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Continuity, Renewal, and Joy

man being thrown up in a blanket toss
Renewal, and Joy

Continuity, Renewal, and Joy

Celebrating whaling traditions at the Oliver Leavitt Crew Nalukataq
By Willie Iggiagruk Hensley (Inupiaq)

or the Nalukataq whaling celebration in Utqiagvik last summer, the Oliver Leavitt Crew (OLC) and families took ten days to make 120 gallons of mikigaq (a fermented whale meat delicacy.) Each bucket had to be stirred at least five times a day to make sure the fermentation process was properly done.

Oliver Aveogan Leavitt has been Umailik (Captain) of his whaling crew since the early 1980s. That responsibility is a big one as he has to insure that the whaling vessel is safe, that the crew is trained, the whaling gun is properly loaded, the harpoons sharp and the ropes strong and properly knotted, and the floats ready. He also has to have enough sleds built to carry the catch home, snow machines maintained and gassed, the tents and stoves ready to use and the proper rifles available in the event polar bears show up. The wife of the umailik, in this instance Annie, is also the backbone of whaling, making sure there is enough food for the crew, that they are clothed and prepared for their vigil on the ice and the water. She makes sure that everything is cut and cooked properly and ensures that there are donut and soup makers. The effort is year round and the real work begins when they tow the agviq (bowhead whale) to the solid ice to be winched up and butchered.

The OLC flag is flown to let the community of Utqiagvik know of the catch and the success of co-captains Alex Kaleak and Avaiyak Burnell. The flag was designed by Oliver’s mother, Mary Lou Leavitt. It features a dark blue background, a center red diamond and two white bands anchoring the four corners. I asked what the symbolism was and gave it my own—white for purity, blue for the ocean and red for the blood vital for all mammals.

The Oliver Leavitt Crew flag and insignia shared on a piece of chocolate
The Oliver Leavitt Crew flag and insignia shared on a piece of chocolate. The candy will be tossed to the community in celebration of a successful whale hunt.
Photo Courtesy of Iggiagruk Willie Hensley
The sharing begins just as soon as the butchering is done. The women of the crew boil and prepare a thousand bags of cooked kidneys, heart, tongue, meat and maktak from the 47-foot whale. People are then served bags of the delicacies—this year doing a drive-by due to Covid. All this a preliminary to the Nalukatak. In the meantime, the work and preparation for the big event begin.

The whale has been butchered and distributed among the crew for safekeeping in their siqluaq (underground ice cellars). The crew families then begin the process of cutting up the large pieces into distributable sizes—the meat and maktak. The tail and fins are allowed to age and are placed in the center of the celebration for distribution to guests from out of town. Other family members have also been out hunting, plucking and preparing geese for hot soup during the day of the Nalukataq. Cases of soft drinks, coffee and tea have been purchased as well as cases of candy and gum, oranges and apples.

Oliver and Annie Leavitt have been married for 50 years. Their home becomes a frenzied center of action for the crew’s family of workers. They have taped plastic over the carpeting to protect it from the thousands of steps that are taken each day in preparation for the Nalukataq event. Huge pots of goose stew are steaming in the yard on large propane cooking stoves and homemade wooden tables used to cut up the large chunks of meat and maktak. The organization and process is amazing to see. Age-old tradition is being kept alive and binds the families, generations and community together. It’s a joy to see the younger generation working night and day—just for the opportunity to share the catch with others far and wide.
Oveogan Oliver Leavitt with daughter Martina
Oveogan Oliver Leavitt (center) with daughter Martina (right) beside him. Whaling is not only a family and community affair, it is a critical cultural practice.
Photo Courtesy of Iggiagruk Willie Hensley
On Nalukataq day, Oliver and his crew raise their flag at 6:00 a.m. sharp. That day two other crews are celebrating and their flags are flying proudly as well. They have built a huge U-shaped windbreak and placed numbers in the different sections where families begin to filter in and choose a spot to place their chairs and containers for the meat and maktak and other goodies. The weather forecast includes the possibility of snow so people are dressed in their winter fur and mukluks and prepare for a long day of celebration.

Oliver selects an Elder relative who opens with a speech and a prayer in Inupiatun to begin the festivities. At noon, they begin serving hot coffee and tea and homemade muqpauriaq (Inupiaq doughnuts), then comes the goose soup. Surprise candy and gum are tossed into the crowd from outside the windbreak and children go wild picking up the sweets. In the meantime, at 3pm, the distribution of the Mikigiaq begins with each family getting a Ziploc bag until its gone. Then the first round of whale meat distribution begins until all the boxes are empty and finally, the Arctic delicacy, the maktak of the bowhead is distributed and will eventually spread far and wide as visitors take home their share and give their families some of the catch. I used to take mine all the way to Washington, DC to share with friends there.

Christina and Larry Westlake, Sr., Chuck and Marie Green, Oveogan Oliver Leavitt, Iggiagruk Willie Hensley
Oveogan Oliver Leavitt (center) with daughter Martina (right) beside him. Whaling is not only a family and community affair, it is a critical cultural practice.
Photo Courtesy of Iggiagruk Willie Hensley
Oliver Leavitt
Oveogan Oliver Leavitt is Whaling Captain of the Oliver Leavitt Crew. He also serves as a Trustee to First Alaskans Institute.
Photo Courtesy of Iggiagruk Willie Hensley
Agviq, bowhead whale
Agviq—or bowhead whale—is distributed to the community in traditions that go back thousands of years.
Photo Courtesy of Iggiagruk Willie Hensley
During the day, individuals will take the microphone and sing a song or a family might volunteer, and visitors from other villages will sing and pray. People will begin to disperse and eventually return for the actual Nulukataq (blanket toss) where candy and gum will often be thrown to the crowds by the jumpers. This is particularly enjoyed by the youngsters agile enough to be tossed high into the air as Elders watch and remember the times they were strong and wiry and willing to risk being tossed about and maybe even do a somersault.

The joy is palpable as the year of Covid has taken its toll in village Alaska, and Utqiagvik is no exception—so the Nalukataq was extra special this year. Seeing traditions continue, families working hard together, and others enjoying the gift from the ocean has brought a sense of renewal and continuity.

Quiana, Oliver Leavitt Crew for your efforts as well as that of the other crews who have continued traditions near and dear to the Inupiat. Your efforts have brought happiness and reconnections to families and friends as well as delicious food and energy to all who have share your catch.
Willie Iggiagruk Henlsey’s (Inupiaq) many former positions include Alaska state senator, state representative, president of NANA, and president of the Alaska Federation of Natives. He is currently a visiting professor at the University of Alaska, and is the author of “Fifty Miles from Tomorrow: A Memoir of Alaska and the Real People.”