speared more whales than the qallunaat. When they were pulling the dead whales, from what I’ve heard, they used to sing. I’ve heard the song, though the first words are not too fresh in my mind. My grandmother used to sing the song when she was working around the house. She used to whistle it.

Your good hands; your good feet.
Move them; move them.
You don’t mind being wet; you don’t mind getting soaked!
Kowk! Blubber!
Cold hands! Good feet Ja-gee-ja
Qiirq! Hurry!(Isaccie Ikudluak, Kimmirut)

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