02/11/2009 04:56 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Protecting a Whaling Culture

Dr. Riki Ott is the author of Not One Drop: Betrayal and Courage in the Wake of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill from Chelsea Green. For more information, visit

Wainwright, Alaska. "Let's have dessert!" said Kenneth "Kenny" Tagarook. Earlier his wife, Ann, had cooked a substantial meal of meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and canned green beans. "White man's food only holds me for a couple hours," he teased.

The Tagarooks are Inupiat ("In-OU-pe-at" or "Eskimo"). They are hosting me and Kenny's cousin Rosemary Ahtuangaruak during our visit in Wainwright. The village of 720 mostly Inupiat people lies along the Arctic Ocean over 200 miles above the Arctic Circle.

Kenny placed a tray of "muktuk" - raw, frozen bowhead whale meat - on the kitchen table. He sliced little finger-size pieces for me with his ulu - a traditional knife for cutting meat. Rosemary and Ann handled their ulus like extensions of their hands.

I examined the muktuk. The skin was almost an inch thick and black. The other half of the strip, the blubber, was a pale rosy white. The skin had a rubbery texture, while the blubber melted in my mouth like rich bacon grease. Kenny watched me closely as I chewed. I reached for another piece. He grinned.

The Inupiat culture is a whaling culture that revolves around bowhead whales. Beluga whales, walrus, ringed, bearded, and spotted seals, fish, and sea ducks are also harvested from the Chukchi Sea, the western half of the vast Arctic Ocean, but bowhead whales are the cultural cornerstone. Many Eskimo games have significance for whale hunting. For example, the blanket toss is a way for hunters to gain height of eye to spot whale spouts farther out at sea.

I struggled to understand a way of life that is so different from mine. "Kenny, how old were you when you first went whaling?" It doesn't take much prodding to launch the gregarious Kenny into storytelling, the traditional way of sharing information in this culture. Kenny's first language is Inupiaq, but his English flows easily.

"My dad wouldn't let me go whaling when I was six. Seven. Eight. Nine, I stowed away on a whaling boat. I was supposed to be in school. My dad couldn't find me. The crew found me when they pulled the boat up on the ice to make camp. The boat was heavy. They pulled away a gunny sack and found me." He laughs at the memory.

"They didn't take you back to the village?" I asked.

"No, my dad decided it was time. I stayed out one month." In response to my puzzled expression, he explained, "A lot of whaling is waiting. Waiting for leads (water channels in the sea ice) to open. Waiting for whales to come. Waiting out storms. Moving camp to be safe."

He jumped up and pulled a compass from a cupboard shelf. He put it on the table and said, "We put the compass on the ice and line the red arrow up with north. No one touches it. We check it all the time. If the ice shifts, we know." He moved the table to demonstrate shifting ice and the red arrow slid off north. "We move camp to shore-fast ice."

Kenny saw I was still puzzled. He explained, "The ice moves all the time. Fast. Leads open and close. It's very dangerous. Once, we didn't break camp fast enough. One man was standing on flat ice. Sea ice shoved up under him - pressure ridge eight feet high! He went flying through the air."

I thought about the Bush administration's Arctic policy that opens 40 million acres of the Chukchi Sea to oil and gas exploration and development. The oil industry claims it can clean up an oil spill in sea ice, but when the Inupiat ask how, the information is not forthcoming.

The truth is: The technology does not exist to clean up oil spills in the Arctic Ocean. The booms and skimmers that were used to recover 3 to 11 percent of the Exxon Valdez spill are useless in sea ice or broken ice ¬- and most other Arctic conditions as well. The "nameplate" capacity on this equipment brags of recovery in calm conditions and daylight, not the darkness and bitter storms of the Arctic Ocean.

The technology to find oil in remote corners of the planet and get it out of the earth far surpasses our ability to clean oil up once it spills. This technology, driven by greed and need, threatens the Inupiat culture - and the endangered bowhead whales.

Bowhead whales were declared endangered in 1973 under the Endangered Species Act as the whales have not recovered from commercial whaling in the 1600s to 1800s. There are 7,800 bowhead whales in the Arctic Ocean, 41 percent of the pre-whaling population. The Native harvest of 25 to 40 animals does not affect the population recovery - but a large oil spill certainly could.

Kenny became a whaling captain and a community leader. When his crew harvests a whale, his family keeps one-quarter of the meat, his crew gets one-quarter, and the community shares the other half. Kenny shares most of his meat with the community at whaling celebrations in spring, fall, and winter. Sharing and celebration is part of the whaling culture.

The Inupiat culture is incompatible with oil and gas development. The solutions to America's energy crisis are not in remote places of the planet but in our own backyards. Investment in regional energy development of solar, wind, and waste biofuels, instead of more oil and gas development, would better serve the Inupiat and all Americans. The Bush administration's U.S. Arctic policy should be scrapped.

Spill survivor and author Riki Ott shares insights on disaster trauma and recovery nationwide and in Not One Drop: Betrayal and Courage in the Wake of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill (Chelsea Green, 2008). Ott is an advisor to the nonprofit organization REDOIL, Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous Lands.