Canku Ota - A Newsletter Celebrating Native America
April 8, 2000 - Issue 07

The Gift of the Whale
Inuktitut name for Bowhead - Arvitt

(Inuit-Inupiaq--Arctic legend)

When the Great Spirit created this land, he made many beautiful and good things. He made the sun and moon and stars. He made the wide land, white with snow, and the mountains and the ocean. He made fish of all kinds and the many birds. He made the seals and the walrus and the great bears. Then, the Great Spirit made the Inupiaq. He had a special love for the people and showed them how to live, using everything around them.

Then, after making all this, the Great Spirit decided to make one thing more. This would be the best creation of all. The Great Spirit made this being with great care. It was the Bowhead Whale. It was, indeed, the most beautiful and the finest of the things made by the Great Spirit. As it swam, it flowed through the ocean. It sang as it went, and it was in perfect balance with everything around it.

But, the Great Spirit saw something else. He saw that the Inupiaq people needed the Bowhead Whale. Without the whale, it would be hard for them to survive. They needed to eat muktuk, the flesh of the whale, to keep warm and healthy during the long, cold nights. They needed its bones to help build their homes. They needed every part of the great whale.

So, the Great Spirit gave the Bowhead to the Inupiaq. He gave them a way to hunt it from their boats covered with walrus hide. He made a special time each spring, when the ice of the ocean would break apart to form a road where the whales could swim. In that whale road, the Open Lead, the whales would come to the surface and wait there to be struck by the harpoons of the Inupiaq. They would continue to do so every year as long as the Inupiaq showed respect to the Bowhead, as long as the Inupiaq took only what they needed in order to survive.

But, the Great Spirit decided this also. At that time each year, when the Open Lead formed, when the whales came to the surface, to be hunted, the Great Spirit made it so that a heavy cloud of thick mist would hang just above the ice, just above the heads of the whales and the Inupiaq. That thick mist would hang there between the sea and the sky.

"Though I give you permission to kill my most perfect creature," the Great Spirit said, "I do not wish to watch it."

"The People"

The Inuit-Inupiaq are the peoples of northern Alaska and Canada. Although many know them as Eskimos, they call themselves Inuit meaning "the people." Eskimo comes from a Cree word meaning "fish eaters".

The relationship between the Inupiaq and the bowhead whales goes back further than anyone can remember. These people of the arctic lands are careful observers of nature. In what has been called the most unforgiving environment in North America, the regions of the Polar ice cap, they developed a way of life that offered them material comfort and the leisure to develop a strong storytelling tradition.

Their ability to observe nature enabled them to survive in a land covered with snow and ice for most of the year. Often, their survival depended upon copying the animals that were their instructors in survival.

Respect for the natural world and the animals is an important part of the old way of life, and no animal is given more respect than the great bowhead whale. Its thick fat, or muktuk, can feed a community and provide necessary nutrients in a land where no green plants grow.

During the hunt, the hunter shows respect for the whale by asking it to forgive him for causing it pain and asking it to understand that the whale is needed so that the Inupiaq can live.

When a whale is killed, even after that whale is dragged upon the ice, it must be given proper respect. When the whale is cut up, each part must be placed on the ice with care and the parts not separated from each other until everything has been completed. That way, when the Whale People look up from below the ice, they see that it was not such a bad thing to sacrifice themselves and that the Inupiaq people are trustworthy.

Now, reread the story and answer these questions...remember...NO PEEKING!!!!!!!!

  1. In the story, the Great Spirit creates a thick cloud of mist that hangs over the sea during the whale hunting season. Why does he create this mist?
  2. Why do the Inupiaq hunt the bowhead whale? What do they do to show respect for the whale?
  3. Where do the Inupiaq live? What is the name the Eskimos call themselves? What does that name mean?
  4. What is the climate like where the Inupiaq live? How do they survive in such a harsh climate?

Print and Color these pictures of whales and other sea critters:


Sea Critters

Connect the dots-whale

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